GSK tech leader outlines 3 types of CIOs

As roles change and technology evolves, one veteran CIO says the next generation of CIOs will have followed a different career path.

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SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - The CIO’s responsibilities have evolved over the past decade, but the pace and changing nature of the job’s requirements are set to grow even faster.

“I’ve never seen the model of what constitutes a technology leader at a company change as much as in the last four to five years and it continues today,” said Karen Terrell, chief digital and technology officer at pharmaceutical giant GSK. Prior to GSK she was CIO at Walmart. Terrell spoke at a conference here in late August sponsored by IT training and certification firm Pluralsight.

terrell 1 Dave Needle

Karen Terrell, chief digital and technology officer at pharmaceutical giant GSK and former CIO at Walmart.

One of the changes is an aspiration to be close to the CEO. “At one time it was in vogue to have what was then the vice president of data processing in another building, then it became a fad for IT leaders to report directly to the CEO,” said Terrell.

Her outlook on the matter has shifted. “I’ve changed my mind on how important it is to report to or see the CEO,” said Terrell. “The CEO can be a pain in the butt, and I work for a dream-come-true leader with a consumer background who gets it. But think about the mandates and the discussions that you get looped in to … ,” she said shaking her head. “Be careful what you ask for.”

By contrast, Terrell said she thinks her energies are more appropriately focused on keeping the company ahead of current and potential rivals.  

“I’m singular in my company to be able to explain why big technology companies could actually come in and hollow out the business. Whether it’s media, drug development or diapers, whatever business you’re in, you have to spend your time on that, not thinking about Brexit or tariffs.

“The horizontal learner in me wants to be on the CEO staff, but a lot of stuff comes along with that,” said Terrell. “Leading edge companies make technology and how to weaponize technology a key part of their strategy.”

Three CIO / CTO Profiles

Terrell said three distinct kinds of CIO and CTO level executive profiles are emerging and how you fit that profile largely depends on the business you’re in and how fast technology is disrupting your industry.

  1. One profile is a chief technologist who by Terrell’s reckoning function more as chief development officers who view infrastructure as a set of services that they can get by checking a box as needed. “You find this in industries where disruption has already happened like media, and at companies that are brand new like Beyond Meat.
  1. The second profile Terrell described is the “Houston, we have a problem” leader. “This is where the entire business is oriented around the idea that technology is the driver the business, but there is also a fear that you’re losing,” she said. “The CIO expects there’s going to be a digital and a data analytics transformation and while he or she has a mandate to change, there isn’t necessarily a platform yet to make it happen.
  2. The third profile on Terrell’s list is the CIO who is at a company that hasn’t committed to big technology changes or investments. “The CIO realizes ‘I know we need to spend more on IT, but I haven’t pivoted the mindset to where people realize tech powers the business’,” said Terrell.

Without a clear mandate, Terrell said these CIOs can still make an impact by driving reskilling and modernization efforts wherever possible. “But they are likely transitional people who didn’t come up through the organization. They don’t have the mandate and they are using their old IT organization to do experimentation in order to move forward.” 

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Terrell said it’s no coincidence she is on the board Pluralsight, a provider of IT skills courseware.

“What right do I have to say to anyone in my organization that highly focused learning is the only thing that will keep you safe in your career if I don’t use these tools myself? That’s why I’ve made learning my mandate,” she said.

“If you want to know if a CIO will be around, quiz them on where they go to learn,” said Terrell. “If [it’s] leadership seminars at Harvard and Stanford, well, I’d be a complete fraud if I said to my team that technology and skills development is core to our mission and the only thing I did is go to leadership training.”