Ever since Julia Davis, CIO at Aflac, addressed TBM Conference goers last fall about creating a forward-leaning culture, I’ve been eager to ask her about her own perspective on change and the programs that will ensure the next generation of IT talent is ready for it. I caught up to her recently to explore this and other challenges associated with hiring and retaining the right IT skill sets today.
Julia, I’m excited to talk about the work you’re doing to attract and retain a skilled and talented IT workforce. But first, tell us about your own journey to CIO and why you chose a career in technology. What were the key influences and experiences that shaped your career path?
My journey into technology was shaped by the needs of the military. I had an ROTC Scholarship to Lehigh University and was planning to be an engineer. I actually studied physics and was hoping I would go into the Air Force and then into NASA. But the needs of the Air Force at that time were dictated by the new computers coming out and the need for someone to program them.
At that time, the Air Force was turning engineers into programmers, and that's exactly what happened to me. I was assigned to work on software development, creating a program to help estimate what our logistics planning needed to look like in wartime scenarios. Needless to say, I hadn’t had much experience with simulation modeling up to that point.
Eventually, my career came to a fork in the road, at which point I needed to decide if I wanted to be career military or if I wanted to go with technology. I chose to stay with technology and evolved from developer to project manager and then to program manager working on larger and larger types of projects.
My first chief information officer opportunity came at a small business within GE where I had an opportunity to engage in leadership development training and learn more about how to run a business, not just an IT organization. That really gave me the foundation in finance and operations I needed to run technology in a way that was more business focused.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Was technology on your radar?
Yes, it was. I was one of those few kids at the time that wanted to be in technology. I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon at an early age, and I can remember telling my father that I wanted to be an astronaut. I was blessed to have a father in the '60s who didn't tell me space was only for boys. Instead, he said, "Sure. And here's what you need to do to get there." He encouraged me to take advanced mathematics and science courses, bought me chemistry sets, and taught me how to make contact explosives (those caps that you set on the ground, step on and they pop). He was very influential, and I absorbed everything he could teach me from a science and math perspective.
The best job opportunities in the future will likely be steeped in technology. How do I keep my 14-year-old daughter motivated and interested? What worked for you? Did you ever have a time when you lost interest in technology or felt discouraged?
I can honestly say no. I was a huge fan of science fiction, and I loved Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 1999, and things like that. I always had a natural inclination toward science and math, I love chess, and I’m very good at puzzles. A lot of that stems from my parents really encouraging me to engage and the fact that my father was in technology and it paid a lot better than what my friends' parents were making. So, money also was a bit of a motivator.
In your role as CIO, you’ve reached into schools in the Atlanta area to foster modern technology skills. Why is this important?
A lot of companies don’t want to see young people until they’ve been in the workforce for a few years, but we take a different approach. We start by sponsoring the local robotics teams at the high school level. If we’re lucky, we follow those kids into technology programs in college, where we engage them in our internship program.
At Aflac, we’re taking professional development to the next level by focusing on skill sets that will meet our technology needs in the near future. One of the things we’ve realized is that there are ways of coming together with your technology vendors, school system, and other corporations to do a better job of preparing graduates with real-world skills.
We’ve been working with our local university to adapt their program to build skills in things like TBM and Pega so that we’re developing people who have valuable proficiency and can hit the ground running. We provide that training to our employees as well, providing opportunities to attend classes. It takes a partnership between the university and our organization, as well as with vendors, to create that type of curriculum.
I would say that we've had some success focusing on local universities because these students want to stay in the area where they're educated. Many of them grew up here, and by offering internships and an apprenticeship program, we help them find meaningful careers here.
What’s really exciting is that in 2017, 75 percent of our interns returned to Aflac as an IT Apprentice. Our two-year apprenticeship program allows students to get a taste of different areas of IT: data, security, development, business analysis, program management, etc. This opportunity to explore different aspects of IT before they settle down into a path is fairly unique in our industry right now.
What are the challenges associated with hiring and retaining the right skill sets in IT today? Is there a scarcity of talent?
There absolutely is a scarcity of talent. Students are going to college, but they're not necessarily studying the science, technology, mathematics, or engineering fields. And so, coming out of the schools, we're not necessarily getting the trained technical skill sets we need.
We are challenged as a nation in that this is a problem I see all my fellow CIOs facing. How do we get more students to study in the STEM fields? The issue has been masked because we’ve had many students coming in from other countries to obtain an education and related jobs. But with changes to the visa and onboarding processes, we're seeing a lot of these students now leave and go to other countries. We struggle with that, because we’re not necessarily getting our own students to fill that gap.
That’s why it's a huge opportunity for us as corporations to partner with schools to try and reach 14-year-old daughters like your own and encourage them to pursue this path and understand how science education can open bigger and bolder opportunities going forward.
What should CIOs require in a new tech hire? Is there an archetype that they should be looking for?
You know, it's different from when you really wanted the hot smart individual programming type. Today, you want someone who’s going to be collaborative. You want someone who’s used to working on a team. As you move more toward Agile and you get out of the cube farms and into collaboration spaces, you want someone who’s comfortable working in a group, recognizes a diversity of skills, and appreciates that not everybody has the same strengths. Whether we attract talent with specific programming expertise, or with interface, design, and project management skill sets, we're looking for all of that.
Talk to me about the integration of those newly skilled IT hires and your more mature or experienced workforce. How are you integrating those two populations, and what are the challenges and opportunities?
You know, as we build up these collaboration spaces where people are working more closely together as a team, one naturally gravitates toward being able to help the other. You have the more experienced people who understand how the company operates and how insurance works and can offer a wealth of knowledge about what the customer wants to see. Then, you have people coming in with newer technology skills who are able to move faster in terms of coding, testing, and implementing. At Aflac, they’ve found a way to work together and bring the best of both perspectives to the table.
Now, of course, you're always going to have challenges when you have people from different generations with different mindsets. I look at the challenges with the millennial workforce and the challenges with the baby boomer workforce, and they have totally different mindsets and approaches for how they do things. You must find a way to blend the best of both to get the desired outcome. I look to my leaders to be able to drive change in the organization and to get the best team out there delivering for our customers.
IT staff who are used to doing technology the way technology has always been done can have a dragging effect on culture. It's inarguable that technology is changing and that we have to change with it. How have you handled these situations at Aflac?
Anytime you embrace change, there’s going to be a challenge. I believe that when we chose this career path, we chose to be at the forefront of change. That's just the nature of the IT business. You just have to find it within yourself to be open to trying new things. Not a day goes by that a new app for my phone or something else in our lives does something I never thought possible. You must keep an open mindset because it’s all moving so fast.
We’ve challenged our people to choose. You can choose not to get on with the change, but the world will pass you by. Or you can choose to learn and adapt. In turn, we have to provide them with the training they need and we have to be specific: "Here are the types of programs we want you to learn, here is the kind of training we want you to take." Providing this capability gives people the opportunity to expand and grow their knowledge regardless of their experience level.
Isn’t there also still a need for someone to deeply understand those technology innovations coming down the pike? How do you balance the need for the traditionally specialized IT expert and the collaborative, business-facing person who can work across the aisle?
You know, we're no longer in a hierarchically linear world. It's highly matrixed, and that is part of what we look for in our leaders to ensure we have people who are going to follow that path, whether it's technical or people expertise.
When we set up our structure, we planned for having experts in a Center for Excellence who are able to provide guidance and oversight to the team. So, you have people assigned to teams but they also have their particular skill set or area of expertise, whether it's in quality assurance, agile development, etc. The team has a matrix relationship with the Center for Excellence that provides insight on how to use tools to best manage what they're doing.
You mentioned the challenge of change in today’s IT environment. What are some of those changes that are required for your team?
To create a more productive relationship with the business and change their perception of IT, you have to run IT like a business. There are certain skills and abilities that are required to do that effectively.
- Data: Teams need to understand the value of metrics and how to use them to guide decision-making, staffing, and funding models. How will new processes and platforms enable them to better do their jobs? Those who have been in IT a while often come from a culture of not exposing bad news. Don’t ask for any money; just get by and act like everything is okay. Deflect and defend. Having said that, the ability to get more funding to get things done is important. Teams must understand how to leverage data to make better business decisions and better investments.
- Agility: Today’s teams need to work faster in smaller bursts. It’s not about “big bang” projects, but an ability to focus on minimally viable product and getting things out quickly in sprints. There’s less stuff but more of what the business needs up front.
- A consultative approach: You can’t have 20 top priorities, so focus is a critical skill. This requires people with strong personalities, a strong understanding of the customer, and an ability to say “no” when needed. Consultants bring alternate solutions to the table. They are able to drill down into priorities and able to identify pain points.
- Program management: Technologists today often lead from influencer versus manager roles. This can be challenging culturally sometimes because we think the more heads we have reporting to us, the higher we’ll go on the org chart. However, program managers can get promoted into senior-level positions without direct reports because they embrace influencer roles in a matrixed organization.
- TBM: We’ve embraced the skills needed to run IT more efficiently and effectively. When we get people with TBM (technology business management) skills, we tend to hang on tight, because they become influencers who help carry the process further into the organization.
Where do you go for professional inspiration or training? What kinds of resources do you rely on?
I recently attended a Wall Street Journal CIO Forum and the Deloitte Women in IT Leadership CIO Forum. But frankly, some of my best inspiration comes from advice and guidance from peers that I've nurtured since my days at GE. And there are always avenues like Gartner and local forums like the Georgia CIO Association that help me keep track of trends. That is where I learn a lot about education and training processes.
You've got to stay in constant communication with your peers because there are many great ideas out there and it helps to get together and have that opportunity to collaborate privately or as a group to find out what everybody else is up to.
As women in technology, we’re seeing more and more role models we can turn to for inspiration. Who inspires you professionally and why?
On International Women's Day, I had the opportunity to hear Michelle Obama speak in a small-group setting. Hearing her talk about some of the challenges she faced coming into her role as First Lady was very inspiring. She gave some very good advice about dealing with haters. Simply, there are always people out there who don't like you for who you are or what you stand for. She really advocated for putting yourself in their shoes to understand where the pressure is coming from and why they're saying what they're saying, whether from ignorance or inexperience. There are ways to represent yourself in a different way to enable them to see you differently.
I believe that applies to CIOs and the animosity we can sometimes get from business customers. A lot of that comes from not understanding what we do: why it takes so long and why we can't just get them the latest and greatest solutions without any associated costs. We need to put ourselves in their shoes to understand the pain point and find a way to help them understand what we can and can’t do in order to best solve that problem.
It was very inspirational to think about Michelle Obama’s story in that context and realize, "Okay, I need to take a breath sometimes and not get so caught up in the politics and focus back on the real problem we're trying to solve here."
It put a totally different perspective on the dramas that I may face in everyday situations. As we all know, the CIO job can be thankless. We have to remember that there's always a different side and we have to try and put ourselves into that position so that we can figure out how to achieve the best results for our companies, not just for ourselves.
What advice would you give to young women, knowing they are potentially heading down a path in technology that offers many rewards but also challenges?
Too often, young girls get pushed out of technology because something gets hard or doesn’t come easily. I would advise them not to beat themselves up, because nobody's going to get everything 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. They don’t have to be perfect. They will make mistakes and learn from them and move on. Ask for help and learn from it. Keep plugging away and you will persevere.