Jeff Ton

IT departments need a big update

03 May 2020   |   Culture Technology

Jeff Ton

IT departments need a big update

03 May 2020   |   Culture Technology

What are we talking about?

IT departments have been lagging behind in terms of understanding the business and keeping up with important diversity benchmarks. It’s time they went from being the department of “No” to the department of “Yes”.

Why is updating the IT department important for the future of work?

IT departments are now at the center of business strategy for digital workplaces. If the people who lead them aren’t in tune with how the business operates, or what it means to be successful in the future of work, then the business will find other people who are.

What did Jeff Ton teach us about reshaping IT teams?

Jeff Ton has been in IT for 40 years. For most of that time, IT was known as the department that put up walls. You can’t bring your laptop, you can’t run off the cloud, it will cost too much, we can’t build that feature, etc.

It became much easier to go around IT than through them.

IT is now getting left behind as other departments own more of their technology. Jeff says, “The business needs more out of IT than they are getting.”

IT professionals need to start with improving their business acumen. They should start with understanding how the business makes money, and how the business’s customer makes money. As they understand the business, they will take on a much more strategic role and become a unit that shows what is possible.

IT also has a big diversity problem. Their numbers haven’t changed much over the last decade or more. Jeff is a good friend of Julie Kratz and is one of the few outspoken white men in the world of IT who champions diversity.

Jeff says we need to go deeper than just a diverse profile of leaders. We need to make sure everyone is speaking up and is heard.

IT leaders need to work on:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Maintaining a conversation throughout every level of an organization
  • Business acumen

IT leaders now need to have a “speaker reel” showing your their capability to give presentations, leadership skills.

IT’s current job is both being a matchmaker (connecting business to the right technology), and a marriage counselor (making sure the business and technology get along well).


More from Jeff Ton




Today, our guest is Jeff Ton. He’s a speaker, author, and explorer. This episode is Work Minus No. Hi, Jeff. How are you doing?


I’m doing great, Neil. How are you doing?



I’m doing great, having fun. We’re all in the midst of this new normal. We’re trying to figure out things. But we’re actually going to go back and talk a little bit about the past, the good old days, I guess of IT or if they were good. So, give us a little bit about yourself and your background.


Certainly. So I’ve been in IT for, it’s hard to believe, but almost 40 years now. I go back to a decade with an eight in it when I got into IT. And I know you’ve all heard the war stories of mainframes and punch cards and all that stuff. And yes, it was real. That’s right. I started my career as a software developer and writing in PL/I, COBOL, IMS, CICS databases, those kinds of things, and made the leap into management about 20 years ago and found out that I liked working with people, developing leaders, building teams more than I ever imagined, more than writing code. I loved doing that with the people and have been doing that ever since. So, it’s been a great ride, seen a lot of change in technology, as you might imagine. I do a lot of speaking about the exponential growth of IT. And we’re in the midst of quite an evolution, quite a revolution in that space.



We’re calling this episode Work Minus No. So, you describe IT used to be the Department of No. So, what do you mean by that?


I think IT for a long time had the reputation of being the part of the company that puts up walls. It’s no, you can’t do that. No, you can’t bring your laptop into our organization. You can’t bring your cellphone into our organization. You can’t access your email from home, all those kinds of things that we’ve gone through in the last couple of decades on trying to understand what the needs of our businesses were. But even before that, it was always, it’s going to take too long to do that, it takes too much money to do that. No, no, no, no. And we got that reputation for being a roadblock. And I’m sure your listeners are familiar with the term shadow IT. But that’s really where shadow IT was born was because it was easier to go around IT than to use and partner with IT to get things done. So, that’s the Department of No that we’ve become known for.



So, we’re talking here in 2020. What are the things that have forced IT to change? So, there’s a lot of different factors going on, but walk us through a few of those.


Well, I think business has changed for one. So, IT was born from automation inefficiency. It was how do you get the back office running efficiently. And what has happened is that our businesses customers are now interacting with our businesses digitally. It’s all about the customer experience, the user experience as they begin to interact. More and more technology is becoming customer facing and helping with that customer lifecycle. And it started with marketing owning the websites and doing things like that. And what has been happening is IT has been further and further left behind. And I think over the last several years, we’ve started to hear the buzzword of digital transformation and businesses must transform or die and all those dire predictions, but in a way, it’s true. I can’t think of a business today that doesn’t rely heavily on technology. And so, I think our technology leaders are waking up to the fact that the businesses are demanding more from them than they ever had. You start to see things like the Chief Digital Officer, the Chief Technology Officer, all those are symptoms of the problem that the business needs more out of IT than they’re getting. So, what you’re starting to see are the IT leaders who understand this and see this. They’re becoming more business first. It’s about learning the business, understanding the business. And I think that trend is going to continue and even accelerate as we move forward.



I think business acumen is something you’ve talked about in some of your talks that we’ve interacted about. I think a lot of times, it’s not just true of IT, but lots of other departments. People just don’t even know how the company makes money, let alone like how it goes through.


Yeah, and I think one of the things that you see a lot, especially in IT professionals, is when you ask them what they do, they say, I’m in IT. They don’t say, oh, I’m in nonprofit or I’m in retail or I’m in whatever business their company is in. And they almost feel that they’re interchangeable, that I can take my IT skills and I can jump from one industry to another and not miss a beat. And I think that used to be true when what we worked on were the backend systems. But now more than ever, you have to understand how the business makes money, as we’ve talked. You have to understand the customer. I love Jamie Lee, he was the former CIO for Wabash National, and Jamie did a great post on the customers customer. So, not only do you have to understand your buyer and your customer, you have to understand how their customers are using whatever you’re selling and whatever service you’re providing. It’s important for the IT professional, the IT leader to understand that so that they can bring solutions proactively to the organization rather than waiting to be asked to participate.



Let’s talk about other ways that IT is changing. Obviously, a passion of yours is diversity, trying to bring in a lot of different voices into the IT world. Talk about the state of diversity within IT right now that you see.


One of the things that’s been amazing to me over the last several years is to watch the numbers, and just talking gender diversity to begin with here. But I think, four or five years ago, the number was around 20% of the people in IT were female. That needle hasn’t moved much in the last several years. And we have to do a better job of being inclusive. It’s one thing to have diversity goal for your organization that says you’re going to hire so many females or whatever your targets might be. It’s quite another to make sure that when someone joins your organization, they feel welcome. And I think we really still have a lot of work to do in those areas to drive those numbers forward. I think the other aspect of it is we have to start younger, and we have to start with the kids. So, I have a five-year-old, six-year-old grandson now. He’d kill me that I just called him a five-year-old because he’s six. But for the first four years of his life, we played and we’ve got these little Batman and Robin figures and superheroes, and he would play with Wonder Woman, just like he would play with Batman and Superman. All of a sudden, he goes to kindergarten and he tells me one day, “I don’t want to be Wonder Woman. She’s a girl.” Really? They learn that in kindergarten that there’s a difference. And we start to put that into our children and our grandchildren. It’s no wonder that we’re not feeling inclusive when we get to be adults. So, I think getting women and racial diversity into IT is going to be important. We have such a skills gap in IT. There’s far more jobs available in technology than there are people to fill them. And we’re excluding 50% of our population, and not making them feel welcome in those careers, and I think that’s something that we have to fix to move forward.



Yeah. And even more than 50% if you take in the racial differences that are out there. I think building up role models, letting people see this is a real career for you. If you want, it’s there. What are some of the things you’re doing it in your own life and in your world that are trying to help that?


So, one of the things is Julie Kratz and I…



She was a guest on our show, too.


Oh, awesome. Awesome. Yeah. So your audience is familiar with Julie. She’s doing great work in the area of diversity and inclusion. She and I have partnered to build a series called Diversity in Tech. It’s diversity and inclusion, but focused specifically at the tech industry. And we had last December, we had our first event, brought 50 leaders together to talk about some of the issues and some of the challenges. And we’re scheduled to have our second event, although we have changed it to a virtual one in light of our current circumstances, and that’ll be going on, I think it’s April 21st, as I recall. But the the idea is to get the conversation going and then have these individuals that participate in the conversation, carry that back to their organization, and spread the ideas and the concepts of making sure it’s more than looking around the table and seeing a diverse set of people around the table. It goes to making sure that everybody is speaking up and everybody is heard in the organization. That’s part of what I’m trying to do.



It’ll take small steps here and there. Hopefully, maybe we’re walking around with Wonder Woman shirts on to promote that side, too.


That’s right. That’s right.



Good. Well, let’s talk about another aspect that IT tends to want to change or needs to change. It’s in terms of soft skills type thing. Usually you think of IT leader, again, it’s the cold, white male sitting back in the corner like doing their thing.


Throw them beer and pizza, and they’ll be fine.



Yeah. What are some of those soft skills? If we need a new term for that, but what are some of the skills that IT leaders need to build in order to take a bigger role? You talked about how, I was blown away that IT has become more reliant on technology than ever before. But yet, it’s not like we’re seeing all these IT leaders suddenly become leaders of that company. They’re still in that backseat role. So, what are some of those skills they need to build up?


I think part of the problem and I think this is typical of any technical job is we promote the people that are good technicians, because they’re good technicians. They get promoted and all of a sudden they’re in these roles of leadership and we’ve never really helped them understand how to lead people, how to manage people. And that may not be their skill set to begin with. So, these things that for years we’ve called soft skills, I think now are essential skills. They’re things like teaching collaboration and communication, the ability to have a conversation throughout every level of an organization and not get lost in the technical jargon. You have to be able to communicate these very complex and very technical things, architectures of your systems, you have to be able to communicate those to no matter who you’re speaking to in the organization on terms that they can understand. So, it’s teaching how to be the role of the translator, and honestly, Neil, we were talking earlier about the business acumen. That’s where the business acumen can really play a part because you can talk in business language, in business terminology, and relate it to what they see in their business rather than your technology.


Too often, we try to teach them the technology. And they don’t need to know that. I don’t need to know how my car works to get in my car and drive to the other side of town. I shouldn’t have to know how my applications work in order to leverage them and use them in my business. So, let’s talk in terms of the business communication. I think one of the fascinating things that I’ve seen and heard about that’s a recent development is a friend of mine was interviewing for CIO roles in Texas. And he was from Indiana, just like I am. And in order to even interview for a CIO role in Texas, you have to have a portfolio of showing presentations. You have to have a speaker reel that shows you in front of audiences, in front of meetings, leading and communicating, because that is such a critical component of the job today. They need to make sure that you can do that before they even bring you in for interviews. So, it’s those types of things. And the list is communication, collaboration, critical thinking skills, design thinking skills, leadership skills in general. How do you lead people? In today’s environment, how do you lead and manage virtually in the scenarios that we’re in today? All those things have to be learned and people don’t always come by them naturally. In fact, most people don’t come by them naturally.



Let’s talk about technology. We’re usually talking to people who are leading companies that are growing, they’re trying to figure out what their relationship with technology should be, maybe before they’re ready to hire a CIO role or something like that. What do you feel like is a good perspective for these leaders of companies to look at technology? Should they be looking to automate everything they can? Should they be looking to invest heavily in tech? Or should they invest in humans? What’s that balance and relationship between the two that you feel like is a good path going forward?


That’s probably a multi-layered conversation about do you invest in tech or do you invest in humans. I think you have to invest in both. I think where organizations are today, it used to be the mantra was, software is going to eat the world. I think there was a book about that several years ago. Well, now it’s data. So, I think, as companies know and understand the data that they have available to them in their organizations, that’s what should drive their technology and that’s data about their own operations. But it’s data about their customers. It’s data about their industry and their sector. That is what should drive a lot of their decisions. Now, if you’re in manufacturing, things like robotics and industrial Internet of Things, those are all important investments to make to make sure that your shop floor is as efficient as possible. But we’re also starting to see AI come into manufacturing. Imagine AI with Internet of Things, industrial Internet of Things, watching the assembly line and watching product come down the line and spotting a defect on the first part that has the defect in, not an entire lot, because they inspect it after it’s already been manufacturing, but with AI and IoT, you can see these defects earlier on and make that decision to fix or change the line appropriately. That’s just one example. But I think the relationship with technology is obviously going to change, more and more companies are going to be cloud based. So, the days of having servers in the back room while not gone is fading. I think there’s going to be a long tail on that if it ever goes completely away. But we see more and more of that. So, it changes the skills and the dynamics that is needed in an organization in its IT organization. I don’t need a storage specialist per se on my staff if I’m in the cloud and someone is managing that for me, but I certainly need someone who understands my business and can bring technology solutions to help my business. So, I think that’s where some of the change is coming in. That’s where the relationship between IT and the business, and I always hate that phrase of IT and the business. IT is part of the business, just like the line of business staff are part of the business. We shouldn’t put up that wall. Technology has to be part of every discussion in just about every business I can imagine.



And really, that person who is looking over the IT almost becomes, like you said, they need to represent the business in that, but becomes almost like a matchmaker to say, hey, this is what you need. I know something that can hook you up with this. Let me get you there. And then it’s also marriage counseling because it’s trying to figure out, how do you work with this? You’re having trouble with this. Let me help you with that. Maybe we need a new solution.


That is a great way to describe it. Yeah. You’re a matchmaker and you’re a marriage counselor all built into one. The key is that you understand the business and you understand technology. Absolutely.



Yeah. That’s great. Jeff, it’s been fun to get into these topics to figure out what’s coming up new. I’m looking forward to a world of work that has more yes in it coming from technology that’s coming through. Anything else you’d like to leave with our listeners?


I just appreciate the opportunity to talk and share the growing view of the change of IT. I love that we’ll become the Department of Yes, how can we help? And I think that’ll drive business forward in the next decade and beyond.



Great. And where can people go to stay in touch with you?


They can check me out at Happy to connect and share insights and also connect on LinkedIn.



Awesome. Thanks, Jeff, for being on the show and we appreciate you sharing your insights with us.


Thank you, Neil. Appreciate it.


Jeff Ton is a sought-after Information Technology speaker, author and thought leader, having led powerful teams and built successful IT departments for the past 25 years. In more than two decades, Jeff has served as Chief Information Officer with Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana and Lauth Property Group, as well as 14 years in various technology roles with Thomson Multimedia (RCA). In his current role as Senior Vice President of Product and Strategic Alliances at InterVision, Jeff thrives on developing people while driving the company’s product strategy, service vision and strategic approach.

Speaking to audiences from 5 to 1,000, Jeff has mastered the art of simplifying complex IT issues and is always looking for opportunities to drive value in organizations now and in the future.

He serves on numerous boards and advisory councils including: Forbes Technology Council, Hoosier Environmental Council board of directors Connected World Magazine Board of Advisors, and the Mud Creek Conservancy board of directors. He is also a Fellow Alumni for the Institute of Digital Transformation.

Jeff is the author of Amplify Your Value (2018) and is a frequent keynote speaker on topics related to the evolving IT landscape and the changing role of the CIO. Meet Jeff and learn more at

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