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A chief technology officer in a time of COVID-19: Keep calm and make the most of the whole business suddenly realising how important IT is

Time to break ties with historic corporate inertia

Column The suddenness and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic took many CTOs and CIOs by surprise as worries over the impact on a supply chain in China flipped, seemingly overnight, into a fight for corporate survival.

Right now, I'm following the advice to stay home. Like many IT professionals, my day is filled with domestic desktop support, ensuring the Wi-Fi behaves, making sure my children have access to school resources and helping their teachers get online, as well as assisting local small businesses and the vulnerable.

However, from the standpoint of the CTO, the incident that unfolded is unlike any disaster scenario we could have imagined or planned for (even though the likes of Bill Gates warned us it was coming). Indeed, most plans call for setting up shop at an alternate location when disaster strikes but it very quickly became clear that this was quite different.

The carefully thought-out plans had to evolve rapidly over hours and days rather than months. The executive board needed the company up and running quickly in the new, suddenly dispersed, environment, and the spotlight turned on to the CTO or CIO tasked to make that happen.

First things first

Those first hours after the button has been pressed are critical. The good news is that a digital revolution has been underway since the birth of the world wide web. The bad news is that lack of corporate vision, inertia and penny-pinching will decide most of what happens in the first few days.

While in all instances the CTO must demonstrate calm leadership and clear communication among the rising panic, a swift assessment of the situation is needed. For some, already migrated and running in the cloud, the next steps are simple. For others, things will be trickier.

Step one: Decide what is needed to keep the business running and allocate resource accordingly. The tatters of the existing DR plans should be of help here. It is also important to remember that there will be no going back to "business as usual" but also that there are opportunities to be had.

A CTO will already know how far along the digital transformation path the company is. Some apps may already be cloud-based and accessible by a browser from any handy workstation. Others will require more work. Those first few hours will see the IT team assessing resources and presenting a plan to the CEO before the purse strings are loosened.

The chief techie will have a rare opportunity to do what needs to be done. There is no time to tinker with workers' home machines, where legacy apps need virtual desktops, security and VPN configurations. BYOD is all well and good, but in the first instance corporate devices with standard images will be deployed to give the executive confidence that a breach or leak of confidential data is unlikely. Add in a 4G card, and that device need never go near the horrors of a user's home network.

Assuming you can track down those laptops – finding the things can be the biggest challenge as demand surges, but it is not impossible; there is always the social network of fellow CTOs and CIOs to leverage in tracking down stock.

A bit of downtime is not the end of the world

While it may not feel like it at the time, when every minute seems like an age, a half day or so of downtime is not the end of the world, and even in the worst case, where nothing is cloud and browser-based, the essential parts of the business will be up and running within days. Communication at all levels, again, is key – people are pretty sympathetic once they understand 200 computers are being delivered and know when their gear will eventually arrive.

The other critical issue to deal with during those first few days is Subject Matter Experts (SME). The knowledge and experience of these individuals must be documented and spread throughout the organisation via technology such as video training. Later, it may at last be possible to dispense with those SMEs entirely as the business finally wakes up to the dangers of knowledge bottlenecks.

The "what if X got run down by a bus" scenario has developed its own urgency as staff numbers start falling.

Some CTOs will also have specific physical business needs: distancing must be enforced for warehouse workers, and contact centre workers will need to work from home via technology such as soft phones.

Time can be bought in the first day or so by simply sending half the team home and applying social distancing to the rest by skipping desks, but it will be up to the IT team to come up with a longer term solution; more of that warehouse could eventually be automated and the rest of the staff made remote as systems are expanded to cope with the surge in home working.

While the CTO's time in the days following the emergency will be occupied by keeping the lights on and ensuring employees have what they need to allow the business to function, the importance of the role is going to grow as the pandemic continues.

The return to the office

Further into the future, a recession is highly likely, and the CTO will be, more than ever, a driver in moving the organisation forward. As enterprises look at their expensive, empty offices, IT will be the enabler; some employees simply won't want to return to the mothership and many will have taken to messaging and video-conferencing platforms as part of their daily routine; the phenomenal growth seen by the likes of Zoom and Teams shows how quickly people adapt.

However, working from home is not for everyone and even with technological barriers such as security, VPNs and hardware removed, some will struggle. Face-to-face video conferencing will help, but once the lockdown ends, some will want to return to an office. But in the new world, those offices can be considerably smaller.

And while the fall-out from the pandemic will present traditional opportunities, such as shifting remaining workloads to the cloud, and perhaps even dealing with that 20 year-old legacy application, the business will be receptive to suggestions from the IT department on how to further improve efficiencies.

As we prepare for the next pandemic, we should look closer at robotics and process automation. The current situation has shown us that many, particularly the elderly, much prefer a voice interface – what else could voice control be used for? There is also the promise of Machine Learning/ Artificial Intelligence, which can turn raw data into actionable insights and Virtual Reality, with its potential for education and training.

The IT world will never be the same, and the role of the CTO is at a turning point. It may be possible for some to slip back to their old ways for a little while, but those that seize the opportunity to demonstrate the vital role technology plays, as a force for good and effective businesses, will be well placed once the crisis abates. ®

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