Rick Swanborg is among the first instructors in IT World Canada’s Tech Learning Space, an online education platform for technology professionals. Hear his thoughts on making it as a CIO and beyond

What it takes to teach future IT leaders

On the morning of our conversation, Rick Swanborg isn’t grading papers or planning his next lecture. He’s dealing with some errors from his payroll processor and going back and forth with the State of Massachusetts on some money he’s already given them. Such is the nature of being part academic, part entrepreneur.

A graduate of Knox College with a degree in mathematics and computer science, Swanborg spends part of his time running ICEX, a company which organizes confidential executive forums as an alternative to traditional research and conferences. He also teaches business strategy and information technology at Boston University’s School of Management. This summer, he takes his expertise online as one of the first instructors in IT World Canada’s TechLearningSpace.com, which will offer courses in architecture, governance and organization as well as IT strategy, measurement and value.

CIO Canada recently spoke with Professor Swanborg over the phone at his home base in Boston.

CIO Canada: You used to be a CIO yourself, didn’t you? How did you get your start?

Rick Swanborg: I got out of college after working my way through IT. I actually started work in IT at the age of 19. My first summer job was working for Deerborn Computer. I started off in running computer operations and then I was programming, writing accounts receivable and financial information systems for them. As such, by the time I got out of college I had essentially the equivalent of two year’s worth of experience. Then I went to Helix and for a while there I ran their IT department. At the age of 29 I was asked to be head of operations for a software company. So I was director of operations, which included overseeing the IT role.

CIO Canada: Your background was in math and computer science. Would you still see those as good prerequisites for aspiring to an IT leadership today?

RS: No. (laughs) If you want to be a programmer for Google or Microsoft, or you want to write operating system code for EMC or whatever, than a computer science degree is the way to go. And most graduates of computer science want to work for the FAA, or Raytheon — putting missile systems together. But in the business field, generally most students today get an MIS degree, but a degree in computer science. And many of them are getting both a business and an IT degree. And businesses are hiring more and more students out of business school, because you’ve got packages out there, and you’re doing a lot more offshoring and other things. There’s less need for people in to write code any more.

CIO Canada: Does the MIS degree really cut it?

RS: Well, the businesses need people who can talk to the business but understand the fundamentals of IT. You have to have some understanding of MIS and how technology and architecture works in order to develop a solution that makes sense. Where businesses get into trouble is they either have someone who is too much focused on the business, doesn’t understand technology and then makes decisions that essentially damages their capability. Or you might have people that focus too much on the technology and just don’t understand how to solve a business problem.

CIO Canada: How is this affecting the way CIOs are hiring or grooming staff?

RS: In the old days you would hire people that were more technology-driven. They had to keep things working. If I was a CIO nowadays I would be looking for what I call a business solution architect. That’s fundamentally what Boston University aspires to with its dual degree. We’re one of the only schools that offers an MIS plus an MBA that’s integrated and done in two years. So they get all the understanding of platforms and architectures and how technology works, as well as all the business courses on finance, accounting leadership and business processes.

CIO Canada: We hear a lot about enrolment in any IT-related programs going down and lack of interest in technology careers. Do you see that changing anytime soon?

RS: That’s kind of an inappropriate data point. The interest, I believe, in programming and computer science has dropped significantly, and many schools are finding hat there is less and less interest in computer science, because everyone is buying packages or outsourcing. I think Boston University had a record number of students apply for the MSMBA degree, which is different. And I’m finding that in many undergraduate levels, students wanting to get both into business and IS has actually increased. So you have to differentiate that yes, there’s a downward trend in computer science, but that isn’t what business was looking for anyway.

CIO Canada: How well do you see the kind of education you’ve been focused on in a live environment migrating into an online environment?

RS: I don’t know. We’ll see. The hope is that we will be able to provide the same kind of value that is provided at exec ed and the courses I teach at Boston University, which has gotten exceptionally good reviews. Because the courses are really creating a connection between business and technology and creating people to understand different forms of strategy, governance, architecture and all the rest. But I’ll be frank with you, this will be the first distance learning course I’ve ever taught.

CIO Canada: So many CIOs are now inheriting an operational role or are merging duties with what a COO does today. How is that having an impact on the kind of courses you’re developing?

RS: I think what you said is true. I think more and more we’re seeing CIOs get expanded roles, not only to do IT but also operational-type work. I can cite a lot of them that have grown into other positions. But I think that’s just a natural outcome because this new generation of CIOs have experiences and in some cases have had courses in operations, finance, business processes and the rest, as well as the technology side. The course I teach stresses that. I mean, everything we do in the course that we’ll be doing for IT World Canada will be pushing the implications of business and technology decisions, because they’re so integrated these days. And so I’d say that this course will support people who want to expand beyond people wanting to be a technical person at their company.

CIO Canada: So much of a CIO’s role is now focused on working with outsources, supplier or service providers. How much of the IT strategy and management do you think will evolve into basically vendor relationship management?

RS: That’s a good question. I think that a core competency, which is actually a part of the course, is to have good vendor and sourcing management and relationships. No CIO is going to be successful without the ability to manage vendors and relationships. But I think it also pushes the CIO to deal with more policy decisions. In other words, they’re going to have to understand the implications of choices made with vendors buyers in how that will affect the way they manage the company’s capabilities in IT. So for instance, some companies I know are not going to be able to use cloud computing because they’re concerned about security. In fact, a lot of my companies that are members of ICEX are not allowing cloud computing because there’s no way they can get a secure cloud capability. Until they see that, they’re not going to offload a lot of it. I think also it pushes the CIOs to be very articulate and be able to talk in business terms about why or why you’re not using certain technologies. For instance Salesforce.com is a great product, I know some companies are very happy with it, but you need to tell the business that integrating Salesforce.com with a lot of your other systems is going to be nearly impossible, because it’s very hard to move and transfer the data. If you go down the route of Salesforce.com or software as a service, the benefits are very clear — they are good products, but down the road you’re going to have to make them aware that there are some limitations in that route. 


CIO Canada: What’s most fulfilling about teaching IT leadership?

RS: I’ve been teaching for 14 years, and I must admit, Boston University’s been one of the best things that’s happened to me personally, because it’s just fun. I just love being there, it’s a great faculty, and I’ve been there to see a lot of changes take place to make us one of the top business and technology schools in the world right now. The satisfaction comes when your students contact you five years later and say, “Hey, Professor Swanborg, you know that dumb case study or method or tool you taught my class? I need it.” (laughs) Or they tell me, “I went to an interview and all those things you taught me — I couldn’t believe it, they were asking about it in the interview!” That to me is worth more than anything else. If you can really teach good, practical and new ways of attacking a problem with technologies and they go back and are better at what they do with their job, or get a better job, that’s the satisfaction that comes out of it.

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