25 years of the Canadian CIO: A hero’s tale

To mark the 25th anniversary of Canadian CIO, we’re doing a walk down memory lane by profiling some of the CIOs featured on our covers over the past quarter-century, reflecting on their cover moment and catching up on where their leadership career has taken them.

If the point of the first cover of CIO Canada was to distinguish itself from its much larger namesake publication south of the border, held by its founder and licence-provider IDG, then it did so with a style of earnest nationalism.
Russell Bawks, in the role of what we’d now think of as the CIO, but at the time holding the title of managing director of information systems at Beaver Lumber, posed on the cover holding an array of power tools. Beaver Lumber was an iconic Canadian Brand at the time, its friendly, jean coveralls-wearing beaver mascot beckoning Canadians into its chain of 270 stores in urban centres and outer rural areas. At the time, Beaver was a subsidiary of Molson, a company that literally has the maple leaf featured in its logo.

When the first issue of CIO Canada (now branded as Canadian CIO) rolled off the presses, it was at a time that the role was in its nascent days. IDG was working to popularize the role in the U.S. with its CIO publication, the namesake of CIO Canada, and IT World Canada picked up the torch for the Canadian market. The magazine intersected with the CIO at a time when personal computers were widely adopted by knowledge workers and the Internet was changing the world. Over the past 25 years, it has covered CIOs as they prepared for Y2K, rode high on the dot-com boom, and fell back to earth upon its bust. In more recent years the consumerization of IT has seen CIOs struggling to integrate more devices while also battling back against the rise of ‘shadow IT.’ Organizations became more comfortable with outsourcing IT functions, and then even started pushing infrastructure out to the cloud, calling on CIOs to redefine their value to the business.
In many ways, 2018 could be looked at as the year the CIO has truly arrived. A March 13 headline in the Wall Street Journal reads “The Rise of the CIO in the C-suite,” the content of the story being Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla endorsing the CIO as best-positioned to lead organizations into their AI-powered futures.

The CIO role is born

“The CIO role was born at a crucial time. Technology was evolving. What today would seem like a crawl felt like breakneck speed at that time,” reflects Jim Love, CIO at IT World Canada and our chief content officer as well. “Then suddenly, the industry was thrown into a rapid cycle of change. We went from the mainframe and the mechanical ‘data processing’ to departmental computing and to client-server in a few short decades. It was a wild ride.”

For Bawks, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” holds true. In his role today at GT Nexus, a subsidiary of Infor, he’s still addressing the supply chain challenges that he was working to solve 25 years ago at Beaver Lumber. The 1993 cover story delves into Beaver’s new POS systems and how it was integrating those systems with its backend Electronic Data Interchange while also working to interface with 80 different partners in the system. While he may have been on the cover of CIO Canada, it wasn’t until the next year, when he started a new role with Consumer Packaging to helm a full upgrade project, that he thought of himself as a CIO.

“It was a funny term because at the time the acronym tended to mean ‘Career Is Over,” Bawks recalls.

But that acronym certainly wasn’t accurate for Bawks. In his consultant role, he works with different global organizations and helps them bridge the divide between retail operations and logistics, designing process flows, and building integrations that directly benefit the bottom line.

“I’ve taken my focus at Beaver Lumber and broadened it externally to help global customers,” Bawks says. “I’ve been in meetings where people say ‘your title is solutions architect, but you talk like a business person.’ I have both sides.”

The chasm that Bawks managed to cross, using his skills in deploying and integrating technology to help drive business strategy, is the same one that other successful career CIOs have managed to transverse.

The early rise of the CIO

For Ronan McGrath, who was on the cover of CIO Canada in 1994 as the CIO of CN Rail, the role has evolved over the past 25 years.

“Today’s CIO is completely different to when I was doing this stuff,” he says. “CIO is not just supporting the business, the CIO is an integral part of the business and should be involved in the plan from the very beginning.”

For Don Critchley, who now is the president of Haliburton, Ont.-based Cottage Care Rentals and was on the October 1996 cover, he saw his role as CIO to understand his team’s competencies and deploy them well.

“Whenever I run across an organization that is command and control in its structure, I bristle against that,” he says. “I encourage them to stop that and get back to thinking seriously about the type of competencies they need.”

In Critchley’s early days, he recalls replacing desk typewriters with “green screen” terminals, so companies could begin communicating with email and use other applications to boost productivity. He had a knack for identifying the engineers that were passionate about assisting in those projects. As the ’90s rolled along, Critchley saw the adoption of more integrated techincal teams that were distributed across the business rather than being siloed away. With the web beckoning with opportunity, rigid approaches to management weren’t working anymore and CIOs were called upon to help align technical teams with business units.

“We found that if we were going to develop something new and we wanted to do it in an iterative way and have prototypes developed faster using web technology, than it became obvious to us you had to have the firewall person and the server person and the developer person and the business person all in the same room,” he says. “Unlike the mainframe days where everything was totally structured… we changed dramatically to being much more iterative with everybody involved at the same time.”

As companies integrated technology and became more competitive based on that differentiating factor, CIOs became a critical role in business. CEOs called on them to reduce costs and scale up operations, so the pressures were high, but viewed as crucial to an organization’s well-being. The role only became more revered as the perceived threat of Y2K loomed and the dot-com boom had every company chasing an ecommerce future.

Helen Polatajko, on the CIO Canada cover in May 2003, remembers it as both an era of opportunity and challenge. In 1998 she was asked by her employer to take on a new role. The Bank of New York Mellon, had formed a joint-venture with Toronto-based CIBC, and as a CIO that had mastered Mellon’s technology stack, she was tapped to lead the greenfield opportunity for the startup in Toronto.

“Y2K was right on our doorstep,” she recalls. “Plus, I was facing a brand new country, a new job, a greenfield IT build, early acquisitions, and demutualization as insurance companies were going from private to public.”

Poltajko, like many of her peers, was about to face a markedly different era.

CIO cover May 2003 - Helen Polatajko

The fall from grace

Where CIOs had been heroes that averted a disaster as the clocks rolled over to the year 2000, then helped businesses chase the gold rush of the online space that followed, they were now relegated to a dotted-line to the chief financial officer. Many organizations changed their attitudes towards technology, seeing it merely as a utility and the CIO’s role to keep the lights on. If the CIO got bigger aspirations, well “the CIO proposes, the CFO opposes,” Love recalls.

“After Y2K and the dot-com bubble bursting, a lot of CIOs suffered,” Love says. “Budget cuts. Cost pressures. Lost prestige.”

As a result, CIOs were faced with a new culture shock. Instead of just focusing on delivering new capabilities, they had to toe the line on ROI measurements. Many found the time they had to prove their worth in their organizations was less than a year and many were shown the door.

Polatajko remembers the struggle well. One that she experienced as a newcomer to Canada.

“CIOs were really not recognized as peers at the executive table and quite frankly women even less so at that point,” she says. “Personally, the challenges were just being accepted as  business partner and as a woman at the table.”

On top of organizational politics, CIOs were also starting to face a new challenge in dealing with data. When business department leads got impatient waiting for IT teams to extract the data they needed to make decisions, they found ways to do it themselves, often even building their own applications or carving out budget to outsource an application’s build without bothering to inform the CIO. So-called “shadow IT” was on the rise and as a result, organizations faced a lot of redundant systems and multiple places where data was held, often portraying different versions of the truth.

With no strong executive role setting directions for systems or data, organizational silos formed between departments. A phenomenon that also affected the new joint-venture of CIBC Mellon.

“I was green-fielding my organization and each of the other executives were green-fielding theirs,” Polatajko recalls. “The marketing department had to figure out what it meant to market a joint venture. The authorizations department had to navigate compliance for the new geography. So we were all a little bit working in isolation.”

Starting in 2003, Polatajko noticed a shift. With the individual organizations at CIBC Mellon in place, the executives began collaborating more with each other. As she gained the ear of the rest of the leadership team, she won approval for more projects and saw them integrated into the business.

By the time her CEO pulled out her cover issue of CIO Canada and put it on the boardroom table to show other executives as a point of pride in May 2003, the CIO role was beginning another era. One that was rather Dickensian.

Return to form

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Love says, channeling the Victorian-era novelist. “What can only be described as the consumerization of IT brought with it the biggest wave of shadow IT in history.”

At the same time, the pace of change brought by technology meant that organizations themselves were changing rapidly. Some collapsed entirely, proving not nimble enough to respond to a wave of disruptive competition from startups that were born out of the Internet.

CIOs faced increasing complexity and more demands than ever on delivering results. As a result, new “lean” methodologies and agile approaches became adopted and the role of the CIO was abstracted beyond the bits and bytes of an organization.

“When I started I could have installed a server,” says Ted Maulucci, now the President of SmartOne Solutions and a member of the Canadian CIO Hall of Fame. “The general complexity is increased so that you can really no longer do it on your own and with your teams.”

Maulucci was on the cover of Canadian CIO three times, with the first being in October 2005.

CIO Canada cover October 2005 - Ted Maulucci


Instead, CIOs call on partner networks to succeed, juggling vendor contracts, and outsourcing teams alike. Globally, firms that understood technology realized that it was no longer something that was nice to have, but something that was necessary to survive.

In an interview at the Canadian Tire headquarters in Toronto, Chief Technology Officer Eugene Roman reflects on some of the hits and misses in the Canadian technology scene during the 2000s. He points to Sybase, an enterprise software firm that analyzed relational databases. Its SMS and MMS protocols are still widely used by telecom carriers around the world. (Sybase was acquired by SAP in 2010.) He also points to the heyday of BlackBerry and the end of Nortel as pinnacle moments.

“This is who we are, digital Canada. I think our country has produced tremendous people in this space,” he says. “Here, we tend to go to people who get stuff done. We’re common-sensical.”

June 2005 CIO Canada cover - Eugene Roman

In the last couple of years, the importance of technology has become even more integral to the business. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it in 2015, “every business will be a software business.”

If that’s indeed the case, then perhaps Khosla is right about the CIO being perfectly positioned for even loftier leadership positions. Certainly the CIOs interviewed for this piece have all seen their careers continue to climb over the years. Maulucci has started his own business to bring digital “smart community” technology to Canada. Polatajko and McGrath are now active board members. Critchley is the President of Cottage Care Rentals. Roman continues to lead Canadian Tire’s technology vision – winning the Canadian CIO of the Year award in 2015.

As for Bawks, who is now in his early 60s and still happily working, 25 years after being featured on the first cover. With his two daughters grown and embarked on their own professional careers (one became a lawyer, the other an athletic therapist) and his wife still working a demanding job in the public sector, he continues to find satisfaction in solving business problems.

“I’ve had a lot of enjoyment looking at a lot of different businesses rather than just one business,” he says. “I like to work. There are a lot of things going on and I want to tinker at the edges to see what can be down in the puzzle to help customers out.”

We like to picture him tinkering away with a saw in one hand, and a level in the other.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jacksonhttp://www.itbusiness.ca/
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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