||Canadian CIO: An Editors’ History of 25 Years Covering IT’s Most Important Role
||Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Knowledge Management in Government
||Mar 26, 2018
To mark the 25th anniversary of Canadian CIO, we’re doing a walk down memory lane. Here, we interview the three editors that shaped the publication over its history.
Right from the beginning, founding editor of Canadian CIO John Pickett saw the chief information officer as a role rather than a title – and it was a role that he wanted to raise up to take its rightfully-deserved place in the corporate spotlight.
When Pickett and his partners started publishing the title in Canada, then called CIO Canada, the concept of the CIO was still relatively new. A few organizations were using it. But even at those that were, the role languished in the doldrums of the technical minutiae of a company’s operations. It just wasn’t as well regarded as other business leadership roles. So when Pickett started noticing his interview subjects putting the magazine in prominent positions on their office desk, he felt encouraged. And when a CIO featured on the cover told him that his career had progressed as a result, Pickett felt like a rockstar.
“It was a big stamp of approval, it meant we were achieving some of the objectives we’d set out to,” he says. “It’s like when AC/DC goes on stage and hears the applause of the audience.”
Since its magazine first rolled off the presses in 1993, Canadian CIO’s core mission has been to elevate the role of the CIO. Over its 25 years of pursuing that mandate, the publication has gone through many changes, as has the nature of the work being done by its target audience. Both have the digital era to thank for that, but while the scenery out the windows has changed, the foundation remains the same. CIOs are still striving to serve as the interlocutor that bridges the technical side of a company with its business goals. And Canadian CIO is still guided by journalistic principles as it tells the stories of those efforts.
Canadian CIO wasn’t Pickett’s first publication. Long before its ink ever rolled off a press, he partnered with the late Andy White on Direct Access in 1985. Aimed at the hands-on workers in the IT field, the strategy was to chase career advertising dollars targeted at the in-demand systems analysts and programmes. Eventually, they crossed paths with current IT World Canada chairman Michael Atkins, at the Laurentian Media Group. Atkins acquired the magazine in 1989, and its brains along with it – White became the president, Pickett the editor-in-chief of the IT publishing arm.
Atkins was publishing Computer Data magazine before then, but at around the same time he acquired Direct Access, he struck a deal with Boston-based IDG to licence its IT brands for the Canadian market. The deal was unusual for IDG, which normally operated wholly-owned subsidiaries in foreign markets, but agreed to take only a minority stake in IT World Canada, which continued to run independently under Atkins.
From that, the new flagship magazine ComputerWorld Canada was launched. It was again targeted at practitioners of IT, workers in mid-management and below. Soon to follow was CanadianCIO, using the same model that was established in the U.S. to serve the leaders of the IT department. Rather than fire a shotgun blast of content at all IT practitioners, Canadian CIO would put a sniper rifle’s crosshairs squarely on stories for and about CIOs.
“The mandate was to support the efforts of those executives charged with bridging the information needs of business executives and corporate executives and the computer department,” Pickett recalls.
Even the term “IT department” was fairly new, succeeding monikers such as “data processing department” or “information systems department.” It operated in a silo from the rest of the business, passing on recommendations at opportune times. But with the creation of the CIO role, and its boosting by IDG’s CIO publications, the need to bring it closer to the rest of the business grew more apparent. It was the CIO’s mission to accomplish that as an executive sponsor of the IT department.
The core challenge of the CIO
In the early ‘90s that looked like an uphill battle.
“It was seen as a cost centre,” Pickett says. “The departments were viewed as almost arcane and it was an isolated undertaking.”
The challenge of bridging that gap between business strategy and the technical operations of a firm has remained at the core of the CIO role over the past 25 years. David Carey, the longest-serving editor of CanadianCIO (from 1995 to 2008), describes it as the defining major issue faced by those in the role.
“Always top of mind for CIOs was how did they plug into the business and drive value out of technology?” he says.
It’s also recalled as the core mandate of the publication by Shane Schick, editor of Canadian CIO from 2008 until 2015. It was especially important to tell stories of CIOs setting the example in Canada, where IT departments didn’t number in the thousands of employees as they typically do in the U.S. By communicating how sophisticated Canadian CIOs were at developing solutions, the publication set out to make heroes of them and demonstrate they could play in the big leagues. It also demonstrated the importance of the role to companies that had yet to hire one.
“IT has got to be seen as a real strategic asset and you need someone in a role to give it that trajectory,” he says.
Challenges of the different eras
While the core challenge of the CIO role remains to be earning a seat at the CEO’s side, that has taken different forms over the years. Perhaps the role’s critical nature received its biggest boost from what was at least a perceived crisis in Y2K. In what was a favourite media story that continued to increase in volume leading up to the year 2000, many worried that certain computer systems would be incompatible with years after 1999. When many businesses realized that without working closely with the CIO, they’d face potentially catastrophic downtime, the CIO’s stock went up. At the same time, it was the height of the dot-com bubble, when e-commerce looked like a golden path to the future.
While we now know how that turned out, David Carey will tell you that 1999 was indeed a golden age for Canadian CIO. By that time he’d been covering Canada’s tech industry for more than two decades, having got his start in the mid-’70s at Electronics and Communications Magazine. In the ‘80s he joined Maclean-Hunter and Canadian Data Systems.
“It was the granddaddy IT publication in Canada,” he says. Carey was promoted to editor after its previous editor retired in 1989 and stayed with it until 1992, when the magazine was shut down and he got a call from Pickett. By the time Y2K fears rolled around, he’d been in the editor’s seat at Canadian CIO for four years.
“It was the best year or two for CIO Canada because everyone was so afraid their systems were going to meltdown,” he recalls. “Vendors were out beating the drum and everyone was acquiring technology to fix the problem.”
Perhaps some businesses were in over their heads, as the number of vendor contracts added up, some CIOs found technology integration was a new challenge. Just trying to fit all of the pieces together and coordinate relationships with tech vendors was a full-time job in itself, Carey says.
Integrating IT can bog down a department and as a result, the IT team can often look like laggards to the rest of the business. This is a conundrum that Pickett recalls from his time as editor. It was in the era when desktop computers were first being acquired as fixtures on the desks of knowledge workers, and when those workers found that they were waiting too long for the IT department to develop business applications, they would sometimes take matters into their own hands. So the phenomenon now known as ‘shadow IT’ was born.
As applications were made exclusively for departmental needs, CIOs were challenged by discrepancies in the data. Each department had its own version of the truth separate from the rest of the company, Carey says.
Along with providing access to corporate information, CIOs also had to devise a system that would provide the right information to the right person, with the correct permissions to access it. This fuelled the early days of identity access management solutions, with vendors like Novell and IBM providing answers.
During Schick’s era as editor, identity would become even more important to IT operations as it also determined what cloud applications that workers could access, and the provisioning of mobile devices to workers with corporate clearances meant that end-points would be carried out beyond the reaches of the firewall more often than ever. Schick reflects that even as CIOs became more articulate in explaining their value to the business and responsive to its needs, executives would still frame their responsibilities in terms of new technologies emerging to the market.
“A CEO would read the newspaper and see an article about cloud computing, and then come in and say ‘what are we doing about this?’ and the CIO was forced to think in those terms versus actually giving advice on whatever the company’s actually focused on here,” he says. “It’s still a reactive mode for CIOs and we’re seeing the same thing with AI (artificial intelligence), with blockchain, and the Internet of Things.”
Shane Schick took on the role as Canadian CIO editor during the digital era.
As the technology market expanded, more startups brought innovative new solutions to market and businesses found they had more options than ever to turn to. But many CIOs struggled with the concept of placing a bet on a smaller company that was not well-established, risking that a product would stop receiving support when the startup was acquired or went bankrupt. Even if many startups had compelling technology, they just didn’t offer the same track record as a legacy vendor like IBM or HP.
A commitment to journalism
Schick’s stint as editor of Canadian CIO began shortly after taking on the Editor-in-Chief role at IT World Canada, rising up through the newsroom first as the editor of Computing Canada and then as senior online editor. It was a time when newsrooms around the world were feeling the pinch (or in some cases, vice grip) of a recession. Rather than continue outsourcing the editor duties to Carey, the decision was made to bring it back in-house and make it Schick’s main focus for his journalism work, which he’d attend to in addition to his managing duties. It made sense for him to be directly serving IT World Canada’s most senior audience, “and in some cases the most critical,” he says.
Schick felt that continuing to write stories gave him more credibility as he led the newsroom, composed of other print publications and websites aimed at different segments of the IT industry. So he continued upholding the journalistic principles that Pickett also held dear when he founded Canadian CIO in 1993. Schick recalls that one of the first things he reviewed after taking on the publication was Pickett’s editorial guidebook. He decided to build upon that foundation, updating it for the digital era.
“Some things were changing, not just in the way stories were being told. We were starting to get into social media, which sounds old now but at the time journalists weren’t on Twitter,” he recalls. “We started get into video and focusing on the newsletter organization. I wondered if it could help us get through print’s decline.”
Schick felt the ideals of journalistic independence hadn’t changed. But it was being challenged more so by vendors that were beginning their own publishing operations. Dubbed “owned media,” vendors started to create content marketing materials that were very similar to what might be found in the pages of Canadian CIO. But there’s still an important fundamental difference between the content a vendor can produce and what an independent editorial team can produce.
Where are they now?
“Even if it is the most editorial-looking piece in the world, it fundamentally has a different objective which is to create some kind of affinity with that brand, to convert into a lead, to actually sell products in some way,” he says. “Journalism still has a greater latitude and freedom to comment on things, and to tell things that otherwise would not get told through other mechanisms.”
While Schick describes the tension of facing down competition from the vendor community, Carey recalls the challenges of building a trusted brand held in regard in corner suites across the country.
“We had to deal with a lot of sensitive subjects. We had to build the confidence of the CIO community and these folks wanted to make sure that what we published didn’t damage the organization in some way,” he says. “We built that trust.”
Carey also points to Pickett as a defender of journalistic principles for the publication. Pickett always sought out the best journalistic talent in building his editorial team, hiring graduates from journalism programs. He felt that not only was it in the readers’ best interests, but the advertisers.
“If you have a publication that is trusted among readers, then isn’t that a great place to put your adverts,” Pickett says.
So when I, the current editor of Canadian CIO was interviewing Pickett, I made sure to ask him for advice. It’s not an easy job, he told me. And it’s a a more difficult time for journalists now. The right way to approach that time?
“Be honest. Readers are not stupid. You need to make clear for them what’s editorial and what is not.”
Which explains why, when we publish new content every month that I feel reflects that original mission of the magazine launched 25 years ago, I feel just a little bit like a rock star too.
(By Brian Jackson)