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Transforming technologists into valuable CISOs, with Allen Darrah


September 15, 2021
min read
An image of Allen Darrah, Head of IT at Spencer Fane.

Allen Darrah, Head of IT at Spencer Fane, on how to reach the C-suite as a technologist.

This AMA was edited for brevity.

Allen Darrah is the Head of IT Operations, Security, Privacy, and Risk for Spencer Fane. In addition to his role as an executive business leader, Allen is currently an associate instructor at Columbia University for the course, Technology and the Law: Governance, Ethics, and Crisis Management.

What qualities put someone in the C-suite level?

The prestige of somebody who's in the C-suite comes from a combination of trust and understanding. That's how so many accountants made it to the CEO position. If you understood the money, you could prove your worth and convince shareholders how you could run the organization using your thorough understanding of the finances and the accounting.

The reason for that comes down to predictability. In accounting and finance, you learn how to predict the value of money over time. In the C-suite, the core mission is helping shareholders predict the value of the organization or its ability to satisfy the mission. But the best C-suite leaders don't just add predictability. They communicate that value and how they, as individuals, are increasing predictability across the organization. Knowing what's going to happen is rare in business. Things are so dynamic, but predictability is what finance is all about. 

“[T]he best C-suite leaders don't just add predictability. They communicate that value and how they, as individuals, are increasing predictability across the organization.”

Technology changes at a much faster pace than accounting practices do, so for the technology leader, reaching the C-suite is a combination of two things. First, they're showing how they use technology to add predictability to the organization through literal predictions into the future of tech. Second, they can talk about upcoming tech and how/if it will impact the business. Being able to predict those things is super important. The dynamism of that change is accelerating, so only technology professionals can really have that conversation internally and externally.  

What qualities do you think an IT leader needs to reach the C-suite? Comment on this post in the Pulse community.

How can IT leaders build a career ladder to the C-suite?

IT leaders should not necessarily be talking about just the tech. Maybe that's the trigger, but I think it's really the one-two punch of being able to show how something that they are passionate about contributes to the company's IT strengths or weaknesses. It's picking something that they love—and there's a breadth of things that you can love in technology—and running with it; or, even better, picking the thing that the company is the poorest at, whether it's risk management, cybersecurity, data analysis, or understanding your customer's needs, or whatever. Whatever that is, pick your passion project and start talking about it. Knock on doors, meet with your leader, meet with other leaders. Talk with your peers too. And it better not be just folks in IT.

“As the technology leader, propel your career into whatever you're passionate about by getting closer to those core stakeholders and shareholders.”

One of my favorite books is called The New CIO Leader. It was written in 2004. Email was still kind of novel back then. That's what everybody used for their digital communication. Technology is completely different than it was then, but the concepts are still very sound. The core idea is: as a CIO, you've got to be able to translate that technology to your stakeholders—the board, your actual shareholders, the CEO, the president and your customers. As the technology leader, propel your career into whatever you're passionate about by getting closer to those core stakeholders and shareholders.

How have you grown your career as an IT leader? Comment on this post in the Pulse community.

Why do great technologists struggle to reach upper management roles?

Even the best technologists struggle to make their way into mid-level and upper-level management because having the knowledge is not enough; you also have to communicate it. They're amazing engineers, software developers or cybersecurity professionals but they're not the best communicators. They've never had the opportunity or requirement to communicate how critical the tech is as it relates to the almighty S-curve. When was the last time you talked to a tech professional about an S-curve? I remember learning about S-curves in economics and it all sort of clicked: Products, lines of business, even entire industries live and die on an S-curve. Even today, a lot of CISOs and CIOs are in the C-suite but nobody is listening to them because they aren't talking about their organization's economics as it's impacted by technology. That is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing.

Do you think communication is a struggle for technologists? Comment on this post in the Pulse community.

What's the key to getting the business as excited and passionate about tech as we in IT are?

When I'm communicating with other leaders, I don't worry about the technology. It's changing so quickly that, to some extent, the technology almost doesn't matter. I worry about making the concept real. I want to sell them on the fact that I'm making their life more predictable. Take the protection of our assets, for example. We want all of our machines up and running so that people can use them every day. The technology that does that is going to change over time, but the concept remains the same. And if you're always talking about the concept, "We've got to keep our stuff up and stable so that people can use it and continue to do their jobs so that they can serve our customers," that's the conversation. And it's actually a conversation about predictability, not AI-based endpoint protection.

What are your strategies for making leadership excited about tech? Comment on this post in the Pulse community.

“When I'm communicating with other leaders, I don't worry about the technology. [...] I worry about making the concept real.”

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