How CEOs can drive digital innovation without learning to code

March 18, 2019 Derrick Harris

The story of the iPhone’s development has been told many times from many angles, but one constant is that Steve Jobs had a vision and was heavily involved in making sure the finished product lived up to that vision (even if he isn’t always portrayed as the hero). Under his direction, Apple invested significant time, money, and energy to create the iPhone. But Jobs was no engineer.

You don’t need to worship at the altar of Steve Jobs to recognize the value of a CEO who groks technology and is actively involved in product development, even if that CEO can’t really be labeled a “technologist.” Over and over again in the past decade, we’ve seen innovative CEOs give rise to the likes of Amazon and Facebook and Airbnb and Netflix and Tesla and … the list goes on. 

Today, you could expand that list to include CEOs from any number of more traditional companies—ranging from Target to T-Mobile—who have embraced digital transformation and are riding it to new levels of success. That’s because today, software is fast becoming the focal point of many innovation strategies. And when software is the lifeblood of your company, the whole company must be aligned around making sure it’s done right. 

Ask the right questions, measure the right things and break down walls

If you spend your days in the C-suite of a traditional large enterprise, a new report from Forrester titled “Foster the Software Capabilities That Your Firm Needs” provides useful insight into how you can facilitate successful digital transformation—without moonlighting as full-stack developer or distributed systems engineer. You can read the report here (no registration required) and learn a lot about reconsidering how your company measures ROI; how it manages technology budgets; and how CEOs should partner with application owners and technology leaders to ensure everyone’s goals are aligned. 

There’s a lot of detail in the report, but I’ve pulled a handful of insights and pieces of advice to whet your appetite:

  • “Digital transformation is a fancy term for customer innovation and operational excellence that drive financial results—the measure of a CEO’s performance.” So if the goal is improving upon the status quo, then managing digital transformation using legacy approaches can be a recipe for mediocrity. Doing different things for a different era starts from the top. And because modern software delivery is a continuous process, everyone from engineers to executives must be on the same page about everything from corporate priorities to tolerance levels for failure (or, as Forrester puts it, freedom to learn).
  • “Software metrics don’t focus on business results.” This is critical to understand. While there are good reasons why IT might have followed certain practices and measured certain things historically, those might need to change in order to account for software’s new mandate to help grow the business. It’s easy enough to measure an application’s uptime and release cadence, but more difficult—and arguably more important—is measuring how that application contributes to business goals such as revenue growth and customer satisfaction. 
  • “Competitive opportunities usually can’t wait a year for the first release of software to capitalize on them. The same is true of competitive threats.” This is a big reason to embrace agile development methods, but also to embrace agile funding models. Given the way modern software is built, application teams can benefit from flexible budgets that take into account current priorities rather than playing psychic and allocating everything up front.
  • “Modern software is a team sport, with the best ideas and results coming from collaboration across disciplines.” This goes beyond CEOs understanding software and developers understanding business priorities; it’s really about opening up lines of communication and transparency across groups., and forcing “silo-busting” when necessary. It makes a lot of sense when you consider, for example, the interconnected nature of a modern retail experience that might touch a mobile app, an inventory database, and in-store personnel.
  • “Investment in people is sacrosanct in your digital strategy.” Higher salaries and “hip” offices get a lot of attention, but there’s more to attracting and retaining talent than those things. If a company can afford it, opening offices in cities with strong talent pools and cultural appeal can be a good move. Also, at the end of the day, software developers and engineers want to be productive, so it’s important to make sure your company’s platforms, processes and tools facilitate that.

Essentially, CEOs and other execs need to understand the difference between running a company that uses software and running a company that innovates with software. That means knowing enough about modern software development to ask the right questions, measure the right things, and give product teams what they need to operate. 

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