Interview with Red Hat CIO Lee Congdon on the changing role of IT leadership

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Lately it seems you can't read a tech, business, or leadership blog without someone bringing up the changing role of the Chief Information Officer.

The consumerization of IT—with employees bringing their own devices and basic IT services like processing, storage, and networking becoming easily purchasable—means that CIOs have an opportunity to do more than keep the proverbial lights on. CIOs increasingly have the opportunity to become strategic partners within their organizations. And that’s exactly what Red Hat CIO Lee Congdon is doing.

Congdon is one of the speakers at the upcoming All Things Open conference in Raleigh, NC. In this interview, Congdon shares his view on the CIO role shift, his passion for customer service, and misconceptions people have about the role of the CIO.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. How did you get involved in IT and join Red Hat?

Coming out of college, I wanted to develop operating systems for small computers and I was fortunate to get a job at IBM doing just that. After working for IBM product development, sales, information technology, and technical support in both technical and management roles, I was recruited to work at Citibank, one of my consulting customers. It was a great opportunity to work in global roles and learn in a global firm. After Citi, I moved to the Nasdaq stock market and put my global experience to work on market initiatives in Japan and Europe. That led to a divisional CIO role at Capital One, where I led IT for a number of business units and ultimately for the corporate functions.

When I was contacted about the CIO role at Red Hat, it was a perfect fit. The people, the passion, and the open source culture were major elements in my decision to move to Red Hat. I've greatly enjoyed the challenges of leading IT in an open source culture and a technology-driven firm. I'm excited that we're establishing the foundations of next generation IT in our enterprise.

The role of the CIO seems to be at a turning point, evolving beyond simply keeping things running to becoming a more strategic position. What are some of the ways you've observed the role of CIO change recently? Why is this role becoming more strategic for companies?

IT leadership is definitely at a turning point and the opportunities for IT leaders are growing rapidly if they are willing to step up to the challenge. You will be hearing more about this topic as we roll out our Red Hat Enterprisers campaign in partnership with the Harvard Business Review and CIO Magazine.

The reason IT is becoming more strategic is that many enterprises have already exploited the process digitization opportunities which have enabled them to become more efficient. The world is rapidly going mobile, social, and becoming increasingly interconnected. Those disruptions mean that many enterprises again have the opportunity to exploit technology change to their advantage.

The best IT leaders are in a unique position because of these changes. They know the business processes intimately in most enterprises because those processes are implemented in IT systems. Unless they aren't paying attention, they understand the technology changes underway. And, basic IT services like processing, storage, and networking are increasingly becoming commodities that are easy to purchase.

All this means that IT leaders can focus on what matters to their enterprises from a business point of view, whether it be improving customer engagement, increasing revenue, reducing cost, or creating new lines of business, and deliver those solutions using the disruptive technologies I mentioned.

I know you’re passionate about putting customers first. What are some ways IT leaders can ensure they’re focused on the customer while also achieving business results?

IT organizations are service organizations. I believe that firmly. They exist to serve the needs of their internal and external customers and the needs of the enterprise as a whole. That doesn't mean that IT organizations have to be order takers or subservient, quite the opposite. But it does mean that IT organizations need to get their basic services right before they have the credibility to lead the organization more broadly.

It is easy to articulate the basics: make your production systems appropriately reliable, insure that you can predictably execute projects, have the right level of process required for your organization. These things aren't always easy to do, but many of them have industry standard best practices that enable IT organizations to get the basics right more rapidly, because the best practices provide a useful starting point.

Astute IT leaders and organizations don't stop there. They develop a vision for their function and for their enterprise and relentlessly focus on achieving that vision. In Red Hat IT, we started with the idea of becoming a world class IT organization, but even in the early days we had the vision to become a beacon for the deployment of open source solutions. We've since expanded that vision to include leadership in the exploitation of cloud solutions. We also aspire to lead our organization in innovation.

All this requires passion and leadership. Maintaining focus on the customer and insuring that your people are inspired to serve the customer are fundamental to achieving the vision you have established.

What's a common misconception people have about the role of a CIO?

Many people still think of CIOs as technical people. Although some CIOs continue to serve this function, especially in smaller organizations, the role is now largely a business role.

CIOs need to insure systems run well and that projects get delivered, but they also need to deliver for the organization's customers, improve business results, and drive implementation of the enterprise strategy. They need to select and develop the right people and they need to choose the right vendor partners.

Examples of where CIOs add business value are making their organizations more data centric, leading initiatives to improve collaboration, and enhance collaboration tools, and taking advantage of technology paradigm shifts like the imminent move to cloud computing. Many CIOs contribute directly to realizing business strategy by applying technology in new and unique ways, but the business strategy is the core objective. Enterprising CIOs understand that objective well.

What is your favorite thing about Red Hat culture?

Passion. Our people are passionate about why we are here and about changing the world the open source way.

Can you give us a slight sneak preview as to what you will cover in your All Things Open talk (without giving too much away)?

I will be talking more about many of the subjects we've covered in this interview. I will talk about the current state of open source and how we got here. I'll be focusing on leading enterprises the open source way and why that makes such a difference. I'll even make some predictions about where we are going next.


Read more from the All Things Open speaker interview series.

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Ginny Hamilton was a community manager for, an online publication and community focused on how CIOs and IT leaders create business value through information technology. A former journalist, Ginny is passionate about local politics, journalism, technology, and social media.

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