IBM’s Dave McQueeney: What it takes to be a top CTO

IBM's Dave McQueeney: What it takes to be a top CTO - top government contractors - best government contracting event

IBM's Dave McQueeney: What it takes to be a top CTO - top government contractors - best government contracting eventDave McQueeney has been the Chief Technology Officer for IBM's Federal Government business since June of 2004.  In that time, he’s developed his own list of dos and don’ts for being a top CTO. Recently, McQueeney sat down with ExecutiveBiz to offer up several of his tips. Among them: Surround yourself with the best technical people. Stay connected to a broader research community. Don’t just view yourself as a techie; be a bridge between the technical and business worlds. In the following Q&A, McQueeney unpacks these and other tips, and lets us in on a few book picks that can also enrich your role as CTO.

Your involvement with IBM goes back to the “˜80s “” a long time.

Dave McQueeney: Yes, I started in June of 1988, right out of grad school.  So if you sum it up I've been 20 years at IBM, 10 of which were at IBM Research and the other 10 were in the operating units. I have been the Chief Technology Officer for IBM's Federal Government business since June of 2004.

You oversee 70 engineers and system architects “” what does it take to be a good CTO?

Dave McQueeney: To be a good CTO, you have to work on three things. First, you have to have the best technical people.  You have to create an environment that is exciting and vibrant. Techies are heat seekers “¦ If you are successful creating this environment, the best folks will find you.  Once you attract them, of course you need to look after them. You have to continually challenge them with problems that really get them excited from both a technical and impact point of view.  You have to help them move “up the ladder“ in their jobs, growing into bigger, more significant responsibilities.  Finally, you have to keep the organization's skills up-to-date. You have to be concerned about whether you have the right technical resources to solve the business or the mission problem that you face, especially as that mission changes.

So it's all about the people; you get the right people, you deploy them in the right way, you help them advance their careers and you make sure the mix of people is right for the problem you are trying to solve.

Second: You are a “C-level executive,“ the CTO of an organization. That organization, whether it is government or commercial, is going to look to you to make or advise on the most important policy decisions. To stay sharp, you have to keep up with journals, the broader research community, and with government and other industry parties.  Said another way, innovation is moving faster and faster and you need to stay strongly connected inside and outside of your organization to be current.

You are expected to make reasoned judgments about policies the organization will set where the fundamental decision is technically-based. Your senior colleagues are going to expect you to have the judgment to answer technical questions on behalf of the organization.

Third: You can't just be a techie. The CTO has to be the bridge between the business world “” or the mission world, as it's called in the government “” and the technical world.  You have to provide advice such as “You haven't thought of this because you are mission expert, not a technical expert, but here is a new way to address your mission challenges in a completely different, and fundamentally more effective way.“ Any good CTO is constantly working to get a deeper understanding of his or her mission area, not just the technology.

What books help you stay on top as a CTO?

Dave McQueeney: A book that everyone's been buzzing about recently is The Starfish and the Spider “” I enjoyed reading that one. It contrasts centralized and decentralized organization models. The spider refers to the centralized model, with the body and the brain in the center. The decentralized model is represented by the starfish, which actually has no single central brain. In fact the five legs function somewhat autonomously and through some means not fully understood figure out a way to cooperate when the starfish wants to go from point A to point B.  You can take a starfish and cut it in half and it probably won't die; each half will grow the other half back and you will have two starfish.  Some of the deep thinkers in the Department of Defense are fascinated by this because they are wondering: could this model of decentralized control offer a more resilient fighting force than one that is managed classically from a central command authority?  The book gives many examples of familiar things to make its point, as varied as how the Linux operating system was developed, to how the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert works.

What are a couple of your personal favorites?

Dave McQueeney:
A couple of my personal favorites are “old school“ classics.
First is a book that goes back to 1975 called The Mythical Man-Month.  It was the first book ever written about how hard it is to deliver large software projects and it was written by a former IBMer named Fred Brooks. It's a classic because so many of the insights remain true today, especially about how large teams are managed, and how complex deliverables are constructed, and how these two factors are intertwined.

Zoom forward 20 years and another favorite of mine is Clay Christensen's The Innovators Dilemma “” it talks about a familiar pattern: you get really good at doing one type of task, and you find that this can lead to an inability to handle rapid change. This book is all about how to develop a culture to support mission success, and how that same culture changes slowly compared to technology or market needs. The actions that assured success in one era act as impediments in moving rapidly to the next.

One other excellent book is The Alchemy of Growth “” it talks about, among other things, how the personalities of leaders impact the growth of innovation in an organization.

What is something most people don't know about you personally?

Dave McQueeney:
I have a great passion for all sorts of aviation.  I am fascinated by almost anything to do with airplanes.  I like to study the physics, the engineering, the operations, all aspects of how airplanes are designed and employed. It is fun to ask why certain famous airplanes looked the way they did, and try to relate that set of design parameters back to the airplane's mission requirements. I enjoy flying airplanes, especially high-fidelity scale models.  I am an avid builder and  flyer of replicas of WWII fighters, for example.

This interest in aviation seems to run in the family “¦ my son Matthew who turned 24 today was recently offered his first job as an airline pilot.  We are all very excited about that.  Matt graduated from Purdue, went on to be a flight instructor there, and now flies for one of the regional airlines.  I told my friends here at work this morning if they get on a commuter airline flight and hear that a guy named McQueeney is flying, they don't need to be concerned “¦ it's not me, it's the McQueeney who actually knows what he is doing on the flight deck of an airliner!

Interview with Dave McQueeney was conducted by JD Kathuria

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IBM's Dave McQueeney: What it takes to be a top CTO - top government contractors - best government contracting event
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