Dwayne Allen is an ORBIE-award winning technology executive primed for times like these. Equipped with experiences across a range of industries, a healthy dose of self-awareness, and a passion for learning and people, Allen is redefining the art of the possible as a strategic and innovative CTO. In his current role as senior vice president and CTO at Unisys, he has accountability not just for technology but also solution innovation, architecture and IP, and patents. True to his customer-first, business-focused leadership style, he is actively involved with customer interactions as well.

When we sat down for a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Allen opened up about how his career journey, which has spanned seven big brand companies and four industries, has shaped the multidimensional leadership style he operates with today. Afterwards, we spent some more time talking about Allen’s philosophy of IT leadership, some of the key skills and qualities that have enabled his success, and his advice to IT managers, directors, and vice presidents who aspire to have what Allen calls “transcendent impact” and deliver greater value to the business. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: What do you mean by the ‘transcendent impact’ of IT leadership? And how do we live up to it?

Dwayne Allen: If you look at the definition of transcendence, it means going beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge. The reason I emphasize it is that, of all the disciplines on a leadership team, IT sometimes has the richest insight across the workings of a company, but somehow it gets put in a box and doesn’t get out of it. If you’re in marketing, you can move over and run a business unit, or become CFO, or you could possibly become CEO. There are some recent examples of CIOs doing this — Greg Carmichael, who was CIO at Fifth Third when he hired me moved to COO and then CEO. Ted Colbert is another former CIO who became a CEO, and other CIOs are joining boards. In general, though, I think IT executives are still very underutilized in a holistic business mindset.

As I was thinking about my curious career journey, along with that of other colleagues in the industry, it made me think about the concept of transcendent impact. A key ingredient of success is the intersection of capability and opportunity. At Unisys I’m fortunate to have a CEO and COO that have created an environment where I can expand my reach and potential impact, so I’m more than just the typical CTO or CIO. I’ve gone on sales pitches to clients, get to play a role on the process for our execs to engage with client accounts, and I’m heavily engaged with our investment committee. Over time I have also begun to participate in some aspects of our strategy. It’s great to work for leaders that see me as a valuable partner so I can help in any way I can, which actually deepens my commitment to the company.

So sometimes, as IT executives, we have to aim higher, stepping outside of the IT or digital space, to demonstrate more value we can add and resisting the temptation to stay in a box. Again, the work environment and culture acts as an enabler to be able to express ‘I’m not just a CTO’ in order to get involved in sales and get involved in other aspects of learning, leadership, and growth, as well as strategy and marketing and ideas. Why limit yourself to just saying, ‘We need a network upgrade to move to the cloud,’ when you can also make other suggestions? We have to do a better job of telling our story.

Integral to your success as an executive is your ability to deliver what you describe as ‘value without boundaries or limits.’ Can you talk about how aspiring leaders can learn to achieve that?

I see it as multidimensional competence, but it starts with the core. You have to start with our IT expertise, because that’s why we were hired, so you must be good at what you do, and that includes staying current on what’s going on, from cloud to cyber to ChatGPT or whatever the relevant emerging trends are at the time. You must be familiar with your business and how IT can help them meet their strategic goals.

Next comes industry experience. I’ve been in four industries, but while I was at Microsoft, I served several more — healthcare and retail, for example. So that IT expertise gets bundled with a variety of industry experiences, which enables us to really get to understand different ways value can be delivered, because you are leveraging what you’ve learned in one industry as you move to the next. So when I moved from banking to manufacturing to learn the differences in terms of supply chain, inventory, sales, how they go to market, warranties and so forth, I felt a different type of growth.

The next layer is a bit of a strategic orientation. So, it’s not just my IT expertise and the industries I’ve been in, but also how that enables original thought and ideas. Sometimes others in the business won’t expect those ideas from the IT executive, but you now know enough to say, ‘Why don’t we consider doing this?’ Maybe you don’t initially get the credit, but you start to recognize, I’ve got more in this brain than just IT stuff. So, it’s developing the strategic orientation. Again, being in the right environment helps enable this, so I am fortunate to be at Unisys, especially with the energy of our new brand.

The final piece is business acumen, which is where you start speaking the language of the business. You start talking to them in their terms — and it throws them off at first because they will expect you to talk about technical features and performance, but as you start talking sales, profit margin, and customer retention, you are building a deeper connection.

Can you share an example?

One of my favorite stories is when I was at a large manufacturing company. I was the CIO of one of the segments — $6 billion in sales, five businesses, with 75 sites in 13 countries. I did a big ERP presentation at the segment president’s leadership meeting. I covered getting up to a common release version, benefits, costs, and timeline. In the end the president said, in front of everyone, ‘Dwayne, for that amount of money, I could build several manufacturing plants. This doesn’t seem like a good investment at all.’

While disappointing, this was an invaluable lesson. I was not speaking the language of the business; thus it failed. About a year later I came back — this time partnering with one of the business heads — with a manufacturing transformation presentation focusing on advanced supply chain, material management, inventory reduction, quality, etc. It won immediate support. It still required the same upgrade and costs, but now it made more sense because I was talking in business terms not technical terms.

When you do those things and start to realize the greater impact opportunity and better understand the art of the possible, you start to say, ‘Why aren’t we going to market this way?’ It all ties together. Each experience in your journey builds to the next one.

It seems like this also makes a difference in how you’re viewed as a business partner, which goes back to the opportunity IT has for transcendent impact. Can you dig a little deeper on that?

The core is that multidimensional competence. Once you’ve got that core, then there are no boundaries. Typically, that core goes one direction — technical — or sometimes two — technical and industry. It could be, this is great for solutions and industries because you could do more in that bucket and stay true to that. Over time, it could be, you’re good at this, you can develop talent, and you’re good at leveraging a strategic partnership to deliver any deliverable.

So those are two, and people tend to stop there. But guess what? We can also go into the business. As I said, I’m on sales calls. I can talk to someone about our cloud strategy and things of that nature. Even if you’re not in a business unit, you can be such a contributor that if there’s a strategy conversation, they’re going to make sure you’re in the meeting. You’re not ‘just IT.’

The collection of all of that presents a different value proposition. You could then be a candidate for a board of directors or to serve in some advisory capacity because now you’ve got everything covered. You’ve got solutions and industries, talent and partners, business and strategy, and boards and advisory. There are no limits — you transcend.

To get it all done, you have to galvanize people in a multidirectional way. It’s really having a 360-degree people orientation, isn’t it?

I call it the paradox of leadership. In my position right now, I’ve got to engender enough confidence with executive leadership that I can deliver on what they’re expecting of me. At the same time, I have to inspire a staff to deliver that. And you’re only successful with both. If I inspire my staff, but the leadership team doesn’t believe in me, that’s not going to work. And then, if I get the confidence of the business but my staff doesn’t deliver, that doesn’t work. So you’ve got to do both.

How would you sum it all up for an aspiring IT leader who is looking to follow in your footsteps?

Well first, it’s a journey. You’re getting a summary, but this road was paved with bumps, bruises, setbacks, and a few failures. The key is to not let that hold back the aspiration or vision. It will, at times, require some resilience and courage, but IT affords us such a unique vantage point across the company. You’ve got to embrace learning, stay keenly observant and be agile. We can leverage insights that no one else can see and integrate them into the business mindset. While IT is a profession we do, as a business leader and strategic thinker, it’s about what we are.

Speak the language of the business and focus on impacting the business. Ask for business responsibilities in addition to your IT discipline — and ask to lead or heavily contribute, not just participate. Show them the value we can add. It’s possibly so much greater than you and they even realize. Go for it!

For more insights and advice from Dwayne Allen on how to redefine your value proposition, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership

Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District is a renowned urban innovation hub supporting ventures and startups tackling key challenges in the health, cleantech, fintech and enterprise sectors. And André Allen, MaRS’ VP of IT, chief privacy officer and CISO, is at the center of its growth, ambition, and success.

“I’ve been with MaRS for just over a year and a half and I’m responsible for all aspects of information technology, including business systems, software engineering systems, operations, service, desk information security and privacy,” he says. “We have a fairly complex business and multiple business units within it, and I try to keep up with all the asks and requirements they bring us.”

Amassing lessons learned and experience in different industries over decades, Allen has shaped his career in his own unique way, now at the center of so much innovation and knowledge sharing at MaRS. There’s always some variance with CIOs or senior tech leaders in their individual business journeys, and skills acquired, but away from the technology itself, and its implementation or product investment, is the search for diverse and inclusive talent to build teams. Being in a leadership role, this is central to what motivates Allen in the face of ongoing tech challenges in Canada surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, or opportunity (DEI and DEO).

“Being able to hire people globally means you need to be able to integrate them and make them happy,” he says. “We’re lucky at MaRS, and from the top, that everyone’s really bought into diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s something we’re continuing to navigate across all industries.”

CIO.com’s Lee Rennick recently spoke with Allen about opportunity, inclusion and putting in the small efforts now to effect big change in the future. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On entrepreneurism: I feel blessed to be at MaRS because there’s so much energy and innovation happening. And you see smart people around you taking small, burgeoning ideas into ongoing businesses. AI, or specifically machine learning (ML), is certainly the leading trend, be it clean tech or environmental technology, or just systems building smart new systems or smart cities. The use of AI and ML is a real catalyst for a whole new set of industries and companies, and there are some bright entrepreneurs thinking up new ways of doing things, looking through large datasets trying to find patterns and anomalies. We love being in the space we’re in. Many of our ecosystem members do great work, harnessing these datasets, so they need access to things like cloud, which has enabled some of those things.

On equal opportunity: DEO and DEI are passions of mine and I think now they’re economic realities in that the pool of people—trying to find skilled technology people or skilled knowledge workers—is shrinking. And for me, if we only hire people that looked or thought like us, that further limits the pool, and the world becomes even smaller. So the advice I give is DEI is more than just something you should do. It’s something that’s going to help your business in thinking through how you get new talent because of the pool of resources. We’re also involved with an organization called CILAR, and they have a good approach. It’s really the power of one, that’s the thinking, in that one individual can reach out to help another get forward. There may not be an immediate payback for you, but there is for that individual and for the pool of resources in total. And once these people integrate into our environment, you get the opportunities. By looking through one lens, you may not pick up the nuances for different cultures or different groups. So it’s important you bring those people in. Doing that, though, is the hard part. It has to be something you believe in and that there’s a direct benefit for your business as well as a social aspect.

On roles: Effective CIOs or leaders need to be more broad based. It can’t just be about the bits and bytes. I think that ship sailed long ago. You need to be close to the business and understand the value providing for that business. Getting involved in diverse points of view comes into play in order to look at the business and its priorities in a different light, and bring it to the table and have a voice there. I certainly think it’s a lot of hats that we juggle, but they’re necessary hats, and the technology and data managing as a discrete function of managing private security all overlaps. When I first joined MaRS, I wondered how I’m going to tackle all of these things together. Some of these functions are held discreetly, but it’s worked out quite well for us because the same things I’m looking at from a data and privacy perspective have implications for security, and how we build and support systems. So while there are multiple hats, having a supportive management team makes all the difference.

On the professional journey: I’ve been in IT for over 30 years. I started in systems operations, then moved through the infrastructure, managing local area networks, and then onto midrange systems from HP and IBM. Over that time, I purposely worked in different verticals and my belief then was as it is now: seeing a breadth of industries and different technologies helps good technology people adapt. So be it consumer packaged goods, banking or telco, I believe they all form the basis of your knowledge as you learn different things from different industries. It also helped being able to challenge what some people may view as sacred cows. Challenging that over the years has brought a broad view of different technologies. It’s important you understand the industry you’re in to service your customers. But challenging some of those holy grails does yield some interesting new outcomes.

CIO, Diversity and Inclusion, Innovation, IT Leadership, Startups

André Allen, Vice President Information Technology at MaRS Discovery District, Chief Privacy Officer & Chief Information Security Officer discusses building innovation and how inclusion is a major part of building teams and sustaining businesses.

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CIO, CIO Leadership Live

Since its beginnings in 1914 to what it is now as a global consultancy firm with nearly 30,000 employees,  Booz Allen Hamilton has been able to evolve through the ages by helping to redefine the industry through advancements in technology and sourcing the right talent. Brad Stone, who has been with the company for over 25 years but recently became its CIO in 2021, had deep knowledge of the brand, its structure and ambitions, but understood that in his new role, there was a lot to learn, especially where improvements could be made.

“It was interesting joining this team and becoming the CIO at an organization that I knew well,” he says. “But what I did see despite the tremendous talent was that service delivery was often fractured and not fully integrated to a set of outcomes, and at times driven by different corporate priorities that were all important, but not seamless against an integrated outcome. So we had great parts, but our sum was not greater than our parts.”

From this staring point, Stone hit the reset button, mapping out five core organizational principles that have accelerated growth and helped strengthen the business. Ongoing and unpredictable disruption also led to a focus on simplification with staff and customers, and has changed the way the IT team thinks about strategy and taking informed risks, with a focus on a DevSecOps lifecycle, for example, to pipeline things and get aligned to improve accountability and transparency.

“We defined a clearly set service catalog against an ITIL framework, and were able to set portfolio leads around the capabilities we’ve developed,” he says. “What it enabled us to do is get more of a centralized purpose to accelerate growth and enable business success, which ties back to the idea of attracting staff and giving them some autonomy or ownership while still being part of the greater good. You change the world one individual at a time, and the way we’ve organized it, I’ve seen that cultural feel.”

Stone recently spoke at a recent summit on Leading in Disruptive Times with Julia King, contributing editor at CIO, about key leadership methods to fuel success, and how being “client zero” has enabled Booz Allen to inspire and retain talent while continuously learning and embracing technology to build trusted relationships.

Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On 5 organizational principles: It starts at the top with operational excellence—actually living it, not just saying it. So that’s accountability of what the metrics are, how the company is faring and celebrating overcoming hardships, like decommissioning something. I love to clean stuff up and when we turn off a service to simplify it, we make the other services we provide even better. Second, there’s having a resilient enterprise that is risk-informed. We have to recognize that things will go bad, and it’s about our ability to recover those. The third one ties back to providing innovative service and solutions to our users. If you don’t, people will find it for themselves and run it in your shadows. The fourth is about being a data-driven organization. We need to make sure we have a single source of truth across organizations. We have multiple platforms to run our business and to perform that, we need to not only have that central source of truth, but it needs to be future-proofed to scale with our organization. And the last one is we want to attract staff. We’re lucky to attract and retain some of the best in the industry, and we set the goal of being a premier organization for IT and cybersecurity professionals. So what we do across all five of these is hold ourselves accountable to them, drive metrics against them, and define critical success factors, and, again, celebrate it and tackle areas we need to improve.

On handling disruption: Disruption provides a lot of opportunities to rethink why we do things and how we do them. We are a professional services organization at our core due to trusted relationships. The pandemic challenged that because we were a culture that wanted to shake hands and let people know in person how we connected with them. And the disruption over the past couple of years has made us have to change that. We’ve had to embrace technology not only as an enabler, but ultimately as a foundation by which we build those trusted relationships. It has challenged us and changed our different clients. Fortunately, our people are unbelievably resilient. The other part is to have a core infrastructure team that can respond. But as we come out of the pandemic, that disruption has to lead to simplification and balancing of what we had with a remote hybrid model for our nearly 30,000 global employees, so it meets their needs. The key is to simplify that down so we can give them something to connect with their fellow employees, our clients, and their communities. If you’re able to identify some archetypes, look for the greatest good, and then handle those exception cases—as what we deem specialized services—it allows us to continue providing foundational services that are important to that connection. But budgets aren’t increasing, so you need to be efficient.

On leadership: Over the past few years, I think any CIO or technology leader has been marked by agility, capacity to learn new things, and taking informed risks, and the pandemic only accentuated those characteristics as a leader. Your ability to adjust to unplanned events, and your capacity to handle different demands has only been magnified through this. But one thing I’ve noticed is the need as a leader to simplify things down, whether that’s with your stakeholders and customers who are leveraging your services, or, most importantly, with your staff. Simplifying it down to them about what we do empowers our business. We’re fortunate to be challenged by our clients to solve complex problems, and running an institution like Booz Allen’s IT and cybersecurity is an amazing mission. So if I can simplify things down for our set of leaders, and then empower them in a culture of accountability, it makes you feel you’re part of a greater good. That’s a big reason why a lot of people join the company as it provides a calling to do something for the nation, community, and the globe. By leading that way and maintaining that agility and capacity, but simplifying down, it can be inspiring to our all our employees.

On innovating the IT culture: In the role before this at Booz Allen, I was in the Innovation Group, leading a lot of our enterprise cybersecurity and IT innovation, so I knew what products and services we had. So one of the first things I did as CIO was make ourselves what we call client zero. We leverage out solutions internally, like with a next-generation data lake that allows us to make data-driven decisions and not just go by the intuition that dominates large corporate cultures. In the nature of professional services, we constantly spin up and spin down new environments, consuming new data for our AI experts to solve, from healthcare missions to NAV security missions. They need an agile set of infrastructure that is able to support that, so we’re able to adopt that ourselves internally as client zero. It saves money and gives a feedback loop where we can rotate staff between our client delivery side and our internal business. I’m proof of that myself as somebody who spent many years doing client delivery, and now I’m enjoying a corporate role.

CIO, Innovation, IT Leadership