SFU Graduate: Tim Fernihough

CIOCAN-SFU Leadership Graduate 2015:

What He Learned; How His Organization Benefited

Tim Fernihough: IT Director and Co-founder at Myplanet (Toronto)

From Software Developer to IT Leader: Change the Focus; Build the Peer Network

Tim-Fernihough-dHow did you first find out about the LDP program? How did you get started?
Although I am the top IT decision-maker in my small company (75 staff), I lacked experience and had no mentor. I co-founded Myplanet as a developer and a project manager six years ago, and with the growth of the company, the need increased for me to take on a broader leadership role. My CEO recently challenged me to make IT more strategic, and I went searching online for exactly what I needed to know to do that. I was looking for a program that was immediately relevant and applicable to the challenges I face. My colleague had recently taken the CTO leadership course through Stanford University, but even that wasn’t what I needed – and besides it was $12,000 US and had a US focus.

I wanted not only good course content – I was very interested in developing a close network of peers so that I would have ongoing guidance in the industry from people who wouldn’t see it as a chore to give me feedback on my thoughts.

When I read the overview of the CIOCAN-SFU program, I instantly felt compelled to submit an application and was actually worried initially that I might not make the cut. Fortunately, they felt that I was a great candidate for the program and I was accepted.

What were your initial impressions of the program once you’d begun?
At first I was afraid I’d be the least experienced in the group and wouldn’t be able to contribute as much as I was absorbing from others. I felt that I might be out of my league – I was the youngest in the course by at least 5 years and from the smallest company. However by the end of the course, I felt that I was able to provide equal value to my peers.

The format of the program and the small class size made it easy to become comfortable quickly and I was telling my CTO and CEO after only one day how happy I was that I had signed up.

How would you rate the quality of instruction?
In general, I was very pleased with the quality of instruction. I felt some sessions were better run than others but the variety of material, the people who taught them and the level of interaction was great. We had a good balance of conventional lectures combined with group work and presentations to ensure that we actually retained the information and were able to put it into practice. All the instructors were personable and they took great pains to ensure that the material being delivered was relevant and contextualized for the range of people’s experience.

What were highlights of the program for you?
First, I felt that it helped me start looking through different lenses at my problems. This sounds simple but it was in fact very impactful for me because I hadn’t been putting the business first in my attempts to build the IT organization. I had always just been doing the best I could to keep a clean house in IT and my senior leadership was just happy that it was receiving my diligence.

Second, all of the instructors (and my fellow classmates for that matter) gave me opportunities to articulate the struggles I was having, and they gave me the benefit of their collective experience in how to handle them. Since there were people from many different industries and experience levels, I walked away with some really relevant guidance that I could use to form good business decisions. It wasn’t just advice coming from someone running a company 200x the size of mine.

Finally, I really enjoyed the panel discussion that was hosted after one of the instruction days. We were introduced to CIOs in local industry and had an opportunity to ask questions as well as socialize afterwards. It really helped remind me that even though I might be stressed out trying to figure out how to solve my organizational problems, that I’m not alone and there are others who have been there.

Can you tell us a bit about your Capstone project? How you chose it and got it organized?
My Capstone project was focused on ensuring proper alignment between business and IT. Fortunately, I had no issue with gaining buy-in from my senior leadership – they had already asked me to consider how I might make IT more strategic. We are a web and mobile development company and we already understand how integral IT is to the success of our business.

In my Capstone project, I worked out how to apply fundamental alignment mechanisms so that I could build an effective IT Roadmap. I needed to conduct various exercises to ensure that the priorities of IT were aligned with the business goals. In fact, I had started putting together an IT Roadmap some months before. I learned that I was doing it backwards – I was looking at IT first and business second. Now I’ve got it straight, I’ve completely changed the roadmap, and it’s made decision-making so much more straightforward.

What was the impact on the company? Did it change your role in the organization at all?
The leadership team at Myplanet has been simply thrilled that I’ve taken the initiative to bring sound IT strategies and practices to the company as it grows. Because of the organic and grass roots way that I arrived in my role, I never had a need to think outside of my own lens before. Now, I regularly put on the lenses of the various stakeholders, and I have a much better sense of how to help move the business forward.

How do you use the things you learned from the program on a day-to-day basis?
Besides the fact that I am now constantly trying to look at everything through multiple lenses, I am now thinking business first every time. This takes practice.

I learned that I needed some help with the KTLO (Keeping the Lights On) functions in order to free up some time for the strategic portion of IT. I knew how to make the business case for that. I actually ended up hiring someone with twenty years more IT experience than I have, and I have the confidence to be his boss.

How has your perspective on IT leadership changed?
I have always felt that leadership in general is far more than just the depth of your skillset or your technical competence. Leadership is communication, empathy, integrity, accountability and a whole host of other things besides. I didn’t come to the LDP program specifically to learn about those things, but the experience certainly confirmed that for me – gave me a deeper understanding of how that works.

My outlook on IT Leadership has changed in the sense that I now know about some of the avenues available to me when I, as the IT Leader in my organization, don’t know how to proceed. I feel much better equipped to handle the growth of my organization because I am thinking like a business person first, and a tech guy second. This ensures that there is trust, understanding and mutual respect with the senior leadership team. It doesn’t mean I always have to compromise on technical solutions. It’s simply making sure I’m speaking the right language.

Would you recommend this program to others?
Absolutely. To me, taking this program is a no brainer for anyone in Canada looking to build their skills and knowledge or confidence level for IT leadership roles. I felt that the program was extremely well run, and the price was far less than I’d have been willing to pay. The network of peers that develops during the course, and the more senior network that comes with being an associate member in the CIO Association (which means I get to attend CIOCAN association events) are absolutely invaluable.

Any last thoughts?
I now feel like I have the access I need to IT mentorship, but I also feel that I’m capable of providing insights to others. I no longer feel out of my league – I’m equipped to move forward.