Another day, another fire | Straight Talk

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How one CIO has adapted to a year of violent extremes. 

By Scott Hicar, Vice President of Business Process and Chief Information Officer, Benchmark Electronics 

Colorado had a bad fire season this year, so bad that the town where I live was under an evacuation warning for about a week. It’s a surreal experience to see the glow of the fire at night coming over the hill, to watch DC-9s flying by at eye level, dropping fire retardant to protect your town. 

As a technology person, I found it incredible to see the Facebook sites that popped up during each fire, and watch how that technology became a way to connect with people when everybody was worried about their safety, their home, their friends, and their community.  

High-tech firefighting 

It occurs to me now that being in IT in 2020 has been a little like fighting those fires in the Rockies: You have to make decisions in light of rapidly evolving circumstances and with incomplete information, and then apply technology to mitigate the damage caused by all the COVID wildfires. 

Last March, the challenge seemed overwhelming. Benchmark is a $2 billion high-tech contract manufacturer with facilities and customers all over the world. Suddenly, we saw countries locking down, ports closing, and shipping and airlines shutting down – all disruptions that have an effect on the services we provide our customers, whether we are managing their supply chains or getting parts to our factories so we can build their products.  

But then you find new ways to work, new ways to apply the tools. For instance, we just implemented a big ERP upgrade of one our factories in Mexico, and we did the whole thing virtually. A year ago, I would never have thought that was something we could accomplish, but thanks to our team’s creative leadership, somehow we got the job done. 

That is not an isolated case. We have upgraded our factories, networks, and infrastructure all over the world this year, including facilities with hundreds or even thousands of connected devices. Normally, we would have flown teams in to do a lot of this work, but this year, we managed to do it with minimal onsite activity.     

Moving upstream 

This emergency also intensified our other challenges. Our industry’s genesis was manufacturing other customers’ products. Companies looked to us to make their product more efficiently and manage the processes of their product demand and supply  so they could focus on their core competencies. Now that technology is so pervasive, however, it’s not so easy to outsource products as it used to be. With the implementation of 5G and IOT, huge amounts of technology are being put into every product; whether it’s automobiles or your home thermostat, every device has another level of technology, another level of interconnectivity, and the complexities of all those connections continue to expand.   

As a result, many of our clients are looking for a service partner that can also help them further upstream. They want our advice on many different issues – for example, how to design a better product, get their product to market faster, design test processes to make sure they are selling only high-quality products, avoid being hurt by geopolitical instability, and reduce their supply chain risks.  

Internally, too, things have changed a lot this year. At least two-thirds of Benchmark’s corporate IT employees work remotely now, the reverse of the situation pre-pandemic, and I don’t think we will ever fully go back. For some people, this will be great – they will be able to sit at home in their shorts and do their job. Others will miss the camaraderie of being in a physical location with people. But I know for IT, it has turned out to be more productive for all of us to be working digitally. 

The remote working life hasn’t been an entirely easy adjustment for most of us. It’s sometimes hard to tell when it’s Friday and when it’s Saturday, and when the shift starts and when the shift ends. You can always sit there and think, I’ll clear my email and messages  out, even if it’s 9:30 on a Saturday night, because you feel like it’s a good time to do it.  Not surprisingly, if they put in hours like this over a long period, people get fatigued.  They lose some of their passion because work becomes a grind. 

Visiting the hunker-bunker 

One incredible upside is being able to get this little window into people’s personal lives. You can look at it as frustrating and counterproductive. Or, you can say, “You know what? This is the reality, so let’s enjoy it. Take a little bit of time to go, ‘Wow, yeah, that is a barky dog. You might get the barkiest dog award for the year.’” Let’s enjoy the fact that everybody’s hunker-bunker is a little different and really celebrate our wins despite that.  

For a CIO, I think it’s an important moment to reach out to your employees. Engage a little bit more in their personal lives. Ask them what helps recharge their batteries. Whatever that is, you’ve got to encourage it, so that they don’t just run dry.  Working from home is great when it’s optional but it’s a hard way to work all the time. Nothing is fun when it’s mandatory. 

Despite the months of firefighting, though, my job hasn’t changed that much. I think the CIO has always been a change agent, and it’s no different now. Our job is still to bring new technology to light and facilitate change. What is different is that the velocity of change and the depth and breadth of the technology we oversee as it continues to expand.   

Even forgetting the challenges raised by the pandemic, the job requires faster response times than it once did. You can’t predict tomorrow as well as you would like. Instead, you need more nimbleness, flexibility, consistent communication, and fast decision-making. Finally, you need to be able to recognize when the winds have shifted and “the fire” your client is facing is now heading in a different direction. When that happens, take a breather, possibly adjust some decisions you made earlier – and get ready for the next blaze.  

The Takeaways 

Contract manufacturing is migrating up the value chain.

Technology is now so enmeshed in most products and processes that you need manufacturing partners that can handle a broader range of services and technical complexity.    

Remote workers need more emotional support than office workers because it’s easy for them to burn out.