The Path to CIO: Hard Hats, Muddy Boots and Technology

“When I grow up, I want to be a CIO”, said no child...ever! Fireman, policeman, doctor, just about anything...but not CIO! Jason Burns dreamed of being a fighter pilot, to join the likes of Goose and Maverick and the Ice Man. His head was filled with the images of racing across the skies protecting the country he loves. Jason’s Path to CIO takes him from dreaming of the jet stream, to moving tons of earth, and finally, on to the world of IT.

Path to CIOI was recently introduced to Jason by Isaac Sacolick (“The Path to CIO: The Building Blocks of a CIO”). After reading a few of Jason’s posts, I realized he has a passion and a vision for using technology to change his industry. I could not wait to sit down with him and learn how this native Pittsburgher turned New Yorker has developed his career and his leadership style to become one of the leading voices in technology for the construction industry.

Jeff: So, Jason, from Top Gun to “top techie”, how did that happen?

Jason: (chuckles) Well, my dreams of being a fighter pilot were dashed in the third grade when we learned I was color blind. I knew then flying an F-15 Strike Eagle, an F-16 or an F-20 Tigershark was never going to happen! You might say, my goals became a little more down to earth.

My dad was a contractor. As I got older, he began to take me with him to job sites. I can remember sitting on top of an excavator at the age of 12 and breaking fresh ground to dig a foundation and thinking, “Ooooh, I really like this, this is really cool!”

Jeff:  Somehow I can hear Tim Allen grunting right about now! I get it, what 12 year old boy doesn’t like playing in the dirt!

Jason: My dad loved construction, but he also loved computers. I think he gave me my first computer when I was four. He always told me, “to be successful in the future you will have to how these things work.” Man, was he right!

My first computer was a Tandy “CoCo”, then a Commodore 64, and when I was six an Epson Equity, I think it was called. By the time I was 10, I could program in two languages. In high school, I took as many programming classes as I could. However, when it was time for college, I decided to go into accounting. I was really good with numbers and it seemed as if I wanted to continue on as a programmer, I would have to keep learning new languages every few years and I wasn’t really interested in the code as much as the technology.

Honestly, looking back on it, I think mine was the coolest age group to be a part of because we grew up with the machines. There was an explosion of technology and we got to live it first hand.

Jeff: Ok, I’m afraid to ask, what is your age group, when were you born?

Jason: ‘78

Jeff: Ugh! Let’s not go there, my oldest son was born in ‘78 as well! You go to school in accounting...what brought you back to computers?

Jason: One of my first jobs was for one of the nation’s largest General Contractors. I was busy working my way up in the accounting department, minding my own business. The company started a project to implement a new ERP System. My boss knew of my love for computers, so he put me on the task force to help with the GL migration.

The consultants were impressed with my work. In fact, so much so, they told some of our board members to “keep on eye on that kid, he has incredible potential” and they did.

A few years later, some of the Senior Management left to start a new construction company, Hunter Roberts. They asked me to come run IT applications for them. I felt like I had hit the trifecta! A new company, IT, and construction, I could not have asked for more!  

Jeff: You had to be in heaven! I remember my first CIO role was for a real estate developer and construction company. Someone gave me the advice of how to succeed, “hard hats and muddy boots”. In other words, you have to get out to the jobsites. You have be close to the action. You will not get any respect if you don’t wear a hardhat and have muddy boots. Once I started, I took that message to heart. You already had that respect. You grew up in “hardhats and muddy boots”!

When you made the move to Hunter Roberts, did you take on the role of CIO?

Jason: That actually came a few years later. I joined Hunter in 2005. At the time I reported to the CFO. The company was growing rapidly. I met with the CFO and proposed some changes that I thought would help us to better leverage technology. As you know, construction technology was beginning to explode...BIM, intelligent buildings...everything! He told me to “put it in an org chart” and that was when I assumed my new role.

I didn’t realize it, but this is what I was born to do! I love the constant challenges, the “fidgety-business” of running IT for a construction company. IT is like a war-zone. You have to see things coming at you from all angles.

I began to realize, a good CIO is incredibly valuable because he or she touches everything. I think this really hit me, when the CEO began to come to me understanding of behavioral impact to changes, looking to me to predict how people would react to a given situation and asking about different areas of expertise within the organization as a sounding board.

Jeff: As you began this transition, was there a person who influenced you andPath to CIO helped you become the leader you are today?

Jason: Tony, without a doubt, Tony. He was the CFO at the time for Hunter Roberts. He had decades of experience in construction and himself was a CIO before turning CFO in the early 90’s. He really, through example and mentoring, taught me and others how to effectively run a company. He guided me and my leadership style. In many ways, he still guides my leadership style.

Isaac is another person who really influenced me. I consider him a trusted advisor and mentor. One of the lessons he taught me was to seek out professional peer groups. Given the nature of being a CIO, no one within your company really can understand the challenges and issues facing you.

Jeff: What advice can you give to that young man, or young woman who aspires to be a CIO today...or five years from now?

Jason: That is a great question. The challenges facing CIOs are often very similar, but they can also be very different, based on the industry. They can have different things to tackle. But there are some common threads.

I think they have to have strong understanding of IT Processes and Controls; Agile development and DevOps are important, too. It is also important to know how to lead groups that are dispersed across time zones and companies.

There are so many angles: mobile workforce, always-connected-always-on consumerization of IT, and of course security, security, security.

Speaking of security, there is so much being written today about the CMO and the CIO relationship, encouraging the CIO to focus on developing the relationship. I think even more important for the CIO today, and in the foreseeable future, is building a relationship with Legal and Compliance. I spend far more time working with those areas than I would have ever been able to predict a few years ago. I don’t know why more people are not writing about THAT.

Security in the construction industry is a significant concern. We not only store traditional 2-D drawings but 3-D renderings of our buildings as well, not only are all these files huge, but they must be secured for any number of reasons with dozens of outside partners needing access for collaboration. Combine that with the amount of emails, and general construction correspondence you have a mountain of data for every project...and given the life of a building, you have to keep the data forever!

All of this becomes the CIOs problem and if there is a breach he or she takes the hit. Now with the growth of ransomware and even newer threats, it stinks, but companies get attached all. the. time! What is it? 12% of all email traffic is legit? Good CIOs lose their jobs even when the attacks are outside of their control.

OK, sorry for the rabbit hole...let’s get back to my advice (laughing). I’d say one of the most valuable skills a CIO must have or develop is relationship management. We are the tie the binds the organization together. Everyone comes to the CIO with the challenges. The CIO must maintain strong relationships across the organization to maintain that communication. They (CIO) will be able to spot related issues, and sometimes even the cause and effect for cross-departmental issues that have nothing to do with technology. Lastly, you have to have the ability to subtly influence people and direction as it can be difficult to accept the “IT Guy” recognizing business problems.

Jeff: I read an article you wrote for CIO Review, “The Role of Technology in 21st Century Construction”. First of all, let me say, it was a great article and I think one that resonates with CIOs even outside the construction industry. My question though is more general. A lot of CIOs are hesitant to put themselves out there like that by giving interviews, writing articles, blogging or using other social media channels. Why do you do it? Why do you put yourself out there?

Jason: I want to change the industry. I want to change construction. Look around us, technology in the construction industry is evolving rapidly. 3G, 4G, iPads, Building Information Modeling, 3D Printing, handheld Lidar renderings...all in the span of a single decade.

On top of the communication and technology explosion that construction has been able to harness, our labor force is dwindling. A large generation of craftspeople are retiring, not many newbies coming on board to fill their space. Construction is ripe for leveraging technology to build more efficiently, build with better quality, build more safely (and build safer and more advanced buildings) ...our challenge is not the technology it is implementing it without adding to the overall cost of a project to an entire team of companies you have no control of.

I want to share insights to make it better, I want to be a part of what drives us forward. Remember, most buildings are built from the “low cost” bids. The only way to make that work is to get everyone involved at the beginning, using technology.

I would love to be able to post once a month...that’s my goal for 2017.

Another reason for wanting to write, network and use social media, is that most people inside construction companies don’t really want to talk about technology. You often have to go outside your organization to other peer groups for those discussions in order to bring back real insight to speak to project staff.

One of my favorite gatherings is a group of industry CIOs. We get together for two days. There is NO agenda. The first session, we put topics on the board. THAT becomes our agenda. It is powerful!

Technology moves so fast. A single person can NOT keep up with all of it. If we are not talking, if we are not sharing, we won’t be in the know and we will be missing things. We could miss the next great idea because we had tunnel vision of our own organization and even our own industry.

Jeff: Jason, your passion and excitement come through! I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you, today. Thank you!

Jason Burns, CIO, leader, technologist, transformer. His Path to CIO took several turns, but when you think about it, his passion, born at such an early age, got him as close as any so far to dreaming of being a CIO. As he put it in his own words, he was born to do this job. Connect with him on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter. You will learn a lot, I guarantee it!

The series, “The Path CIO” explores the careers of CIOs from around the globe in a variety of industries. Each month we will feature the story of their journeys and answer the question, “How DID you become a CIO?” (If you have held the role of CIO and are interested in telling your story, please reach out to me via the links in my profile!)

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Jeff Ton

About Jeff Ton

Throughout his career in business, Jeffrey Ton has developed and fine tuned his leadership skills to become a business focused leader who drives results. Extending the role of the CIO to encompass a strategic view of the business, he identifies innovative approaches to achieve the business objectives by leveraging technology where and when appropriate. Adept at building and leading teams, both in-line and cross-organizational, he has been a catalyst for change across the businesses he has served. Ton has industry expertise in information technology, non-profits, commercial real estate development, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, supply chain, green/clean technologies, finance, insurance and consulting. Expertise: • Strategic Planning – Business & Technology • Organization & Management Reengineering • Merger & Acquisition Integration • Divestiture Decoupling • Business & IT Alignment • Enterprise Architecture Strategy • C-level Relationships • International Staff Management & Acquisition • Global Enterprise Implementations • Fiscal Management • Governance & Risk Management • Business Process Optimization • Vendor Relationship Management • Outsourcing(Offshore/Near-shore) & In-sourcing • Technology Portfolio Management • Regulatory and Compliance Management • P&L Management Specialties: Architecture, infrastructure, applications, application development, telecom, e-Business strategy, web development, knowledge management, integration, EDI, SAP, business intelligence, outsourcing, insourcing, contract negotiation, commercial real estate development, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, supply chain, green/clean technologies, finance, insurance and consulting, keynote speaker on leadership, green and other topics, LEED AP BD+C. Read his blog on RiversofThought.net, Intel's IT Peer Network and LinkedIn.