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5 insights for IT leaders from Ben Fried

Having worked in the industry for the past three decades and as Google’s CIO for the past nine years, Ben Fried has overseen the transformation of IT over the course of computing’s most disruptive decades. What insights would he pass on to other CIOs? Here are just a few:

Ben Fried, Google CIO

Embrace new technologies and resist fearing them.

In the years since Fried came to Google, technology has changed dramatically and at an increasingly accelerating pace. Part of Fried’s success was rooted in an active curiosity about new technologies and actively adjudicating how those new technologies impact his core mission. “You have to relentlessly dedicate yourself to keeping up with an industry that’s always changing,” Fried says. “Don’t expect the pace of change to slow down.”

The most exciting new technology in Fried’s mind: machine learning.

Traditionally Machine Learning has been thought of as an exciting user-facing technology but it is also putting the IT department front and center as a leader within the business. By automating mundane, seemingly insignificant tasks, it enables employees to focus on creating real value. The end result isn’t just operational efficiency; it’s also a more engaged, more innovative workforce. “I have teams finding places where machine learning can solve problems that we didn’t think computers could solve,” he says. “That’s really exciting. I didn’t even think these sorts of things were remotely possible a decade ago.”

Position your organization’s business to grow without penalty.

“One of the really basic things I used to worry about at prior jobs was, what if we build something and it’s a runaway success?” Fried says. “With the cloud, you never have to worry about that again. If the experiment goes well, you’ll have the capacity to handle it, and if it doesn’t, you only pay for what you use. That’s a big mind shift that lets entire IT departments think about their jobs in very different ways and be much more experimental.”

Focus on collaboration to multiply your value.

When asked about his 10-year BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal), Fried is quick to respond: Make it easy for people to collaborate. “It’s the root of every other problem,” says Fried. “Collaboration makes every other problem easier to solve.” With the videoconferencing project his team undertook, Fried saw firsthand what seamless collaboration could achieve. “Businesses that take advantage of these opportunities early will be able to move much, much faster.”

Transform the perception of IT from a necessary evil to an agent of change.

“Tech support is typically the thing that jokes are made of,” he says. “Often, when people complain about corporate bureaucracy, they’ll tell you a story about the IT helpdesk.” Drawing on his own experience running tech support Fried set out to change that perception — to make tech support the gold standard of cutting-edge technology combined with stellar customer service. He started with the view that tech support was the front line in helping users understand new or unfamiliar technology. Instead of troubleshooters, helpdesk staffers should be engineers and teachers. It may seem like a small thing, but in Fried’s view, this fundamental shift in the relationship between IT and the rest of the business is what creates the space and trust for IT to be a true change agent. Says Fried: “It’s a completely different dynamic that can move the organization forward much faster.”

Interviewed by Alexa Schirtzinger