For our My CIO Career series, Allen, senior vice president and CTO at Unisys, asserts that even the most dramatic tech advances are effective when anchored by business needs—a key lesson he’s learned in his multi-industry IT career.
Dwayne L. Allen joined Unisys in 2021 as senior vice president and CTO, contributing to and supporting company strategy. To do that, Allen draws on his prior experience in various technology leadership roles, including that of CIO. Here he shares his thoughts about building a career, relationships and a great team.
Mary K. Pratt: What’s dominating your agenda today?
Dwayne L. Allen: The big thing I’m focusing on now is our approach to AI and specifically generative AI. The CEO has assigned me to help orchestrate our enterprise game plan, partnering with my leadership colleagues. I’ve also reorganized our Office of the CTO to be focused more overtly focused on generative AI and how we cross-pollinate that intelligence across the entire company.
What’s the power play with GenAI?
It’s one of the most ubiquitous technologies with the greatest impact that has been introduced in quite some time. It presents a tremendous opportunity for adoption, expansion, and breakthroughs. The intelligence you can put on top of code and data to then have it learn and generate new ideas, thoughts and outcomes presents a tremendous opportunity. The big fear out there is disruption or getting rid of jobs, but an overlooked aspect is the opportunity to increase productivity and output for people in the jobs. It can help you do more things and differently. It can help you solve problems. It can do additional thinking for you. You can use it to generate new outcomes, which is what we’ve been starting on. I don’t think there’s a limit to the opportunities.
What’s your strategy for identifying those opportunities?
The key is the approach. To be honest, it’s more about business than the technology. While everyone’s talking about generative AI, the technology, we can’t lose focus on asking, “What’s the business problem we want to solve?” Do you want to find more customers? Do you want to increase sales? Do you want to reduce costs? Increase efficiency? Effectiveness? What are those ambitions? Once that is understood, the key is to then to apply the power of technology tools like AI to achieve the desired results.
What downsides concern you – and how do you manage them?
I think the downside is part of the pro, which is it could be so widely used and accessed; in some aspects you just need an ID to access it, and you don’t need a whole lot of training to get going. So you’ve got to stay closely tied with security, set boundaries and continue to monitor them. You need to be sure to protect the things you want to protect, and only share the things you want to share. The wide use and availability results in the other concern, unethical use. Regardless of intent, the most powerful technology in the wrong hands with malicious intent is a risk. That’s part of the creative tension of innovation.
“Creative tension of innovation” – what do you mean by that?
You have to push for progress while balancing risk and caution, it’s never easy. It’s sometimes tough when you’re introducing something new – and it doesn’t matter the environment. If you’re in an environment that’s been kind of stable and conservative, introducing something new is always a little tricky. If you’re in this creative environment, then how do you get your idea to even stand out? Thus, that push creates tension that is healthy, it’s just not always comfortable.
How do you solve for that tension?
Get invested in how the innovation aligns with the business problem and then solve the business problem. Ultimately, to do so you’ve got to also speak the language of the business. That helps you, and not just with innovation. It helps even when introducing a new system or an upgrade.
I once presented this idea for a big upgrade and it fell flat because all I talked about was the system, updated releases and supportability. I wasn’t speaking about the things that get the business excited. Then a year later I partnered with the head of manufacturing, and it was presented as a manufacturing transformation initiative and it got accepted, and it essentially required the same technical steps mentioned a year earlier. The challenge for us technologists, as we get so excited about the actual technology, is to remember that the business gets excited about what it can do for them.
You were a global digital strategist at Microsoft before joining Unisys. What did that role entail?
It entailed working with some of their largest global clients to help them reimagine their future through digital transformation and innovation primarily through the cloud. [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella had met with CEOs and realized they were all struggling with digital transformation. As a result, this group was created as a boutique mini-consulting group inside Microsoft. I supported a variety of industries doing some amazing initiatives, including probably some of the most honorable work I’ll ever do. I was working with pharma companies during Covid as they were developing algorithms to do advance testing as they were working to develop a vaccine.
CIOs often talk about the importance of knowing their industries, and many focus on building careers in a specific sector. You worked in multiple industries. Is one approach better than the other?
It depends on the individual but I have always viewed it as a valuable learning experience and asset. Some people have a preference for being a deep domain expert in an industry. I’ve been in four industries now and I found the change and growth tremendously advantageous. But it’s not for everyone because it takes effort to do that, but it energizes me.
What does it take?
You have to love learning and have the aptitude to learn something different. I find it fascinating to go learn a new industry. It takes some humility also. If you’ve been in an industry for 14 or 15 years, you tend to become somewhat of an expert. But then you move to a new industry where you’ve got a lot of expertise in terms of your function like IT but you might not have as much domain experience. So you have to quickly figure out what translates from your previous industry and what do you need to learn. That’s where it takes humility, which also builds credibility with new team members or colleagues.
You’ve said that you don’t think there’s a greater profession than IT. Why?
You have to work with everyone; it’s the connective tissue for most companies. And it is the fabric behind everything. And when you add the aspect of insight form out IT supports so many processes, functions, business, companies and regions around the world. It thinks it’s always an exciting place to be.
What are your strategies for maximizing and selling the power of IT?
To really sell your ideas, you need deeper insight and more intel. And that’s going to come primarily through relationships. With one of the projects I have now, I met with our head of global client management and she pulled in her regional leaders. We were brainstorming some things that I might have missed without that perspective from the regional leaders. Now if I didn’t have a good relationship with her, as the head of global client management, she might have answered my question as a teammate but she may not have taken the extra step of pulling in her team. And that was an important gesture, and I’m quite appreciative of it, because it’s helping me to refine my strategy with a deeper understanding of client needs around the world.
You also promote the importance of team-building.
While information technology is our profession, we’re still in the people business. You’ve got to have a team that believes in you and instill enough confidence in them that they’ll want to deliver. You’ve got to build an environment where they can thrive, and you’ve got to help develop them. This is an often-overlooked aspect of leadership in our field right now. Organizations go into a new area and leadership thinks, “I’m not sure this person fits the bill,” so they’re out there recruiting in a hot market where talent is rare and salary expectations are high, and they’re missing this opportunity to cultivate and develop the talent they’ve already got in-house. And there’s a reward in doing that: a great team. I’m fortunate I have a great team. It’s because they’re great that I get to do other things. If my team’s falling apart, if there’s a bunch of fires in my department, the CEO may not feel comfortable asking me to engage in other things.