7 Recommendations to Recession-Proof and Focus Your Digital Transformation

Are we in a recession or a correction? Anthony Juliano is the CTO and General Partner at Landmark Ventures, and we debated this question a few weeks ago. Every week, new economic data supports the recession argument, while other data provides evidence that we’re not heading in that direction.

CIO and IT leaders have a choice: Either wait 6-10 months for the data and economists to form a conclusion or adjust plans to address the possibility of a financial downturn.

Recession? Correction? -> Digital Transformation

Several technology executives weighed in on this article on their ideas, practices, and technologies to help recession-proof your digital transformation.  

1.      Prioritize your digital transformation roadmap

Are you going into 2023 budgets with the same strategies and roadmap you developed earlier this year? Perhaps it requires some rethinking, and I received two perspectives on where to focus.  

Rajeev Kumar, CRO at SirionLabs, says, “Business leaders should prioritize digital transformation initiatives that will help conserve cash, reduce uncertainty, accelerate sales, and mitigate enterprise risks.”

One person to partner with is the CFO, who should be more open to workflow technologies now that in the past. Kumar continues, “For CFOs who are laser-focused on the bottom-line during downturns, a contract lifecycle management (CLM) system offers a single source of truth on both incoming revenue and outgoing expenses.”

My perspective: Look at your roadmap through the lens of your customers and business stakeholders. Some will be more open to investment during a recession, especially if budget squeezing forces them to consider new technologies and ways of working.

2.      Focus on the customer and value proposition

The second perspective comes from David Robinson, Director of Data Science at Heap. “Demonstrate real value,” he says. “The best way to protect your product during ruthless budget management is to ensure customers understand the value you provide.”

Robinson also suggests that businesses enable their customers to try out products. “Lean into self-serve,” he says. “More and more customers would rather research and try out a product themselves than engage in a lengthy sales cycle.”

My perspective: I said in a recent tweet and blog post, “Don’t slow down. Speed up in the areas that matter.” For many organizations, that should require both productivity and customer-facing initiatives but requires better focus on delivering short and mid-term business value.  

3.      Increase experimentation and analytics on customer-facing initiatives

So don’t stop investing in customer-facing and growth initiatives, but do increase data-driven experiments and feedback processes.

Che Sharma, CEO and co-founder at Eppo, recommends, “Do implement high-quality A/B experimentation as part of your feature development process. Experimentation is the only way to tie feature releases to business metrics, like revenue and retention, instead of click metrics, which is crucial during a recession.”

My perspective: Speeding up doesn’t mean losing control. Experimentation is key during volatile market conditions and when it’s hard to predict customer buying behaviors.

4.      Optimize your multicloud architectures to reduce spend

Shifting gears to IT, I sought insights on how IT leaders should reconsider cloud, infrastructure, and hybrid work tech strategies. Here are two recommendations.

David Williams, SVP of market strategy at Quali, says, “Reining in the complexity of cloud infrastructure is a major challenge for businesses during a recession, but it’s crucial.”

Even if we’re not in a true recession, Williams recommends, “Don’t wait until a recession hits to start trying to understand infrastructure costs and the business context around them.”

Arthur Lozinski, co-founder and CEO of Oomnitza, adds, “Effective enterprise technology management (ETM) is key to firms’ well-being of their IT infrastructure as we move toward economic uncertainty while dealing with a hybrid or remote work environment.”

My perspective: Rate your IT financial management practices. During growth periods, it’s easy to add infrastructure with fewer financial scrutinies. In addition to reducing costs, look for ways to add financial and cost management practices to cloud, hybrid working, and DevOps technologies.

5.      Consolidate to standard DevOps tools and practices

And what about DevOps? Can we still support DevOps teams having significant autonomy to select their own tools? It may be a good time to take stock, regroup, and asses opportunities to create standards.

“During times of prosperity, developers have more freedom of choice in the tools they use, which creates greater complexity in their toolchains and processes,” says Williams. “When businesses feel more urgency around costs and metrics, it becomes very difficult to manage costs because they can’t prioritize which projects, tools or skill sets are essential.”

What’s William’s recommendation? He says, “Do standardize tools and processes as best as possible to understand the business value they provide.“

My perspective: Setting team-driven standards is a best agile way of working practice whether you’re facing a recession or during growth. Picking tools like kids in the candy store often leads to mounds of technical debt cavities.  

6.      Improve employee experiences and productivity

Shifting gears – what about employee experiences? The first perspective I share is specific to Industrial 4.0 and manufacturing, while the second can be applied to just about all organizations.

Arjun Chandar, CEO at IndustrialML, says, “A key way to recession-proof your digital transformation program is to develop tools that don’t depend on any particular worker or machine. Develop tools which can be flexible even if you downsize, use backup equipment, or bring in inexperienced workers or temps.”

Mihir Shukla, CEO at Automation Anywhere, says, “We’re seeing things we never thought we would experience in our lifetime – and that’s forcing companies to rapidly adapt and understand how to remain agile for unexpected events.” He continues, “Organizations are dramatically increasing budgets to support new automation initiatives.”

My perspective: One way to ramp up during a recession is by investing in citizen data science programs and low-code / no-code platforms. Both approaches, especially when deployed with a citizen governance model, can enthuse and empower employees even during a downturn.

7.      Develop your digital transformation leaders

One final recommendation. While you must focus on the economy and how that impacts your digital transformation strategy and roadmap, don’t lose sight of your leaders, teams, and people who drive transformation. Digital Trailblazers can help you accelerate digital transformation efforts, especially during periods of uncertainty. Developing them now is one way to retain the key people who buy into the business’s mission and the vision behind the transformation.   

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Real Stories from Digital Trailblazers: Nonprofit and Manufacturing CIO

Earlier this summer, I rebranded my YouTube channel from 5 Minutes with @NYIke to the Driving Digital Standup

The change reflects a broader mission that includes sharing insights from CIOs, CDOs, and other digital transformation leaders. The Real Stories from Digital Trailblazers will supplement my Driving Digital best practice videos and other formats that I will introduce. You can learn more in the Driving Digital Standup intro video, and please consider subscribing to the channel.

I'm interviewing leaders that exemplify what it means to be a Digital Trailblazer. They are lifelong learners, challenge the status quo, and are collaborative, inclusive, and agile leaders. They are experts in their fields and share both their triumphs and hard lessons learned. I am certain you can learn a lot from them, even if you work in different industries or focus areas.

Digital Trailblazer CIO in Nonprofit and Manufacturing

My first two Digital Trailblazer interviews are with Helen Knight, a nonprofit CIO, and Martin Davis, a manufacturing industry CIO. There's much to learn from them, even if you don't work in these industries.

Using the right tech to drive impact in nonprofits

"When you put in a world-class system, it magnifies the output of the mission," says Helen. She tells the story of how with a $200K IT investment, they were able to raise $5M in new donations. But even more important was the impact on employees. "The social workers suddenly had the funding and the staffing to focus on their area of expertise. They housed 42% more people the following year."

Helen's key message to Digital Trailblazers is, "Senior IT leaders should get involved with nonprofit governance boards. It's great for your career, and you make great contacts. These governance boards for nonprofits, they need technical experts."

Tune into the episodes for more insights!

Jargon-busting industry 4.0 and digital transformation in manufacturing

While it's important to know the latest technology trends and terms, Digital Trailblazers know that their roles are to simplify the jargon and explain how to use specific technologies to business advantage. 

Martin illustrates this in his episode of real stories from Digital Trailblazers, starting with this simple way of defining industry 4.0 and digital transformation in manufacturing. "Industry 4.0 is really about data. And how do you use data to better drive your manufacturing and deliver value through that use of data and automation." 

And then he says, "Digital transformation is about focus on the customer, how you deliver value for the customer, and how does that then drive you to do different things in your business."

While that sounds simple in concept, it's a significant challenge for manufacturers that may be two or three steps removed from their products' end-users. Watch the episode because Martin shares key advice on being customer and data-driven.

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Happy Agile Teams: How to Ask the Right Questions

Here’s a question I think about a lot when leading digital transformations and guiding agile teams.

“How should I think about team happiness? Why and how is team happiness important? How should I determine whether and to what extent the team is happy?” - I ask in Digital Trailblazer

Happy, Trust, Winning Agile Treams

When I hear from CIOs, IT Leaders, and other Digital Trailblazers about the struggles they face retaining talented DevOps engineers, data scientists, and product managers on their teams, I wonder whether and how they gauge their agile teams’ happiness.

Avoid asking open-ended questions

If you ask, “Are you happy?” you’re likely to get a myriad of answers. You’re asking about human emotion, and you’ll get all kinds of responses: the micro (“My commute sucked this morning”), personal issues (“My kids are fighting”), politics, gripes, etc. 

Unfortunately, I’ve seen leaders do just that - ask vague questions and then overreact to the response. I’ll hear, “There’s poor morale in IT, and they’re not happy,” without any context on who, when, and how the question was asked.

What can Digital Trailblazers do to improve team happiness

Instead of asking a completely open-ended question, think about asking more pointed ones, such as:

  • Are you happy with the team’s performance over the last sprint?
  • Are you happy with the hybrid working model and how the team collaborates?
  • Are you happy with the priorities and the tasks you are committing to?

These questions aim to seek people’s emotional responses to a specific context. From there, the Digital Trailblazer should look to find the opportunity or problem and ask a follow-up question, “How can we improve?” 

So you may have a DevOps engineer say, “I am not happy because we’re not prioritizing enough work to reduce technical debt,” then I might respond, “How can we improve this next release? What one improvement would you prioritize?”

This even works if the response is that they are happy. So, for example, say someone answers, “Yes, I am happy with the team’s performance as we increased velocity and received positive feedback on the application’s UX improvements.” I might respond, “That’s great! How can we help other teams improve and experience similar results?”

Happiness comes from showing that you care and helping people see how their work, ideas, and feedback are creating an impact.

Should you use a happiness metric?

It may be tempting in large DevOps organizations to use a happiness metric, and here’s an example implementation. But you can see that the metric requires asking as many as five other contextual questions, which can be time-consuming on a survey. Some have asked whether happiness metrics are logical or laughable, describing them as white whale metrics. Others argue that measuring team morale is more important.

I believe happiness, morale, and trust are all part of winning teams and sustainable digital transformation programs. It’s one reason the leadership responsibilities in StarCIO’s Agile Planning identifies winning teams as a core tenant, giving it equal importance with delivering product roadmaps, technology standards, and reliable releases.

StarCIO Agile Planning

I believe surveying DevOps organizations and agile teams is important and will follow up with another post on what types of questions to ask on them. I’m just not a proponent of measuring and rolling up highly subjective measures based on individuals’ feelings or padding surveys with too many hard-to-answer questions.

To build trust in winning teams, ask people about their feelings in different contexts and discuss what can be improved.

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How Low-code can Energize Digital Transformations During a Recession

It was just over twenty years ago when I was a startup CTO. We spent the late 90s building our platform, customer base, and brand during the internet's growth years. Then in 2000, the dot-com bubble burst. After years of relatively easy funding and a competitive-for-everything environment, we were suddenly conserving cash and looking for efficiencies. 

And so I started looking inward, at how our startup was running internally and seeking ways to use tech and data to improve operations.

low-code - energize people - digital transformation

Finding inefficiencies where there are no apps or SaaS 

I didn't have to look hard. Back then, there were relatively few SaaS apps to fill the gaps between core financial and business systems. If it was core to the business, we were probably configuring it in the ERP or the CRM. If it wasn't, it was probably a patched-together workflow involving office docs and emails. 

Data processing and reporting were worse. If it wasn't a simple, out-of-the-box report, then chances are someone was wrangling data in spreadsheets and sharing bar charts over PowerPoints. A messy cocktail.

I knew tech could help, but there was no way I was going to reallocate Java developers to build internal workflow applications or reporting. We still had customers to serve and our customer-facing applications to enhance. 

Speed and competitiveness did not diminish during the recession that followed the dot-com bubble, but we had to be much more refined about what problems we pursued.

Transforming employee experiences require a low-code tech strategy

Digital Trailblazer by Isaac Sacolick

So I went looking for cheats - how can I build apps, workflows, databases, and reporting without coding? On a lucky Google search, I discovered Quickbase and POCed an app for our sales team. These were my first steps into the low-code and no-code opportunities that have exploded in today's post-pandemic world.

I tell several other low-code and product development stories in my new book, Digital Trailblazer. There are stories on building customer-facing applications, citizen data science programs, and dataops -all using low-code and no-code technologies.

Using low-code tech to speed up during a recession

Today, we're in the early stages of another recession. Maybe - but it sure feels that way. The CIOs I advise and talk to regularly are planning as if the recession is already here. After the pandemic, supply chain issues, and dramatic shifts in customer expectations, smarter and faster CIOs sense the tea leaves and plan ahead for different business scenarios. 

Here's the question, data, and recommendation I shared on LinkedIn this week

Should CIO slow down their digital transformation initiatives?

With 9.1% inflation (WSJ), big tech putting on the hiring freeze (Microsoft, Facebook, Google to name a few), and big drops in startup funding (Q2 funding decreases by 23% QoQ via CBInsights) - CIO will be under pressure to reset their programs.

IMHO, pivot and adjust priorities. Focus efforts. Reset visions and goals. Develop your team and evolve practices. But don't slow down. Speed up in the areas that matter.

While low-code, no-code, citizen development, and citizen data science are used by many CIOs, IT leaders, and Digital Trailblazers, many organizations still have ways to go in making them a pillar of their digital cultures and operating models.

Rolling out low-code requires specialized tech and data leadership skills

Business Teams - 53% on Spreadsheets

I can see some of the challenges from a recent survey I completed during a CIO workshop. When I asked, "How do your business departments typically view data?" and asked respondents to select their top two, their top response was, "Spreadsheets they developed themselves," reported by 53 percent of respondents.

It's a challenge, and in fact, 40 percent of respondents said, "Business leaders just want IT to fix the data" as a top collaboration challenge. When I asked whether CIOs have the tech and data leaders ready to take on roles in citizen data science centers of excellence, the top response reported by 33 percent was that they were lacking these leadership skills.

Attention Digital Trailblazers - and attention to the executives that need Digital Trailblazers to lead transformation initiatives! "Don't slow down. Speed up in the areas that matter!" There's no better time than now to make citizen technologies a transformation force multiplier.

Here's how to start: Find the business workflow gaps that matter and identify leaders that are ready to partner on a rapid implementation. Involve them directly in an agile process to select platforms (if you don't have one already) and iterate on the implementation.


Learn more about StarCIO's Center of Excellence programs or contact me with your questions.

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What is Your Survival Plan for Managing Technical Debt?

"Let me tell you about one colossal coding mess that I created. It was an Italian restaurant filled with bowls of spaghetti code held together with duct tape and Band-Aids."

In my new book, Digital Trailblazer, I tell several of my stories of creating and trying to address technical debt. The theme of the chapter is that technical debt is now YOUR problem, and it has a simple meaning. 

As you move up into management and leadership roles, you now have the responsibility of minimizing the creation of new tech debt, finding the most impactful areas of tech debt to address, and prioritizing the work to reduce tech debt.

Help Me! - Technical Debt by Isaac Sacolick

Yes, as a tech, data, or product management leader, reducing tech debt is your problem and part of your responsibilities. Technical debt creates risks to your business and slows down the DevOps, data, product management, and other teams from releasing capability improvements.

Worse, it's a point of stress for teams - and productivity loss when agile teammates can only gripe about the tech debt issues but don't have the authority to prioritize addressing them.

So in this week's Driving Digital Standup, I leave you three strategies for managing technical debt. Three of the strategies fall into a technical plan, and three others I categorize as part of a business plan. You can watch the video below - it's my fiftieth on the channel and I hope you will subscribe to it.

Ten posts on Technical Debt

I referenced ten of my previous posts on technical debt in the video. Here they are:

What should go into your business and technical plan for managing technical debt? Ask me, and I'll provide you some guidelines.
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Why I Wrote a Fearless Book to Inspire More Digital Transformation Leaders

“The pace of technology change is increasing, and you must reevaluate your digital strategy and priorities. Frequently. You will always be transforming, and your organization must establish transformational practices as essential core competencies.”

Digital Trailblazer quote by Isaac Sacolick

That paragraph on page one of Digital Trailblazer exemplifies why I wrote the book. Leaders will often say, “transformation is a journey,” but what’s not said enough is that the current wave of innovation,  customer experience improvements, and data-driven practices will give way to more evolutions.

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5 Summer Activities to Know for Accelerating Your Technology Leadership

During the summer, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on goals and priorities when there are often fewer pressures and stresses. Breaks are especially helpful for leaders to get out of the weeds, recognize what’s changing in the world, and rethink strategic priorities. It’s equally important for innovation leaders who use breaks to recharge their creative spirits.

Summer activities accelerating technology leadership

And I’ve written about summertime escaping before, including advice for CIOs on taking summer vacations, IT leaders, and digital transformation leaders. Advice in these posts includes teaching/learning something new, getting hands-on with a technology, and brainstorming with the DevOps team.

Reassess your objectives and priorities this summer

My advice for summer 2022 follows similar themes, but because so much is changing in the world so quickly, I provide specific advice on using this summer to reset and realign. I hope you will consider all of these points, especially #5.

  1. Schedule a fun team activity and alleviate the stress – I posted several ideas on reducing stress in hybrid teams – from fun activities such as hosting team pot luck lunches to watching a movie together. Other ideas include day trips and game nights, all options we haven’t had for the last few summers. 
  2. Lead a fun brainstorm-to-POC with a new agile team – One way to “teach/learn something new” is to mentor a new team around scrum and agile methodologies. You’ll always face new questions and challenges when teaching teams new practices, especially when applied to different program types. 
  3. Visit a customer and walk in their shoes – If you don’t believe how much times are changing, go visit select customers and learn how and why their businesses are evolving. Speak to end-users about their challenges and what you can do to make things easier. I guarantee you’ll walk away with new perspectives and fresh ideas to jumpstart digital transformation.
  4. Prune and prioritize the tech debt list – Having miles-long tech debt lists and griping about how little time DevOps teams have to address them creates stress. Sitting with teams to prune and prioritize lists in specific areas with medium-term impacts, then brainstorming easy and close-to-optimal solutions – well, that’s smart and exactly what Digital Trailblazers would do.

And now, point #5!

5. Read Digital Trailblazer with your team

Digital Trailblazer by Isaac Sacolick

My new book, Digital Trailblazer, publishes this week! I am excited to share my stories and lessons on leading digital transformation with you, and while it’s not beach reading, I believe you will enjoy reading it this summer.

It’s a book you’ll want to read with your team. With ten chapters of stories, I am certain you’ll find ones that will lead to discussions. Maybe it’s the chapter around what led to an IT Ops leader wearing the CEO’s diet coke, the stories I tell about being buried in bad data, the vexing stories on handling innovation detractors, or the ones about forming the right diverse leadership team.

The book will accelerate your technology leadership through the 50 lessons that I leave in the book. And one secret – there’s more, as book readers get access to my Digital Trailblazer Community.

I can’t wait to hear your feedback and questions. Happy summer.

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