There has never been a more exciting time to be a technology leader, as the forces of innovation, virtualization, mobility and security reshape the future of just about every organization. Ask anyone who holds the job today.

But it’s also one of the riskiest and most challenging times. The right IT strategy, leadership and innovation can catapult an organization’s growth, while missteps can decimate its reputation and bottom line. Add to those demands the need for lightning speed and technical agility — and it’s a wonder anyone would want the job.

Computerworld’s 2016 Premier 100 Technology Leaders stand bravely at the nexus of change in their organizations. These 100 men and women, chosen by a panel of Computerworld editors and Premier 100 alumni, are masterfully maneuvering the shifts in IT. They thrive on change and are shaking up their organizations with digital technologies while building dynamic, talented teams to connect with customers and maximize innovation. Here are just a few of their stories.

Shifting from integration to differentiation

In the highly competitive pharmaceutical industry, Merck is doubling down on initiatives in analytics, enterprise systems and ecosystem-driven investments.

“Most things we developed in the past only touched Merck employees. Now and going forward, they are touched not only by employees, but by patients and scientists around the globe,” says James Ciriello, associate vice president for IT planning and innovation at Merck.

To make progress in the three priority areas of analytics, enterprise systems and ecosystem-driven initiatives, Ciriello had to shake up the IT organization and attract new talent with fresh skills.

He first broke down dozens of IT silos in plants and labs worldwide and established three global IT hubs, in New Jersey, Prague and Singapore. The new setup allows him to standardize systems and processes, and it helps foster innovation. Prague, in particular, has become a greenfield of talent and now represents 25% of Merck’s IT employee base. About 95% of the Prague employees are new to the company.

“It was important for us to attract people from a different dimension than what we were used to,” Ciriello says. “We’re an old biopharma company, and suddenly we’re competing against Facebook and Google for people who do modeling simulation types of work.” In Prague, Merck was able to recruit people with agile development skills, big data architecture experience and DevOps talent, as well as “people with Ph.D.s in user experience.”

Today, Ciriello’s biggest challenge is reconciling the old ways of doing business with the new. “We have a piece of our organization that understands how our company runs down to the minuscule level. They really understand how to make it reliable and secure,” he says. “Then you have another part of our operation that’s very new and perhaps wants to move more quickly in making those shifts.” So far, Ciriello seems to be winning over executives who, when told what IT was doing, “only asked us to accelerate the process, and not slow it down,” he adds.

Reorganizing for innovation

Jay Cavalcanto, vice president of cloud and infrastructure engineering at Exelon, an energy utility, says change comes slower in some industries than it does in others. For example, he quips, if Alexander Graham Bell came back to life and saw a smartphone, he’d be blown away by the evolution of his invention. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, would be unimpressed by the lack of progress in the way we use electricity. “The utilities industry has not been fully disrupted yet, but it is right there waiting to happen,” says Cavalcanto, and Exelon is ready.

Exelon is the great-grandchild of several 100-year-old utility companies that have merged to create one of the nation’s leading energy providers. Cavalcanto fights inertia by disrupting IT, and then disrupting it some more. “Don’t let them settle back into that complacency hole, and don’t let the money stop or defer investment” in technology, he says.

Cavalcanto needed Exelon’s IT group to be nimbler in adopting new technologies, so he started by separating the engineering and operations units. “By separating [the two groups], we can focus on innovation centers of excellence where we can harness new technologies such as analytics, cloud and mobile more effectively,” he says. “Our engineering group now has a cloud-first mentality, taking advantage of the speed of deployment, cost savings and back-end flexibility to drive rapid transformation. Meanwhile, our operations group keeps the lights on and the business running.”

It hasn’t been easy. Some staffers don’t like the stigma of being in operations even though it was already part of their daily jobs, or they don’t want to give up what they know in engineering. But Cavalcanto is starting to see momentum build. “You have to create a viral pull for these changes rather than a push, where people realize ‘Wow, I’m only on call every five weeks now instead of every two weeks,'” he says, adding that the full transition will take about a year.

Cavalcanto also wanted to keep money moving toward the right projects. He developed a ranking system for every app the company used, designating each as either gold, silver or bronze based on its business importance and total cost, including infrastructure and labor.

“This starts to change the conversation with the business from how IT is too expensive, to ‘This is what your apps cost and why,'” Cavalcanto says. It also helps him identify opportunities for savings. “If only three guys in a basement are using [the app], then shut it off,” he says. “This has demystified technology conversations and helped us become a more effective partner to the business.”

Setting the tone for work-life balance

Most of this year’s Premier 100 Technology Leaders share a reverence for work-life balance. They try to practice what they preach, and many honorees have come up with unique ways to set the example that it’s OK to unplug.

When Beth Drohan, a 30-year veteran at Verizon, notices IT staffers who don’t seem to ever have their own time, she encourages them to disconnect. “You have to have work-life balance to be productive at work. You can’t let [either] one go off balance for any sustained period of time without losing something on both ends.”

She tries to set an example for her team by not sending emails on the weekends.

“People who work for you respond to your emails even when they know they’re not time-sensitive. They’re trying to do a good job,” she says. When she finds herself catching up on email on a Saturday, she tries to hold the messages so they don’t go out until Monday. “I think we should all try to do that,” she says.

Exelon’s Jay Cavalcanto advocates for videoconferencing in lieu of face-to-face meetings. “To me, video is the great equalizer of work-life balance. A 30-minute phone call is far more efficient for me than waiting until we’re both in the office,” he says. “I don’t care if we’re doing a one-on-one on a Friday afternoon and you’re wearing a sweatshirt and a baseball hat. I care more about looking at you and talking to you and making sure you’re not multitasking my phone call.” He hasn’t won over his entire team yet. “We’re trying, but some people still put sticky notes over their laptop cameras,” says Cavalcanto.

MediaMath encourages working from home, but maintains a “trust but verify” approach. Each IT tribe has a stand-up meeting every day where team members report what they accomplished the day before and what they’re currently working on. “People get weeded out if they aren’t toeing the line,” says CIO Tom Craig, although he’s quick to cut employees some slack if they have a family emergency, such as a sick child. “That [flexibility] pays back in spades,” he says.

— Stacy Collett

Leading global change

Francois Estellon, Gardner Denver‘s CIO and vice president of IT, also knows the challenges of bringing a company into the 21st century. The industrial equipment and technologies manufacturer has quadrupled in size in the past decade, mostly through global acquisitions, but it gave limited attention to business or technology integration. Today, Estellon is in the midst of a major reorganization that brings dozens of siloed regions into a centralized, service-based IT organization.

The plan is to reduce complexity, increase agility and add flexibility to scale operations up or down based on business conditions.

“In some areas, the service-based migration is coming out at the time that we’re upgrading technology,” says Estellon, who joined Gardner Denver in November 2013. For starters, in less than six months the company moved from a 14-server, local Lotus Notes environment that supported 7,000 email and calendar users (and more than 360 Lotus Notes applications) to a fully cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 environment. More changes are underway.

When it comes to major reorganizations, Estellon says he has “no patience nor appreciation for tenure.” The average tenure in his 100-person IT organization was 25 years when he joined the company in 2013. He first evaluated people based on their “skill sets, location, talent and willingness to change,” he says. Over a period of two years, about 10 lower-level IT staffers were promoted into higher-level roles, 30 IT employees were let go, and 23 people were hired from the outside.

The restructuring has led to many pleasant surprises. “Some people have said, ‘Finally! I’ve been asking for this for years,'” Estellon says. A number of people are still waiting to see what changes take place, but “they’re slowly getting on board,” he says.

Estellon says his mantra for reorganization is this: “We will drop the ball and make a mistake. It’s not the end of the world.” The pace of change is sometimes more critical than the accuracy of the deliverable. He says he wants his IT leaders to look at the big picture. “If you can get me from zero to 85% in six months, I would rather have that than if you get me from zero to 99% in two years.”

Building for speed

Some Premier 100 honorees represent emerging companies that are built for speed — and where IT teams are constantly challenged to keep pace with their rapid growth.

Marketing and advertising technology company MediaMath has grown from 12 employees to 800 worldwide since its launch seven years ago, and it expects another 40% to 50% increase in staff in 2016. CIO Tom Craig wanted to ensure that the IT department kept up its development “velocity” as the company grew.

In the fall of 2014, he restructured the IT organization based on the “tribe” model popularized by Spotify and emulated by many other budding tech companies. The model creates small, autonomous groups that align with product, engineering and operations resources. Each development unit operates like a mini-startup with an engineering lead, a product lead and a tech project manager. Budgets are allocated individually and each group makes its own technology choices — which could involve cloud computing, new deployment tools, automation tools, development frameworks or something else.

“The real focus is on autonomy, so they can make decisions on their own, and accountability, so they win together and lose together. They all have the same goals and objectives,” and they are compensated equally based on results, Craig says. “It really allows each of those groups to be much more nimble.”

Craig measures success in terms of velocity — the speed at which a new technology feature moves from development toward rollout in a two-week period. In the first two months the new model was in place, IT’s velocity actually decreased as people got adjusted, Craig says. But today, velocity has increased by more than 20%.

“If people feel they own it and they feel empowered to make change, and they only have to talk to two or three people adjacent to them who all have the same goals, then everybody seems to be far more motivated,” Craig says. As the company expands globally to London and Berlin in 2016, the model will help Craig set up new IT teams in those locales quickly.

Improving communication

At Verizon, vice president of national network operations Beth Drohan has a team that thrives on new technology. “They tend to run toward it,” rather than avoid it, she says. Her role is to clear any roadblocks for them and help facilitate change.

Verizon recently launched a new service called VoLTE, where voice calls are transmitted over Verizon’s 4G LTE network instead of via a traditional circuit-switched network. With VoLTE, voice is essentially delivered as data packets instead of as one stream. To make it work, Drohan’s team of 1,600 IT staffers had to overhaul Verizon’s wireless core network.

Drohan kept the pace of change humming by making sure that stakeholders stayed informed and involved, and by working with them on what-if scenarios for how problems would be resolved. “There’s a balance,” she explains. “You must include the stakeholders that you need, so nobody gets surprised or cut short. But don’t bog people down by working by committee.”

With that strategy, Drohan says she was able to work across organizational boundaries instead of redrawing them.

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