Atlanta CIO: “you’re not just an IT leader, you’re a business leader”

The Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) Atlanta chapter held its flagship event on September 24 with some key IT leaders in Atlanta. This was the first time the CIO Roundtable was done in a virtual environment, but it was no less insightful!

In case you missed it, here’s a brief recap of the highlights from the discussion. The panelists included:

Brent McDaniel, CIO, The Rawlings Group

Trey Keisler, CIO of Supply Chain, GE Power

John Slaughter, CIO, Alliant Health Solutions

John Budala, CIO, PowerPlan

Mykolas Rambus, President, Quaero – Moderator

Mykolas Rambus (moderator): What passion were you following when you got into IT.  How did you find this space, and why did it appeal to you? 

Trey Keisler got his first computer in 6th grade, an Apple IIe and played around with it more as a hobby at first. He attended Georgia Tech to be an electrical engineer. As part of that program, he had to take a computer science course and loved it so much that he switched to a computer science major. He started his career as a programmer and the rest is history.

John Slaughter was also interested in computers from a young age. He started out with a degree in chemical engineering and pre-med. When he graduated college, he interviewed with chemical companies but was intrigued by the IT consulting firms instead. He also worked for a couple of startups.

So, this group didn’t actually start out in an IT field but migrated there from falling in love with computers at an early age.


Rambus: What do you like best and least about being a CIO today?

Brent McDaniel and the other panelists agreed that the best part of being a CIO is solving problems, taking things apart and finding a solution. The satisfaction in getting something developed is the fun part. The things that get in the way of that are the challenging part. Keisler said that in this new COVID environment, there have been new challenges like getting the remote workers set up. John Budala said his struggle is how to use his people’s time wisely, working within budgets and time constraints. But it’s a learning opportunity to have to figure out how to balance limited resources.


Throughout the event, there were a series of lightning rounds, fun questions for the panel. This was the first one.

Rambus: Other than being a CIO, what profession would you like to attempt?

Budala (with a picture of a Ferrari race car behind him) said race car driver

Keisler said Brewmaster

Slaughter said Professional oddsmaker

McDaniel (with guitar amps behind him) said guitar player/musician


Rambus: In your role, how do you connect innovation, strategy and leadership?

McDaniel said he’s a firm believer that the best ideas come from the bottom up because they are the users of the technology.

Keisler believes that innovation shouldn’t cost a lot of money, but it costs time. His company has technology guilds around emerging technology like AI, blockchain, etc. to help grow awareness of his team. He wants to keep his team as sharp as he can. They try to seed innovation organically, then fill in strategy and then start to scale.

Slaughter said, being a healthcare company, they get a lot of input from the nurses, doctors, etc. as they ask for innovation. Like, can you make this work… And sometimes it can be done but sometimes they can’t until years later when the technology changes. One of the innovative things they are looking at is a Computer Vision strategy to help pull out tiny bits of information from thousands of pages of medical documents.

Budala considers innovation a key for his company. Because they work very closely with their customers, that’s where the ideas come from. It is a top-down and bottom-up approach. It’s really the bedrock of their business and drives their strategy. And they recognize people for their ideas and actually measure how they are doing with innovation.


Rambus: What percentage of your time is spent on innovation / R&D versus “keeping the lights on”?

McDaniel: 33%

Slaughter: 25-30%

Keisler: 5%

Budala: 30-40%


Rambus: What’s your primary challenge right now?

All panelists agreed that the primary challenge right now is the COVID environment. It’s trying to find the balance between what’s urgent and what’s not. And determining the tech projects that will make a difference in 18-24 months instead of chasing the little things. And, with everyone working remotely, how to make the business effective in communication and supply the tools they need to collaborate and be productive. And lastly, keeping their team happy, engaged and motivated.


Rambus: Looking past COVID-19, what will your workplace look like after it’s all over? 

Again, all panelists are somewhat in the same boat with the recent changes to their workplaces and everyone in a remote work environment. Slaughter said they had done a lot of teleworking before, but now it’s every day. What they’re finding is that they probably won’t be coming into the office as much as before. People will be more distributed because they won’t have to hire people in Atlanta necessarily. COVID has just sped up what was already happening for his company.

Budala and Keisler are evaluating work-from-home policies and packages, getting research to shape that policy going forward and asking for feedback from employees along the way to drive the decisions. Keisler also said, “I don’t see ever getting back to what it used to be. It’s going to change the way we work forever.”

On the other hand, McDaniel said their challenge is unique in that coming into the pandemic, they were very localized and didn’t allow work from home. They had much of the systems ready to go if they needed it but basically had to launch work from home in 4 days. Their future plan is to have a combo of on-site and remote so that it’s the best of both worlds.


Rambus: How do you gain and retain employees in this environment?

All panelists agreed that the best way to gain and retain employees is to provide meaningful assignments. If they give people the opportunity to solve problems, innovate, develop professionally in a fun environment, they will stay. Bells and whistles help, but it’s that meaningful work that is important to the company’s success that really matters. It’s also important to show where employees fit into the organization’s success and the impact they have by showing ROI on their projects.

The only exception, according to Keisler, is the cyber security space. There is a wage war for cyber security professionals so it’s a struggle hiring for those roles.


Rambus: What’s the one thing that puts a smile on your face at work?

Keisler said when he gets an unsolicited email from a business partner about how great someone on his team did. Budala, Slaughter and McDaniel agreed. McDaniel added that when he can see someone else “gets it,” that also makes him smile.


Rambus: What does it take to be a CIO?

The panelists agreed that you’ve got to know your business, not just IT. Keisler said specifically, “You’re not just an IT leader, you’re a business leader.” You’ve also got to be able to lead people and build relationships with your team and with the executive team. And, of course, you’ve got to get things done and stay connected to emerging technology.


Rambus: How did you get to be a CIO?

Consistently, the panelists said the most important thing they did was invest in themselves. Continue to learn, improve on your weaknesses, build relationships, network and get involved in organizations within the industry as well.


Rambus: Who is the most influential person in your life, not a relative?

Most of the panel was influenced by a boss, sometimes their first one. Keisler said it was a former boss that he learned about how to lead and treat people. She still influences him today. Slaughter said his first boss out of college told him, “technology is the easy part, the people are the hard part,” and that stuck with him some 20 years later.


Rambus: With a growing focus on customer experience, how has your collaboration with other C-Suite members evolved?

The panelists agreed that the key to collaboration with the C-suite is relationship building. Some do that through weekly meetings, one on ones, dinners, brainstorming sessions, etc. Budala said that to him, most of the alignment happens after work, not during work. And McDaniel said that, in some ways, the pandemic has actually helped him build relationships with the executives at his company because they’ve bonded during this difficult time. Slaughter said to be the person that your peers call when they have a problem and need help, strive to understand their pain points and establish trust.


The last lightning round question was meant to give some insight into their personalities, in case you’re ready to start networking with them.

Rambus: What is your favorite movie?

Slaughter: Empire Strikes Back

Keisler: Braveheart

Budala: Ford vs. Ferrari

McDaniel: Monty Python or Office Space


This is just a quick recap of the event. Note, AITP records its meetings and offers its library of content to active members.  If you’d like to see the event in its entirety, you can view it here.


About the author

Steven Wright serves as a Senior Account Executive for Synergis and volunteers his time as President of the Atlanta chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals. Steve has had a career in technology, spanning more than 25 years.  He has always served in an advisory, and relationship development capacity, working within sales and business development groups for healthcare technology outsourcing, manufacturing, professional service, and, most recently, the staffing industry. In his free time, Steve enjoys learning about new and emerging technologies. This love of tech has helped him aid clients and candidates alike in their career and talent journeys.


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