Three chief information officers for leading Greater Des Moines companies talk about the challenges and opportunities facing their profession
Friday, February 07, 2014 7:00 AM
Information technology is a pretty hot industry in Iowa right now, according to those leading the IT efforts at large companies in the state.
Tech programs & initiatives
One unique thing about the Central Iowa tech scene, leaders say, is the amount of collaboration that happens. Here are a few of the programs and initiatives that they highlighted:
Run by the Technology Association of Iowa, HyperStream is a program dedicated to turning around the worker shortage. TAI member companies pair up mentors from their business with students in sixth through 12th grade to help the students learn about technology as a potential career.
Scholten participates in a CIO roundtable group, also hosted by TAI, where information technology professionals from larger companies get together and talk about issues and opportunities and share ideas.
STEM Advisory Council
All three people interviewed mentioned the renewed interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education as an opportunity for the state, and a good example of the growing momentum surrounding technology.
“As I think about the Central Iowa area, there’s just been so much momentum,” said Gary Scholten, chief information officer at Principal Financial Group Inc. “There just really is. The top of my list would be, we’ve got unbelievable thought leadership around technology: how to use technology, how to align it with a business model or business strategy.”
That sentiment is echoed by other top-level IT leaders in Central Iowa businesses. There is a growing momentum in the information technology field here, they say, and that’s good for businesses in all fields that use the latest technologies and rely on skilled IT workers.
That’s the good news. The biggest challenge, though, is that with all that momentum, there aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs. The issue has been defined in the past by leaders in the IT field, and many of the opportunities and initiatives that CIOs are involved in revolve around the issue. The silver lining, though, is that the thought leadership Scholten mentions is working on solutions.
We sat down with Scholten and leaders at two other large companies to find out what is going well, and what isn’t in Central Iowa IT.
It’s about more than just tech
Information technology is key to a number of industries. All of the companies interviewed for this story specialize in an area other than information technology, but all of the companies have a large IT aspect to their operations. Principal, for example, considers about one-fourth of its employees to be IT workers, Scholten said.
Arthur at Pioneer said IT workers are often attracted to the company because they get to use technology for a good cause – to help feed people. Highlighting IT employees’ ability to help and support other people is important in terms of interesting students in the field, Grosser said. Information technology often helps businesses serve their customers better, which is really important in a field like health care or agriculture. And IT workers are often directly helping solve problems for customers.
Also, when the economy improves for other industries, IT benefits due to its connection to those industries.
Iowa’s IT-based startup scene has gained a lot of attention in recent years, with the founding of StartupCity Des Moines and the rapid growth of Dwolla being two examples. That is good for big businesses in the state too, CIOs say.
For one thing, startup success often prompts larger companies to make technological advancements of their own, said Grosser.
For another, Arthur said, employees at Pioneer will sometimes leave the company to try their hand at entrepreneurship. If they fail, they often come back to the company with new experiences.
“I think it’s a really powerful thing, and we can do more to encourage it,” he said.
For a lot of IT workers, being in a startup is the right fit, said Scholten, and often, thought leadership in the industry comes from startups as well as large companies.
Broadband in the state
Technological advancements are hindered if people can’t connect to broadband, especially in an industry like agriculture, Arthur said. “I think that’s an issue we’re addressing as a state,” he said. “Because if you’re a small business owner who happens to farm as your business, you need that connectivity.”
Grosser pointed to Gov. Terry Branstad’s Connect Every Iowan initiative, which has charged a committee of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council with developing a long-term strategic plan by Jan. 1, 2015, in part by identifying federal funding opportunities or public-private partnerships.
IT worker shortage
This is not new or groundbreaking information, but it was at the top or near the top of the list for all three leaders interviewed for this article. In a 2011 survey conducted by the Technology Association of Iowa, 66 percent of executives told the organization that they have trouble hiring qualified employees locally. That has led to some wage inflation in fields relating to data and information security as well as system designers and architects, Scholten said, and also entry-level jobs.
A number of things are being done in the state to try to get more students interested in technology, things such as the TAI HyperStream program. But the worker shortage is a national issue, so companies like Principal have businesses in other states competing for their talent. That caused Principal to do an internship program last summer that attracted interns from 14 states, so potential out-of-state workers could get to know Des Moines.
When looking for out-of-state workers for UnityPoint, “I have to sell Des Moines as a great destination,” Grosser said. “I think Des Moines tells the good story when we get people here as well. It’s just kind of getting people over the barrier of saying, ‘Iowa, really?’ Yeah. Really.”
Big data, a term that essentially refers to the utilization of the massive amounts of data that is now available in the world, could also be considered an opportunity. But it is a challenge, Grosser said, to organize the data in a way that is usable. At UnityPoint, she said, big data can be used to help minimize disease. At a place like Pioneer, big data can be used to help farmers in the field. An app called Pioneer Field360 helps farmers collect and manage information on things such as planting, nitrogen levels and crop yields.
But the tech worker shortage makes it harder for companies to find the employees needed to organize and analyze the data, Grosser said.
“These are very specialized and high-demand positions across the country,” she said. “As systems are getting better and better and the models for analytics for managing that big data stream (are getting better), how are we maybe one step ahead getting the right people the right information? Because just throwing a ton of data into something doesn’t make it better.”
Breaches in Target Corp.’s data security system, as well as breaches at other retailers, has put the issue of data privacy at the forefront, Scholten said. “I think there’s just a growing awareness there, so it’s not only keeping your assets and your customers’ information safe, but it’s being able to demonstrate you are (doing this), because there’s so much attention on the issue,” he said.
Senior vice president and chief information officer, Principal Financial Group Inc. Scholten is a past chair of the Technology Association of Iowa board and is on the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council executive committee.
Vice president, information management, DuPont Pioneer. Arthur has served on the Technology Association of Iowa board, and is a member of the Iowa Innovation Council’s executive committee.
Vice president and chief information officer, UnityPoint Health. Grosser is the chairperson of the Technology Association
of Iowa board.
What is your outlook for thetechnology industry in 2014?
Gary Scholten - “I think it’s really positive.”
He listed many reasons: Focus on the sector from the state government and Greater Des Moines Partnership; companies such as Dwolla that are in an accelerated growth stage; the health of businesses that rely heavily on technology; and a quality workforce, even if there aren’t enough workers.
Lane Arthur - “What I see is growth in the IT space. What I think I see my colleagues doing is, they aren’t sure how strong that growth is, so they are using more contract resources in many cases. ... That’s just the way you mitigate the risk. But overall, this is a growth area. It’s just becoming stronger and stronger.”
Joy Grosser - “I think the tech industry year-over-year has a great outlook on the ability to help us continue to fill gaps and solve the problems that will help bring our businesses to the forefront to ultimately help improve the health of people across the state.”