Target CIO Mike McNamara on the Importance of Talking to Customers and Listening to Tech Teams

March 11, 2016 - Article reads in
CIO Mike McNamara standing in Target Plaza Commons.

Earlier this week, Target’s chief information officer Mike McNamara headed to Half Moon Bay, Calif., for the Forbes CIO Summit. There, he spoke about his new role and heard from speakers including the CIOs of Google, Procter & Gamble and the United States government, as well as the CEOs of Hewlett Packard and Salesforce. 

Mike joined Target last summer from leading international grocer Tesco, and after eight months on the job, he took a moment to share some thoughts on the role of today’s CIO:

What were some key themes and takeaways from the Forbes summit for you and other tech leaders?
There are a few big ones that stand out, with the biggest being mobile and the adoption of “cloud” and open-source technologies. The rapid adoption and proliferation of smartphones has been a game-changer for consumers and corporate IT teams—yet, amazingly, it’s still early days for mobile. One speaker made an interesting observation: a drone is essentially a smartphone that flies; and a self-driving car is a smartphone with wheels. There’s also a massive shift underway from legacy software and mainframe systems to cloud and open-source technologies. These are transformative changes that are pushing Target and other companies to hire more tech talent, adopt cutting-edge, open-source tools and change the way we work so we can be faster, more efficient and more effective.

You were on a panel about how CIOs and technology teams can get close to customers. Tell us about that concept.
This was a terrific topic for me, because I’ve long believed that the best decisions are made with data and experience. And in retail, the best experience comes from talking directly with customers and spending time in stores. That’s why throughout my career, I’ve dedicated time every year to working in stores—from stocking backroom shelves to cashiering. Target’s “Technology Leadership Program,” which started in 2004, takes a similar approach: the program includes a one-week session where participants work all jobs in a Target store. My teams and I have also staffed call centers and observed focus groups navigating websites. These can be great and sometimes humbling experiences. But you’ve got to do these kinds of things. The best tech leaders and the best tech teams know their customers well.

What were some of your favorite talks at the Forbes summit?
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was brilliant. He explained how a group of monastics recently inspired him to put “mindfulness” rooms on each floor of Salesforce’s new office. He also encouraged the audience to “cultivate a beginner’s mind” to innovate. Google’s Ben Fried and Intuit’s Atticus Tysen had a great talk about the challenges and thrills of being a CIO today. You’ve got to attract, empower and inspire talented people. You’ve got to flawlessly manage old, legacy systems while also introducing new technologies. As Ben at Google put it: change and change management is now a “core competency” for the CIO. And I’d add that change management is also a core competency for any organization to achieve long-term success.

How do you keep up with all the changes in technology?
You don’t. You really can’t. Things just move too rapidly. Instead, you stay close to your engineers and you listen to your talent—at senior and junior levels. You build a team of people who are curious and analytical, and who love learning and solving big problems. Your team also has to think broadly. When you can bring together curiosity, new learning and broad thinking, you tend to keep up with things pretty well—and maybe even get ahead.

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