CIOs band together to lift Michigan's fortunes

This savvy group of CIOs share ideas to boost their industry and promote tech innovation within their state. For members, expert advice is never more than a phone call away.

floating umbrellas against a blue cloudy sky

Three years ago, when David Behen signed on as the state of Michigan's CIO at the age of 42, he knew he didn't have all the knowledge or experience he would need to do the job. So he did what he says any good leader would do -- he asked for help.

Behen sent his request for assistance to both public- and private-sector IT executives across the financial, healthcare, automotive, transportation, education and government sectors.

"I told them, 'I can't give you money and I can't guarantee you contracts,'" he recalls. "But to a person, they all came back and said the same thing. 'If we can work to help the state of Michigan, it's going to help all of us.'"

Thus was born the CIO Kitchen Cabinet, a unique group of roughly two dozen IT executives from the Greater Detroit area who meet monthly to discuss critical business and technology issues. Initially, their main purpose was to advise Behen on matters ranging from bring-your-own-device and cybersecurity policies to reinventing economically ravaged Detroit and the rest of the state as a magnet for high-tech workers.

But in the two-plus years that the group has convened, advice and guidance has flowed freely in multiple directions, participants say. What started as an ad hoc advisory board for the state's new CIO has morphed into a pan-industry council of IT leaders who regularly and generously exchange ideas and best practices, in addition to gaining exposure for themselves and their organizations.

An Inside Look

On this particular day, the 17-person group convenes to hear Linglong He, CIO at Quicken Loans, a perennially top-ranking entry on Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list, describe how the Detroit-based online mortgage company attracts and retains top IT talent. Aside from the much-publicized all-day popcorn and pingpong games available to IT staffers, there is an employee referral bonus program, training retreats in Las Vegas, regular salary increases and other bonuses.

"The idea at first was to advise me, and then we morphed to a group about how to move the ball forward for all of us," says Behen. It's absolutely turned into more than I ever thought it could be."

"But money isn't the only thing that keeps people happy," He tells the group. Every Monday afternoon, calendars are kept clear so employees can work on their own pet projects.

"We also provide time for people to be innovative," she says. "All of the conference rooms are reserved, and we have a lot of innovative stuff come out of that time. It's a productive way to provide time for employees to be innovative."

But many of the CIOs gathered here are from organizations that don't have the time, money and/or staff to allow techies to work on their own innovations during working hours. Others are constrained by rules governing union personnel. And in some cases, dedicated innovation time doesn't jibe with company culture. But despite the differences in their organizational cultures, all of the members extol the value of each and every discussion the group has had as well as the numerous benefits of meeting regularly with their peers.

"It's my view that in IT, it is always good to see and learn about other environments and arenas," says Mark Cybulski, CIO at ZF North America, a driveline and chassis manufacturer that's one of the top 10 global suppliers to the automotive industry.

"My environment is not the same as many others in the group. For instance, we use lots of software packages and computer-aided engineering and, so far, we don't have pingpong tables or beach balls here. But discussing other topics, such as hearing firsthand evaluations of Google apps or Microsoft Office 365, can jump-start your own efforts," he says.

Even more valuable, Cybulski says, is the face time with fellow IT executives from other companies.

"Meeting as a group changes the mindset around collaboration. People are willing to divulge things verbally and face-to-face that they're not going to post online or tweet about. They're not going to tweet that they just had a massive failure with a cloud supplier. But here, if someone asks about my experience with a certain supplier, I'm willing to talk about things that they might want to be wary about and share lessons learned."

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