The freelance CIO boosts the startup economy

An experienced chief information officer who goes freelance has much to offer, particularly to enterprising startups, and can reap worthwhile rewards


CIO going freelance

Nascent firms often need the expertise of a digital leader, but do not have the cash to appoint a full-time chief information officer (CIO). Hope, however, is at hand. Smart IT leaders are aware of the skills challenges facing startups and smaller firms, and are using their industry experience to support innovation outside the traditional enterprise sector.

One such executive is digital adviser Ian Cohen, who left his role as CIO with insurance broking firm Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group at the end of 2014. Mr Cohen now spends his time advising blue-chip firms how to work with startups, while also advising these new firms on effective growth strategies

He has been described as a “digital marriage broker”. His new role represents a radical shift from working for a finance firm in the City of London. Yet Mr Cohen believes CIOs who make this transition can create big benefits for themselves and the firms they help.

“If my journey is typical, CIOs can walk out of corporate life and into a range of interesting opportunities,” he says. “So why aren’t more IT leaders doing that? CIOs must get outside the traditional enterprise and invest their time and experience in this new, interesting and entrepreneurial culture.”

PROPORTION OF IT DEPARTMENTS DEPENDENT ON FLEXIBLE CONTINGENT LABOUR

Going freelance

IT leaders who do venture outside will find a receptive audience. Recruiter Harvey Nash says one in ten executives at small firms rely on contingent staff for more than three quarters of their IT team. Experienced technology professionals can help fill this knowledge gap and find new opportunities in the process.

Andrew Abboud has more than 25 years’ IT management experience. He left his role as CIO at Laureate Education in late-2015 and, after three months away from work to clear his mind, Mr Abboud established his own CIO consultancy service. Like Mr Cohen, he has thrived in the freelance market.

There’s a big opportunity for information leaders to help small firms think through their business models

“It’s interesting, challenging and different,” he says, talking about his broad spectrum of clients, from public-sector bodies in London to European business schools. “There is something rewarding about creating a portfolio career and building trusted relationships with a few great clients.”

It is a sentiment that chimes with Omid Shiraji, who is interim CIO at Camden Council. As well as helping the public-sector organisation transform through digital IT, Mr Shiraji has acted as a business coach and non-executive support to startups in recruitment, retail and technology.

“There’s a big opportunity for information leaders to help small firms think through their business models,” he says, before suggesting the plus-points of working with nascent firms work both ways.

“The benefit for me as a CIO is that I have my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the local economy. It allows me tap into innovation. It’s always great to know well-skilled individuals and the talent in the startup community can be strong.”

So while constant change in the IT labour market presents challenges, it also creates a wealth of opportunities for experienced CIOs. The demand for knowledge is promoting new ways of working for both the receptive small business and the experienced IT leader.

Take Mark Foulsham, who was appointed chief digital officer (CDO) at Scope last September, after 12 years as group CIO at insurance specialist esure. He has combined the shift from CIO to CDO with a new working model, where he explores a portfolio of opportunities outside Scope.

“This is about me moving from a unitary role to a plural model,” says Mr Foulsham, who is building cross-sector interactions between executives at Scope and C-suite bosses at other firms. He is also working on consulting projects and CIO coaching, and is writing a book on cyber security and the impact of the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Scope recognises the things I do outside the business can feed back into the organisation through my role as CDO,” he says. “With a portfolio career model, you must take a holistic approach. You must think of yourself as self-employed and available seven days a week. Being your own boss is tough, but it’s also very interesting.”

CASE STUDY: IAN COHEN

Former chief information officer (CIO) turned digital adviser Ian Cohen has used his IT leadership experience to help a broad range of fast-emerging organisations.

He points to his work with insurance startup Neos. The firm went through a rapid development cycle, launching its first product just nine months after its creative founders had their first conversation in a pub. Mr Cohen has provided expert guidance for Neos for the past 18 months.

“Startups can really benefit from having a recognisable domain expert during their growth phase,” he says. “There’s something important about the practical experience a CIO can bring. Investors often like to look at the board and see there’s a grown-up there and a strong CIO brings credibility.”

Mr Cohen also works as a corporate adviser with technical consultancy Amido. The firm had already added an ex-entrepreneur to their board. This individual has a great deal of experience in how to run a consultancy business. What Amido lacked was an executive who could represent the mind of the customer and Mr Cohen stepped forward.

“Consultancy services can be a tough sell into what is often a reticent buyer,” says Mr Cohen, who as a former CIO is more than aware of the issues of selling to senior executives. “Having someone from the C-suite, who understands the buy side, is a big advantage.”

The basic message, he says, is that smaller, innovative businesses can benefit from the input of a freelance CIO. “Startups are full of bright people doing great things, but they sometimes lack contextual customer awareness,” Mr Cohen concludes. “Bringing in a C-suite executive, who has heavyweight industrial experience, can really help.”