Generac’s Tim Dickson on the evolving CIO role

Generac Power Systems’ Tim Dickson is an award-winning CIO who drives transformative change through technology and talent. He’s known as a digital game changer who operates at the intersection of advanced technology and business strategy. And he does it by fulfilling four “CEO” roles: chief enablement officer, chief elevation officer, chief enrichment officer, and chief energy officer. 

In a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, we unpacked those four roles as well as Dickson’s career journey, lessons learned, and leadership superpowers — in particular, his focus on building community around the technology, not just on building the technology itself. Afterwards, we spent some more time discussing the changing role of the CIO, the story he’s writing around data and AI, how he gets the most from his strategic vendor partner relationships, and more. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: The role of the CIO has been elevated in recent years, and though it’s not for the faint of heart, most would say there’s never been a better time to be a CIO or an IT professional. What’s your take on the changing role of the CIO?

Tim Dickson: I have a funny story that sort of encompasses it. What is the one thing a CIO has in his back pocket when he takes a new job? It’s the 90-day plan. Everybody knows that. It’s well versed and well written. So I came into Generac with my approach for my 90-day plan. My boss, who’s the CEO, said, ‘That’s a great plan, Tim. I need that in two weeks.’

That summarizes how the role of the CIO is changing. The old approaches don’t really work anymore. The traditional CIO isn’t what companies are looking for. I think everyone knows, in this role, you’re expected to do more, you have to do more, and you can do more to be more relevant for your company and your boss. In this particular case, I’m very fortunate to work directly for the CEO. He expected that. I could have any title, but if there’s a component of digital strategy and data and AI that I can help with, he’s going to expect me to do that. If there’s an aspect of business strategy, he expects me to do that. If there’s an aspect of taking on the contact center, which is not normally in an IT profile, he expects me to do that. So you’re expected to do more in your role as the CIO, and I think that’s why the role is changing.

What’s the story you’re writing around data and AI right now?

It’s pretty cool one. It’s what we won the award for at the CIO 100 Symposium & Awards event this year. It’s called PowerINSIGHTS, and I think it’s one that a lot of manufacturing companies can learn from. It’s also a Wisconsin story. There’s a lot of legacy manufacturing companies in the state of Wisconsin, and what happens over the course of the years when manufacturing companies ship all these assets that have warranties and things of that nature? They naturally get into the IoT space. These assets start emitting data. It’s just the natural evolution of something. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle emits data. A Generac generator emits data. Rockwell is here — they have a ton of stuff that emits data.

So these older manufacturing companies that were legacy in some of their ways of doing business or processes now can be cool tech companies because they’re emitting data. They’re now in the IoT space, and what you do with IoT data can help benefit your business through AI and also your customers through AI. To me, it was an awesome evolution of Generac. At the time I was joining, the door was wide open to collect and consolidate all this IoT data from all of our products from across the country and across the world, show that in a geospatial visualization map, and then wrap a whole bunch of AI on top of that in terms of trends and power outages and predictive models and where we potentially could generate more business in areas we weren’t in before.

All these things are now possible because we brought all the data together into one place. We made that visually appealing to people. We wrapped AI into it, and it’s now a force to be reckoned with. This is a tool that not only our internal sales and marketing teams use to drive more business to Generac, but it’s also now in the hands of our dealers, our customers, to leverage them to sell more of our stuff as well.

What makes this possible is getting your arms around the data, connecting, consolidating, and getting that in one platform in one location. Because you never know what is going to be created and what’s possible as a result of two different pieces of data that have never been connected before now being connected. I have this phrase that I use: Can you connect the dots? And if you can connect the dots and see what could be possible when things are brought together that don’t normally do so, then there’s a wonderful world of opportunity. That was the challenge at hand and that’s what we did with PowerINSIGHTS.

We can’t do it alone, which means you need to lean on your technology vendor partnerships. What criteria do you use for determining who to invest in?

I was the new guy in town three years ago, so I’ll give anyone the benefit of the doubt. But for any of my strategic vendor partners and any new vendor partner, if they buy into my vision, buy into my strategy, and are willing to partner very early on — not necessarily give away free software, but train my team, show them how it’s used, make it more than a transaction, and give up a little something in the beginning to potentially get the business longer term — those are the folks I enjoy working with.

CIOs are not going to buy software on the spot. They want to see that the vendor partner can become a strategic vendor partner and is willing to give a little and invest in your strategy and vision in the beginning to get that longer-term business down the road. To me, that’s been an awesome philosophy. Microsoft, Databricks, UiPath, and a few others have been big partners of ours because they were willing to sit down and understand what I wanted to do as CIO of this company and how I wanted my team to be viewed as those tech experts who now knew this new emerging tech and could champion that with the company. That’s what has allowed us to do so much over these last three years. Not every vendor partner is going to do that, but the ones that do have that long-lasting relationship.

You’re pretty proactive about having them come in and do lunch and learns and really help educate your team and expand their horizons.

It’s like a trifecta kind of win. The vendor partner gets a chance to show their stuff to a company they may never have worked with before. They get to meet my team, who, just naturally if you’re in IT, you are curious and interested about learning new tech. And if you can do that in a fun and collaborative way over lunch with some training or some videos and some best practices from how they’ve done it with other customers, that is a recipe for collaboration and success. You make learning fun, you make upskilling fun, you make emerging tech easy to learn in that way, and somebody is going to grab hold of it and run with it. That’s what you hope at the end of the day.

Do you find that they can often fall into the same trap as those in our own profession sometimes do in terms of showing up and communicating in a features-heavy, transactional way as opposed to focusing on business outcomes and relationship building?

I call that the difference between PowerPoint and product. What you’re looking for from that partner is, are they willing to listen to what you have to say? Are they willing to trust that you know enough about the business, that if they’re going to invest their time, their money, their technology, that they will get something out of it? Because it’s a bet on their side as well.

In this day and age, that’s an awesome recipe. They win, you win, and that relationship and that trust is where you want it, not only in that company, but if you go on to a different company, you’re going to trust those partners and you’re going to bring those folks in. So they have to see that there’s a different way of selling than just a transaction. If they’re willing to put in the time and listen and give just a little bit upfront for that longer-term return, then there’s a spot for them in my portfolio.

How do you stay ahead of trends, anticipate patterns, and lean in with your partners to give your business an edge?

I will say this, and this is a part of your personality profile, risk aversion right now is not a great thing. If you’re not willing to take a chance and see what that new tech can do, you’re leaving something on the table that is going to take years to try to get back if, in fact, you can even get it back.

Take ChatGPT. Everyone comes back from Christmas holiday and all of a sudden ChatGPT is in our face. If you asked the audience at a typical tech conference, I bet 50% would say they turned off or blocked ChatGPT at that time. We saw it as an opportunity. We saw it as an opportunity not only for IT to step up and learn about this thing and how to leverage it, but as an opportunity to potentially drive business value, in customer experience, user experience, whatever that may be.

So we issued a policy right off the bat and educated people about what this thing was. We had a ChatGPT hackathon early on where we had a strategic vendor partner come in and show us what other folks are doing with this thing. They taught us about internal use cases and external use cases. And now we have three launches happening here over the next month or two of our own private instance of ChatGPT we generated. They’re huge initiatives for the company and they’re definitely going to move the needle.

If we were not willing to take some risks, we couldn’t have done it. I’ve got cybersecurity but I also have digital, data, and AI. That’s a healthy tension. I had to get my cyber guy along the ride with where my head of digital wanted to go, and that’s a unique paradigm that I think a lot of people don’t have. But if you were risk averse when ChatGPT came out, you probably didn’t see the possibilities that are now evident. I think over the course of the next few months or so, you’re going to start seeing some pretty cool things that some organizations are doing — hopefully ours as well — with OpenAI and generative AI.

Getting first mover advantage is a big deal, but you can’t just hit a switch with AI and be in this game. What does the business need to be aware in terms of what is involved?

Anyone who’s built an AI model before knows it might not be the most accurate in the beginning, and that’s the one thing the business might not be ready for. You have to have that operations aspect of IT where you are constantly feeding new data that might lend to different types of insights. You have to have that model trained. It absolutely is going to get better over time, but you need to have patience with some of your business partners and help them understand that that is going to have to take place for it to be really fine-tuned and deliver on the insights. I think that’s potentially where some of the frustration could be with some of this. It might not yield that result initially, but if you stick with it and feed the engine, so to speak, it will over time.

What we’re finding, which is probably consistent with anyone who’s leveraging this, is that it becomes a factor, a model or couple of models, or an option to look at. I don’t think it’s going to replace a lot of things early on, but it will augment a person, it will augment a process, it might augment another piece of tech, and that’s a healthy thing. It’s showing its value compared to some of the things that are currently in the toolbox. Right now, it is being used as an additional option, if you will, that will provide additional insights. I think over time, it will take on a bigger role in our decision-making.

With the speed, the pace, the complexity, and the expectation to do more, what makes it such a great time to be in this profession?

There is so much new tech out there, and you have a sort of complete purview of it all. Just look at the cybersecurity space. The investments going on there and what potentially can be done now as a result of cyber is mind boggling. So if you can understand the tech, and as a CIO, that’s job description number one, there are so many awesome possibilities of leveraging that knowledge and power to either move the company forward, to transform your organization, or create new business models, which is what digital transformation is all about — creating new business models or acquiring new companies maybe that take you into a new space.

It starts with that foundation of understanding the tech. Because you’re at an advantage. The business folks are expected to know the business. But if you know the tech really well and know how that can impact the business with these ideas, these potential solutions, these innovations, these new go-to-market products, you’re that much more valuable to the company and you’ll be seen as not just the CIO, you’ll be seen as much more.

For more from Tim Dickson’s leadership playbook, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.


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