CXO

What if Elon Musk were a CIO?

By applying some of Musk's thinking you may achieve your own version of a moonshot within your organization--or a holiday party on Mars.

I am fascinated by Elon Musk. As someone who hit pay dirt in the early years of the internet boom, he could have easily lived a comfortable life, never to be heard from again. Instead, he created another successful internet company that ultimately became PayPal, which was sold to eBay for $1.5B in 2002. Perhaps having his fill of the software startups, he moved on to what one could jokingly call a slightly more ambitious pursuit: Creating a colony on Mars. Unable to find the rockets he needed at an affordable price, Musk created SpaceX to fill that gap.

In fairly rapid succession, he acquired Tesla and took on the world's automotive giants, created a company to bring solar power to the masses, began work on revolutionizing long-distance travel with the Hyperloop concept, and is attempting to interface the human brain with AI and simultaneously revolutionize subterranean transportation with the marvelously named The Boring Company. Any of these challenges would be seemingly insurmountable for most leaders, yet this portfolio of unimaginable challenges is the domain of a single person.

While I have no personal connection or relationship to Mr. Musk, it's interesting to imagine what a corporate IT function might look like if he applied his considerable talents to IT leadership.

SEE: CXO spotlight: The risks and rewards of fast IT (Tech Pro Research)

Radical transparency

Transparency is an over-used word, but by all accounts, Mr. Musk has an uncanny ability to rapidly understand even the most complex technical and managerial topics and see through their complexity, even at a fairly detailed level. As such, as a CIO, he would likely have an in-depth understanding of every system, team, and process nuance. In many companies, technology, and the organization that creates and maintains it is so complex most IT leaders simply cannot comprehend every aspect of the organization they manage, which in some cases allows for low-performance systems, processes, and people to hide in plain sight. Not so with Mr. Musk running the show. He'd likely identify and root out inefficiencies, creating a culture that simply wouldn't tolerate a suboptimal solution.

Build vs. buy

Despite being a "big iron" company that's increasingly moving towards volume manufacturing, Tesla has largely built most of its software in-house, preferring a streamlined, custom-built toolset to off-the-shelf package software. As an IT leader, Musk would likely apply a similar mindset, creating highly optimized in-house software that operates the organization to Musk's specifications rather than what some software vendor offers as a one-size-fits-all answer.

No tolerance for impossible

While I've worked with all manner of different people from a huge variety of companies around the world, I have yet to encounter an individual who woke up one day and thought "I'm going to figure out how to build a colony on Mars," and then acted on that ambition. While IT organizations are often faced with constraints around budget, time, and people, with Musk at the helm there would be little tolerance for these realities standing in the way of ambition.

SEE: Digital transformation in 2019: A business leader's guide to future challenges and opportunities (Tech Pro Research)

Audacious automation

Many of the technically-minded folks I've worked with in IT are passionate about technology, and the promise that it holds, but ultimately lose some of this passion while working in the confines of organizations that sometimes move at a glacial pace, or are more concerned by constraints than the art of the possible.

Musk has defied convention in nearly all of his professional endeavors, and would likely do the same leading the technology organization of a large company. It's relatively easy to imagine him questioning why there isn't more automation, more intelligence, and more technology helping humans avoid mundane tasks, ultimately creating an organization where technology handles the routine on autopilot and allows the humans to focus their energies on more important endeavors.

While I've never met Mr. Musk, I can't imagine him trading his various day jobs for an IT role in the near future. However, his ability to repeatedly question convention and ignore constraints, even when facing some of humanity's greatest challenges, is something that could be applied to any IT leader's career. Simply knowing that there's someone trying to figure out how to colonize Mars makes the constraints of managing an IT organization seem less burdensome, and by applying some of Musk's thinking you may be able to achieve your own version of a moonshot within your organization.

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Image: Getty/Robyn Beck

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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