Isaac Sacolick, Portrait of the New CIO

Isaac Sacolick is a tech leader comfortable jumping from complex problems to business value generation to the social world, where all that knowledge is ready to be shared.

With the pace of digital advancements increasing, today’s CIO simply can’t be complacent. Isaac Sacolick has never been content with the status quo—and he didn’t come up through traditional IT roles.

While his peers were climbing the corporate ladder, Sacolick was busy creating tech startups like TripConnect (a web 2.0 social travel hub), a network of software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions for newspaper companies, and analysis solutions for genetic researchers. The work has given him insight into how a CIO can leverage many roles to rethink business models and capabilities. The experience enabled Sacolick to be a transformational CIO at two McGraw Hill businesses:BusinessWeek (now owned and published by Bloomberg) and McGraw Hill Construction. An entrepreneur, social networking guru, media specialist, business intelligence architect, blogger, and speaker, Sacolick is the portrait of the new CIO.

Sacolick’s trajectory goes back to his childhood. When he was twelve years old, he asked his father for an Atari 2600, but Sacolick’s father refused. One day, however, Sacolick came home to find a new computer. “My dad said that just buying video games was a waste of time,” Sacolick says. “If I wanted to play games, I’d have to program them myself.” And that’s just what Sacolick did. Soon, he was learning how to program from the back of computer magazines and even running his own bulletin board.

The budding passion took Sacolick to the University of Arizona and State University of New York at Binghamton where he completed undergraduate and advanced degrees in electrical engineering, but focused on artificial intelligence and computing algorithms. Upon graduation, he worked in software at a biology company and joined a SaaS company that helped newspapers transform their businesses from print to digital. Through products that he architected and others the company acquired, Sacolick had 1,600 newspaper clients and became a CTO early in his career.

“Companies these days have to work more collaboratively to survive, and the CIO should be the person that’s the matchmaker to put the right people together with the right technology, ideas, and tools to bring innovation.”

After launching a startup in travel and social networking, Sacolick knew he needed to work with major brands if he ever wanted to be more than a serial entrepreneur. That’s when, in 2007, he joined McGraw Hill to do at an enterprise level what he built his career on in startups. In his first position with the organization, he launchedBusinessWeek’s social media product, built a system to aggregate web content, established agile project-management practices, and deployed advanced data and measurement capabilities.

From there, Sacolick built on his early wins in roles of increasing importance with McGraw Hill Financial and McGraw Hill Construction. Along the way, he developed his own philosophy for proactive IT engagement anchored by agility. “There’s a lot of talk about business and IT alignment, and I think CIOs struggle with this,” he says. “Agility is the key to transformation, because it increases the potential for innovation.”

To formulate an agile process, Sacolick creates diverse, cross-functional teams that interact closely and work with stakeholders to identify problems. The team then brainstorms solutions in what Sacolick calls agile estimation—a process to think out multiple solutions, debate the priority of requirements, and finalize development estimates. The team brings solutions to market quickly, focusing on feedback that will drive enhancements. “These practices force a dialogue between stakeholders and an IT team about the most essential priorities,” he says. “If you focus on the most important thing for two or three weeks, you can get a lot of proactive IT engagement.” Through these practices, the agile CIO enables the IT team to deliver, while the business focuses on what it can accomplish in a short period of time.

There is some danger, though. In this model, IT professionals are often asked to do more than they can handle. Transparency becomes critical. “It may seem risky, but it drives solutions,” Sacolick says. “The IT team hears clear struggles and opportunities and must be more creative.” After getting everything out on the table through open dialogue, IT teams can repurpose technology platforms for multiple capabilities by getting people from various groups together to think through ideas and experiment. “Companies these days have to work more collaboratively to survive, and the CIO should be the person that’s the matchmaker to put the right people together with the right technology, ideas, and tools to bring innovation,” Sacolick says.

Sacolick isn’t keeping his ideas to himself. In fact, over time, he’s become an evangelist for the engaged CIO. “Education is a key part of the role, and that’s not just internal. It’s also about sharing in your field so your organization is known for having good leaders and strong IT,” he says. “The more I give, the more I get back.” Sacolick takes time to blog, tweet, and speak at industry events on his agile framework for innovation, self-service big data, data-science programs, and other collaborative business and IT practices.

Through his CIO positions, Sacolick has worked to simplify IT operations so he can spend more time on the customer and the applications. He launched five new products that run on just two platforms in a three-year period to help drive new revenue and improve customer retention. When it comes to the day-to-day, Sacolick spends his time leading development teams and asking questions to help leaders prioritize. By engaging leaders early, he can plan for needed capabilities months in advance. Then, he works on the business end to talk to product and sales people to drum up new business.

McGraw Hill Construction’s Dodge suite of products helps construction industry professionals find, bid on, and win projects through an elaborate and advanced database of construction projects. Since Dodge’s customers leverage its capabilities for many reasons, Sacolick’s teams have worked to create a flexible product with analytics and data-mining capabilities. By consolidating databases, standardizing one development strategy, and introducing a multipurpose set of APIs, Sacolick has been able to migrate a legacy platform and put out new product releases every few months.

Sacolick found success with Dodge by working closely with business leaders and says that CIOs need to maintain an active role. “Tech leaders delegate too much,” he says, encouraging his peers to stay as engaged as possible and to accept ideas from all angles. “The industry likes to use ideation platforms or take ideas from the top. A lot of really good ideas come from engaging inquisitive and knowledgeable individuals across the organization, too.”

Editor’s Note: All information current at time of interview on October 31, 2014. Sacolick has continued to redefine the position as CIO at leading global provider of market intelligence and advisory services Greenwich Associates.