Jo Ann Saitta had the good luck to take a programming class in high school, back when most schools—especially in secondary education—weren’t offering such things. That class changed the course of her life.
Without it, she wouldn’t have known computer science was an option. Not only did she go on to obtain her BA and master’s in computer science, but she was hired by IBM directly out of college, where she spent the next eleven years. Saitta was a part of the IT revolution, and working with IBM, she was able to watch the various phases of the industry unfold.
Before taking her current role as chief digital officer of The CDM Group, the world’s largest fully-integrated global health-care communications company, she spent time at Prudential Financial, and then jumped to health-care commercialization and communications companies. It’s the versatility the IT industry enables that has long been a selling point to the CDO.
“Data is our most valuable resource and we’re going to preserve it, optimize it, and strengthen it to be used for good purposes and best practices.”
“I’ve always loved how technology skills and knowledge were transferable from one industry to another,” Saitta says. “Moving into different verticals offers even more experience. If I hadn’t moved away from coding into other areas, I wouldn’t have gained any people management experience. I still love solving problems with technology, but I can also say that if you don’t know the business side, you’re only going to get so far and have limited impact.”
The role Saitta now holds, chief digital officer, isn’t one that always existed, especially not with the frequency it does now. According to MIT Sloan Management Review, the emergence of the CDO role began around 2010, mostly in media and retail industries, and primarily for the purpose of blending business initiatives with social media savvy. Now, the role is appearing across all industries with a decidedly different purpose: to provide oversight and strategy, using social and digital technologies to make an impact on the overall organization.
“As the role continues to emerge and companies continue to define what they need from it, it only provides a better foundation to expand,” Saitta explains. “Not only does the role enable companies to streamline their processes, but it also enables them to monetize technology.”
Saitta says that a succesful CDO will master cross-functional skills, noting that executives need to understand how to transfer technology to business. And perhaps what’s becoming even more important is that they have to lead and motivate people to both support and buy into a company’s digital strategy.
Saitta stresses the importance of understanding business; it’s no longer good enough to be proficient at coding or stay on top of tech trends. Unless they can understand the business and finance sides and develop the people skills to break down complicated tech talk in a way that non-IT people can understand, executives are dead in the water.
“More and more we’re seeing financial strategies being developed around tech initiatives,” Saitta says. “In that way, the CDO is responsible for transformation, and without getting people to buy in to what you’re doing, you won’t get the support, funding, or resources you need to make things happen.”
Thanks to media representations, many have ideas in their heads about IT folks: primarily men, geeky, off in their own techy world, disconnected from the organization. But people like Saitta are changing the landscape, embodying the attributes she says are necessary to be a successful IT leader. She has an aversion to the term “IT,” arguing that it evokes the wrong images and value propositions for business technology leaders.
“You need communication skills, leadership and team building skills, and technical skills,” Saitta says. “You have to have an understanding of the industry, but also the business. You should have the ability to be a change agent without being a bulldozer. Influencing others is important, and so are critical thinking skills and a keen understanding of data.”
Being a change agent requires understanding where an industry has been in order to work to meet its future needs. According to Saitta, health care will only come to rely more heavily on technology, especially in ways that help patients become more empowered. Moving forward, Saitta has to ensure The CDM Group doesn’t become technologically stagnant. She wants the company to thrive as the industry continues to change, and technology becomes more central to how providers and patients interact and exchange information.
“My focus is going to be applying technology to improve health care and communication and developing products that make that possible,” she says. “I want to really use data and have it be a key driver in all the products we produce. Data is our most valuable resource, and we’re going to preserve it, optimize it, and strengthen it to be used for good purposes and best practices.”