John A. Oborn on Building the CIO Role

When he came to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, John Oborn didn’t just have to start a new job; he had to build it.

Oborn shares lessons from his year of building the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s CIO role from scratch.

Prepare for a time trip.

Leadership is what I was hired for. They needed someone to set the direction and bring people into the current century, if you will. I joked with friends when I first got here, saying, “Well, the job is great. It doesn’t pay that well, but I did get a DeLorean so I can travel back and forth in time to get to work.” It was truly like walking into the 1970s when I came here. It’s slowly evolving. I think we’re in the 2000s now. Not sure we’re up to 2015 yet, but we’re inching closer.

In case of emergency: apply first aid.

I have a mantra that I’ve used for years that goes something like: you pick the battles that matter; you fight the battles that you can win. Being able to discern the right ones to take on is a key lesson that I brought from other roles that has been very useful here.

I basically applied the principles of first aid. We had a number of issues that were impacting how people were able to get work done, so we had to stop that bleeding. Getting everyone on the same operating system, making the data center current, and creating architecture standards—those were things that had to be done. Now I can start thinking about strategy. I’ve got stability in the environment, and now I can say, “Lets talk about where we need to be focused for the next three to five years.”

Get your hands dirty.

I’ve had to dust off and relearn a lot of skills I haven’t used in a long time. Years ago, I could write code and build databases and things like that. Now, I’m getting my fingernails dirty alongside everyone else. That’s what you have to do when you’re in a small organization like this. I think people appreciate that. When they know you’re willing to get down on your hands and knees and wire computers and help them install stuff, it goes a long way in building trust and credibility.

Talk, collaborate, and listen.

The thing that has always been key for me is communication. Talk to people all the time about everything. Let them know what’s going on. They’re not going to like everything you do, but as long as you communicate with them you’re going to be far more successful than if you just go out and try to get things done and then say, “Here it is.”

Listen. Take the time to get to know your constituents, who the stakeholders are, what it’s like for them today and what their aspirations are for how the technology should support them. I have to listen to my staff because they’ve been here a lot longer than I have. I rely on them very much.

Don’t worry about being up to date.

I’m having more fun at this job than I’ve had at others, and it’s because of the challenges. We’re talking about bringing an organization up to the level that other companies have been at for years. I don’t always have the latest technology, and I don’t have all certified engineers on staff, but I’ve got good people, people who believe in what they’re doing, and a management team that believes I’m bringing them where they need to be. It’s a very satisfying position in that regard, and sooner or later we will get up to the current decade.