Talking Tech Leadership
Last year, Brian Comerford and Nick Lozano began publicly discussing their insights and struggles within the ever-changing world of information technology.
Their podcast, Lead.exe, centers on the importance of leadership from a technology perspective. Comerford and Lozano get together twice a month to interview a wide variety of professionals, from radio personalities and SEO strategists, to rock and roll photographers. Leader’s Edge staff writer Zach Ewell sat down with them both to discuss how their joint interest in insurance and technology helped launch their popular streaming venture.
Listen to the full conversation at leadersedge.com/talkintech.
Lozano: Over the course of time, everyone is kind of turning into a technology company whether they like it or not. The example I like to use is Domino’s when they said, “We’re in the technology business—we just happen to sell pizza.” And what we’re seeing here, over time, is that the CIOs, CTOs, are being promoted to CEO over the CMOs, the CFOs and the COOs because the boards of these big corporations want people who are in touch with technology. And as technology individuals, we always have this feeling that we need to be constantly learning. We spend our time asking, “What’s the newest language? What’s the newest technology? What is Amazon doing? What is Google doing?” Looking outside of whatever industry we’re in. But we haven’t spent as much time doing that from our soft skills side.
Comerford: I’ve been in a management role for so many years that really the best way for me to try to keep my own skills fresh is having conversations with other technology leaders and reading a lot of resources, finding whatever information I can. Being able to participate in direct conversations is something that I know Nick and I have both shared a lot of passion around, particularly with some of the work that we’ve done in our [Council] CIO Working Group. And I think part of the process for me, also having a background in broadcast media, was that natural extension of some of those conversations being more public facing.
Lozano: I think the strongest misconception about technology in general is that it’s slow. We’re at a point, now, where technology has been consumerized. Ever since the invention of the iPhone, consumers have had their hands on some of the most advanced technology year over year over year. There was a point in time when you would go to your office and that was the best computer you could get and the best internet you could get. Nowadays, someone comes in their office, they log in. It’s a Windows machine, and they’re like, “This thing takes 45 seconds to log in. What the hell is wrong with this computer?!”
Comerford: I think one of the constraints for the industry is, like the banking industry, insurance was one of the first industries to computerize. So that was a good thing, because in the 1960s not a lot of industries were leveraging technology to advance how their companies worked. But part of the constraint comes when all the legacy that has been put in place, that is now actually holding back much of the industry. We’ve got a lot of aging systems that are not attuned to having modernized features like easy integration with web services or easy portability of the data actually stored in the system.
Comerford: There’s a very different mindset for that digital native kind of perspective than perhaps where I came from. For me as a mentor, I can help impart on younger generations to have more of an empathetic kind of view. I use a simple phrase with my teams pretty consistently: “Get in the chair.” And that’s my way of saying have some empathy to whatever the situation is. If someone says, “I’m having difficulty with a Skype meeting”—from a troubleshooting perspective, the technologist walks over and they look at all the settings and everything looks correct and they can see that, well, it’s connected right now—that’s not really analyzing the situation. That might be troubleshooting the technology, but you’re not asking questions of what’s really going on with the human-computer interaction.
That is one of those areas where there’s a lot of growth, and it’s especially needed for up-and-coming leaders in technology. Technologists tend to think in very binary terms. It’s either on or off. And if it’s on, well, then the technology must be working perfectly. But a leader, in my mind, has to have the ability to navigate a lot of gray area, and that might require asking questions that get you to details that are understated by the obvious.
Lozano: I’m going to add one, and it’s not an insurtech company. It’s Salesforce. They just released the financial services cloud, which could render obsolete a lot of what some of these insurtech companies are doing. The greatest thing about Salesforce is they’ve kind of deemed themselves as platform agnostic. It’s like, “Hey, this is a place where you put your data, and if you want to get anything out of it or plug anything else into it, go for it.”
Outside of the insurance industry, most industries in general are kind of positioning to this place where they had these monolithic systems that tried to do everything. Think of a Leatherman knife, right? You pull it out; it’s got a pair of pliers, a corkscrew, a bottle opener and a nail file. But it’s not a great pair of pliers, it’s not a great nail file, it’s not a great knife, because it’s trying to do everything.
Salesforce operates by saying, “We’re just the pliers. If you want to plug any other best-in-grade thing in here, go for it.” They can’t possibly answer every X, Y, Z scenario for you for an accounting system. They’re not an accounting system. They’re not a policy managing system. But you can plug in something else that can do that.
Comerford: I’ve been caught up in this Netflix series on Bill Gates’s brain. It’s been really fascinating exposure for me, because I felt like I knew a lot about Bill Gates. I’ve never really thought of Bill Gates as an innovator. You know, more of a fast follower who is able to take the innovations being created by others and make them into a mainstream product delivery just faster and more effectively, I think, than lot of his competitors.
But what’s particularly interesting about him at this phase in his life is, number one, he’s married to Melinda Gates and she’s a pretty fascinating person in and of herself. But number two, together they co-chair the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is out in the world trying to solve some issues that I just find fascinating. And particularly given that they’re trying to do things like eradicate diseases in all parts of the world that have been solved in the Western world for a long time.
Lozano: I would say Richard Branson. And a lot of it because he does have that philanthropy mentality, the same as Bill Gates. He’s built his fortune kind of all by himself. I mean, Virgin Records, he started that as a 17-year-old at his house in his mom’s garage—never went to college.
He’s just kind of always devoted to taking any money that he’s had to try to build something better. He was out doing privatized commercial space flight before Space X or Blue Origin or any of this stuff existed, and everyone told him he was absolutely insane for doing this. And he’s just like, “Well, I don’t care. Space travel should be privatized, and I’m gonna try to do it.” And then he’ll go out and he’ll try to fly a balloon around the world for some unknown reason because he read a book. He actually attempted to do it. I think they came up short, didn’t they? But what I like about him is he sees something and he just goes after it. He doesn’t care what the public thinks. If he thinks it’s the right thing to do, he just goes out and does it.