June 20, 2019 All, International Business
CIOs and CDOs: What does the Future hold? – In the world of Logistics
Imran N. Haque
A candid conversation with Tianbing Qian (TQ), SVP & Chief Digital Information Officer of Ports America
I had a chance to catch up with Tianbing Qian on the topic of the role of the modern leader in the technology and digital sphere. Tianbing is affectionately known as TQ among his colleagues, friends and peers. Even though I’ve only known TQ for the past couple of years, I recognized his leadership and collaborative skills at our first meeting, and he has been a mentor to me since then. A bit about TQ’s background: he received his bachelors and masters in engineering in China and then received another masters in computer science at the University of Iowa, followed by a PhD in operations management also from the University of Iowa. His work experience spans brands like Motorola, Celestica, and to his current position as SVP and chief digital information officer at Ports America. Ports America is the largest terminal operator and stevedore in the US and operates in more than 42 ports, providing terminal services across container, break bulk and cruise markets.
Here is an excerpt of our conversation about the topic of the modern leader in the technology and digital sphere.
Me: TQ, you have a lot of college degrees! Was there a method to this overachieving list or was it more opportunistic? Is this something you planned?
TQ: (laughs) I certainly spent a lot of time in graduate school, probably way too many years, and definitely not a result of careful planning. And I am not sure whether anyone wants to follow that model at all. (laughs) I studied engineering because I am an engineer at heart, but when I came to the US for graduate school, I picked operations management because I saw the power of using optimization, statistics, machine learning, and quantitative modeling in general to solve real world business problems. One year into my PhD program, I realized that just doing a math model on a spreadsheet (that was 20 years ago!) is not enough, so I did a computer sciences degree in parallel to ensure that I could be both math- and IT-savvy at the same time. This combination of study is a bit unique, but using IT/automation, advanced analytics, and business process improvement puts three levers together, which has been a passion of mine over the past 22 years. It has been a fun and rewarding journey.
Me: So tell me what this means in terms of leadership.
TQ: Imran, you’ve experienced the logistic and transportation business, so you know what it takes to be successful in this space. This industry is all about efficiency and automation, and I’ve always had a commercial focus on customer experience. But then if you look at the bigger picture, you will see there is significant inefficiency across the entire value chain, caused by the lack of collaboration amongst all the players. So even if one can optimize to the full extent within an individual company’s four walls, the overall efficiency of the industry is still not satisfactory. To solve that, one needs to look at the broader supply chain, using new business models enabled by digital and by advanced analytics, to enable the entire value chain to function smoothly with little waste. That will be the next generation of leadership challenge for all of us.
Me: So, in your current role you wear the hat of both Chief Digital Officer and Chief Information Officer as a single role. What are your views on this being a single role or multiple role in an organization?
TQ: Well, actually, it also includes the role of Chief Analytics Officer! (chuckles) Nowadays you see a lot of companies hire a CIO, then hire a Chief Digital Officer, then hire a Chief Data or Analytics Officer. On one hand, it speaks for the fact that companies are increasingly focusing on IT, on digital, and on analytics. On the other hand, I am a huge believer in all these roles being combined into one, i.e. one leader who is savvy in IT, digital, and analytics, and holds overall responsibility for all these three areas. This is the best way for any company, large or small, to drive true digital transformation, to manage cost effectively and make asset allocation changes smoothly across these three areas, and to achieve the most significant business outcomes in the shortest period of time. I think the future of the industry demands one role to drive all three things — IT, digital, and analytics — whatever the name of the role is.
Me: So how is that different from the more traditional or typical CIO role?
TQ: I think if a CIO is truly business and customer savvy, then you don’t need a digital officer to help drive business value using technology. If that role also has an advanced analytics background, then you don’t need to hire a Chief Analytics Officer to help get value out of data. That is why I think the three roles should be in one. If you have three officers, each would have their own teams and agendas. While they will collaborate, at the end of the day the synergy is not as strong as if one role was driving progress and integration across all three areas.
Me: How have you evolved your team and their skills as your responsibilities in your role have grown?
TQ: I am a big believer in using organizational design principles. I have a good understanding of the skills of my team, and my job as a manager is to evolve these skills across multiple dimensions. Therefore, over the years I’ve given more responsibility to those in my leadership teams who have been able to evolve their skill set across key dimensions. There is no greater joy than to mentor a talented leadership team and witness them grow over the years.
Me: So what is your advice to aspiring managers who wish to become “C” level executives?
TQ: Evaluate the industry and the company’s needs, acquire those skills by asking for roles that will get you experiences to enhance these skill sets. It is critical to ask for these experiences, since it shows your desire and career intent. I’ve seen a lot of talented individuals who are not able to ask for the next role and thus never get it!
Me: Finally, what do you foresee as key technology trends of the future?
TQ: Use IoT and other tools to capture more data in real time, use AI/machine learning to discovery new insights to drive actions, and then use these capabilities combined together to create new customer services and new digitally enabled business models. That will be the theme of focus for the next few years and will create a ton of opportunities for value creation.
Me: Thank you, TQ!
Imran Haque is a founding partner at Mentors Fund, an early stage VC and also a principal at Sabii Digital. This article represents Imran and TQ’s personal views and does not represent the views of any company.