Interview with Jane Aboyoun

Jane Aboyoun: Visionary leader passionate about driving technological change and guiding companies through organizational and digital transformations.


Jane is an Interim CTO and Consultant with a wealth of experience working with organisations such as Haymarket Media US, Estee Lauder and The New York Public Library.

In this interview you will get some fantastic insight and ideas on leadership and how a world class digital transformation helped transform a beloved, trusted, public city library into the digital 21st century that can be accessed by future generations. 


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What are your top 3 priorities in your most role?

There has never been a better or more exciting time to be in technology.  My top priority as a C-Suite Tech leader is to use my expertise to quickly identify technology solutions that help my clients thrive in the ever-changing digital landscape.  For example, I am helping my current client start to build out a ‘big data’ infrastructure in the cloud to enable them to harness their data in a better way and create new revenue streams.

 

Second, its critical to create flexible, yet secure technology platforms that support business growth. Setting a sound technology foundation in place ensures that organizations have the fundamentals required to remain competitive and enables them to navigate the technology future.

 

Finally, I look to stay on top of technological advances and really understand how trends, products and platforms apply to the work that I’m doing. I am also constantly balancing possible change opportunities with the readiness of my clients to accept that change. Knowing how far to push my clients is a key part of my role. Just because a technology is available, doesn’t always mean it’s right for them.


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Which previous role had the biggest impact on your career?

From 2011-2016, I was the CTO of the New York Public Library. I spent my time there transforming the library from a brick and mortar entity into a digital library that can now be accessed remotely throughout the world. This initiative proved to be a great training ground in how to manage the complexity of upgrading infrastructure, moving applications to the cloud and building a digital repository at the same time.  These initiatives have made a significant impact on the New York Public Library and positioned them well for the future. 

 

By way of background, the NYPL is both a collection of scholarly research and circulating libraries. In fact, there are 88 circulating libraries across three boroughs of New York City, in addition to four research libraries where scholars from around the world come to the New York Public Library to do their work.

 

When I first arrived at the library, I toured various locations.  In some branches I saw “Out of Order” signs posted on the public computers.  The newest devices and operating systems were at least 6 years old and it went downhill from there!   Many of the major applications used to run the library were also really old and had been heavily modified, leaving them ineligible for upgrades.  I found hard drives containing digitized material under desks; an attempt to preserve some of the library’s priceless assets which were at risk of deterioration.

 

So, first up was to get the basic IT stuff working. This required addressing the infrastructure – the computing environment and the equipment.  We defined what the next generation desktop looked like and began a massive upgrade program. 

 

The next piece of my strategy was to start moving the infrastructure and the applications into the cloud, to improve our resiliency, security and functionality. Moving to Gmail and the Google suite created a huge advantage.  We also quickly moved our payroll applications and our finance applications to the cloud as well, using Workday. This turned out to be incredibly important because it enabled people to communicate and ultimately get paid.  Proof of this system’s resiliency was when hurricane Sandy hit, and we never missed a beat.

 

The third component of my strategy was really figuring out how to preserve the library’s physical assets which were expiring from age. The library has this huge collection of rare assets. We decided to digitize assets as a way of more permanently preserving them.  We built software to help ingest audio, video, images, and born digital material and moved these into a safe digital repository which could then be accessed by the public and researchers at a later date. Within 5 years, the repository had over a Petabyte of assets in it and was continuing to grow.

 

As a result of these initiatives, we created a world class computing environment, moving a beloved, trusted, public city library into the digital 21st century that can be accessed by future generations.


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How do you see the role of the Technology Leader changing?

What I see happening is that the pace of change is so much more rapid than it was in the past. Tech leaders definitely need to keep an open mind and be able to reinvent themselves, because what organizations need now from the CIO/CTO has changed. The entire technology landscape is constantly evolving.  Being able to recognize this, pivot at speed and adopt new technology within the organization is now an essential skillset for technology leaders.  In fact, as a technology leader, we need to be constantly looking around corners.  As they say, if you don’t like change, you will like obsolescence even less…


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What are the 3 most important issues confronting the technology industry?

First up, privacy and security.  Technology Chiefs today need to understand evolving data and privacy standards, as well as how to secure data and how to identify breaches of it. As we know, data is being collected everywhere, particularly with the advent of IoT and this data is proving to be an extremely valuable resource.  So, securing data and individual privacy is a primary concern.

 

Another issue is the moral and ethical issues around AI.  While the opportunities are limitless, it is of utmost importance that we maintain our moral and democratic compass and that we apply technology in a way that benefits society. We see some of the largest technology platforms in the world today trying to tackle these ethical issues.  It’s a challenging to get the balance right between innovation, opportunity and ethics, but it’s a battle worth fighting.

 

The third issue for me would be around information overload - filtering out unnecessary and even damaging information. There is so much coming at us today and interpreting it all and knowing what’s important can be extremely challenging. It’s hard to chart your course as a leader when one is being bombarded with information. In a tsunami of data however, knowing what to pay attention to; knowing what is real and what isn’t real has never been more important. This is where go-to trusted news and academic sources come into play.


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What 3 technology trends are you most excited about and why?

 As I mentioned before, the ‘internet of things’ (IoT) is now everywhere and the data that’s being collected at the edge is very, very interesting. From a consumer perspective, everything is “smart” today; even your refrigerator!  We are just beginning to see how this can impact our lives and the companies we work for.

 

AI and machine learning are on the cusp of making a “next level” leap. It's very exciting, as there are lots of promising applications out there.  My sense is that we are now at the forefront of another new era in technology.  AI used in the right way, for example in agriculture to predict food shortages, could have tremendous impact.  Applying AI could help to create better conditions for farming food for the world. I think there are lots of really good applications, we just need to figure out how to use them responsibly.


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What product or company is having the biggest impact?

Not so much over the last 12 months, but any cloud-based tool is what is really making the greatest impact. The fact that you really only need a browser, or even a phone, to access anything, at any time is a game changer. Collaboration tools like G-suite and video conferencing has made the globe a lot smaller and created access to a much larger resource pool. I think all these kinds of cloud-based and collaboration tools, have made a huge impact in the way we work and execute.


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What mobile app do you use every day?

It’s going to sound boring, but the thing I use every day is my calendar. I keep myself organized and try to better manage all the balls I have in the air, so my calendar is absolutely critical.


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What 3 skills should an aspiring Technology Leader look to develop?

Ironically, as Its not technology related, I think the most important skill set a leader can have is emotional intelligence and empathy, both of which need to be constantly developed.

 

It's also important for aspiring leaders to maintain curiosity and to ask questions; to challenge the status quo.  The pace of change is so fast that you  have to be open to new things and new ways of doing things. I don’t think there’s ever just one way.

 

Finally, aspiring leaders should not dwell on failures. When pushing forward, there will undoubtedly be failures along the way and the key is to quickly course correct and move on.  Don’t let it drag you down and don’t get stuck.  Acknowledge it and move on.


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Where do you look for trusted technology information & inspiration?

There’s so much out there – a plethora of stuff. Two people I follow are Dan Fagella from EMERJ, and Bernard Marr – they both focus on AI and its motivating to hear and read what they have to say. I also read the technology review from MIT. I listen to technology podcasts during my train commute; and I learn a lot from other technologists, business people, and different vendors that I come into contact with.


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What books should someone looking to get on in their technology career read?

Nothing in Tech gets done by individuals.  We rely on teams, so it’s good to read up on how to build teams and on how to build better relationships with the people you work with. If one is to be successful, you can’t do it alone and you have to rely on strong relationships which need empathy and reciprocity to thrive.


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If you could tell your 20-year-old self-one bit of information that would enable them to get on in their career, what would it be and why?

When I think back to the beginning of my career, even though I had no idea what I was doing, I always had confidence that I would find a way.  My motto is to believe in yourself and play to your strengths. Act as if you can and before you know it, you will!