Don’t like your future? Make up a new one yourself - CIO careers advice from the frontline

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood May 21, 2019
At 55, strategy consultant Jukka Virkkunen found himself getting a little too expensive for his clients. His solution? Go back to study - then become a CIO of ambitious Finnish Robotic Process Automation player

Jukka Virkkunen

Jukka Virkkunen is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Finnish startup Digital Workforce, which pitches itself as one of the leading Robotic Process Automation (RPA) service providers in Europe both in terms of revenue and headcount - though it seems to be pushing a variant of the RPA term, Intelligent Process Automation, instead of the more familiar ‘RPA’ term.

Based in Helsinki, Digital Workforce says it has automated over 1,000 business processes for its customers, currently mostly in Nordic financial services sector. Projects it has delivered including helping build a so-day ‘robotic processes Centre of Excellence’ at Nordea, for example, and using its solutions to improve service quality at local government level at the Finnish city of Espoo.

Being the CIO of a company is different from being the internal tech lead for any other sort of company. Virkkunen says he has less ‘keeping the lights on’ or fire-fighting work than the average CIO, with a remit to support the firm in terms of technology as part as a technology sales cycle - but he does fully understand what the job typically means:

The challenge with the traditional CIO role is that organisations have a lot of legacy. Our privilege is that, since we are a new company, using only cloud solutions, we don't have that legacy, or very little of it. 

That has enabled us to use our time to build new stuff. Also, when we started out, we decided that we have to eat our own dog-food, as they say: we don't have a single physical server. Everything is cloud-based and we are using our own offering, too, so we can say that we are a 100% cloud company - which actually gives us a new kind of insight into business and to business development. 

That is what is very often missing from traditional CIO work, or where, traditionally, CIOs of big companies are struggling; they don't have enough time for technology evaluation. They are always too busy just running the store. And I know a lot of CIOs would like to be having a more strategic role, but what I see and what I hear when I'm discussing with our customers is that actually, a good CIO needs first of all to have real insight into business, so that they can help lead the response to new business needs and provide the right kind of resources to help.

If Virkkunen’s time isn’t spent on ‘BAU’ work, then, what does he do with himself all day? He explains: 

Like with all CIOs, I think, fairly often my contribution is to act in an advisory role. The team has challenges and problems which they need input on how to solve. My role is quite often sharing my personal industry experience to help them to choose the right solution from the options they have on the table.

It’s also a continuous discussion with technology vendors, and I meet quite often customers, discussing ow to enhance the services we are delivering to them, which vary from consulting and a process maintenance service. In fact, I have used majority of my time here, probably, developing these continuous services offerings; we spent one and a half years to build up applicable processes. And we have already ISO 2001 certification - we had only 15 people when we started the project to achieve that, and I am pretty sure we were the smallest company in the world who has started that kind of a journey. In fact, we are the only company on the market with an ISO 2001-certified RPA robot services as a result.

A new direction ‘later in life’

Virkkunnen - who started his career at the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) 30 years ago, and whose CV includes an eight year stint at ICL-Fujitsu - says he didn’t train as a technologist to start with, instead coming into the sector as a sales professional before moving into the early days of e-business in the mid 1990s, followed by a chunk of time in the invoicing software world. But then, something happened: 

A bit later in life, I decided to study again and I did my MBA at Henley Business School in the UK, focusing on strategy execution - so now I was a strategy consultant, which I did for a couple of years. Eventually, I found myself, at 55, in a place where in Finland, it’s a little bit challenging to find unique roles: you are either too old, too expensive, or too experienced. So I said that, ‘Okay, let's figure out something new,’ and a set of conversations happened that led to me joining what soon became Digital Workforce, where I agreed to take on the CIO and technology development role.

And indeed, technology and thinking about technology, is a huge part of what he does everyday:

I’m always looking for new ways to build up a competitive advantage into organisations, and our new AI initiative is a perfect example of that, work I kicked off about a year ago. Our company's focused on automating and bringing intelligence to customers' business and admin processes, but while we are automating their core business processes with RPA and also bringing Machine Learning to bear on these issues, as it stands 80% of all data in most organisations is still unstructured data. 

So we have put a lot of effort in during last 12 months to devise technology - we call it as a pre-processing - on how to take that unstructured data, classify it and use it as a part of the business process. My role has also been to work with all the new AI and PhD hires we have joining us to decide which are the really relevant technologies in this context, deciding what kind of components we need to build up a pre-processing solution to our customers along the lines I am thinking of.

No need for piloting a technology your competitors are already using

Virkkunen's career advice for anyone striving to do a job like the one he has is simple enough:

I think it has to be about having curiosity about new things - being active and looking for new challenges, new ideas. I have been always very fond of new challenges. I'm less about routines than creating new things. 

And when it comes to AI and RPA, my recommendation is start today: there is no sense spending time on proof of concept, or long evaluation periods or pilots. Show the business today that they can start to deliver results immediately and provide a new kind of productivity with this technology. 

If you don't start to use new technology to create a new kind of competitive advantage, competitors will do it anyway - so you will just be too late.