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Casey Hall: Houston IT Symposium highlights Houston economy and importance of people

The fourth annual EFM Houston IT Symposium provided some great information to help all business leaders, not just IT leaders. As in prior years, the Houston SIM chapter participated in planning the event and an exciting agenda was assembled.

It’s the Economy

There was a panel discussion on business conditions moderated by Walter Ulrich from the Houston Technology Center. Key points were:

  • Jim Huntzinger & Casey HallJim Huntzinger, EVP and Chief Investment Officer (our “CIO” cousin) of BOK Financial, provided a great overview of the world economy (Jim and I are pictured at right). Most developed countries continue to endure slow growth but some of the European political concerns related to Brexit and the refugee flows appear to not be having as negative an impact as pundits had warned against. Jim finds Japan to be the bigger “head-scratcher” (direct quote) as it has had near zero interest rates for decades (now negative) and the central bank has been buying equities in addition to bonds. None of these actions have been able to drive real growth. With demographics also working against growth, Jim believes Japan needs to change to more of a supply side strategy. He mentioned that China’s growth could be as low as 5% (low for them) but he is not concerned.
  • Jesse Thompson, Business Economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (but based in Houston), provided an update on the energy industry. After suffering through one out of four direct jobs being lost in the Energy industry in the past 18 months, there is cautious optimism the bottom has been reached. However, it is unclear what the recovery will look like. The global supply of oil & gas is still strong so it may be a year before demand drives sustainable activity. Jobs tend to trail recovery by 4 to 5 quarters so people will continue to seek employment in different industries. He has seen the beginning of the healthcare industry acquiring IT talent by attracting it from the Energy industry.
  • Patrick Jankowski, SVP of Research from the Greater Houston Partnership, focused on Houston. Unfortunately, he also expects there will be minimal improvement for a year. Patrick views $60 oil as the better driver of activity than the $50 price often highlighted in news analysis. He expects hiring to be slow in the Energy sector but reminded the audience that Houston grows in other ways. During the 1990s, Houston only added ~1,000 energy jobs but added ~500,000 other jobs. However, the current view of downstream being a growth driver may not be sustainable as it is driven by supply and not demand. Margins will get squeezed which will limit adding jobs.

There is a counter-intuitive bottom line for IT leaders in the Energy industry: Retaining key talent may become critical because attracting IT professionals back to the industry later may be difficult. In terms of attracting talent to relocate, Houston is a harder sell to technology professionals compared to more publicized tech hubs.

It’s still about people

One way to retain key people is to build a culture where teams are able to work more productively together. The session from Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity, provided immediately usable advice on how to improve team interactions.

To gain the value of having smart people requires having the capacity to put difficult issues on the table and productively work toward a solution. Without high conversation capacity, minor issues derail the group and major issues do not get addressed.

As shared by Craig, what is ultimately required is candor balanced with curiosity. Why is this balance hard for people to achieve?

  • It is human nature to seek to minimize the risk of negative consequences. People become guarded and candor is sacrificed.
  • It is also human nature to want to win and be right. It is hard to be curious about the other person’s viewpoint when focused on winning.

One practical way a leader can generate more candor in a conversation and lead by example on curiosity is to split a debate about an issue into two distinct conversations. Set aside part of the conversation for everyone to focus only on coming up with objections and risks to pursuing a path. Then, flip the conversation and spend an equal amount of time coming up with reasons that a proposed path can be successful. This makes it easier for all participants to engage in the discussion without fear of being perceived as being on the wrong side of an issue. And, the leader can inquire more deeply into the pros and cons of ideas.

The Next Generation

Given the long run challenge of growing IT talent, this event raises money that is donated to organizations that support STEM initiatives. Citizen Schools again received a donation and Houston SIM members continue to volunteer in learning programs there.

Genesys Works also received a donation and one of the students, Eyosias Getaneh (pictured at right), spoke at the event. He provided an excellent description of how Genesys Works has provided him with the skills to succeed at his internship. He will be attending college to study IT after graduating high school.

Thanks to all who planned and participated in this event. Special thanks to my friend Ralph Walker from Bank of Texas here in Houston for arranging for Jim Huntzinger to participate in the event.

You can read my prior blogs on the 2014 and 2015 events to learn even more.

Posted by Casey Hall, CIO and Partner.
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