JASON BURNS 

    Chief Information Officer at Tilson

    Can you please provide a little introduction about yourself
    I serve as the Chief Information Officer for Tilson, a Technology Infrastructure Company that delivers Wireless, Wired, Fiber and Broadband across the country as well as operating a sophisticated construction technology consulting group that helps clients on their road to digital transformation in the AEC space. I am currently based in New Jersey working remotely 70% of the time and traveling as needed. Tilson is Headquartered in Portland, Maine, 23 offices nationally and employees located in 48 states.
     
    What has your journey to your position been like? What path have you taken?

    If there exists a textbook journey to CIO, I haven’t had it. Having grown up in the utility underground construction space, my father helped run a company based in the mid-Atlantic that provided dark fiber/frame relay for AT&T in the early 90’s as well as water, gas and electrical work for utilities. At my first job when I was 13yrs old, I worked as a laborer for a local concrete company. Over the years as the company transitioned from union and non-union work, I had the opportunity to try out several trades, my favorite being an equipment operator working with excavators and backhoes. I learned estimating and scheduling, resource management and back-office operations through my late teens into my early 20’s. In parallel, I was introduced to programming early in my life with learning Fortran at the time I was learning to write and read. My general computing knowledge grew as a hobby and passion in line with the evolution of technology learning it as it came to market. As I graduated high school, I found college was not a place for me yet and worked several jobs. I eventually returned to school at night and obtained a degree in Accounting and Finance from University Maryland, University College.

    Out of college, I started working for Turner Construction in their New Jersey financial hub where I was exposed to a brand-new ERP installation. My career started on two paths, one for financial accounting and another for systems and controls. I had the opportunity a few years later to work for a startup-up General Contractor in New York City to run their technology department. As I continued to acquire and hone more technical skills, my focus honed as well. I could see and feel the anti-technology culture of construction and that without a technology facilitator, construction itself would fall behind. I made it a personal mission to create clear paths for technology adoption in the industry. My own predilection to construction and technology got me started. But it was that skill coupled with the strategic vision and drive to have lasting impact on the industry that led to my success in follow-on positions and rise to recognized thought leader and CIO.

    In the midst of the pandemic, I had the great privilege to join Tilson. I found a company in a state of massive growth looking for a CIO with the same construction technology vision and drive who could propel its strategic path. Being part of an integrated leadership team with a clear purpose to build an incredible company capable of building America’s information infrastructure is the opportunity of a lifetime.

    Has it always been your vision to reach the position you’re at? Was your current role part of your vision to become a tech leader?
    No, originally my vision was actually to be a CFO and stay on the more traditional accounting track. Honestly, I avoided an IS degree from my early experience learning Java where I realized I didn’t want to spend my life learning new code sets. I did find in my accounting path that my natural creativity and need for variation in my workday did not lend themselves well to the consistency required of an accounting discipline. I gravitated to strategic design, process and change management by tackling system issues which was a lot of fun. From there, I actively sought opportunities to use my deep-rooted skills in construction operations, accounting, and technology that could positively impact our vertical.
     
    Have you had a role model or mentor that has helped you on your journey?

    Yes! I have had several role models and mentors over the years and I’m delighted to give them credit and my public gratitude here. For role models, I had the privilege of working for Tom Garcia and Tony Breu, both in my early career, who taught me how to actively listen. They showed me that leaders stand up for their people when times are tough and behind them the rest of the time. Both also encouraged me to find a path that matched my skills. This allowed me to transition to Technology Leadership. Additionally, my COO and President in my last positions, John Alicandri and James Mckenna, both taught me valuable lessons in questioning and challenging gross generalities while not blindly accepting feedback.

    My mentor, Isaac Sacolick, and I met at a conference early in my technology career. Isaac was a CIO for a Fortune 500 at the time. He took me under his wing and has been by my side for more than 13 years now. In fact, Isaac has become a close friend and confidant to me, a place to test thoughts and issues and he is able to give me honest, even harsh, feedback that has guided every step of my career since our first meeting. I would say that everyone needs a mentor in their lives, someone who can help them see the way and expose blind spots as well as be a safe haven to go to guide you through failures and celebrate the successes. I encourage anyone to find that one person in your professional life that can be there for you, someone that will take your call any day or time and meet when needed, someone as invested in you as you are in yourself.

    How do you see the role of the technology leader evolving over the next 5 years?
    Technology leaders have been taking big steps over the last 5 years and had already started evolving in many industries from those providing services and support for their companies to pivotal strategic leaders at the decision-making table. CIO’s are transitioning to COO’s which is not a surprise as most companies in the digital age cannot operate with their employees and customers absent technology leadership embedded in operations. Greater reductions in the workforce will continue to force work anywhere=anytime policies and technology leaders will be the solution architects charged with removing obstacles, legacy systems and thinking.
     
    What skills do you think leaders of the future will need in order to thrive?
    I think all leaders need to hone their social/emotional skill sets and their communication prowess. We are at a point where companies will only be successful if they are creating a culture and environment that enables employees to do their best and maintain it by communicating frequently. Leaders with the attitude that all people are cogs in the machine will eventually fail as the workforce is becoming stronger in unison. Equity and fairness are just part of this but I believe we all need to work to recognize our personal bias and blind spots then actively work to ensure those are not influencing our decision making. Additionally, the antiquated notion around butts-in-seats, and PTO tracking to the minute, are elements of a bygone era designed around control and keeping “Upper Management” on a different rung from the rest of an organization. Leaders need to trust their employees and tell them. If they don’t trust their employees, then something or someone must change.
     
    How do you keep current with new skills, technologies and personal development?
    If you care about your future, you must be deliberate about your personal and professional development. I split my development time into 3 categories and approach each one with a distinct cadence. For the first area I focus on my personal Emotional / Leadership skills bucket. Listening to weekly podcasts and reading books when traveling help me keep my perspective open as well as create awareness for myself and attempt to reduce my blind spots. My second area is around general technology, I spend most of my team here focused on Security and Social Engineering, the focus here is understanding the threat vectors and how people are using common-sense measures to both defend and attack. I listen to podcasts, read articles daily and will return to a yearly conference either Defcon or equivalent. My third area of concern is Construction Technology, and this is where I put the most attention to detail in my learning process. Here I not only maintain a high level of awareness for general technology but technology that is directed toward the AEC sector. I read as much as I can daily on this and attend 2-4 conferences a year as well as meet and discuss issues and changes with peer groups.
     
    What do you see as the next leap in technology that will impact your business or industry in particular?

    Construction has always been plagued by lagging technology adoption since it has largely been based on project management and not on actual construction. This has been driven by both cultural roadblocks and the inability to bring stable and cost-effective computing power to the worksite. The increased access to high-speed bandwidth on the back of 5G will drive field technology dramatically. We have already accomplished miniaturizing the computing equipment needed, which reduces the cost burden, but advancements in wireless technology will allow the industry to harness the demand for large data sources required in construction plans, imagining, BIM and AI through increased cheap and reliable bandwidth. This change equates to no longer having the need for large computing systems locally as well as the requirement for access to a high-speed internet line within Wi-Fi range of a the workforce devices.

    With these changes the data can be streamed in real-time via cellular and as a result, we will see more robotics, automation, exoskeleton and drone use to assist in construction activities. For instance, we are now seeing remote-controlled Excavators and other heavy equipment being run from states away wirelessly. This one small example reduces downtime for operators waiting for the ability to perform work and helps answer the lack of skilled workforce allowing companies to perform tasks with greater efficiency and more safely with the onboard sensors that are giving construction personnel a wider field of perception and computer assisted guidance. With all of this data capable of being used not only in the physical construction we will see companies taking the telemetric information and combining it with construction documents, geo-spatial data, geological data and work outputs over the next few years which will enable the industry to create and harness predictive analytics in a way never dreamed possible

    If you were mentoring a leader of the future, what advice or guidance would you give to help them on their way?
    Always be listening and learning, every day, every meeting and hone your skills at seeing what’s not there, not just what’s in front of you. In technology, it’s easy to fall into the trap that you can solve problems with technology and dependent to a default that technology is the only solution. If you are listening, you will find that technology may help with present issues but if you can’t identify and solve the root cause issues, you’ll be surprised when there are remaining hurdles to address. At Tilson we have a saying, “The thing is not the thing” and here is a great example of that. Someone brings you a problem where they think adding a tool of some kind will fix it but there really is an underlying process issue, or communication issue, that they have yet to identify as a core to the solution. I would advise finding peer groups outside of your company in your sector to learn from and find a place to test ideas or even commiserate in your challenges. Having a strong peer set and partners in your organization will enable your growth and help you identify and remove personal, professional and organizational blind spots.
     
    Is there anything in particular that you would still like to achieve in your career or what is the next step on your journey?
    Yes, never stop learning! The advancements in construction technology will include field and robotic automation and I’m excited to be at the intersection of using this automation at Tilson and enabling others to create new and innovative automation through expanded wireless and broadband deployment. I would like to find ways of helping companies leap beyond applications and use the data they have to not only produce products but to predict and automate risk avoidance.
     
    If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

    Equitable access to technology skills training and affordable broadband. I am passionate about closing the digital divide where the threat to low-income families globally has become more severe and the pandemic alone has created an even larger divide. The Pew Research Group has led some excellent examination on the impact of this issue and I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to really understand the vast and consequential issues the growing digital divide has on our collective future.

    This is a complicated issue that has several areas of concern in lower-income and rural households. I feel very fortunate to work in a company that is on a mission to deliver the infrastructure needed to bridge part of this gap.

    A big thank you to Jason Burns from Tilson for sharing his journey to date.

     

    If you would like to gain more perspective from Tech Leaders and CIOs you can read some of our other interviews here.

     

    The CIO Circle Interview

     

    Post by cioadmin
    May 31, 2022