Tech Talk

Poolcorp CIO Tim Babco believes in the business of IT

Tim Babco discusses the changing role of IT leaders, balancing technology and the business, and why he needs both strong technical experts and savvy communicators on his team

What are your responsibilities as CIO of PoolCorp?

Tim Babco: I oversee two main areas at PoolCorp: all global IT operations for all PoolCorp business units, and pricing and inventory data maintenance, including margin optimization for North American business units.

How has IT leadership changed since you joined PoolCorp in 1999? Where do you see it going from here?

Babco: IT has evolved, and continues to evolve, from being an expense to being a value-added business enabler. What I mean by that is, historically, IT and other support services were just necessary evils. It wasn’t viewed as a true business partner within an organization. I think it’s evolved in the last decade, and it continues to evolve, because of the rapid evolution of technology and the recognition of the business acumen in IT leaders. The business has realized that IT brings a unique perspective to business opportunities. Getting the IT leaders engaged in a strategy format for the business is really the biggest area of evolution, so IT helps guide business strategies, or at least participates in those discussions, rather than being an afterthought.

What is exciting about being a CIO in today’s corporate environment?

Babco: My position has evolved from more of a custodial role, a keep-the-lights-burning-in-IT role, to a business advisory role. Typically, in the past, an IT leader came up through the technology ranks. Now, they’re not an IT leader; they’re a business leader of IT. You still have to be fluent in the technology, but that’s not the focus. The role demands more.

What skill set does someone need to tackle this shifting role?

Babco: In my case, 16 years ago I got an MBA, and that’s certainly assisted me in better understanding business principles. My background is technical, both in engineering and software implementations. Number one is education. You’ve got to have the right business education so you have the fundamentals. Number two is that you’ve got to make an effort to evolve your role out of the daily technology discussions and into overall business strategy.

What is your personal philosophy for effective IT leadership?

Babco: An effective IT leader must focus 20 percent of their time on technology and 80 percent on the business. That person must become fluent in all business areas, build trusting relationships with other internal business leaders, listen to internal and external customers, be assertive and compromising as needed, patiently teach other internal leaders about IT’s function, and deliver results with a positive business impact. They must also keep the faith and not grow discouraged.

How do you integrate this approach with PoolCorp’s business plan?

Babco: I personally use all of the traits listed above and spend the lion’s share of my time working with other internal business units to understand their needs and, when warranted, to challenge those leaders to think in terms of economic value for every potential initiative.

What are you looking for in new employees as your IT department continues to evolve?

Babco: It depends on the type of IT employee you’re looking for. For instance, there’s still a need in every IT organization for deeply technical people. Their growth path will be on the technical side; that’s what they want to do, and that’s what you should allow them to do. You never want to put a square peg into a round hole.

If I’m recruiting for a position that demands a lot of interaction within the business, then communications, both verbal and written, is one of the main attributes I look for. One of the first things I do in an interview process, or even before the interview process, is to ask for a writing sample and have a conversation with the candidate. It’s amazing how many new graduates have very ineffective communication skills. And if they can’t effectively communicate within our IT team, they’re certainly not going to be effective communicating to our customers and throughout the rest of the business.

Given the shift in approach, how do you coach your team to put the business first? 

Babco: The most important coaching concept I use is to ensure that everyone within IT knows that we—and all other support functions, such as HR and accounting—exist to enable, serve, and support our customers. If PoolCorp cannot effectively purchase, warehouse, and sell products to our external customers in a profitable fashion, then we have failed. 

Integral to this is that systems availability and response time to customer-service requests must always be the top priority. We work on more than 60 unique, IT-oriented initiatives every year to add or enhance technologies at PoolCorp. But if we lose focus on “keeping the lights burning,” we will not succeed.