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CIO Leadership Series: Brian Brylow, Robert W. Baird & Co.

Milwaukee, Wis. - Companies that increasingly depend on technology are too starved for IT talent to have a revolving door, a point that is not lost on Brian Brylow, managing director and chief technology officer at Robert W. Baird & Co.

During the past 10 years, recruiting and retaining IT talent has been a monumental challenge across industries. Baird, which does not have many entry-level positions in the tech sphere, has adopted a two-part strategy, focusing on people that are a cultural fit with a strong knowledge base, and then providing a high level of professional development to retain them.

Brian Brylow
The underlying culture of the firm, Brylow said, focuses on the "associate" - note it doesn't use the term employee - particularly their individual careers and career growth. Partly as a result, Baird has been among the Fortune 100 "100 Best Companies to Work For" for three consecutive years.

"We're focused on providing careers for our associates, not just jobs," Brylow explained. "Our turnover and attrition rates are low."

That not only pays dividends in retention, but recruiting as well. While Baird looks for a certain level of experience and expertise, it does benefit from word-of-mouth recruiting. Having established a career-building culture, it can ask associates for recommendations about people they would be proud to have "on the team."
If a business can establish this type of culture, "people are more prone to recommend people who will fit that culture to enhance and perpetuate that culture," Brylow said.

Sleepless nights

Even in a best workplace, being the CTO at Baird entails a great many things that can cause insomnia. It means simultaneously juggling multiple IT projects, gaining worry lines about compliance, fashioning secure mobile solutions, and making sure employees have the most up-to-date best practice instruction on how to protect critical data on their laptops, smart phones, and blackberries.

Removing some of Brylow's worry is a mobile enabler that has contributed to that aforementioned culture. Brylow said the solution, a Citrix remote access program, has given Baird the flexibility to provide its workers with a better home-work balance and more opportunities to be involved in the community - an underrated and often underused retention tool.

The Citrix solution, available to all of Baird associates, consists of a web-based front end that allows associates to connect to their portfolio of applications using a SecurID key FOB and their Baird security credentials. Each associate has specific applications that they are entitled to use, Brylow said, making the tool ideal for telecommuting and business continuity.

"It's not just a remote access tool," Brylow said. "It's also a key part of our business disruption plan because of the ability to communicate remotely."

Joined at the hip

Unlike chief information officers who get shut out of the boardroom and key decision-making, Brylow not only serves as chair of Baird's Technology Committee, but also participates in a number of internal committees and advisory councils.

Brylow answered in the affirmative when asked if he and CEO Paul Purcell were "joined at the hip" when it comes to driving the corporation's strategic objectives.

It sounds fundamental, but not every technology officer enjoys that kind of access. At Baird, technology plays a crucial role in what the company does - its three major business units cover wealth management, capital markets, and asset management - and Brylow said technology is supported from the top of the organization on down.

He meets on a regular basis with Purcell and the leader of each business unit to review the strategic objectives of the firm. From his perspective, it's a rewarding experience to work with a company where upper management appreciates the role of technology.

"He [Purcell] gets it as to the role of technology," Brylow said. "He is extremely supportive and understanding of the role technology plays in the business.

"I think it would be very difficult [to function] without the level of support we have here from the CEO and the directors of the various business units," he added. "Could I function without it? Yes. Would I want to function that way? Definitely not."

Owning the project

Baird has 2,100 employees and reports $651 million in annual revenue. Given the financial services it provides, and the government regulations it must follow, Brylow's special challenges include staying ahead of the game with respect to security and data privacy. Since those always will be his top priorities, he also has to be joined at the hip with Baird's compliance team, and a fair contingent of his 85 IT staffers are focused on the due diligence surrounding security and data privacy.

That's not to say they can afford to ignore issues like spam, infrastructure continuity, and disaster recovery plans - they can't - but with hackers becoming more sophisticated and relentless, and with fluid and demanding government regulations, there is no other way to approach it.

"In our industry, requirements are constantly being revised and updated," he said. "It's a constant challenge."

Based on his experience, the most critical element of a successful IT implementation is ownership of the process. A great deal of it lies in effective change management, realistic goals, and holding vendor feet to the fire, but ownership of the project plan is critical to any streamlining and other adjustments that have to be made along the way.

No entity except the IT group - the key stakeholders within the firm - manages an IT project, even though it may be done in partnership with multiple external vendors. "Who, at the end of the day, is responsible for the success of the project?" Brylow asked. "In each project, it begins and ends with us."

Giving back

Brylow has more 20 years of experience in service management, and systems implementation and development, and his career path includes a stop at Greenbrier & Russel, where he served as lead technical consultant. He has helped develop and manage a number of local technical services organizations, and now serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Technology Association of Wisconsin.

Jim Rice, president and CEO of ITAWi, said Brylow has been helpful in recruiting new members to the association, which was formed only last year, and in chairing its Milwaukee Peer-to-Peer Network Group. "He's been a very strong advocate of the [technology] sector," Rice said. "He's been very active and very helpful."

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