Q&A with CTO Jim Stalder: It’s All About the Customer

By Zach Donisch, Director of Membership, AEHIT 


Jim Stalder, CTO, Cook Children’s Health Care System & AEHIS Board Member

Cook Children’s Health Care System CTO and AEHIS Board Member Jim Stalder recently shared his thoughts on team development and success with Director of Membership Zach Donisch.

Jim, tell me about yourself:

I’ve been at Cook Children’s for seven years and been the CTO here for that entire length of time. Prior to that, I was the CIO at Mercy Health Services in Baltimore for several years. I’ve been involved in technology my entire career – first in the telecommunication/internet industry where I was heavily involved in a couple of venture funded internet startups and now for the past 16 years in healthcare. Having lived on the East Coast for most of our lives, my wife and I wanted a change of pace so we moved to Texas in 2008.

What was it like moving between industries?

Moving from the telecom/internet space into healthcare back in 2001 was like a step backwards in time. Over the years, healthcare has almost caught up, but I think we all notice that most healthcare software companies are still behind when it comes to user experience and interface. I started my career as a software developer and DBA with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) where we really focused on the UI (user interface), so I’m particularly critical when I see poorly developed UIs now. Because healthcare utilizes so many different applications (Cook Children’s has well over 300 different ones we support), the user interface is critical to adoption and perceptions of quality. The last thing we need in healthcare is clinicians and patients making assumptions about quality and capabilities simply because the user interface is lacking – but unfortunately that happens.

What advice do you have for aspiring CTOs and CIOs?

As an aspiring CIO or CTO, you need to have different experiences in the technology industry. To be an effective CTO, of course you need to know a lot about the various underlying technologies and system architectures. However, you also really need to know the applications and the user community as a whole. People, process and technology is the three-legged stool here. Career-wise, it is important to balance all three aspects – not only focus on technology. You could be the best “technologist” ever, but if you don’t understand what a nurse does or how the billing lifecycle works, you won’t be nearly as effective as someone you’ll be competing with for that job or that promotion.

You must be prepared to take on different roles that may not be within your comfort zone. If you’re the manager of the network team and you aspire to be a director or VP or CTO, you may want to make a lateral move to gain that experience. Look into becoming a manager of an applications team instead of looking upwards at first, and that will give you access to learn about new customers and new processes within your organization.

What do you do daily to drive team success?

I feel an IT Team is “successful” when there is trust with the clinicians and employees. Trust is paramount. Trust is built by being transparent, constantly communicating, and having an understanding of the needs of clinician or employee.

I always try to look at things from that end user perspective. If I was that person, and I was operating in that role, how would I want/expect things to work? It’s easy for IT teams to make things easy for themselves; they can design our systems to ensure things are locked down, that they have a low risk of breaking, and they aren’t altered in odd ways. Those are important but, that’s not why we exist as a tech team. We are successful when we make the nurse’s life or the customer’s life easier – not our own. Clinicians and employees have to trust that we are looking out for their best interest – not our own. I always try to put on that “customer” hat when thinking about a new product or service.

One last question: Do you have a book that’s helped guide your career you can recommend to our AEHIT members?

“The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action” by Robert Kaplan and David Norton, and “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

I use a “Balanced Scorecard” to help align our goals and keep us focused on important things. I have ours hanging on my desk and reference it frequently. One of the components of the Balanced Scorecard is the “Customer Perspective,” which really keeps me focused on the topic we just talked about – success, trust and understanding customer needs.

As far as “Getting Things Done,” I try to leverage the processes espoused by David Allen. I keep my inbox at zero (usually!) and have a weekly review where I try to organize and plan my time. I find that calendaring in time for yourself is really important. You need to make appointments with yourself during the week to carve out time for projects that you need to work on. Otherwise, your time will monopolized by the never ending demands of others.

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