The Role of IT in Organizations Moving Forward

MSIT Industry Advisory Board member Brett Bernstein talks about IT innovations during the COVID-19 pandemic and what he thinks it will take to be successful in IT in the future.

When users first visit, they are greeted with a simple and direct explanation of what the site does and how it makes a difference.

Nice! You Found Brad's Deals. Your 'best of' guide — for deals, experiences & conveniences. We're just real people with valuable expertise helping you find the best savings out there every day.

Brad's Deals helps 5.5 million shoppers every month, and in 2019 the website helped provide $222 million in savings. Vice President of Data Brett Bernstein (MSIT '01) plays an integral role in the company's day-to-day function and overall accomplishments.  

Bernstein, a member of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) Industry Advisory Board, recently took on a new role leading the product, data, and engineering team at Brad's Deals. Amid the transition, he took time to talk about his new responsibilities, the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on IT, and what role IT should play within an organization.  

How do you like to describe your new role and responsibilities?

I am responsible for the strategic direction and overall program management. This includes all aspects of how we process data and transform it into actionable information for both internal stakeholders and external partners.

When the pandemic started, what were the immediate ways the work of your company changed?

From a work perspective, the most immediate change was that everyone was now fully remote. Prior to the pandemic, about 10% of the company was full-time remote, including me. We were lucky in that we had some office construction in February 2020, so in effect we got a dry-run. The switch to everyone being fully remote was smooth for some teams but a disruption for others. From a business perspective, we found ourselves at the intersection of two opposite trends. On the upside, there was a strong increase in e-commerce activity as people moved more and more shopping online. On the downside, a number of the retail merchants we work with were facing bankruptcy, and that impacted the inventory available for us to publish. 

How have your responsibilities evolved as the pandemic has gone on?

The biggest change was how I managed my teams. The people-side of things became much more important than the work-side of things. It was important for me to be transparent with the struggles I was having with the pandemic. I asked everyone on my team to think about the time in the day that they needed to block off to deal with things, and those times got respected without question. Sometimes my role was to simply listen or create an environment for people to just talk.

How would you describe 2020 when it comes to IT?

My favorite phrase from agile software development is "Inspect and Adapt," and it is a perfect fit for 2020. Almost every industry has had to figure out a way to operate in a fully or partial remote situation. IT is the enabler of that remote transformation.

How have IT leaders as a whole been forced to adapt throughout the year?

One of my first lessons in project management was that if you can say "What if ..." then you should think about a contingency plan. Companies that had a plan for operating without their primary physical office space were clearly at an advantage. The trend of more flexible work-from-home policies combined with the shift over the past 10 years to cloud services providers mitigated the loss of a physical office for many companies.  

On the other side of the spectrum are industries that have always been an in-person experience, such as education. I am impressed beyond words with how quickly school districts and universities were able to move to remote learning for their students. Yes, there were a lot of challenges in spring 2020 and some of them continue to be challenges. That, however, doesn't take away from just how much was accomplished in such a short period of time.

What elements of IT do you think have changed with the pandemic that will never return to where they were pre-COVID-19?

The obvious item for me is that the traditional office as we knew it is gone and is not coming back. Companies that have been operating for more than nine months without access to their office are going to question the monthly expense associated with the office. There will still be a need for a physical space, but I envision smaller hotel-style offices where the expectation is that not everyone will be required to come into the office. IT departments will need to establish a remote-first approach to how operational services are delivered. In this view of things, the physical office becomes just another remote location instead of the central hub for activity. 

What is the biggest misconception or misunderstanding when it comes to IT?

When IT is treated as a service instead of as a transformation function. IT organizations can be most effective when given an objective and then the autonomy to define how to meet that objective. It seems simple, but in organizations that treat IT as a service, I have found that the question is usually how much the department costs instead of the value IT can create as an agent of change. 

What has you excited about IT looking forward to 2021?

2020 has been a year of scrambling. When I look ahead to 2021, I get excited about seeing less scrambling!

How do you think the MSIT program is preparing students for the future of IT?

For me, the MSIT program has always been about two intertwined concept sets. First, foundational concepts around technology, architecture, data and statistics. Second are what to me are current-state representations of those concepts. Over the past 20-plus years, the MSIT curriculum has evolved based on the challenges facing IT leaders at the given "time." When I think about the future of IT, I know it will not be covered in a textbook available today. I do, however, know that the foundational concepts taught in the program will allow students to figure out how to adapt their organization for both change and growth.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distancing!

McCormick News Article