Drive the Future: What Makes a Great CIO

When he was CIO of San Mateo County, one of the most tech-savvy places in the U.S., Jon Walton saw many connections between car racing and being a CIO during an era of digital transformation.

By Ken Kaplan

By Ken Kaplan November 3, 2021

San Mateo County spans 488 square miles. Home to nearly a million people, it includes 22 cities and towns, 25 school districts and three airports.It also includes beautiful seaside hamlets such as Pacifica, Pescadaro and Half Moon Bay, located along California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway. It’s also home to Laguna Seca Raceway, where many technology industry leaders go to push the limits of man and machine.

Jon Walton sees many similarities between being CIO and a race car driver. Both require relentless innovation and risk taking.

“To stay competitive in the technology industry, you must challenge the status quo, try new ideas every day and fail fast,” he said. “Auto racing is about gaining incremental improvements each lap and there is no place you can test ideas, technology and innovation faster than on a race track.”

Walton was CIO of San Mateo County from 2013-2021. Back then and even now, he can be spotted driving along the coast in his 1996 yellow BMW M3. Building and racing cars is a life-long passion. Walton said he put himself through college working as a mechanic.

The son of an aerospace engineer and a nurse, Walton grew up riding motorcycles on military installations, playing with decommissioned IBMS PDP’s, reading Ranger Rick magazines and classics by John Steinbeck. Those inspired him to earn a degree in land use planning and management from Humboldt State University. He developed a knack for using computers to discover patterns in satellite imagery and a mind that can figure out complex systems. Along the way, he started a family and began fixing and racing cars.

“I like to work on cars because I'm a doer and a problem solver,” he said. “I identify the problem, buy the part, replace what’s broken and get my car working again. It’s a very rapid reward.”


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Jon Walton: I love everything about the track. I think the sensation of being in the car is when I love the most. Just being focused is hard for me day to day. And so I'm always multitasking in jobs, I'm in a meeting, answering an email or a text. When you're at the track and just when you're on the track driving, you're very focused. It is probably one of the few times in my life where I can actually just say that there's nothing else on my mind, but the next corner or the next breaking point, the next turn-in spot.

I would say there's never a fastest car on the track. We always say there's fast drivers and there's fast cars. And a fast driver will always beat a fast car. So we, it's always interesting to come out to our track or being in a race. Because you come there, you see all the cars and you go into it with an expectation of well, that looks fast, that looks fast. But it's not until you've been out on the track for a little while that you really sort out the, who the fast drivers are versus the fast cars. And I'm always surprised at how that turns out by the end of the day.

I didn't realize when I first started racing, the number of parallels there were really between what I do for a hobby racing, and being a CIO. One of the reasons I started in technology [we've 00:01:14] worked on is I liked the hardware aspect of technology. I mean, I started out as just an entry-level person, fixing computers, working on networks and things like that. So I like the mechanical side of technology. And then from technology that went into, as I became a CIO, just experimenting with things, testing things, seeing what worked, making things better, looking for the right technology or the right processes or the right people to surround yourself with that are make your organization run smoothly.

The exact same things apply at the track. I will tell you no race car driver succeeds alone on the track. You've got a pit crew and you've got a mechanic. And then it really translate, you have to have a strategy and you have to execute on that strategy and nobody wins every race they're in. And so you're going to have failures. You have to learn to accept failures. You have to learn well, what does that mean? And how do I learn from that failure? And then how do I turn that into a success? It's really calmed me down a lot at work and taking sort of a long view and viewing every experiment and whether it's a success or failure, applying that to the future. I think its really made a big difference in how I approach my job as a CIO.


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It's changed for me from that model where the CIO had to be the smartest, most knowledgeable, most credentialed person in the room, to really a leader. A person with a vision, a person that can inspire other people, a person that can put the right group of people, to pick the right partners.

I've never won a race, but that's okay. I learned something every time I'm at the track and I always have a good time and I always come away feeling like it's been a great day when I've been at the track.


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This Video page was updated in November 2021.

Ken Kaplan is Editor in Chief for The Forecast by Nutanix. Find him on Twitter @kenekaplan.

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