Roto-Rooter's CTO on Mastering AI and Emerging Technologies

January 12, 2024

James Payne (Roto-Rooter) Headshot
James Payne

VP and Chief Technology Officer


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This viewpoint is a guest post created by James Payne. Payne is CTO of Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Water Cleanup, the largest provider of plumbing, drain cleaning, and water cleanup services in North America. A 20+ year veteran of the IT field, Payne leads technology vision and strategy at the company.

If you pay any attention to tech, you know that hot new technologies always come and go. AI, however, is different. From my vantage point as a CTO with more than two decades of IT experience, I believe AI is a once-in-a-lifetime technology that is poised to change not just IT departments or sales, but every part of an organization. Yes, it really is that different, and has that much potential. 

2023 was the year that AI became commercialized, with different models and solutions hitting the market at a rapid pace. In 2024, it's off to the races to figure out how to implement AI in ways that deliver value and do so quickly. However, even though AI is here to stay, leaders need to ensure that they're making smart decisions to help ensure their AI investments make sense for their organization, both today and for the long term. 

No organization can afford to make poor technology choices and expect to stay competitive. With that in mind, how can you best balance game-changing technology like AI with solutions and processes that you already have to maximize your chances for success?

Here are four ways to make sure you're investing in the right technology at the right time so that your organization can get the biggest benefits, now and in the future.

1. Start with a vision, then follow with strategy.

In an environment where technology evolves rapidly—and powerful AI tools can feel like they spring up overnight—good planning requires a balance of short- and long-term priorities. Within the IT organization at Roto-Rooter, we think about what the next three years are going to look like. We consider what our business requirements will be; how much and in what areas are we going to grow? Where can technology help us achieve that growth? That's the vision. From there, we plan out when each of the pieces will be needed to carry out that vision. 

That becomes our strategy. However, your strategy also needs some degree of flexibility. For Roto-Rooter, if there's a shift in what's needed, we can retool our plans without major interruptions. Our three-year window is wide enough for us to make sure we can see real progress, but can also make changes without derailing major initiatives.

2. Pick good partners to help implement quickly and succeed.

After vision and strategy, selecting good technology partners is critical to implementing solutions for long-term success. In my experience, this means picking providers where the technology you're looking for is a core part of their business and not just an add-on. 

With AI or other emerging technologies, it's also important to evaluate vendors using the standards you use for any other solution you adopt. Is there stable leadership? Is the company public? Do their security features meet your needs? Is their platform open and does it have good documentation? Don't be afraid to walk away from a creative solution if they don't meet your tried-and-true standards.

3. Foster an agile culture where teams can quickly adapt to change.

Change is constant in business, and even more so for IT teams who are tasked with designing, implementing, and maintaining the systems needed to make an organization successful. When you support your IT team’s passion for problem-solving, you'll gain their buy-in and tap into their creativity to find new ways to use technology, whether it’s AI or another solution. 

Moreover, opening the lines of feedback is important for both IT teams and for technology users across your organization. Be open to the idea that you don't know everything. Trust the people who are using a solution eight hours a day. When they tell you that a seemingly small feature is a big deal, trust them and act accordingly.

4. Maintain your focus on data safety and ethics.

As a CTO, I am constantly thinking about how to get technology into the hands of people so they can drive growth or solve a problem, while still protecting our employees, our customers, and the communities we serve. As AI adoption skyrockets, it will become even more important to balance the needs of your business with ensuring that data is safe and tools are used ethically. 

Having clear privacy policies that have been updated to incorporate rules for responsible and secure AI is a good place to start. At the same time, it's essential to train employees, both within the IT department and outside of it, about what they can and can't do with AI tools. Finally, having a channel in place where employees can provide feedback and flag privacy issues is essential to help ensure data is not being misused.

As we enter the age of user-friendly, commercial AI, and prepare ourselves for whatever technology changes come next, it's more important than ever to trust input from your team, but also to verify to make sure you’re headed in the most strategic direction for your organization. Always be open to change, and always be prepared to seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities when they come along.


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