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FS TEC asks, Who is this cool new tech dude?

My apologies to all of you on the culinary, marketing, operations, HR and finance sides of the business, especially if you dress more sharply than most. But you’re just not the coolest people in the industry anymore. Today, the real studmuffins and muffin-ettes of restaurants are the folks you once slammed as geeks because they were more interested in computers than what a big celebrity ordered. Yes, the corporate staffer emerging as tomorrow’s hipster is that decided nerd of yesteryear, the technology specialist.

That transformation was evident at the FS TEC conference, which began Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz.  There was ample talk on Day One about the old tech executive, a low-level team member who exists to cut costs. But attendees generally agreed that the cost-cutter had ducked into a phone booth and emerged as a new hero, Revenue Booster.

“Technology has historically been seen as a means of cost containment,” observed Toby Malbec, managing director of the firm ConStrata Technology Consulting. “It really should be looked at as a revenue enhancer. Those who see it as a cost center really aren’t looking at it correctly.”

But more and more chains are getting it right, noted Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. Those converts “are progressively looking at this department as a way of growing the business moving forward,” he said.

That’s why, several speakers noted, the head of information technology is getting a seat on the senior executive team, often alongside their former boss, the chief financial officer, and next to a one-time adversary, the chief marketing officer.

The spinach for IT’s new might is data. Information had always been a byproduct of technology, which was typically used for more precise measurement, be it for labor (think hours and transactions), sales or operations. Buried in all that recorded data were insights into what customers liked or disliked, or why sales went up or down. Suddenly, the marketing department had a powerful new tool.

Then customers demanded another marketing weapon: Social and mobile media. Marketers had a second reason to appreciate what IT could do for them.

Said Technomic’s Tristano: “The better organizations are where marketing and IT work together, instead of working against each other.”

Meanwhile, human resources departments learned that technology could make their recruitment efforts a lot more effective. Applicants could easily be screened using new technology like in-store kiosks or smart phone apps. Cue the dreamy music; IT was suddenly looking very good to HR.

So what do those changes portend for the industry’s technology departments?

For one thing, the IT department has potent new allies when it comes to budgeting. Marketing executives, for instance, “are getting the ear of the CFO to okay budgets to spend more,” said Tristano.

But chains are also realizing that they need to elevate the status and depth of talent in their IT departments.

“A problem we see at a lot of the mid-level restaurant groups, they don’t have the strategic talent when it comes to IT,” said Jeremy Swan, a principal at the CohnReznick Advisory Group, a consulting and accounting firm. “At the 100 to 200-unit level, they’re spending considerable money on IT, and they still have a VP of information services.”

Knowing how to think strategically could be more important than technology know-how, speakers agreed. Indeed, advised Jeff Chasney, chief information officer for Carl’s Jr. parent CKE Restaurants, “People skills are far more important than technology skills.”

The upshot is a new prominence for the technology department.  “We’re starting to see them start to take off,” said Swan.

Some might say they’re becoming the coolest kids in school.

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