Today we welcome Ashwin Rangan, SVP, Engineering and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at ICANN to our CXO of the Future Podcast. He joined ICANN as Chief Innovation and Information Officer (CIIO) in March 2014 and works closely with the ICANN Operations teams in the US, Turkey, Singapore, Uruguay and other regions.
He is known as a visionary, strategist, and leader in applying creative and innovative IT solutions to the ever-evolving needs of businesses and organizations, and has served as CIO at several well known brands such as Wal-Mart, and most recently at Edwards Lifesciences. He is a sought-after expert in defining, developing and delivering high-value process innovations.
Question 1: First Job: What was your first job, and how did it help you build your career?
First and foremost, thank you so much for having me as a guest. I appreciate it and I certainly appreciate the opportunity to share a few of my learnings from along the way.
My first job in the US was in 1984 – I came into the country and I was looking for a high-tech opportunity. The tech industry was very concentrated back in the day. If you recall, it was the days of the mainframe computer – the PC revolution had only just begun. IBM had made a personal computer and Apple was just starting to spring up on different desktops. But they were few, and very expensive.
So we were still working with COBOL and mainframe databases. I was looking around and a good friend offered me a role at an aerospace and defense company – Ducommun Aerostructures. They were the very first company incorporated in California! They were into aerospace and defense supplying for trainers and bombers during WWII.
I joined what was called the data processing department – and as ill luck would have it – the space shuttle Challenger suffered a disaster while I was still a member of that team. And our business, which was largely based on defense contracts, dried up overnight – because every defense contract in the nation was put on hold awaiting the outcome of the investigations (which eventually showed that the O-ring was responsible, but that took a year and a half). During that time, the company fell from 600 employees down to a barebones team of 80 people – essentially 85% layoffs.I was one of the few who were retained. But, on very specific terms.
The head of finance and data processing called me in and said: “I’m going to keep you on two conditions: One, that you’ll do whatever it takes to keep my data processing shop running. And two, I realize that you are an immigrant and you need papers – so I’ll be happy to get those papers for you and a green card processed.” I was immensely grateful because I didn’t know what was going to happen. This experience was foundational for me because I was doing everything, from running twisted pair wires to doing database reorganizations and COBOL programming for the front-end. There wasn’t a single aspect of IT that I didn’t touch over those three years. Everything since has been an evolution of what I learned.
I first became a CIO in 1998 when I served Rockwell International – an enormous conglomerate. I was relatively young at the time, and very excited for the challenge. I called up a mentor of mine, and he said something that I found incredible: “You’re Chief Information Officer. The first word there is ‘Chief,’ the second word is ‘Information’ for information technology, but the most important word is ‘Officer.’ Being a chief means you have to lead people with kindness and compassion – they’re looking for you to show them the way and you have a great history of finding the way. They don’t know, but you’re supposed to know. So your work now is finding the way and leading people. You’ve heard the term ‘Officer and a Gentleman’ – that’s exactly who you’re supposed to be – because you will cast a long shadow, and everything that you say, do, or don’t do will be watched. People will be judging you every moment. So, you better be a gentleman first, because that’s what officers are.”
Question 2: Leadership: What is the most important leadership skill that you have learned over your career, that has a positive impact, and can you explain with an example?
One of the things I like to do is create a blueprint by discussion around difficult topics. When I assemble my leadership team, and it is a contentious topic, one of the first things that happens is the naming of one of them as “devil’s advocate.” That’s part and parcel to how I operate. People eagerly look forward to being named to this role, because then they have complete license to take a diametrically opposite view in our debates. In the course of proving them wrong, the hope is that someone on the team can come up with the right arguments (and vice-versa).
This helps expose the spectrum of possibilities. The team takes a look at many of the facets of the problem at hand and is therefore able to come up with a good, if not better, solution. I’ve found that to be very empowering, because people feel free to talk about opposing views. It creates an open and transparent environment – which is great for business outcomes.
The role of the leader here is to be able to quickly jump in and make a decision when faced with a logjam. Then, to keep things moving and not give too much of an opportunity for further debate. And that’s an important skill: Knowing when to leverage all that great input from the team. They shared their points of view and you assimilate it quickly and move forward.
Question 3: Prediction: Do you have a prediction of one key technical skill or key technology that you believe is either underappreciated, or is just growing in importance?
If you look back on the history of computing and information technology, there have been specific and historic moments of discontinuities, and each one of them has been a call to arms to lean in and understand sooner rather than later the latent potential in the discontinuity.
When I think back, there are clear transitions that I can think of. Mainframe to PC was a huge transition, as was PC to internet. Internet to mobile with smartphones was next. The most recent one is generative AI – there’s a huge transition here and a huge opportunity. This could be worth trillions of dollars.
One common factor that I think about a lot is: How quickly can I forget? Because that is more important than: How quickly can I learn and understand something new? My ability to give up on things that I took for granted is more important than my ability to understand something new and embrace it. Because if I don’t give up what I already know, it occupies space and pulls me in a direction that I shouldn’t be pulled in – because it’s just no longer true.
Generative AI doesn’t jive with writing COBOL code on an IBM mainframe. The two just do not live together. I have to give up on one to make space for the other, and that deliberate action pushes me in the right direction. And there’s incredible potential in new directions. If you don’t pursue them, you miss out on opportunities. You often hear organizations spending 80-90% of their time maintaining the old, and you can see how that doesn’t leave much allowance for anything new: either culturally, or with regards to different technologies or skill sets.
Bonus: What’s the key takeaway you want to offer up and coming CIOs and IT leaders of the world?
A lot of people will reach out to you to do some really important work. Just remember: the work is really important. You are not important. Make sure it doesn’t go to your head. Staying grounded and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is so important. Have the humility to say thank-you everyday, and remember that you are here to serve.
Ashwin (“Ash”) Rangan joined ICANN as Chief Innovation and Information Officer (CIIO) in March 2014. He joins the ICANN staff with over 20 years of experience serving in progressive capacities up to the Head of IT in a variety of organizations, both very large and relatively small. Ash is known as a visionary, strategist and leader in applying creative and innovative IT solutions to the ever-evolving needs of businesses and organizations. He has served as CIO at several well known brands such as Rockwell International, and Wal-Mart and most recently at Edwards Lifesciences. He is a sought-after expert in defining, developing and delivering high-value process innovations.
At ICANN, he serves as the SVP Engineering & Chief Information Officer. He works closely with the ICANN Operations teams in the US, Turkey, Singapore, Uruguay and other regional operations teams.
Ash’s responsibilities at ICANN include ensuring high-availability of IT-enabled services. He manages staff who are responsible for IT Governance and project management, IT Security, IT Infrastructure, community-facing solutions, and staff-facing operations-management systems. He also provides leadership, management and strategic guidance to the L-Root operations team.