Podcast / CXO of the Future

Mark Settle, Former CIO, Okta and Many Others

The role of the CIO has begun to change in recent years, but my guest today on Mayfield’s CXO of the Future podcast, seven-time CIO Mark Settle, believes that it was actually the CIO role that changed him and the way he performed over the course of his career.

Mark has broad business experience in IT services, enterprise software, consumer products, high tech distribution, financial services, and oil & gas. He has received multiple industry awards and is a three-time CIO 100 honoree. Mark sits on the advisory boards of several Silicon Valley venture capital firms and pioneered the adoption of service management and cloud computing technologies within several large enterprises. Additionally, he has authored multiple books, including Truth from the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management and Truth from the Valley: A Practical Primer on Future IT Management Trends. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and a PhD from Brown University.

Listen to the podcast here:

Mark’s path to CIO was very non-linear. He had a keen interest in the space program and wanted to be an astronaut when he got out of school. But having been in ROTC, he had a four-year commitment with the U.S. Air Force and started off as a second lieutenant.

“They put me in a research lab outside of Boston, which was great. I had the opportunity while I was there to work towards advanced degrees, which I did. And following that, I ended up at NASA headquarters in downtown Washington. At the time, headquarters was across the street from the Air and Space Museum, and I was the program scientist on earth observation missions such as the Landsat satellite program and some of the early space shuttle experiments.”

Mark was interested in moving into private industry for the long-term, and after 4 years, he got a job as a researcher for Arco Oil and Gas.

“It was very interesting working for a large, sophisticated oil company. My first CIO position was with Occidental in downtown Los Angeles, right on the edge of the UCLA campus. I was actually their first CIO. That led to one opportunity after another. The lifetime of a lot of CIOs is about 3-4 years, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. I worked at places like Visa and Arrow Electronics. Then, in the later stages of my career, I worked on the vendor side. I was at BMC Software for several years, and then went to work for IHS, which is an information services company that’s now part of SAP Global. Most recently, I was the CIO at Okta. I joined them before the IPO and stayed for a year or so afterwards. So I’ve seen the world both from the buyer side as well as the seller side of the IT industry. And it has been very educational. Looking back, I would never have scripted a career path like that.”

How the Role of CIO Has Changed

When Mark began his first job, he really thought he was the whole IT department. He got involved in all kinds of different activities and major projects that were going on.

“I thought I was the Chief Quality Control Officer…and I probably drove the people that worked for me crazy. I thought it was my duty to prove to everybody that I was the smartest guy in the room which, as you know, just undercuts people’s creativity and dedication.”
Over time, Mark’s technical skills began to atrophy as he managed progressively larger organizations, and the realization set in that his real job is to build effective teams.

There’s an old rubric from Steve Jobs. He said “Hire smart people and let them do what they want. You don’t tell smart people what to do.” With the CIO role, a lot depends on the situational circumstances a CIO finds themself in. If they don’t have big security exposures or privacy exposures, for example, the security function will probably report to them. But if they’re in financial services or health care, there is probably a CISO role, and a lot of the security stuff will not be part of the CIO function.

“[Mark] has seen some organizations where the supply chain and global procurement activities are so highly automated that they fall under the purview of the CIO as well. Data has become so important that in some organizations, all of the data analytics and warehousing functions also fall under the purview of the CIO. There is what the company would benefit from you doing, there is what the other executives would trust you to do based on the relationships that you have, and a lot of that is determined by the past CIOs that came before you. They’ve effectively constructed an expectation box about what a CIO can do, what roles and responsibilities he or she can take on. And you’ve got to try to break the edges of that box just to have the opportunity to change in the job.”

Building a Team

Mark has always kept a confidential list of people that impressed him, who were working for his peers. He went to visit Tony Young, the Head of Informatica, and at the time, Eric Johnson was a bright young upstart that was running his applications team. And Mark thought, “Wow, I’d love to have that guy on my team.” But as everyone knows, Eric got away from him and became a CIO in his own right! But, the people that really need to keep track of rising stars are sales leaders. There’s a lot of churn in a sales organization and to make your numbers, you need to fill openings as fast as you can. Very distinguished sales leaders will constantly encourage the regional sales leaders to keep their radar up, that way if they need help, they can reach out and get people quickly

“I’ve always been impressed by people who have had business related consulting experience early in their career. They’ve seen the way IT has been used in multiple industries and they’ve learned how to talk to businesspeople in business terms as well, something IT or tech-focused people don’t always do that well.”

Pushing the Edges of Expectation

Mark believes that to be successful in the CIO role, you have to have an insatiable curiosity about how the business really works. And this can be accomplished in a number of ways: You can go to a field marketing event or the annual user conference. Go on a sales call, to the manufacturing floor, drive with the guy that’s delivering the Peloton bike, if you’re with Peloton that is. Actually watch how things work.

“If you sit in your own organization, in your own conference room, listening to your own people show their PowerPoint slides, you’re not going to get a lot of credit for that outside the IT organization. But if you spend time with the barista at Starbucks, etc. The word gets out like, ‘Oh my God, the CIO was actually on the delivery truck! Can you believe that?’”

Gamiel’s CXO of the Future Innovation Scale

On a scale of 1 to 10, one being rational and 10 being radical, where would you rate yourself?

“I’ve evolved over time. In the earlier stages of my career, if I felt there was an opportunity to introduce a new technology, a new application, or to do some significant pre-architecting of data center operations, I’d do that in different ways. I might bring in a third party consulting firm or do in-house benchmarking tests of different tools to build a concrete case that I could take forward and say ‘I think this is a great decision for the company.’ That’s my more rational side.

But if you have the barest minimum of pattern matching skills, then, after you’ve done the job a couple of times, by the fifth or sixth time you can walk in and immediately see what needs fixing. If we’re running a tool for data warehousing that’s really two generations old, for example, and this vendor is never going to keep up with the current state of the art, you have a rip and replace. You need to leverage your experience and your reputation to go in and make those kinds of calls. You become a bit more radical over time. So I would consider myself as a five that started out as a three and became an eight.”

Driving Innovation

“A lot of vendors seem to think that CIOs go to the top of the mountain and have an epiphany with some kind of a third party, mystical entity that informs them that blockchain or robotic process automation will transform the business. They then return from the mountaintop, convert acolytes, build an army, and go off on a crusade to leverage some form of technology. Nothing really works like that.

The better mental image should be the altar of a church for a wedding ceremony. Because the key to innovation is finding the business partner who’s going to fall on their sword and say, ‘If Settle can get that RPA tool up and running here, I think we could do X, Y and Z.’

A lot of IT organizations experiment with a lot of different technologies. RPA is a great example. If you find things that show early positive results, instead of chasing the next shiny toy that’s out there, triple down on that thing. Triple the size of the RPA staff, get it out of the hands of the finance people, use it more broadly, push a citizen developer program where you’re getting it out into the hands of people that can save 10 minutes out of their everyday work lives. We fail to do that. We aid and abet the shiny toy mentality, have too many balls in the air and then wonder why our team wasn’t having more of a strategic impact.

I think that innovation needs to be more of a team sport. You just can’t have a small group of people. You probably have people in your organization that have a lot of insight and the tools that you’re actually investigating.”

Taking Risks

Mark believes that the problem with innovation in a lot of cases is that it’s completely ungoverned. The CIO brings stuff into the company and evaluates it to see if it has some commercial impact and business value within context. But often, there has to be more gates to go through so that you don’t spend a lot of unnecessary time and energy chasing things that are never going to come to fruition. And one of the hardest things that technologists have to learn is there are a ton of good ideas that really need to be dismissed almost out of hand at the beginning, because they are impractical for other reasons that have nothing to do with the technology whatsoever.

“Let’s say, for example, that we’re committed to an SAP upgrade over the next 12 months. We don’t have excess bandwidth to be playing around with some great new technology that’s out there. We need to make sure that we hit our numbers schedule to get that thing done. There are other technologies that come in that are relatively inexpensive now, but oh my goodness, if we were to deploy that across all of our data assets, we couldn’t afford it. So there are lots of good reasons to kill things at an early stage. Steve Jobs said, ‘Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.’ But good ideas are not the problem. Getting rid of the bad fits is the problem. It’s important to reward people for participating in the process of getting to a point so that we can redirect that organizational energy to looking at even more things. Because the bigger the pipeline of opportunity, the more likely that we’ll find something that’s the perfect fit for us, that we can leverage long term.”

Working with Startups

Mark published an article on LinkedIn earlier this year called ‘What CIOs want to hear in a vendor’s Sales Pitch.’ Startups need to have clarity about where they fit into the vendor landscape. What’s their secret sauce? How are they different from competitors and incumbents, and what are the quantifiable use cases? How will this benefit the business in a meaningful way? They need to think through the after-sale implications. How is this going to play with tools that are already in the portfolio? Are they creating new staffing requirements? What is the time to value formula?”

Other Observations and Takeaways

When Mark took the job at Visa, he had way too much personal hubris and thought, how hard can this be? You swipe the card and get approval and then at night the banks settle with each other, right? It took him almost two years to figure out what was really going on. So even if you go into something and you think to yourself, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve worked in manufacturing before,’ go down into your plants and you’ll find there’s other stuff going on there that doesn’t jibe with your past experience.

As your technical skills atrophy, rely on a network of professional contacts throughout the industry as your extended knowledge base. It’s as simple as reaching out to somebody, maybe forwarding an article, sending congratulations because the stock price went up in their company, or just touching base. You’ve really got to maintain a network to become more influential as your career progresses, because what you learn is that they value your business experience and acumen more than your technical knowledge. They recognize, like you should, that new technologies will always be coming.

About Mark

Mark Settle is a seven time CIO, three time CIO 100 award winner and two time book author. His most recent book is “Truth from the Valley, A Practical Primer on IT Management for the Next Decade”. Settle serves on the advisory boards of several venture capital firms and multiple startup companies. Seven members of his prior management teams are currently sitting CIOs within publicly traded companies.

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