July 7, 2020 – In this era of massive disruption across industries and markets, with businesses changing at an unprecedented rate largely driven by technology, the CIO’s role is more critical than ever before. The reality is that what brought a CIO or CTO to where they are today, won’t be what will drive them to where they need to be in the future. So what do the next generation of technology leaders look like? What skills and attributes are important to ensure that future CTOs and CIOs, along with the companies they work for, are set up for success? Gamiel Gran, Mayfield’s VP of Business Development, sat down with Tom Fisher, Current Executive Advisor & SVP Business Development at SAS and Former CTO at MapR, to get his take.
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Tom has over 20 years of advanced technology experience in engineering, operations, and IT. Prior to SAS, he was spearheading initiatives around advancing MapR’s aggressive innovation agenda globally. He was previously with Oracle as a senior executive in engineering and operations, driving the successful adoption of new and emerging technologies at the company’s top 40 cloud customers. He was also Oracle’s SVP and CIO for global commercial cloud services focusing on improving service delivery through automation and direct action with customers. Prior to joining Oracle, Tom was CTO at eBay, led technology teams at Qualcomm as CIO of CDMA technologies, and served as CIO and VP of Cloud Computing at SuccessFactors (now SAP), where he ran cloud operations as well as emerging technologies and product engineering. With all of this experience in such a rapidly changing world, we wanted to get Tom’s perspective on how he’s adapted with the times and the challenges he’s faced.
“Why” is the Key to Success
“It’s important to get a historical view of where we come from to understand where we’re going. The words that typically get identified in this space are digital transformation, which have a lot of components associated with them.” For companies to adapt in this disruptive era of digital transformation, Tom says that the most important best practice is to make sure your business is organized around making the why a question that’s constantly being asked. It’s important that organizations not only have a defined why, but that the business communicates with the customer in a structured way that’s focused on constantly setting them up for success. “Since I moved away from my previous CTO position,” he explains, “talking to vendors or party providers of applications has now become a core part of my role. I want to understand WHY they adhered to a specific process and what drives that decision. In many cases there’s a regulatory requirement from 5-10 years ago that drives them to follow a particular process, but the whole world has changed. If you continue to operate in that old world, you’ll watch your business drop.” And, Tom explains, he’s seen this sort of “adapt or die” concept first-hand. The why of yesterday won’t always be the same as the why today. “I’ve sat down with some very large software companies, and their base and renewal rate appears to be healthy, but there are trends they’re just not looking at. And the problem is that there are a lot of companies in this valley that are eager to consume what you lose. And that’s the beauty of Silicon Valley. If you don’t innovate your technology, your processes, and start to really understand who your customer is, you will not survive. The reality is, just because something is successful today doesn’t mean that’s the way you’re going to keep it. Look at Oracle. The database business is very healthy. They just went to autonomous databases. I wonder why they did that.”
Customer Innovation – Lessons Learned
Historically, companies have built products, then customers have adopted them. Today, it’s the customers themselves who are often the driving force of change and innovation, often because they’re asking the question of why – they want to know the relevance of how the product will change or affect their lives. This is one important reason why asking the why, early and often, is so important for all companies. “In today’s marketplace you need to be able to react to the data and understand it. You need to be able to make your reaction not a knee jerk one, but folded into a broader plan of change for the company based on a feedback loop from your customers.”
Fisher recalls one particular instance, as an early adopter of Salesforce, where he learned this lesson the hard way. “When I brought Salesforce in, when they had about 100 customers, I got plenty of criticism. But I could see the way in which software was going to be consumed in the future.” Based on his foresight, Fisher made the disruptive decision to replace his sales team’s software with Salesforce. “It scared a lot of people and I had a lot of pushback from sales. They didn’t want to put all of their leads and information into this new system, they didn’t know if they could trust it.” Soon, because they weren’t educated on the product and because Fisher didn’t understand their concerns, the sales team started planting widespread seeds of doubt in the software and raising concerns that the system had been hacked, creating an environment of fear and uncertainty across the department. “I failed as a CIO to understand what their objections would or could be. I didn’t get in front of them. All I could think is, how could a sales executive forecast using Excel spreadsheets?” In hindsight, it is important to recognize where you make mistakes, he says. “They were my customer and I didn’t bother to explain to them what the business drivers were behind the decision to switch to Salesforce.”
Gain Competitive Advantage with Early Stage Startups
If constant customer feedback is an integral part of the process for getting our collective heads around the disruption, the next step is employing innovation. Today’s most successful companies need to be extremely effective at not just reacting to what customers want, but discovering a new approach to leveraging new products and technology. Startups often try to find their way into larger stayed organizations, but there’s often not a simple way to break through those barriers. Not only is it difficult to get through the door of these large companies, but the startup may often be incomplete in their features or technology. But when they do break through, oftentimes those small startups can create an innovative environment for those larger companies, if they both know how to take advantage of it. “Most of the companies that presented to me when I was CTO/CIO were early stage. I saw that as a competitive advantage, because being CIO for a chip company like Wacom could help me drive some features that I knew I needed – so I was able to leverage those guys to build it for me.” In this instance, Fisher saw early-stage Wacom as an outsourced R&D team, and he was able to help guide that often malleable early-stage startup roadmap to solve something for him. “A startup’s product roadmap is about as dynamic as any company will ever have.” Fisher explains. “How many times have you heard the word pivot in the VC world? These companies have to be able to pivot, and when they do it, it has to be for something meaningful. As a large CIO I recognize that, and when those two things are aligned — the opportunity for them to pivot and my willingness to be one of their first customers – that’s where you get real innovation. Because their behinds are on the line, and so is your career.”
The CXO of the Future
Digital transformation isn’t just one piece of the business, it’s the whole business. With this disruptive environment that all companies are faced with today, what traits must the CTO or CIO of the future possess? Beyond being expert coders and masters of technology, tech leaders of the future are evolving and more into customer-facing positions. “For a CIO, CTO, CXO – the most important thing is that you put the customer at the center. Everything now must be customer-centric. Engineers, for example, need to understand what customers are doing with our products and make determinations on what they can do to make a better product experience for them.”
This new era of digital transformation doesn’t just affect the technology roles in any given business. From legal to finance and everywhere in between, today’s companies have now realized that every step of their business model must now be customer-centric if they want to survive. Today’s CTOs and CIOs aren’t just getting us online or helping us transform our accounts payable systems, these are individuals that are right in the cockpit helping to make strategic decisions while the plane is flying, all while everything is moving at the speed of light. They need to have the communication skills to explain to the rest of the leadership team WHY the why needs to change, and they themselves need to really understand the marketplace and how they can explain technology-driven decisions in a business value sense. “At the end of the day, you have to be able to articulate this in a business value sense, and too often, really good CTOs stay focused only on the technology. In that case, the CTO can become the VP or SVP of Engineering. I’ve always made a conscious decision not to do that, but rather become customer-facing and an inspirational leader for the engineering team rather than just being the best programmer. In this valley, there’s always someone better than you are, at whatever it is that you do.”
- To adapt in this disruptive era of digital transformation, make sure your business is organized around making the why a question that’s constantly being asked.
- If you don’t innovate your technology, your processes, and start to really understand who your customer is, you will not survive.
- Today’s most successful companies need to be extremely effective at not just reacting to what customers want but discovering a new approach to leveraging new products and technology.
- For a CIO, CTO, CXO – the most important thing is that you put the customer at the center. Everything now must be customer-centric.
- Become customer-facing and an inspirational leader for the engineering team rather than just being the best programmer. In this valley, there’s always someone better than you are, at whatever it is that you do.