On Thursday, March 27th, Cynthia Stoddard, Senior VP and CIO for NetApp, and Argyle’s Jay Williams discussed how to drive IT innovation and the importance of encouraging open dialogue.
Jay Williams: Can you start by telling us about your unique role as a customer-facing CIO?
Cynthia Stoddard: I love being a customer-facing CIO and when I talk to people about the role I encourage them, even if they are not in a technology company, to take that path as well. I describe the role of a customer facing CIO as having three different components. First is being the visionary for my organization and working with my team on our strategy and raising areas that should be considered in a technology roadmap. For example, elements of an end state architecture, simplification of the environment, value and relevance, introduction and adoption of new technologies, and also roadmaps for skills and talent. A typical discussion would be to provide guidance on leveraging a global talent pool to ensure that we utilize the right skills from the right geographies, complimented by the right partners. Discussions like this are critical as an IT organization cannot expect to do everything internally any longer.
The second area of focus is working with our internal business partners to understand their strategies going forward and to provide insight on how technology can be adapted to help solve business problems. IT is a bit unique because we have a horizontal view across the entire enterprise. This provides an opportunity for IT to leverage solutions eliminating a siloed approach. When we established our enterprise architecture practice, we brought business leaders together allowing us to break siloes in certain areas and enabling to think at an enterprise-process level.
The third and final area is connecting with NetApp customers and partners. I do this to support the NetApp brand and to share best practices related to how we operate as an IT organization. This consists of best practices not only in general IT, but also best practices and experiences related to our use of our own products. As an IT practitioner, our goal is to be very open and transparent. We also share everything we learn with our product engineering and support groups, with whom we have built a very tight working relationship over the past 18 months. Ultimately, we strive to be and are NetApp’s first and best customer. We test the product, put it through its paces and report issues. And our activity is not limited to product testing. We test both product and process, and provide feedback on both. It’s been a very interesting and rewarding relationship to foster these teams that work really well together. Additionally, we have a customer support advisory board that my head of foundational technologies participates in. I attended the last meeting and their feedback was he is the shining star of the group because he brings such practical and real information that is so valuable to their organizations.
I think it is critical for every IT organization to get close to their customers. When I meet with other IT professionals they say, “Well you are a tech company – you can use your own products to get close.” That is true, but you can create advocates within any line of business. When I was in transportation and logistics, I used to encourage my team to get close to the business. I ran a program called “Ride with the Driver,” where IT staff joined a driver on pickup and delivery routes (similar to a UPS operation). They would come back and say, “Wow, they could never use the technology we designed. They don’t have time to use it. We need to make changes and do it this way.” So whatever business you are in, you can actually relate to the customer and bring that knowledge back in to the IT organization to increase understanding and use cases. Another example is from when I was in retail. I had a similar program encouraging staff to spend time in the stores. We saw the same result – they would come back with eyes wide open. I firmly believe you can have product advocates in whatever business you are in.
I think that comes back to your core value, which is helping customers succeed through innovation. So how does NetApp define innovation?
We define innovation as customer success. You can think about innovation as patents and many other things. But unless your customers can use your technology to drive successful business outcomes, it’s not innovation. And we’ have customers that use our technology to innovate tremendously. For instance, Australia based ING Direct, increased storage efficiencies by more than 1300% and truly revolutionized their test and development environments by leveraging NetApp’s “on-demand” private cloud. Their story is impressive because they accelerated provisioning from six weeks to less than ten minutes enabling rapid online banking innovation. In the public sector we have a customer; Iowa Workforce Development that closed 36 field offices, saved $6.5 million annually in operating costs and implemented more than twice the targeted Virtual Access Points. What is more, they deployed 1,500 virtual desktops across Iowa in less than six months and reduced storage requirements by nearly fifty percent. Now the IT department is providing better service to internal clients and the agency is better serving Iowa’s employers and workers.
“We define innovation as customer success. You can think about innovation and patents and many other things. But unless your customers can use your technology to drive successful business outcomes, it’s not innovation.”
What do you think are some of the key elements or influencers that you look to when you’re trying to drive IT innovation? And how has hub innovation been a helpful component in the process?
The innovation hub has been helpful because it’s allowed people to speak up in kind of a semi-private or safe environment. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing ideas, but if you can post it on a website that is somewhat detached from your identity, it can be a bit more comfortable. You’re able to share your thoughts in a more private way.
So we created an electronic suggestion box, if you will, and we found that more people participated. And we put together a global team of change agents that got the word out to make people comfortable about submitting something and not be worried that people would think their idea was dumb. We have really tried to encourage people to speak up. We have an open door policy, because even seemingly “silly” things can turn into great innovative ideas.
“We have really tried to encourage people to speak up. We have an open door policy, because even seemingly ‘silly’ things can turn into great innovative ideas.”
There’s got to be some lessons you’ve learned from working with your partners and other challenges that have come up. Can you share a couple of those that you might have uncovered?
The biggest lesson learned is around the people aspect and letting them explore and experiment in a protected space. When we set up our innovation space/ innovation lab we segmented the function away from core IT. While it was part of IT, we placed it in a protected space in our enterprise architecture group. They were free to explore new ideas and to try new approaches. They could look through the innovation hub collaboration site and select ideas, talk to people and then start experimenting. And we made it okay if they spent time on something and nothing came out of it. That was really the key element. People knew they would not get in trouble for trying new things. Freedom to try is one of the prime attributes for innovation.
Another lesson learned is helping people adapt to changes in the technology landscape. Many times there is a fear that their job may be impacted due to new technologies and this causes resistance to embrace change. You need to help them with techniques to reinvent themselves. In many cases, the skills they have today can be applied to new technologies. You have to help them see the opportunity. In my case, I’ve actually eliminated my own position in the past and then a great opportunity within the same company appeared to replace my old role. I’ve had other people in my organization think back to their careers and say that if people can reinvent themselves, they can have a broader and richer career. I also have encouraged people to go broad within their own jobs. In talking to my organization I like to explain that I’ve done every job in IT, just to get the experience so that I would know how different groups operate.
Cynthia Stoddard is the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at NetApp. In her role as CIO, she is responsible for providing a long-term technology vision that supports and is aligned with the company’s strategies and goals, business plans, operating requirements and overall efficiencies. She provides leadership to the Global IT organization to enable delivery of worldwide business solutions and infrastructure that support the company’s growth. Additionally, she acts as the primary advocate of NetApp to external markets to promote further awareness of the NetApp on NetApp initiative.
Cynthia has over 25 years of business experience and IT expertise leading large global organizations in supply chain, retail, and technology companies. Before joining NetApp, in 2010, she was group Vice President, Information Technology, at Safeway Inc. Other positions she has held include group CIO for NOL Group, the parent of APL Ltd., a global transportation and logistics company; as well as executive and technical IT roles in both U.S. and global companies. While she was CIO at NOL Group, the organization was named in the Top 100 of Information Week’s Top 500 innovative users of technology for 4 successive years
Cynthia holds a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from Western New England University, from which she graduated cum laude; and an MBA from Marylhurst University.