The last year has forced a lot of change in the responsibilities and perceptions of CIOs, says Erik Bailey, CIO of Anaqua Inc., an intellectual property management solutions provider based in Boston with offices across Europe and Asia.
The importance of technology, security, data—all at the center of a CIO’s work—has increased exponentially during the pandemic. So how have CIOs responded?
We talked with Bailey about how CIOs are balancing their daily and strategic roles in this new landscape, and what might be next.
CIOs are expected to be much more strategic today. How do you strike a balance between big-picture vision and the daily work of implementing technology improvements?
Too much focus on vision can lead to situations where promising ideas never make it out of the conceptual stage. On the other hand, too much focus on the cold hard realities can prevent new ideas from ever taking flight.
Achieving a balance between vision and reality is a constant challenge. Without sufficient vision, no groundbreaking progress can be made; without ensuring that what is being envisioned is actually possible, time may be wasted pursuing ideas that may never see the light of day.
Organizations should be viewed as a continuum: visionary-focused on one end—entrepreneurial startups, for example—and incrementally focused on the other end, where perhaps performing their business operations as they always have is not only acceptable but desirable. There’s a broad area in the middle where most organizations fall.
The key is to identify where you want your organization to land, and even how you might want to expand the continuum with new dimensions, including risk tolerance, technical debt, security requirements, ROI timescale, to name a few.
How does this play out for Anaqua?
For an enterprise-class B2B software application, such as Anaqua’s AQX, clearly the feature set is of paramount importance, since, if the product can’t meet the business need, it isn’t a likely fit. But right behind this are two system-level attributes that must also be considered—security and performance. These three factors together—functionality, security and performance—are the core around which our systems are built, and nearly all prospective clients look carefully at each.
However, expertise in these areas is frequently distributed throughout organizations, which can cause challenges. Functionality is usually owned by a product management team, but there might be internal engineering requirements as well. Security, especially for a cloud-hosted solution, is generally in the CIO/CISO’s domain, but product and engineering have a say here as well. This is especially true for security features integrated into the product itself, in contrast to the cloud-hosting infrastructure. And performance might be the most difficult to pin down, since finding a single owner is nearly impossible!
How can CIOs best work within this cross-functional framework?
Satisfying the technical leadership requirements of end-to-end encryption, full change auditing, easy-to-use, fast and responsive—while still having an achievable end result—inevitably requires tradeoffs and compromises. If the CIO is ultimately on the hook for security and, by extension, hosting and cloud operations, it is critically important that the knowledge of the product and process extend deeper than a “black-box” level.
This is where more of a “white-box” approach adds tremendous value. This approach allows comparisons to be made with concrete knowledge of the processes. It is much easier to discuss the pros and cons of varying levels of performance when you know the code, and maybe have even written some of the code. It is also much easier to consider the different rainy-day scenarios for a complex business operation when you have created and executed your own complex test plans.
Moreover, it is much easier to consider the impact on the end-user of a proposed functional change to improve security when you know the principles of information architecture and user interface design. These key areas, and others like them, ensure that the right perspective is applied to the problem at all times.
That is not to say that a modern CIO needs to be an expert in everything—obviously that isn’t realistic. Rather, this role needs to be thought of as essentially an engineering position, where the goal is to get as close to the ideal as possible regarding security, performance, convenience, risk reduction, while still knowing that it can be done in a realistic timeframe.
If a CIO isn’t sure how their software application is built, do some training and learn. If the principles of quality assurance or process validation aren’t top-of-mind, volunteer to be a tester for the next iteration of the product lifecycle. Getting down and dirty into the implementation process adds immense value, informing decisions at the upper levels and lending instant credibility to prospects and current clients.
Where do you see the CIO role going next?
The classic joke of CIO standing for “Career Is Over” is dead and gone—the CIO role now is critical and central to an organization’s success in the modern business world. As businesses continue their relentless march toward automation, AI and decentralization, and as their workforce undergoes revolutionary changes—many of them thrust upon us over the last year—the CIO role has emerged as a nexus for business operations.
Secure web conferencing? End-to-end encryption? Multi-factor authentication? These are all commonplace now. A few years ago, they were present of course, but much rarer. On the flip side, data breaches, ransomware and phishing attacks are likewise now commonplace, and it is paramount to stay one step ahead. A modern CIO needs deep knowledge of their own business and products, but also a view from the outside of the value of their organization as a target.
A frequent question during a consulting scoping interview is, “What keeps you up at night?” For a modern CIO, the answer to that question is exactly where the role is leading, and the answer tomorrow will surely differ from the answer today. It is an exciting time to be in the CIO role, with more and more responsibility under the umbrella. The only constant is change, and adaptability is key.