Ty Tastepe, CIO at Cedar Fair Entertainment, joins host Maryfran Johnson for this CIO Leadership Live interview, jointly produced by CIO.com and the CIO Executive Council. They discuss digitizing guest experiences, data-driven pricing decisions, innovation partnerships and more.

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CIO, CIO Leadership Live

Global PC manufacturer Lenovo has upward of 70,000 employees worldwide, delivering round-the-clock IT services, and Arthur Hu, the company’s SVP and global CIO—and as of April 2022, also the Services & Solutions Group CTO—is in a constant state of getting the most out of related teams, management and himself to cement partnerships, and achieve optimum performance.

Leveraging invention, creating new services, R&D and capabilities are integral to strengthening the business, and as his overlapping roles evolve, the underlining discipline for success is being resilient, based on long-term planning to build health, or, as Hu calls it, have “shock absorbers.” “It’s important to widen the aperture of the lens in which you look at the world,” he says.

In hindsight, the company’s response to the pandemic resulted in better architecture that allowed capacity to meet any eventuality. “It’s about how can you respond better and tolerate the unknowns,” he says. But there’s a balance to not just find, but constantly monitor, interpret and question what is in balance and why—it’s never a “set and forget” framework just because the height of the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. “One of the other broader business lessons coming out of it is understanding that sheer efficiency, or efficiency taken to an extreme, may not be good,” he says. “That means you are optimized, but with a very narrow focus.”

With Hu’s CTO role in particular, there is a distinct and broad focus on the dynamics of the external market.

“In the CTO role, I’m spending more time with our partners and customers because they are excellent providers of input and intelligence on what is happening and where things are likely headed,” he says. “I think the external to internal ratio of time spent is much higher on the CTO side because it’s a very business-leaning and business-oriented role.”

Foundry’s John Gallant recently spoke with Hu about adaptation into his various roles, and the methods involved to maximize potential without compromise. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On the reshaped CIO role: CIOs are now part of the shaping and evolving of future business models, whether it’s about how to extend the core business, or incubate and help think about what a future growth engine might be. CIOs also represent and advocate for user experience more. Because you have more online channels, and even offline channels—or traditional ways of interacting—they’re being augmented with technology intelligence. So the CIO naturally has data on all those services, products, or offerings that are being used, and understands what customers and users say about the company in the real world. Each of those things is valuable independently, but they’re even more powerful when put together. Another area is in participating around environmental, social, and governance (ESG). This is definitely farther afield than a more traditional tech-based role. But the amount of data required to formulate and execute thoughtful ESG initiatives is quite large. And, again, this makes the CIO a natural stakeholder and partner with the business teams as companies invest more in this space.

On priorities: For CIOs today, it starts with a recognition that the computing and IT environment is more complex than ever. It’s critical to find solutions that are simple as possible, and easy to use, scale, and adapt as circumstances change. What’s an important corollary to this is value capture. Digital transformation has been on the agenda for many years and companies have put their wallets where their mouths are, investing billions of dollars. So if you think about the journey, when we first started, a CIO could ask for time to show results. But as months turn into quarters and quarters turn into years, then you actually have to deliver otherwise you risk stranded investments and disenchantment from the business. So first recognize the obvious value of the technology you’ve invested in. At the same time, build resiliency against volatility and uncertainty. Then it’s about building enterprise agility. Not just agile software teams, but ways to help turn the company into one that can go quicker at speed. In my CIO role, I have to help the company build a new set of infrastructure processes, tools, and system. Our partners need to be along with us in the journey. As you go from there, the discussion naturally follows. If any IT or CIO team is saddled with, “Go make the SaaS happen,” I think that’s an indicator that the business is thinking the wrong way. It’s key to understand where the journey is, how cloud computing capabilities can help you accelerate, and then make sure it’s together with the business.

On blending roles: I started in the CTO role for the Solutions and Services Group (SSG) earlier this year. Stepping back, I think when I started in the CIO role, topics such as digital transformation and business agility were top of mind. And as time went on, as I was able to work with the team and deliver for the company, we were always looking at how to bring together the technology fluency with the business insight. It’s that duality where, as we thought about the future and our SSG, we needed more of that blend. So the additional CTO role is a natural extension of that. There are three things that form the theory of this case. As we were thinking about why this could make sense, one is that as CIO, I was already building capabilities. Second is delivering services. Third is how that creates business opportunities. On creating and building capabilities, I was already doing that for Lenovo. And the nature of those capabilities was to think about how we quote for our salespeople, make our partner portal frictionless, and make our supplier portal great for collaboration with our extended ecosystem of suppliers.

On self development: I went through an exercise of writing down my assumptions of what makes a good CIO and what I’ve learned as Lenovo’s CIO over the past five years. Then I explicitly tried to either validate or cross them out as I went along because I knew it’d be dangerous to assume I’m just picking up another IT team. That has helped me accelerate the learning journey by not making hidden assumptions. The CIO role is being a natural advocate for experience. In the CTO role, there’s a higher premium and requirement that we’re externally facing. I’m spending more time with our partners and customers because they are excellent providers of input and intelligence on what’s happening and where things are likely headed.

CIO, Cloud Management, IT Leadership, Roles

Seemingly since the beginning of time, CIOs have been working to change their IT organizations from “order takers” into “business partners.” They have established business relationship management functions, developed “we are the business” rallying cries, and built leadership development programs emphasizing influence, courage, and business acumen.

These efforts have had a positive impact, but an incremental one. Yes, most IT leadership teams have stronger relationships with their business partners than, say, five years ago, but there is still a long way to go. “Raise the credibility of the IT organization” continues to appear at the top of the wish list that our clients give to our firm when we launch a new CIO search.

Encouraging technologists, often introverts who have spent their careers mastering complex skills, to deepen their understanding of marketing, commercial operations, supply chain, and finance is a slow march. But with the movement of software into the heart of most organizations’ products, services, and growth strategies, a slow march is not sufficient.

So, how do CIOs expedite the business partnership skills of their teams? They adopt what is clearly becoming the gold standard of IT and business team integration: a capabilities (or product) management model.

Carissa Rollins, who became the CIO of Illumina in April of this year, strongly believes in the capabilities management model. With the $5 billion biotech company expanding from R&D and manufacturing into clinical-based genomic health, Rollins sees IT playing an increasingly critical role in business growth and patient care.

“Traditionally, Illumina has focused on the lab, but we are now moving out of the lab and into personalized patient care,” says Rollins. “We are working with physicians and payers on ways to help people understand their genomic health.”

One area where IT can make its business impact felt is around Illumina’s recently announced the NovaSeq X Series, a powerful set of sequencers that promises to advance the real-world impact of genomic sequencing.

“NovaSeq X is an amazing machine,” Rollins says. “Now we need to surround it with a great customer experience that helps providers and patients understand the impact of data on patient health.”

Refocusing IT for business impact

Illumina’s shift from the lab to the patient necessitates Rollins’ IT team to have a more acute focus on customer data and experience. It also requires IT to take initiative to be a co-creator of business solutions.

“In IT, we are too focused on doing what the business wants us to do, so we don’t take the time to invest and learn about the business,” she says. “So, when they tell us what system they want, we don’t have enough knowledge to say, ‘Here is a better idea.’”

Rollins believes a capabilities model is essential, and it starts by establishing standards and reigning in shadow IT.

“It is important to strike the right balance between standards and citizen development,” she says. “In our complex world, IT cannot control everything, but we need standards, especially in our regulated environment. At the same time, we have to allow for citizen development, which will only grow as we hire young tech-savvy people who will work with RPA [robotic process automation] and ML [machine learning] on their own. They won’t wait for IT.”

RPA presents an excellent opportunity for citizen development, but not without the right foundation, as Rollins learned in a previous role. “Our business partners had created more than 300 bots without IT’s knowledge,” she says. “When we upgraded the system, we broke all of them.”

With standards and governance in place, the next step is defining the company’s target capabilities. On which capabilities does the company need to spend more time and money? On customer self-service to ensure a seamless experience? On IoT to be more efficient in device manufacturing?

“The good news is that most industries have a standard capability map to start with,” says Rollins. “Once we have that map, we need to socialize it with our business partners to make sure we all agree that these are Illumina’s target capabilities. This process never ends. The map is always evolving.”

With an agreed-upon capabilities map in hand, the next step is to assess how the current investment strategy aligns to it. “Once IT understands what we are investing in each capability, they become much more focused on our overall business strategy,” says Rollins. “They start to ask why we are spending so much on transportation management and so little on customer self-service, for example. The IT team starts to think like investors, not order-takers.” 

Down to execution

The next chapter in the capabilities story is, of course, delivery. “As CIO, my job is to build a model that that gives IT and our business partners a roadmap that ties into our business strategy,” she says. “At that point, my role in capabilities management recedes, and the CTO position becomes more important.”

The CTO role has many different definitions in the market. Still, for Rollins and Illumina, that person is the lead architect and engineer of the platforms that support the capabilities roadmap. The CTO makes sure the platforms integrate, through APIs, into partner and customer platforms. “The CTO sets the standards for reusable platforms, while the capability manager knows what functions we need to deliver,” says Rollins.

Once you have a capability model that defines your investment strategy, and a CTO to build your platforms, now it is all about building the product teams to execute the capabilities map. “The temptation is to jump right in and build all of your capability teams at once,” says Rollins. “But my advice is to pick a few pilot areas, because how the capabilities teams will work together is very different from how work was done in the past.”

Let’s take customer self-service. The capability manager for the customer self-service team would likely be a very senior person from the customer service organization. That person listens to customer feedback to determine a features roadmap with sub-capabilities. The capability manager brings onto the team a lead engineer, responsible for architecture and design all the way through to testing. “These roles are no longer separate, which is a big shift for IT,” says Rollins. “Before, you had solution architects, developers, and testers. But in the capability model, the engineers are responsible for all those activities, which gives them greater responsibility for delivering the right capability.”

Rollins points out that each step toward a capability model is not linear, but should be run in parallel, and that not all capabilities, like those running on packaged software, will move into the new model right away. 

But regardless of the approach, it is important for CIOs to move to the new model. “In a capability model, IT is no longer accountable just for delivering a new website in China; they are accountable for delivering the customer experience and the sales around that website,” she says. “CIOs cannot build technology-forward businesses with a traditional IT delivery model. We have to shift from delivering IT to delivering capabilities.”

IT Leadership, IT Strategy

Genesis Chief Digital Officer Peter Kennedy on being visionary and playing the long game, identifying the capacity and ambition for change in any business, and the importance of CIOs being ‘value creators not risk mitigators’.

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CIO, CIO Leadership Live

Carhartt’s signature workwear is near ubiquitous, and its continuing presence on factory floors and at skate parks alike is fueled in part thanks to an ongoing digital transformation that is advancing the 133-year-old Midwest company’s operations to make the most of advanced digital technologies, including the cloud, data analytics, and AI.

The company, which operates four factories in Kentucky and Tennessee and designs all its products at its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters, began its digital transformation roughly four years ago. Today, more than 90% of its applications run in the cloud, with most of its data is housed and analyzed in a homegrown enterprise data warehouse.

Katrina Agusti, a 19-year veteran of the company who was named CIO six months ago, has played a pivotal role retooling the workwear retailer for the modern era, under previous CIO John Hill.

Now Agusti, who began her Carhartt tenure as a senior programmer analyst, is charged with leading the company’s transformation into its next phase, one that is accelerating daily with the barrage of complex technologies changing the global supply chain and business practices, Agusti says.

As part of that transformation, Agusti has plans to integrate a data lake into the company’s data architecture and expects two AI proofs of concept (POCs) to be ready to move into production within the quarter. Like all manufacturers in the information age, Carhartt is also increasing relying on automation and robotics at its service and fulfillment centers as it faces challenges in finding talent on the technology side and in the labor force to meet growing demand.

And demand certainly is on the rise for the workwear manufacturer, which is currently experiencing double-digit growth in all three of its lines of its business — direct to consumer, direct to business, and wholesale.

Tuning a transformation to make the most of data

Carhartt launched its Cloud Express initiative as part of a foundational transformation to shift the company’s 220 applications to Microsoft Azure. Two legacy applications, its warehouse management solution and its payroll and benefits solutions, still run on premises but those applications may soon be replaced in favor of cloud-native solutions, Agusti says.

Moving to the cloud — even amidst the pandemic — was a major win for Carhartt. Aside from the obvious speed to market and scalability gains, the vast improvements in stability, performance, uptime, maintenance, failover monitoring, and alerting has automated many of the costly, time-consuming IT tasks, thereby freeing up the IT team to tackle advanced data analytics and to experiment with other new technologies.

Agusti says Carhartt will likely embrace a multicloud architecture in the long run, but for now she and her team are ramping up their cloud expertise in part through conversations with other CIOs about best practices.

“We’re still learning and building the muscle internally to properly run in the cloud and how to manage in the cloud, and not just the management of systems but how to size them,” she says, adding that she is also homing in on data architecture and retention strategies. “It’s a different beast to manage workloads in the cloud versus workloads on premise. We’re still in that journey.”

Like many CIOs, Carhartt’s top digital leader is aware that data is the key to making advanced technologies work. Carhartt opted to build its own enterprise data warehouse even as it built a data lake with Microsoft and Databricks to ensure that its handful of data scientists have both engines with which to manipulate structured and unstructured data sets.

“Today, we backflush our data lake through our data warehouse. Architecturally, what we’d like to do is bring the data in first into the data lake, whether it is structured or unstructured, and then feed it into our data warehouse,” Agusti says, adding that they continue to design a data architecture that is ideal for different data sets.

She does not currently have plans to retire the homegrown data warehouse in favor of the data lake because the team has customized many types of certified data sets for it.

“The data lake will be more in service to our data science team and consumer-facing teams that are building out journeys using unstructured data to inform those personalization,” Agusti says, noting Carhartt’s six data scientists have built several machine learning models that are currently in test mode.

Two such projects are nearing production, the first of which supports Carhartt’s replication of inventory for its five distribution centers and three different businesses.

“We’re trying to use it for decision support and to plan all of that inventory into different distribution centers based on service levels,” she says, noting that the model can optimize Carhartt’s distribution network by taking into account capacities as well as supply and demand and inventory levels.

The second POC is aimed at helping data scientists collect consumer data that can be leveraged to “personalize the consumer journey,” including demographics information and data from consumer surveys, Agusti says.

The power of tech

Like many CIOs, Agusti’s biggest challenge is change management — especially when it comes to persuading employees that the company’s AI models really work.

“Teams are skeptical that technology can provide the decision support and automation that they do today,” the CIO says. “We have a lot of use cases and we’re running them in POC mode because we need to prove to our end users and business community that these models can make those decisions for you.”

Agusti expects many companies are in this transition mode. “There are different functions along the maturity curve,” she says of the AI efforts under way, “but I think there are so many potential applications that can leverage technology especially in data analytical spaces.”

To pique her resolve about the power of technology, all the CIO has to do is think about how, without investments in technology and talent, the pandemic might have derailed the company’s business.

At first, during the pandemic, many essential workers needed to be equipped with Carhartt work gear for extra protection. As a result, the company’s revenue stream grew in the double digits, even when certain business segments were curtailed due to widespread work stoppages.

Once work stoppages started taking hold, Carhartt gained a rare glimpse into its supply chain, enabling its data analysts to view the steps of the supply chain in exquisite detail, like the individual frames in a film.

“What the pandemic did was create the need for that visibility and proactive exception management,” Agusti says. “Every leg of that journey becomes important when you’re having disruption. It was the catalyst for us to get more granular in the visibility and exception management of every single step in the supply chain.”

Thanks to that visibility — and IT’s push to keep Carhartt’s businesses humming — the company is in a better place with its supply chain. It’s still not at the “predictable” level that it was pre-pandemic, Agusti says, but “we’re starting to see logistical lead times level out and improvements of lead times for goods creation getting better.”

Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Data Management

SkyCity Entertainment Group Chief Information Officer Glen McLatchie on his career-defining moments, the importance of mentoring and professional development, and the transformation plans ahead for the casino and hotel group after a challenging few years.

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CIO, CIO Leadership Live

Dan West, Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO) for Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland, discusses health and social care reform, innovating through uncertainty, and balancing transformation with business-as-usual.

Speaking to CIO UK editor Doug Drinkwater, he also reveals how digital is improving operational efficiency and patient experiences, and the challenges that lie ahead through Covid-19, political instability, and the cost-of-living crisis.

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Careers, CIO, CIO Leadership Live

As CIO at The Hut Group (THG), the British ecommerce firm behind such brands as Lookfantastic and Myprotein, Joanna Drake has been navigating some serious headwinds.

Responsible for global operations and technology services across company and customer websites, staff technology, and THG’s direct-to-consumer Ingenuity service and hosting business, Drake has looked to support the rapid growth of the Manchester-based firm through IPO, a global pandemic, supply chain instability, and the onset of recession.

Speaking at the CIO UK 100 awards ceremony at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, Drake explained what it meant to be ranked the top CIO in the UK, how her tennis background shaped her leadership, why automation is freeing up her IT team, and how THG is supporting engineers relocating from war-stricken Ukraine.

CIO 100 winner, sports leadership and being ‘too friendly’

Having featured in the CIO 100 in 2021 and 2020 prior to topping this year’s list, Drake says the award is for her team, not just her.

“If this was about me, as an individual, I’d struggle to do a [CIO 100] submission,” she said. “So it’s about the team and I’m blessed and honoured to work with some amazing people every day, with so much grit, determination and creativity.” She also added that it was also an opportunity to stop and reflect on how far they’ve come in the last year, and how she fell into IT after a career in tennis failed to materialise, first starting out in help desk support before progressing into service management and engineering positions.

As she climbed the ranks, taking on more senior technology roles at Diageo, Accenture, Yahoo, Betfair, BBC and Skyscanner before joining The Hut Group in 2018, she realised that her sports background could shape her leadership style.

“Sports taught me about teamwork, putting players in the right positions, team formation, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, practice, hard work, discipline and how and when to apply coaching or mentoring,” she says, adding that she continually analyses the ‘ingredients’ of her team, to find details that can make big differences.

This isn’t to say that Drake’s ascension to the higher echelons of business leadership has come without difficulty. In particular, throughout her 20-year career, Drake has often been chastised for being too friendly, an unfamiliar quality perhaps in a results-driven business world.

“A lot of times in my career I’ve been told I wouldn’t make it as a senior tech person,” she said. “Actually, I think it’s about being my true authentic self because it’s exhausting if you can’t be yourself. I’ve learned through being me that actually, that’s okay.”

Digital workplace, automation and ‘IT as consultants’

Drake highlights THG’s digital workplace and automation initiatives as her team’s most notable achievements over the last year, alongside its Ingenuity Compute Engine (ICE), through which THG is hoping to build ‘hyperscaler experiences’ across more than 50 data centres.

As part of the ‘infrastructure reimagined’ programme, ICE provides a software-defined, infrastructure-as-code (IaC) platform where teams can run containerised applications on Kubernetes, ultimately speeding up infrastructure procurement and deployment. Drake says THG has built the platform in four of its data centres so far, allowing developers to build new platforms on ICE, and migrate existing THG workloads onto it.

Speed and simplicity have also been the essence behind THG’s digital workplace initiatives.

The e-commerce firm has also rolled out zero-touch device provisioning, built app stores for Microsoft and Mac-based devices, offered technology drive-through and click-and-collect services, as well as numerous enhancements to the office environment from digital signage, wayfinding screens and universal desk set-up for hot desking, to meeting room technology, video editing suites, device lockers and digital packing benches in warehouses.

Automation, meanwhile, has been introduced to free-up IT team members to become consultants to the business, removing their operational toil while empowering their line-of-business peers to focus on more strategic work.

Leveraging a combination of RPA, low-code and no-code technologies, THG has sought to streamline processes, particularly in HR such as joiners, movers, leavers and role-based access control.

“Automation has been about [IT] almost automating themselves out of the jobs they had, so they could go on to more interesting roles,” says Drake. “Where they’ve removed a lot of operational toil, we’ve had to re-skill our engineers and this is great for retaining talent.” So instead of churning or doing tickets, engineers go out as consultants in the business and speak to different departments about processes. “They follow things that hold them back, how they could do more, so they can actually remove their operational toil,” she adds.

Stalking talent and supporting Ukrainian staff

Despite such technological innovation, Drake is adamant that people remains her top priority, and she’s taking to stealthy methods to find prospective talent.

“I do a lot of stalking on LinkedIn,” she says. “I think about the sort of people and skill I want, and I go and hunt them out. I’ve got to build the team and I want the best players so I’ve got to go out there and find them. And when I’ve got them, I need to make sure they’re successful and making a difference. And if they’re successful, we’re all happy.”

Yet she recognises that the ongoing recruitment challenges, cost-of-living pressures and deepening mental health concerns mean the focus must be as on talent retention and attraction in equal measure.

To further help with the former, Drake oversees a series of stand-ups during the week to keep the team engaged. There’s a Monday session that tackles how the IT team plans to ‘win’ that week, a Tuesday one is called take-over Tuesday, Wednesday’s focuses on wellness and development, and Friday offers an opportunity for team shout-outs and general updates.

The Hut Group has also looked to help engineers get out of Ukraine at the onset of the war with Russia, helping to evacuate them and their families to Poland, paying for accommodation and providing homeware, toys and jobs at a local warehouse.

“For a lot of our staff in Ukraine, work has helped them lead as normal life as possible in these circumstances,” says Drake. “Ensuring they are very actively involved in and heard every day is a really important part of supporting them.”

Financial strife puts the CIO’s focus on efficiency

Much of last year’s progress has been about laying the technological foundations for the next 10 years, yet Drake acknowledges that the next 12 months could be a bumpy ride.

The Hut Group has seen its growth stunted in recent times by rising raw material costs, cost-of-living pressures on customers, declining shares (down 86% year-on-year), and a market valuation that recently plummeted from £5bn to £600m amid market headwinds.

In October, Japanese investor SoftBank announced it was selling its 6.4% stake to company founder Matthew Moulding and Qatari investors for just £31m, having bought the stake in the shopping group for £481m in May 2021.

Such uncertainty means Drake’s focus is now on efficiency.

“[My priority is] continuing with all of that efficiency stuff—ICE, composable compute, which means we can deliver more, more quickly.”

Drake is also spearheading THG’s ‘match-fit programmes’, looking at ways the group can improve customer service, operational efficiency and team development for when some semblance of normality returns.

She says THG is consolidating toolsets, decommissioning legacy technology and migrating customers to the latest platforms, as well as making sure the firm gets the best ‘bang for buck’ when working with suppliers.

“We thought of using it as an opportunity to get in really good shape, ready for the fight when the world turns the right way up again.”

CIO, CIO 100, IT Leadership