Having celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, Canadian Tire has had to perform some deft manoeuvring in the last couple of years to become more agile. And with his dual titles at the company—CIO and CTO—Rex Lee is in the driver’s seat to support digital transformation and implement shared knowledge across teams and management. No small feat considering he’s responsible for a bursting portfolio that covers a family of companies including Canadian Tire retail, Sport Check, Mark’s, Party City, Pro Hockey Life, and several others.

“I moved from telco to tech, high tech to retail, but didn’t think I’d make that jump, nor thought retail would be invigorating,” he says. “But I was wrong. It’s so exciting. I didn’t realize how embedded technology was in everything in retail. And holding more than one role is a bit of a trend right now. The idea being that technology, whether it’s internal or customer facing, has certain constructs that can be applied more broadly. And if you’re able to unify these things, you can harness the power of economies, longer-term thinking, and greater scalability. So my role isn’t just operations and how things work today, but also what’s next and how do we evolve.”

And naturally with a 100-year-old organization come systems that sometimes aren’t entirely modern. As a result, especially during the pandemic, the complexity of legacy infrastructure held back an ability to achieve new things. Finding a way to evolve through traditional IT was essential, and solutions mostly emerged through available talent.

“It’s amazing what happens when you empower people and trust them,” he says. “We didn’t have to compete with priorities of getting money into the company to keep it running. There was no real IT in business. It was all one team working together toward the same goals. I felt so supported by my peers. Sometimes technology gets blamed for things, but everybody realized that it was the situation. Because we were already down this journey, it helped accelerate the move toward an agile operating model where you combine business and technology teams under a single structure. You need the tone at the top and you need to have that opportunity to be able to bring things together. Without that, it’s really hard to create alignment and communicate.”

CIO Leadership Live Canada’s Rennick recently spoke with Lee about his nonlinear career path, the synergy of digital transformation and retail, and the digital overhaul to the business through, and after, the pandemic. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On following the rules: I started my career at Bell Canada and one of the things I learned there was breaking the rules. I sometimes asked folks when it’s appropriate to break a rule when the rule doesn’t actually achieve what it was intended to achieve. It forces you to rethink the rule and what you’re doing. When I started at Bell, I was in this row of cubicles and at the end was a big pile of old PCs, and I took it upon myself to build a server out of them. I then networked it and created shared capabilities, which we didn’t have readily available back then. It was great for information and document sharing, collaboration, and those kind of things, but I got in a little trouble because I wasn’t supposed to take apart equipment and hook it into the network and create privileged access. But it got me noticed in some positive ways, as well as got me thinking outside the box of what my day-to-day job was, saying there’s a better way of doing this.

On recent lessons learned: During the pandemic, we weren’t deemed an essential service so the government shut all our stores. That meant all traffic, from a retail perspective, went online. We were doing about 5,000 orders a day and we got flooded well beyond anything we could possibly imagine in terms of what we had built the system for, going up to about 120,000 orders a day. If you’re doing 100kpm and want to do 120, just step on gas pedal a little harder. But we’re talking a 2,400% increase. That’s going 2,400kpm, so pushing the gas pedal harder doesn’t get you there. You need a brand-new engine, new tires, new drivers. And it’s not just fixing the car. You have to fix the roads, change the traffic lights. There are so many things that have to be changed and we had to do thousands every week to figure out how to unlock the scale of the problem we had. It was extremely difficult to do. I also felt personally responsible for putting the corporation in such a challenging position where revenues weren’t coming into the organization.

On appreciating limited resources: When I was at Research in Motion, now BlackBerry, whatever you wanted to spend, whoever you wanted to hire, whatever you wanted to buy, you could do it back then. Whatever you needed. I learned a lot being on the inside about the problems of having too much money and not enough governance and control. And when you have unlimited resources, like I did, you’re able to just do stuff. But constraints actually force you to do things differently and force you to think there’s a better, smarter way. When you don’t have those constraints, you tend to make decisions which are fast and easy as opposed to really innovative and creative.

On digital transformation: The definition back then was to implement e-commerce. It’s funny because there was this perception that e-commerce was just a piece of software or something to implement, when really it’s a radical business transformation. Every aspect of your business changes everything as you start to go down that path. So that led to a variety of things. It gave me the chance to do more, and eventually I was given the opportunity to take on the role I have now for everything we do.

On cybersecurity: Cybersecurity is a business issue, a business imperative. And that helps set the tone. What we’ve done is embed objectives across all of the C levels. When we say it’s everyone’s problem, it’s put in everyone’s objectives and it makes sense. From a business perspective, so many cybersecurity programs focus on tasks, metrics, and maturity models that are hard to get people to care about. But when you start to explain it in business terms around residual risk and cyber risk scenarios, that is our North Star. Whatever plan I have, though, if I’m still doing the same one next year, then I’ve failed because I haven’t adapted because things don’t stand still for an entire year in the world of cyber. So agility and agile operating models, and a focus on business risk scenarios, residual risk, and the ability to pivot, are all really important. The mindset, not only across my peers, but also within technology, within the cyber team, has to change as well. There was a time when if you asked people in the cybersecurity team what their job was, they would’ve said to secure the company and make sure things are safe. But that’s not completely their job. It’s actually to help the business in a secure way. Because the first definition could propagate certain behaviors that aren’t consistent with what we need to do as an organization. Shutting down e-commerce would make us a lot safer but that doesn’t help the business.

C-Suite, CIO, Digital Transformation, IT Leadership

Dwayne Allen is an ORBIE-award winning technology executive primed for times like these. Equipped with experiences across a range of industries, a healthy dose of self-awareness, and a passion for learning and people, Allen is redefining the art of the possible as a strategic and innovative CTO. In his current role as senior vice president and CTO at Unisys, he has accountability not just for technology but also solution innovation, architecture and IP, and patents. True to his customer-first, business-focused leadership style, he is actively involved with customer interactions as well.

When we sat down for a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Allen opened up about how his career journey, which has spanned seven big brand companies and four industries, has shaped the multidimensional leadership style he operates with today. Afterwards, we spent some more time talking about Allen’s philosophy of IT leadership, some of the key skills and qualities that have enabled his success, and his advice to IT managers, directors, and vice presidents who aspire to have what Allen calls “transcendent impact” and deliver greater value to the business. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: What do you mean by the ‘transcendent impact’ of IT leadership? And how do we live up to it?

Dwayne Allen: If you look at the definition of transcendence, it means going beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge. The reason I emphasize it is that, of all the disciplines on a leadership team, IT sometimes has the richest insight across the workings of a company, but somehow it gets put in a box and doesn’t get out of it. If you’re in marketing, you can move over and run a business unit, or become CFO, or you could possibly become CEO. There are some recent examples of CIOs doing this — Greg Carmichael, who was CIO at Fifth Third when he hired me moved to COO and then CEO. Ted Colbert is another former CIO who became a CEO, and other CIOs are joining boards. In general, though, I think IT executives are still very underutilized in a holistic business mindset.

As I was thinking about my curious career journey, along with that of other colleagues in the industry, it made me think about the concept of transcendent impact. A key ingredient of success is the intersection of capability and opportunity. At Unisys I’m fortunate to have a CEO and COO that have created an environment where I can expand my reach and potential impact, so I’m more than just the typical CTO or CIO. I’ve gone on sales pitches to clients, get to play a role on the process for our execs to engage with client accounts, and I’m heavily engaged with our investment committee. Over time I have also begun to participate in some aspects of our strategy. It’s great to work for leaders that see me as a valuable partner so I can help in any way I can, which actually deepens my commitment to the company.

So sometimes, as IT executives, we have to aim higher, stepping outside of the IT or digital space, to demonstrate more value we can add and resisting the temptation to stay in a box. Again, the work environment and culture acts as an enabler to be able to express ‘I’m not just a CTO’ in order to get involved in sales and get involved in other aspects of learning, leadership, and growth, as well as strategy and marketing and ideas. Why limit yourself to just saying, ‘We need a network upgrade to move to the cloud,’ when you can also make other suggestions? We have to do a better job of telling our story.

Integral to your success as an executive is your ability to deliver what you describe as ‘value without boundaries or limits.’ Can you talk about how aspiring leaders can learn to achieve that?

I see it as multidimensional competence, but it starts with the core. You have to start with our IT expertise, because that’s why we were hired, so you must be good at what you do, and that includes staying current on what’s going on, from cloud to cyber to ChatGPT or whatever the relevant emerging trends are at the time. You must be familiar with your business and how IT can help them meet their strategic goals.

Next comes industry experience. I’ve been in four industries, but while I was at Microsoft, I served several more — healthcare and retail, for example. So that IT expertise gets bundled with a variety of industry experiences, which enables us to really get to understand different ways value can be delivered, because you are leveraging what you’ve learned in one industry as you move to the next. So when I moved from banking to manufacturing to learn the differences in terms of supply chain, inventory, sales, how they go to market, warranties and so forth, I felt a different type of growth.

The next layer is a bit of a strategic orientation. So, it’s not just my IT expertise and the industries I’ve been in, but also how that enables original thought and ideas. Sometimes others in the business won’t expect those ideas from the IT executive, but you now know enough to say, ‘Why don’t we consider doing this?’ Maybe you don’t initially get the credit, but you start to recognize, I’ve got more in this brain than just IT stuff. So, it’s developing the strategic orientation. Again, being in the right environment helps enable this, so I am fortunate to be at Unisys, especially with the energy of our new brand.

The final piece is business acumen, which is where you start speaking the language of the business. You start talking to them in their terms — and it throws them off at first because they will expect you to talk about technical features and performance, but as you start talking sales, profit margin, and customer retention, you are building a deeper connection.

Can you share an example?

One of my favorite stories is when I was at a large manufacturing company. I was the CIO of one of the segments — $6 billion in sales, five businesses, with 75 sites in 13 countries. I did a big ERP presentation at the segment president’s leadership meeting. I covered getting up to a common release version, benefits, costs, and timeline. In the end the president said, in front of everyone, ‘Dwayne, for that amount of money, I could build several manufacturing plants. This doesn’t seem like a good investment at all.’

While disappointing, this was an invaluable lesson. I was not speaking the language of the business; thus it failed. About a year later I came back — this time partnering with one of the business heads — with a manufacturing transformation presentation focusing on advanced supply chain, material management, inventory reduction, quality, etc. It won immediate support. It still required the same upgrade and costs, but now it made more sense because I was talking in business terms not technical terms.

When you do those things and start to realize the greater impact opportunity and better understand the art of the possible, you start to say, ‘Why aren’t we going to market this way?’ It all ties together. Each experience in your journey builds to the next one.

It seems like this also makes a difference in how you’re viewed as a business partner, which goes back to the opportunity IT has for transcendent impact. Can you dig a little deeper on that?

The core is that multidimensional competence. Once you’ve got that core, then there are no boundaries. Typically, that core goes one direction — technical — or sometimes two — technical and industry. It could be, this is great for solutions and industries because you could do more in that bucket and stay true to that. Over time, it could be, you’re good at this, you can develop talent, and you’re good at leveraging a strategic partnership to deliver any deliverable.

So those are two, and people tend to stop there. But guess what? We can also go into the business. As I said, I’m on sales calls. I can talk to someone about our cloud strategy and things of that nature. Even if you’re not in a business unit, you can be such a contributor that if there’s a strategy conversation, they’re going to make sure you’re in the meeting. You’re not ‘just IT.’

The collection of all of that presents a different value proposition. You could then be a candidate for a board of directors or to serve in some advisory capacity because now you’ve got everything covered. You’ve got solutions and industries, talent and partners, business and strategy, and boards and advisory. There are no limits — you transcend.

To get it all done, you have to galvanize people in a multidirectional way. It’s really having a 360-degree people orientation, isn’t it?

I call it the paradox of leadership. In my position right now, I’ve got to engender enough confidence with executive leadership that I can deliver on what they’re expecting of me. At the same time, I have to inspire a staff to deliver that. And you’re only successful with both. If I inspire my staff, but the leadership team doesn’t believe in me, that’s not going to work. And then, if I get the confidence of the business but my staff doesn’t deliver, that doesn’t work. So you’ve got to do both.

How would you sum it all up for an aspiring IT leader who is looking to follow in your footsteps?

Well first, it’s a journey. You’re getting a summary, but this road was paved with bumps, bruises, setbacks, and a few failures. The key is to not let that hold back the aspiration or vision. It will, at times, require some resilience and courage, but IT affords us such a unique vantage point across the company. You’ve got to embrace learning, stay keenly observant and be agile. We can leverage insights that no one else can see and integrate them into the business mindset. While IT is a profession we do, as a business leader and strategic thinker, it’s about what we are.

Speak the language of the business and focus on impacting the business. Ask for business responsibilities in addition to your IT discipline — and ask to lead or heavily contribute, not just participate. Show them the value we can add. It’s possibly so much greater than you and they even realize. Go for it!

For more insights and advice from Dwayne Allen on how to redefine your value proposition, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership

Bryson Koehler, Chief Product, Data, Analytics and Technology Officer at Equifax, joins host Maryfran Johnson for this CIO Leadership Live interview, jointly produced by CIO.com and the CIO Executive Council. They discuss “decision intelligence” vs. data overload, advancing ethical AI, cloud native operations and more.

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Careers, CIO, CIO Leadership Live

Covid-19 had an instant impact on London’s West End, and the Royal Opera House (ROH) was no exception. In March 2020, the company took the decision to close the building in Covent Garden and approximately 163 shows were cancelled in the first year of the pandemic. So when James Whitebread joined in June 2021, he could’ve been forgiven for wondering what kind of future lay ahead.

Appointed as CTO, he was immersed in a non-profit feeling the brunt. Through lockdowns and site closures, the Royal Opera House—home to The Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera Chorus, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House—was also forced to make staff redundant, implement pay freezes and reduce salaries, as well as sell a David Hockney painting of former CEO Sir David Webster for £18 million as part of a four-step recovery plan to keep the venue afloat.

Artistic teams adapted to safe working practices with masks, regular PCR testing and team bubbles on set. Yet the loss of income was so stark that the organisation today says it lost the equivalent of £3 for every £5 through the pandemic.

But the show did go on.

Royal Opera House goes digital

In 2019 and 2020, ROH put on 146 performances and participatory events front of house, with 12 productions screened at cinemas and drive-in sites, and 71 productions broadcast across radio, television and streaming services.

The following year saw similar limitations of live, in-person productions. Christmas favourite The Nutcracker, for instance, ran only four performances out of a scheduled 17, but ROH did increase its reach through digital channels, with 15 live streams and 23 previously recorded operas and ballets made available on Pay-per-view, four of which were provided for free. Two-thirds of UK viewers watching the streamed productions lived outside London.  

“The lessons learned from streaming and Pay-per-view are feeding into our future plans for increasing our digital output and reach,” summarised the ROH’s annual report.

Despite the fall in revenue and social restrictions, the organisation had to continue investing in the care of the Grade 1 listed theatre in Covent Garden, and production facilities in Thurrock and Aberdare. Chair Sir Simon Robey admitted then the ROH wouldn’t have survived without support from Arts Council England and DCMS through the Culture Recovery Fund, as well as the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

In the technology team, Whitebread says that Covid changed everything. First, there was the small matter of getting up-to-speed with a now geographically dispersed team.

“Getting that opportunity to be in the office and meeting everybody took two or three times the time it would normally take,” he said. “That can be detrimental when you join an organisation because you’re trying to assimilate and understand the direction of travel of the organisation, but also the team. You want to get down to details of problems—areas where we can make improvements and a  roadmap for the next two to three years.”

Video streaming success

Shortly after the first government lockdown, the ROH—which employs more artists than any other UK arts organisation—offered an interim streaming service so customers could continue to enjoy shows from home.

In partnership with video hosting service provider Vimeo, the ROH stream was made available to global audiences, allowing them to watch content on-demand and attend live stream events. The non-profit supplemented this with YouTube fundraisers, and its Our House to Your House campaign—free weekly broadcasts from its archive, starting with The Royal Ballet’s Peter and the Wolf.

The success of an interim service—ROH says there were over 9.5m views of streamed performances in the first year—paved the way for the launch of a new ROH streaming service in October 2022.

Whitebread says that Vimeo’s VOD service offered support across multiple platforms, but with limited customisations and fewer controls over marketing, analytics and customer features.

“The ROH Streaming product allowed us to specifically target the needs of our market segment,” he says. “Delivering the feature set, content quality was required, as well as the branding, analytics and overall control over the experience we wanted to achieve.”

Artistic teams recommended, created and approved content; marketing teams worked together to translate the proposition to customers and members; and the ROH stream product team and technology teams worked collaboratively to design, build and integrate the ROH Streaming service into the ROH’s overall ecosystem.

“We realise we’re a physical venue and about getting our content out to our customers,” says Whitebread. “But it’s not just about getting content out to customers in the area. It’s about getting content out across the UK, and our brand known much wider than that.”

Distributed work changes technology leadership

Whitebread inherited a distributed team when he joined the ROH, but quickly set about restructuring the department into three areas for greater agility, speed and accountability: service delivery for customer support; transformation for project execution; and operations overseeing infrastructure and application delivery.

Agile methodologies helped things tick over, too, as well as planning work into weekly chunks, and having the technology team collaborate in daily stand-ups.

“Agile for the ROH was the engine room of our delivery,” says Whitebread. “It has and continues to allow us to plan delivery, share plans and progress with our own team and other interested teams, as well as provide the reporting we need, particularly focusing on continuous improvements. Agile was in use in pockets when I joined and we’ve subsequently rolled out more widely within the technology teams. As we now move to deliver projects across the organisation, agile as a methodology and some of the tools associated with agile project management such as JIRA are becoming more common place outside of the technology teams.”

The distributed workplace has, however, put a greater onus on welfare. Whitebread has changed his leadership style to accommodate. He could more readily pick-up signs in pre-pandemic office environments, but that task became challenging when staff moved to remote or hybrid models.

“When you’re not all together in the office, you’ve got to be more emotionally intelligent as to how the team is working and how they’re feeling,” he says. “You’ve got to pay more attention to people’s problems, whether they are work or personal.”

Digital transformation takes flight

For Whitebread, a new three-year business and technology transformation has just been approved, and it’s segmenting his work into four areas: physical and digital customer experience; improving back-of-house digital and retail technology; modernising core enterprise applications; and infrastructure.

There are ambitions to engage and retain the existing customer base, attract new customers, build better services and develop a data-driven approach for the future as well. Whitebread also talks of collaborating more effectively with front-of-house and HR, leveraging cameras to improve artistic endeavour, and expedite show refreshes. There’s also the push to trial new technologies such as Lidar to scan auditorium, stage and backstage areas and create 3D digital stage set designs.

With between 30 and 40 digital projects in flight, Whitebread admits it’s all in the pursuit of better customer experience. “We want to better understand our customer to make sure we’re delivering the best possible service and creating those opportunities for incremental revenue,” he says.

CTO, Digital Transformation, IT Leadership

From training as a marine biologist to becoming Chief Transformation Officer and now Chief Operating Officer, Talon Outdoor’s Josko Grljevic sits down with CIO UK editor Doug Drinkwater to discuss technology executives becoming business leaders, digitising out-of-home media, building better data and analytics teams…and long-lost dreams of becoming a fisherman.

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CIO Leadership Live

To create innovative products that meet the various finance requirements of the market, Piramal Capital & Housing Finance opened the Piramal Innovation Lab in Bengaluru on Dec. 15, 2022. The 36,000-square-foot innovation hub will be led by the company’s CTO, Saurabh Mittal, and Markandey Upadhyay, head of business intelligence unit for Piramal.

CIO.com caught up with Mittal to know more about his plans for the innovation lab, as well as the technology strategy for the financial services company.

CIO.com: What solutions will come up at the innovation lab and which technologies would you be leveraging for developing them?

Mittal: As a company, we have taken a ‘tech first’ approach, which reflects in the thinking, functions, and business processes across the organization. Our philosophy is to identify problems or opportunities, size them, and build technology solutions to address them. Sometimes we will see success, sometimes we will require a few iterations, but that’s the approach that we will pursue. The purpose of this innovation lab, therefore, will be to identify problems and create solutions for them.

Some of the key problems that we are working on include creating an underwriting solution for our customers in tier 2 and 3 cities. Unlike salaried people in tier 1 cities, most people in smaller cities may be self-employed and engaged in small businesses. An underwriting infrastructure will allow us to leverage information, available across these wide sets of customers, by feeding it into certain projection models that will enable us to take credit decisions at scale.

There still isn’t a place in the industry where you can get a home loan in minutes. So, we are working on reducing turn-around times for our home loan customers, and instant decisions and disbursements for our unsecured loan customers.

Another interesting area we are focusing on is that of bank statement analysis. We receive all kinds of bank statements in various formats but there isn’t a single solution in the industry that can help derive the income of the customer.

To develop these products, we will heavily use data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Through the new state-of the-art innovation centre, we intend to attract skilled resources in the areas of product management, data sciences, user experience, and software engineering. The company aims to build a team of more than 300 technology professionals by the end of FY23.

But for a relatively new entrant in the market, it is also important to leverage technology and quickly create a competitive differentiator for the company. How have you done that?

We are just about two years old and are catching up with the best in certain areas. However, at the same time, there are a whole lot of areas where we are ahead of others. For instance, we had a paper-based process to sign up DSAs [direct sales agents], go in the field and source business for us. The process, which was long and frustrating, took seven days to onboard a channel partner. We reimagined that process and converted it to a completely digital journey. Now DSAs get signed up in an average of 12 minutes. I’m told that’s an industry first.

Then we’ve got embedded finance partners. Think of them as various kinds of consumer tech or fintech companies, who want to give loans in partnership with us, seeking access to our customers. To enable this, we have turned to APIs. The API stack at the back end enables customers to interact with the lenders. The Embedded Finance business has allowed us to get 22 of our partners to launch over 24 programs in collaboration with leading digital consumers and merchant engagement platforms. The fastest that we’ve gone live with a partner has been about four weeks, which is also an industry-first capability. We are far ahead in our API thinking.

Our credit managers meet potential customers and ask various questions as part of a personal discussion. Based upon the outcome of this personal discussion, the credit manager takes a decision whether the customer should be extended a loan or not. We have embedded intelligence into this process of personal discussion. As the credit manager asks questions, he gets feedback because of the dynamic scoring happening at the back end. Based on the scoring happening in real-time, the credit manager can pause and reject or approve a customer. I don’t think that such a personal discussion tool has been developed by any other player yet.

I think we got a bit lucky as being a young company we didn’t have a whole lot of legacy systems to deal with other than what we got from the DHFL acquisition. When we acquired DHFL, we had an on-prem data center that has been migrated to the cloud.

These solutions and the others in the pipeline will add to the company’s top line. How are you boosting the bottom line through technology?

Let me illustrate this with the example of collections. Collections could happen purely in an offline manner. To drive efficiencies in this area, we have built an intelligent app called Collection Central. Through AI and ML models, the app tells us that a particular customer will pay if you send a message to him or her or need to make a phone call or a field visit to a certain customer. This ensures we’re not making a field visit for every customer. Such solutions, supported by intelligence powered by the data, drive efficiencies. It’ll be hard for me to say whether we collect more because of such solutions but I can confidently say that we collect faster and with lesser cost because of them.

Blockchain holds promise for financial service companies as it can lead to cheaper and faster transactions, enhanced security, and automated contracts. How are you maximizing it for Piramal?

Mittal: We don’t have active investments in blockchain yet. One of the areas where blockchain can play a vital role is that of a property registrar. It’s hard work to identify the genuineness of property documents and then tracing its legacy all the way from the first buyer till now. Building an industry-neutral property registration platform, enabled by blockchain, that gives us assurance that the property title is valid is crucial but use cases like these would be more of industry-wide opportunities. Some of these, therefore, would have to be taken up within the Digital Lenders Association or other forums where you must garner support from other players.

Most financial services companies have data siloed in multiple business units. How do you ensure that data is democratized to deliver personalized CX?

We have a single multi-product platform that internally branches out into different flows depending on what product in being used. We have a single app that all business units use for all the products, but it plays out differently depending on which product they are starting the journey for.

We have ensured that all our data is generated and stored in a single place in a manner such that anybody can consume and use it. Every single piece of data from the platform flows into a data warehouse that provides accessibility of data to whoever needs it, either for a report or for visualization analytical needs or for building projection and machine learning models on top of that.

We have mandated that any new microservices or applications will not be put into production if they are not pushing the required data elements into the data warehouse. To facilitate this, we have created a ‘push case architecture’ that allows any new application to push data to the data warehouse directly, making it very easy for developers and application owners to do so.

As a CTO, what are some of the biggest challenges that you face?

Mittal: The biggest challenge has been hiring the kind of talent we would like to have. About a year and a half back, we didn’t have a single software development engineer in the company. We started by defining the job description, roles, responsibilities, and attracting talent. We had our success in the last year and a half, but the innovation lab will now accelerate it.

The other big challenge relates to constraints that we face while working with third-party systems. We have cloud native and have designed everything keeping cloud in mind. For instance, from day one, we use serverless computing and cloud-managed databases. Besides the benefits of on-demand provisioning, elasticity, and deep observability, it helps us to focus on the core business.

However, third-party systems may not have been designed for the cloud, which creates bottlenecks for our strategy and operations. We keep thinking how we can bring in the cloud native thinking there to improve the setup.

Going forward, what will be the top business and technology trends in this industry?

Mittal: In the lending world, account aggregator is one thing that is likely to see exponential growth next year. It is especially relevant for the large segment of customers we serve, who are new to credit base. We don’t have a civil record for such customers and need to have their reliable bank statements. So, account aggregator to get authenticated, verified, and reliable bank statements with very low friction is the need of the hour. The push from various regulators is already there, and on this account, we strongly believe that account aggregator will be a major thing next year in the lending world.

The other technology that will go to a different orbit altogether is machine learning. While all lenders build ML models based on internal and industry data, the mind is opening to newer possibilities. With ChatGPT, DALL.E, and other innovations around us, there is a completely different set of opportunities emerging and unthinkable experiences can be offered to customers and internal users using machine learning.

Digital Transformation

Over the past several years, IT has undergone a profound shift in which a formerly support-oriented organization has taken on a much more prominent customer-centric role. Much of this has occurred thanks to the power of data to drive decisions and digital transformation’s impact in enabling companies to create new service- and data-based offerings around their core products.    

After hearing recently that Art Hu’s CIO role at Lenovo had been significantly expanded to incorporate customer solutions, I was eager to talk to him and learn more about how he has approached this shift to a “CIO-plus,” customer-centric IT leadership position. Our conversation touched on how this new opportunity evolved, the central role that data plays for CIOs today, and how his new CTO duties differ from those of his CIO post. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Martha Heller: In addition to Lenovo CIO, this past April you became CTO of Lenovo Solutions and Services Group. What is that new business?

Art Hu: Last year, Lenovo stood up our Solutions and Services Group (SSG) as a part of our pivot from hardware sales to solutions, including offering our products as a service. Device-as-a-service (DaaS), for example, is our fastest growing business. It allows customers to avoid making large hardware capital expenditures and move to a “consume as you go” model where we manage, configure, and deploy their devices for them. 

Think of SSG as a high-growth startup. Last year, Lenovo earned more than $70 billion in revenue, of which SSG contributed a little more than $5 billion. Our goal is to double our revenue in the next few years.

What does SSG’s rapid growth indicate about the evolving world of business and technology?

The first point is the shift from delivery to outcomes. It is no longer our goal to simply manufacture and ship a piece of hardware. Our goal is to deliver value through business outcomes. But you can only pivot to a customer-outcomes mindset if you have customer intimacy and understand the context in which your technology is being used.

One example is Lenovo’s AIOps service, where we analyze a customer’s data about hybrid cloud service and make recommendations to optimize it for stability and performance. The rapid growth of SSG points to the fact that today, you need more than the right technology: The technology needs to make your data visible, accessible, and actionable.

What lessons learned can you offer CIOs on generating actionable data?

The first lesson is to create clear data standards. We learned that some data needs to be common (the definition of a ‘shipment,’ for example), but we also learned that we cannot standardize everything. We need to allow for some variation in how people operate, even within a global model.

The second is to start building guardrails around the data. When we told our business partners what they could and could not do with the data, they just went off on their own and did it anyway. We realized that we needed to strike the right balance between standards, guardrails, and flexibility. It took us a couple of iterations to get it right.

The third lesson is all about education. You cannot assume that your business partners know what to do with the data. Early adopters will know exactly what they want, but others may not. As an example, we had significantly upgraded our ability to gather feedback on social media, and we started to send customer comments from Twitter and LinkedIn back to our product development teams. We assumed those teams would love all that data, but we were wrong. Someone actually said, “Please stop sending me all of this data. I don’t know what to do with it.” We learned that delivering data is not enough. We need to help our business partners understand it and then use it, to take advantage of these marketplace insights.

What does the SGG CTO role entail?

The first part of my job is to choose the technology investments that will enhance our customer offerings. Where can RPA (robotic process automation) complement our solutions portfolio? How will AR and VR extend our capabilities? The second is to expand the solutions portfolio to bring more choices to our customers. And the third is to leverage SSG as a platform for innovation that drives the future of our solutions and services strategy.

How is that job different from your CIO role?

In both roles, I am continuously scanning the technology landscape to identify opportunities and building a strong engineering team and culture to deliver. But there are differences as well.

For example, my level of external engagement. A CIO’s stakeholders are typically the business users within the company. As Lenovo’s CIO, I build our core business applications, social media and e-commerce sites, and spend time thinking about business scenarios, deployment, and ways to capture value. As CTO, I spend more time in the market, understanding emerging trends and the competitive landscape. Those give me a strong perspective of customer insights, which are then sharpened in discussions with our business leaders and the sales teams. The result is a better-informed offering development process.

My perspective on budgets and investments is also different. As CIO, you typically have a budget against which you prioritize investments and initiatives. But as the CTO in a new P&L, if I cannot articulate a clear value proposition for my technology investment roadmap, my development budget is zero. The conversation shifts from “your budget needs to decrease by 10%, so you can do some but not all of your priorities” to “your budget is zero because we don’t believe your technology strategy will grow our P&L.” (That hasn’t happened yet, fortunately.)

Finally, there is the difference of working in a startup versus working at global scale. As CIO of Lenovo, I manage the teams that support a multibillion-dollar business. The SSG CTO role, on the other hand, has required me to get into the nitty-gritty of incubating a business. Being a leader in a $70 billion business is very different than supporting a new line of business in the “from-zero-to-one” stage of maturity. 

How did you wind up in the role?  

I was asked to take on both roles for several reasons. The first is that for years, industry trends have indicated that the future would be increasingly software-defined, so we have been building up our software capability within IT for quite a while. 

At the same time, SSG’s approach to developing our offerings has been to tap into the best of Lenovo’s assets from across the enterprise and integrate them into a single offering, with software being part of the “glue” that ties it together. The requirements to execute this type of exercise were a natural fit with IT’s software capabilities, especially the engineering methodologies, processes, and platforms that were needed to build SSG’s R&D platform.

Second is our “Lenovo powers Lenovo” concept. Over the years, our customers have wanted to know how we, at Lenovo, run our business: Supply chain planning, warehouse operations, and globalization are good examples. They also wanted to know more about the hybrid cloud solution we built in-house. They said, ‘Can’t we just buy what you’re doing?’ So, we took some of the solutions we had developed internally to run Lenovo, productized them, and began offering those to our customers. Although I didn’t know it then, I was incubating a small business within IT, and that was one of the seeds that ultimately led to my taking on the CTO role.

What advice do you have for CIOs who would like to take on a CTO position?

Don’t wait. If you are developing software solutions internally that could be valuable to your customers, start thinking about those solutions as the beginning of a business. As CIO, you are perfectly positioned to do this, since so many ingredients of a software-enabled solutions business are already sitting within your purview. My advice to CIOs who are looking to do more would be to look at the assets they already have.

IT Leadership

What is the future of analytics and AI? And how can organizations thrive in an era of disruption? We asked Bryan Harris, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of analytics software company SAS, for his perspective.

Q: What is your advice to technology leaders for improving organizational resiliency?

A: Right now, we are all in a race against disruption and data. Customer buying habits have changed. Work-life balance has changed. The financial climate has changed. So, how do you establish a data-driven culture to identify and adapt to change? Or, in other words, what is the learning rate of your organization?

This is why executing a persistent data and analytics strategy is so important. It allows you to create a baseline of the past, identify when change happens, adapt your strategy, and make new, informed decisions. This process is your organization’s learning rate and competitive advantage.

Q: How can AI and analytics help business and technology leaders anticipate and adapt to disruption?

A: We are creating data that is outpacing human capacity. So the question becomes: how do you scale human observation and decision-making? AI is becoming the sensors for data in the world we’re in right now. So, we need analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to help scale decision-making for organizations.

Q: What best practices do you recommend around developing and deploying AI?

A: When we talk to customers, we first show them that the resiliency and agility of the cloud allows them to adapt quickly to the changing data environment.

The second step is lowering the barrier of entry for their workforce to become literate in analytics, modeling and decision-making through AI, so they can scale their decision-making. Everyone has a different maturity spot in that curve, but those who achieve this outcome will thrive – even in the face of disruption.

I recommend the following best practices:

Think about the ModelOps life cycle, or the analytics life cycle, as a strategic capability in your organization. If you can observe the world faster, and make and deploy insights and decisions as part of AI workloads faster, you can see the future ahead of time. This means you have a competitive advantage in the market.Innovate responsibly and be aware of bias. We give capabilities and best practices to our customers that allow them to understand the responsibility they have when scaling their business with AI. And we are taking a practical approach to helping customers adhere to the ethical AI legislative policies that are emerging.Ensure explainability and transparency in models. You won’t have adoption of AI unless there is trust in AI. To have trust in AI, you must have transparency. Transparency is critical to the process.

Q: What does the future hold for AI and analytics?

A: Synthetic data is a big conversation for us right now. One of the challenges with AI is getting data labeled. Right now, someone must label, for example, a picture of a car, a house or a dog to train a computer vision model. And then, you must validate the performance of the model against unlabeled data.

Synthetic data, in contrast, allows us to build synthetic data that is statistically congruent to real data. This advancement represents a huge opportunity to help us create more robust models — models that aren’t even possible today because conventional data labeling is too challenging and expensive. SAS lowers the cost of data acquisition and accelerates the time to a model.

If, because of this innovation, they get insights about the future, companies gain a competitive advantage. But they must do it responsibly, with awareness of the bias that AI may inadvertently introduce. That is why we provide capabilities and best practices to our customers that allow them to understand the responsibility they have when scaling their business with AI.

For more information, download the SAS report – “4 Winning Strategies for Digital Transformation” – here.

Artificial Intelligence

Few would swap sunny San Francisco and the innovation of Silicon Valley for a train ticketing company serving disgruntled UK commuters, but try telling that to Trainline CTO, Milena Nikolic.

A long-time Googler, who’s role as engineering director saw her lead the Google Play developer ecosystem, Nikolic was keen for something new that offered a greater sense of social purpose.

I had been at Google for so long that I stopped counting,” she says. “It was close to 13 years… and I was itching for a bit of a change.”

In a growing technology market, Nikolic waited for the right opportunity. Nothing clicked until she spoke to Trainline, the international digital rail and coach technology platform, headquartered in London.

“Everything fell in place; every box was ticked,” she says. “I really liked the mission, connecting people to places in greener, more sustainable ways.”

The first 100 days

As the new CTO tasked with setting the technical strategy, ensuring tech team delivery, and aligning product and business strategies, Nikolic had a lot on her plate for the first 100 days.

She spent time understanding the tech stack, the business challenges, and a comprehensive technology team split across infrastructure, product development, security, privacy and technical compliance.

Trainline had sound technical systems and a good level of autonomy, but Nikolic believed the team members themselves felt less empowered to move out of their comfort zone, which impacted business outcomes.

“We had engineers who were very good specialists in their field, but I think people felt less empowered to really own goals and outcomes end-to-end,” she says. “They’re all these brilliant individuals who have a lot to add beyond coding their part of the technical system. They were more stuck to their part of the technical stack, and just contributing to that.”

This reflection pushed Nikolic to make changes to how technology teams worked across the organisation, and support a new target operating model.

Driving business growth through new teams

Trainline has been a tech-enabled business since it launched in 1997, with online ticket sales available as far back as 1999. More recently, under the tutelage of former CTO Mark Holt, Trainline became a story of scale and mobility, moving to DevOps, agile principles and leveraging compute power through Amazon Web Services (AWS).

By 2018, the Trainline platform was hosting more than 80 million customer visits a month, with more than 80% coming through mobile devices. The company sold more than 204 tickets every minute.

Today, its Platform One, with 78 million visits every month across all channels, covers more than 270 rail and coach companies across 45 countries, including over 80% of rail routes in Europe.

Milena Nikolic

Such growth in scale has resulted in a steady ramp-up in resources. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the business to reach almost £250m in debt in 2021 (the firm has since recovered to achieve net ticket sales of £2.5bn and a net profit of £90m in its latest financial results), Trainline now employs around 400 engineers, data and tech specialists who work on Platform One and process over 600 system releases every week. The company has approximately 800 staff in total across the business.

Since joining a year ago, Nikolic has split teams into horizontal and vertical functions to support operational efficiency and product development.

Horizontal team members own the platforms to ensure their robustness, reliability, latency and scalability so engineers can be productive. Vertical teams, meanwhile, operate across the tech stack so teams aren’t localised to certain operating systems, orchestration or data layers. These cross-functional teams, including product support, UX and data, offer differing levels of expertise across both front and back-end infrastructure.

“Those teams have a clear mission… that they own the product or business outcome,” says Nikolic. “They have full autonomy to decide whatever they want to do… to drive that goal, that mission and move that [business] metric in the way we expect.”

Training engineers and building products

As part of reskilling teams, Nikolic has focused on building a T-shaped skillset and giving staff the opportunity to gain broader experience. For example, she says that an iOS developer could learn eCommerce, or a web developer could study back-end infrastructure.

There have been a number of vehicles to do that, from an internal ‘tech summit’ with speakers from within and outside Trainline presenting on all things tech, product and data, to a ‘culture of craft’ community that offers regular activities, such as coding dojos, workshops, hackathons and meetups. The company also provides access to the tech learning platform O’Reilly, where team members can attend live conferences, and access books and content.

The team has celebrated numerous achievements inside her first year. Nikolic says Trainline now has a robust and scalable platform capable of withstanding 10 times search traffic and transactions, while the company recently launched STicket barcode technology to reduce friction to buy and prevent fraud. It’s also launched delay notifications in France and the UK—a smart move considering a combined 600 train delays every minute, while Trainline’s new Where next? app integrates with Apple MapKit so iOS users can plan their journey without having to leave the app.

Platform One is the solid base for all tech and innovation at Trainline, with microservices and infrastructure-as-code (IaaC) both in vogue.

“Our tech stack is built on a solid foundation provided through AWS,” she says. “By utilising a variety of technologies, such as EC2, ECS, Fargate, Kinesis and RDS, Trainline is able to achieve a hyper-scale infrastructure necessary to enable us to provide our customers with a best-in-class platform.”

Getting more women in engineering

Having worked in the industry for 15 years, Nikolic remains frustrated with a leaky pipeline when it comes to women in engineering. She admits that the tech industry can still feel less inclusive to women, and this ‘societal problem’ can push women to leave the sector mid-career.

“It’s difficult, for sure,” she says, “and, having been part of this fight for 15 years, it can sometimes be disheartening, just how slow the pace of change is.”

Nikolic is, however, hopeful that the industry can improve the representation gap. She points to examples at Trainline, where the firm has introduced diverse recruitment panels and D&I targets, as well as partnerships with coding tech school ADA in Paris and Future Frontiers, a charity equipping students from disadvantaged backgrounds across 200 secondary schools in London and Edinburgh.

She believes the key to improving the numbers of women in engineering is adding more talent at the top of the pipeline, such as encouraging disadvantaged groups from school into early stage careers.

“The only sustainable way for us to prove this is break the barriers for underrepresented groups as they enter the tech world,” she says.

Trainline remains on an upward trajectory. There’s a reported international expansion on the horizon, government contracts to win and a new CDO, hired from Meta, now reporting into Nikolic. “I really want to make sure we execute well,” she says. ”If there’s anything keeping me up at night, it’s making sure the team is set up for success in the best possible way so we capitalise on these opportunities.”

CIO, Digital Transformation, IT Skills, Women in IT

Gary Steen joined assistive technology provider Tunstall Healthcare as its group chief technology officer (CTO) in August 2021, having previously been managing director for technology at telecommunications provider TalkTalk.

The move was motivated by his desire to bring expertise across sectors, to work for a British technology company, and to fulfil his own social purpose amid the so-called Great Resignation. And as CTO, Steen’s mission was to bolster Tunstall Healthcare’s teams and talent, drive business speed and accessibility, and support Tunstall’s ambitious visions of future healthcare.

A technology strategy for distributed healthcare

Founded as a small television repair shop in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, Tunstall has evolved from offering warden intercom systems to telehealth services over its 65 years. Elderly people originally used Tunstall-Byers to summon help in an emergency by transmitting alarm calls over the public telephone network before Tunstall moved into telecare and telehealth in the early 2000s.

Today, the company is at the intersection of the health, housing and social care markets, employing 3,000 and supporting millions of people across 19 countries, from offering phones, alarms and communication systems to remote patient monitoring services.

With the firm now shipping approximately one million devices per year, and leveraging AI and data analytics capabilities to deliver cognitive care — so healthcare providers can better detect whether someone’s health is about to deteriorate — Steen sees a different kind of health and social care emerging.

Gary Steen

“With the pressures on the NHS and healthcare across the EU, it’s clear that the future is not everybody going to hospital to have care,” says Steen, who also sits on the Tunstall executive board. “It’s got to be a wider distributed healthcare system. Hospitals are going to be important in the future, but healthcare homes are going to be increasingly important too,” equating the move from hospitals to distributed healthcare as similar to information being held in libraries to being widely available on the Internet.

Such visions for the future are underway through the advent of telecare and telehealth, services which Tunstall offers. The company works with health, social care, retirement and housing providers to provide technology-enabled care solutions, allowing people to live independently at home or in residential or social care settings — including those living with dementia, as well as those with learning and physical disabilities.

So Steen has a critical role to play. As CTO, he is responsible for leading the innovation and development function worldwide, and for solutions and products developed out of Tunstall’s technology delivery centres in the UK, Sweden and Germany.

With an increasingly distributed technology team of 200 spread across Europe, he sees his role as equipping tech teams for future challenges, and linking technology strategy back to Tunstall’s products and services.

But it remains early days. When he joined the firm in August 2021, Steen’s 90 day-plan revolved around listening and learning from the different business units prior to developing a technology strategy, which outlined Tunstall’s direction of travel in three core areas: its products, the technology structure of the business, and how it would operationalise so products and services could be taken to market.

The Porsche 911 of healthcare

Steen sees his challenge at Tunstall akin to that of a famous sports car manufacturer.

“If you see an old [Porsche] 911, and then you see the new one, it’s still the same product,” he says, “but there’s not a single component in the car that’s the same after those 60 years.” He says the German manufacturer managed to transform yet keep the relevance of the product by changing the way they manufacture and build it.

In the case of Porsche, he says that the evolution saw it move away from manual labour and hand-chiseled parts through to robotics and just-in-time (JIT) components, whereas Tunstall’s story lies more in the use of automated testing, advances in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to spot and remedy patient issues, and in the advent of virtual care platforms, remote monitoring and data platforms.

“It’s the same thing we’re trying to reach at Tunstall,” he says. “Our products have evolved — we need to make sure our ways of producing them evolve as well.”

This technological innovation does present a challenge, though, not least with Tunstall Healthcare typically catering for the elderly and less technically literate.

“Ensuring we develop solutions for both the digitally enabled and those with less experience of technology is key in supporting a vulnerable and ageing population. If housing, health and social care work together with technology suppliers, we can invest in tech literacy and put citizens at the heart of decision-making and empower them to manage their own health.”

Teams and talent at Tunstall

Steen admits Tunstall will require more ‘architectural muscle’ to serve his technology strategy, and he’s started laying the foundation by recruiting a new chief architect in Tunstall’s software business. Talent issues remain, however, and he believes that CTOs must consider youth and experience.

“We need to balance both,” he says. “We need people with experience because we’ve got some longer technologies, and we need people who know this space. But I’m absolutely convinced we need to do some grassroots investments as well.”

Partnerships with the likes of Manchester-based North Coders and QA are helping to bring in new apprentices and entry-level staff, with Steen saying such schemes allow him to tap into new talent pools such as minority groups who may have done science, physics or math in higher education.

“We’ll just look for smart people who want to cross train into these technologies,” says Steen, who admits that the much-regaled Great Resignation has made it “increasingly tough” to hire.

The future is about growing capabilities, accessibility and resilience, and the margin for error is zero. He notes that while downtime at telco TalkTalk may be an inconvenience for video streaming or gamers, customers not being able to dial 999 can be life threatening.

“The tolerance for error on this is nil,” he says. “If somebody needs to press that button, or something needs to happen, I want to make sure that service works,” adding that agile methodologies need to be bulletproof. “The biggest challenge is how do you transform that capability at the same time as delivering new products across the top of it,” he says. “It’s the old analogy of trying to change the engine while doing 90 miles an hour.”

CIO, Technology Industry