Differences and similarities in senior IT leaders’ views, challenges, and opportunities became clear during a centerpiece “Future of the CIO” panel at SAP Sapphire & ASUG Accelerate Orlando earlier this month. The panel featured Autodesk Inc. SVP and CIO Prakash Kota; Verizon Communications Inc. SVP and CIO Jane Connell; and Lenovo Group Ltd. CIO and CTO Arthur Hu. SAP Global Head of Public Relations Joellen Perry’s questions prompted panelists to discuss previous and current pandemic effects; talent challenges; technology terminology and hype; and advice to their peers, among other topics.

This is an edited version of the full discussion.

SAP: How has the pandemic fundamentally changed your role as a CIO and how do you see the role evolving in the years to come?

Kota: The pandemic put a spotlight on the amazing work IT teams have traditionally done behind the scenes. No one calls you to tell you the systems are working fine. It never happens! Just like when payroll never gets emails like, “Hey, my paycheck came on time!” For Autodesk, it was an overnight activity, where we switched and people didn’t miss a heartbeat. We always supported hybrid work environments. The uniqueness of Autodesk is that we have high [graphics processing unit]–intensive workloads. The CIO’s job now is to keep asking how people can be more productive and “consumerize” the user experiences of your employees. We’ve increased our focus on removing friction. It’s a fascinating time to be CIO.

Connell: I agree. What I would add is that—as an “and”—is that this is the first time that employee experiences are just as important as customer experiences. Relentless pursuit of customer experience and employee experience. What changed is that there are no boundaries with this now. You have to iterate your innovation, but there’s this added layer of reduced tolerance for experiences that are suboptimal for your teams that are operating largely in a hybrid environment. Usability and experience are paramount, and there’s nothing that isn’t digital, so this is a great time to be a CIO. You can use your time to ensure your company is aligned horizontally in a way it never has been before.

Hu: Well, first of all, Prakash, I don’t know what you’re talking about … people email me and call me thanking me all the time! Just kidding. On a slightly different track, what I see for the CIO of the future is uncertainty, which is an opportunity for CIOs to guide [their] organizations through the uncertainty. I actually don’t like the term “back to work” because it seems like you’re going backward to something … language matters and you should focus on going forward. As a CIO, you can provide a strong point of view on what the future should look like, and people are willing to listen to you more because tech is our core remit.

SAP: Jane, we’ve all heard about the “great resignation” and maybe some of us have been part of it. The flipside of that, of course, is the “great hiring.” How has the war on talent and the increased demand for hybrid work changed your talent and recruitment strategies?

Connell: I honestly think this is probably one of the best things, believe it or not, that has happened to us as leaders. You can’t delegate the creation of culture that people want to be a part of. It questions everything. [I would say] … a couple of things … have pivoted and [been] brought to the forefront again. … How do we incubate? How do we partner differently, [and how do we] drive an innovation? So, we’re really thinking about that full circle; it’s allowed us to harness that. We’ve had startup programs and they weren’t hiring veterans; [we’ve been] doing apprentice programs. … Now, we need a return from the programs. … Now it’s, “How’s the job attractive, and does it have innovation?” That is what everybody is looking for. Does it have the flexibility and the empowerment to succeed? [Candidates] are feeling you out the same way you’re feeling them out. I think that is the greatest success of our talent strategy. … What we are looking for, at this point in time, [is] situational leadership. [The talent situation] challenged us. But it’s made us awaken something we should have always owned.

Hu: I have an issue with this whole war for talent thing. I think it’s total hogwash. Rubbish. What I mean by that is it feels so episodic. So, the great resignation is here … well before that, the internet companies were here, and next fintechs are coming. I think the point is, why? Going back to the beginning of my professional career, and I’m sure for many of you, I remember consulting companies, like dozens of years ago, would come back and say the war for talent. It’s like a time warp. I think it distracts from the real issue, because I think Jane said many things I absolutely agree with. … I really liked what Jane said about being creative. I was talking to a peer who had said half the war for talent is terrible. … I think sometimes people get into fixed mindsets about what talent looks like, in that example of what we have to find. It’s like a fishing analogy. Everyone’s got the same fishing pole, the same tackle and bait, the same lure, and you’re all in the same part of the pond. I want that DevOps engineer who has eight years of Kubernetes experience and three years at Netflix … it’s so hard to hire versus thinking about the fundamentals. … At the end of the day—Do people want to work with you and your team to achieve great things? … I really encourage us to get away from what I view as hysteria that’s unhelpful around the great resignation and the war for talent. It’s always there. And I think the point is that we should always be thinking about it, but in a very human-centric way. It’s structural, … not cyclical.

Kota: I think we focused a lot on attracting talent. I definitely do feel [that way], at least when I joined [the industry] a couple of decades back … all I [would] look for [was] stability in the job. But when I interview candidates, even from campus recruiting, the younger generation coming into [a] corporate environment, the kinds of questions that they’re asking are ones where they have options and choices. They want to know what … the purpose [is] of the company/organization [and] what you’re working on, which, for me, I feel it’s really good. That they have that kind of thinking; they are not just thinking like this is just a job. All of them feel like, I am putting 10 hours of my time, or 12 hours, or whatever it is, it is important; it is … for the right purpose. So, it puts [onus] back on us to ensure that we are able to connect whatever our organizations are doing and the impact that we are creating because they want to create impact, which is a good thing. …

And we’ve gone through this whole subscription transformation as a company. … We used to ship DVDs to our customers. After we … shipped, okay, next customer, next DVD. From there, [we now] provide access in the cloud, which means all customers have an opportunity. We have to continuously provide value and engage them. That’s how they keep renewing. So, it’s a recurring business, which means it’s not a one-time thing. … Same thing with employees. You can’t just say, I have all of these practices in recruiting. If you don’t continuously engage them, they have options. How do you engage them in a meaningful way? I’m a big believer—I polish my own stones, but when I recruit, I recruit diamonds, which means you need to balance both. You have your existing team members; you need to help invest in developing them. But when you recruit … externally, you polish them, too.

SAP: Let’s talk about composability. I’m kind of doing an SAP analysis. Every time I ask somebody what it is, I get a different answer. So, you are now going to be the voice of truth. Why does composability mean, and how are you thinking about it for your work?

Kota: My own definition: It is how you assemble different components together to get meaningful value. It doesn’t just come from a tech standpoint, but also a business model one. An example is how we are extending some business models to become pay-as-you-go, our consumption model where we get the customers to choose what is meaningful for them, rather than forcing them to [use] one option. It’s almost like you give them choices and let them choose what is best for them. When you have the right building blocks, you can group them together to get the right value. … You can stitch things together. … there are options. I think this gives a lot of flexibility for the customers to get to choose what they need. It’s all about giving more options to customers, which puts more pressure on vendors to deliver the best experience iteratively.

I think as long as there are certain governance [rules] and standards, … give as much flexibility as possible. That’s how you will be able to also get adoption from users. … [If] it’s only this particular way, … [if there’s] only one way to do, it means that philosophy may not work for different folks. So that’s why I think you have to figure out where … the standards [are] and where can it be flexible.

Connell: I’m going put it in [layperson’s] terms. And how I think about that. It’s like single sign-on on steroids. You’re not building the same functionality [in] every application. It gives a good experience to the user. But you do have to think about it in the sense of that ecosystem of their journey. … When you think of PayPal paying on all these different applications, that’s composability. For Verizon, we’re starting to dabble in this more. It’s been more about the connectivity of process. In our workforce, it is what our return to office has been called, and what we’ve been through in the last couple of years, and we have put out so many digital assets. … We had to respond quickly. [For true composability], you think of experience and journeys and usability; I think—put that in the center in order to create the ecosystem. That’s very different thinking, so we’re going to experiment right now.

Hu: I’d like to offer, I think, maybe where Jane left off; I love Prakash’s definition. I find [composability] a fascinating psychological experiment en masse for my entire organization and the company. What I mean by that is we are all CIOs in this room … all have many engineers. … What’s the first thing someone says? If you ask them to look at someone else’s codebase or use something else? Right like this: Thumbs down. I feel like this thing is terrible. It’s spaghetti code. Nothing’s ever good enough. But at scale, your ability to move quickly is actually … around [the] precaution Jane [noted]. And: How do you incent the organization and pivot [it] from engineers who are very much going to build the right thing into something that’s much more around [how] you can get to market more quickly? That’s totally not how engineers think, right? Because typically they come in and I think a lot of them have this hero mindset—I’m this little coder and I’m like 100 times better than the next person. So, … how do you change the organization? I think composability … it’s modularity, right, in technical terms, has been around forever. What’s new is this elevation that says the business is becoming more aware of how you can take some of the technical concepts around modularity and continue to elevate them. And then the psychology part of it is how do you get your teams to do a mind trick to say yes, that’s why I don’t have to build everything by myself. It’s actually really cool to use something else that someone else did or change or just build something. Let me just use that so I can be faster. And that’s been really challenging. I think that’s been … [a really] interesting journey for the team.

SAP: We’ve got lots of nodding heads on stage. So, you’re all in vigorous agreement. We’re going to talk a little bit about hype, because we’re technology. There’s a lot of hype. Let’s just imagine you get an email from [your] executives: What are we doing with NFTs? When are we getting into the metaverse? Are there things you think are overhyped at the moment?

Hu: Yeah, so this happens [on a] regular basis, and I suspect I’m not the only one: board member just emailed, “What are we doing with blockchain?” It’s fine; it’s not a bad conversation to have, as long as the person is actually interested. And it can be an invitation to have a discussion. And so, as an IT executive, a lot of the time … people … laugh at me when they’re not in the business. Because it’s not about the technology most of the time. It’s about what you’re doing with it. And so, I always try to bring it back to the question of: What do you want to do? What do you think the business volume is? It’s the beginning of the conversation. Think about what overhyped means. In my view, it’s when excitement and understanding about what’s possible with technology gets ahead of how people use it. I do think blockchain is overhyped, in that sense, because there’s a lot of froth around it. It gets engineers excited—Who wants to play with something new? As an example, I ran into one of my teams who are super excited; they wanted to demo their blockchain app. Let’s go and take a look at it. I took a look. It works, right? It was fine; it was like a sales and marketing database for something. The point is, I looked at it, and I’m like, this is just a relational database. You’re storing key value pairs in [a] couple of tables. There’s a query. Why in the world are you doing blockchain? Your concurrency is terrible. You have terrible throughput, and you’re using all the negatives of blockchain in a place that they totally didn’t belong. And so, it’s this case where you get a lot of excitement about it, but then you have to kind of go through a struggle to figure out how things actually fit together. And does it actually connect with the real business scenarios? You mentioned NFTs and [the] metaverse. They’re important, and we’re very much on the edge of exploration. And it’s great that the questions get asked because if you don’t ask questions, you don’t have an engine to drive some of that for discussion on progress. Let’s explore and hopefully bring the business along. … [Additionally,] what are we trying to solve, and does this actually make a difference for what matters?

Kota: I think it’s very important to really have the right conversation focused on outcomes. Because, especially in a software company, when you have a technology leadership role, you have everyone giving you advice on how you should do your job. And we are fortunate, actually, in that spirit. But naturally, I would also be mindful of bringing the conversation back to [this]: What problem or what outcome [do] we want to [address or] deliver; what value are we thinking about here? Because otherwise we can get excited about seeing new technology or any conversation that goes on, just from a metabolic standpoint, right? I think we are very well positioned specifically for the metaverse. We acquired a company last month that’s involved in the extended reality. So, with extended reality, and all the data that comes out from different tools, we feel like once we feed it into [the] metaverse, our designers and innovators can really get the advantage out of it. And so that’s again a business outcome and value, thinking about [it], and then how can we leverage [it], [instead of] day one, we have a solution, let’s go hunt the problem. I think that’s something that you should always keep pushing back. And … it’s nobody’s wrong or fault. It’s a typical tendency in a software company to get excited by seeing technology. And while we have a significant responsibility as technology leaders, … technology should not be the first one to bring up the conversation. We are probably the first ones to say okay, let’s forget about technology. In this discussion, let’s talk about our problem value. [We’ll] get to technology eventually.

SAP: Now for a personal question. I wonder if we can talk a little bit about how you have changed; how the past three years changed you—in ways that you’re comfortable sharing—and which [changes, if you’re] given the chance, [you’ll] carry with you?

Connell: I think about this all the time. I would say, in the last two years [of] not being in the office, we were privileged. … So part of that is not sliding into old habits, and really thinking about the technology. When the pandemic hit, we kind of burned down that first six months, and then it’s like, this is beyond work and family balance. And it brought back focus. … You focus on things with a different tenacity of what’s important. … You got really resourceful and [helped] people see the problem. And I think that’s a good thing. … I also think [about] behaviors to not be that workaholic … [which] helps give that role model to the team. I’ve been trying to be very, very aware of the opposite extremes, those [who] don’t want to come back. And I do think there’s the human aspect of connecting; that’s really important. But do it purposely; don’t make people come in or come to an off site or do something … they’re not getting much value from. It forces you to plan differently and make meaningful moments, is what I call it. So I think there’s a lot of teaching moments on moments that matter. … I think that relentless focus on what does matter [is good]. … What is the problem we’re solving? I would say those are kind of the big things, and I’m keeping them front and center for myself.

Kota: I think decision-making—as soon as the pandemic hit—I think people … came together and decisions were starting to be made very fast. [Before, we typically needed] to ask everybody in the company [about what they thought] and how [they felt] for even a small decision. Things started moving very fast, and that’s something that I was really fascinated by—how any crisis brings people together to solve things, [to become] truly agile, very focused on outcomes and removing the boundaries that exist. So that’s an important thing, especially as … companies are growing. We are very good at overcomplicating simple things and oversimplifying complex problems. And that’s something we need to be very mindful of. I think it is very important for us to have the best of both worlds [for] how we operate. It is very important to have the human connection and bonding and understanding, especially since we have been recruiting a lot in the last few years. It’s not that the work is not getting done. But [candidates] are looking for purpose, engagement, and culture. Have a purpose when you need to meet, and the purpose could be team building [or] team bonding, or you’re just going to have fun. But define that purpose. [Just saying you need to come in] … because today is Wednesday … will never sustain [people]. And so, those are some of the things that I’ve changed myself [and] how [I will] operate going forward. Definitely want to leverage [the] best of both worlds … in the way I operate.

Hu: Three words: Humility, sleep, and running. Humility because this is the first Sapphire in three years through events no one here could control. Life is a random walk, and no matter how much control you think you have, you will be limited at times. For sleep, I love not having permanent jet lag. On running: good news, bad news, I couldn’t imagine how people could run. But I started running!

SAP: Audience question: As CIOs, what specific responsibilities or KPIs do you have that relate directly to sustainability?

Connell: We look at sustainability in a really broad way. I wouldn’t say it’s just technology focus. For supply chain, we’re looking at our emissions or factories. We’re looking at sustainable ingredients. Even when you think about network, we’re always looking at the environment from that perspective. So, the company has those KPIs. We all have our brands that are tied together in order to really think about sustainability and environment.

Hu: I see it everywhere in the work, actually. It’s one of those things when you start digging underneath the covers; it seems to be everywhere. Supply chain is a good example. There are a lot of things around reporting and visibility, as well, that we need to [implement in] the system. For example, we’re thinking about some new private cloud options. Sustainability is a huge part—How do we actually contribute with lower power profile, higher density, [and] liquid cooling technology, so that we’re actually much more efficient? Next-generation data centers—How do we actually build dashboards and help our legal and procurement teams make that … part of their scorecard, and make that easily and visibly accessible in real time, so that as a corporate goal, it actually starts to flow into all the operations? I think technology changes have a huge part to play in instrumenting and enabling that, to really bring the visibility.

Kota: As tech leaders, we are procuring lots of technologies and solutions. That’s part of what we look for. For example, SAP, as a vendor, we expect it to have certain standards [and to have] philosophies that match our sustainability goals. As [software as a service] providers, we have to ensure they are aligned in that way, so it’s very important with whom we collaborate.

SAP: Audience question: It feels like we’re living in the land of KPIs. I’m curious how you express that and try to live up to KPIs. … If you have a good year as a CIO, how do you define that?

Kota: Traditionally, you used to get a list of projects; CIOs used to complete them and they were success criteria. Now we are jointly framing the outcomes we need. Gone are the days where we measured in terms of projects and tasks. Anything that gets prioritized is a result of IT and business being aligned. It isn’t coming up with a project and the IT team coming up with a way to deliver. It’s about who the users are, how [they’ll] use the solutions, and then we have the conversation about how we deliver it. I tell folks on my team not to focus on the how. Focus on the when and why; I’ll focus on the how.

Connell: They need to be redefined. The KPIs we all have are table stakes that we can’t take our eyes off of—[such as] risk, security, finances, etc. But I wholeheartedly support that we need other areas. The business doesn’t always define it well. Unless business value is defined—[such as] moving the needle for our employees but also for customers. Where is that proof point? As a company, we have five goals. You ask how [a KPI] ladders up to those in a meaningful way. It’s a discipline, talking from CEO down, everyone focused on this strategy.

Hu: This notion of KPIs sometimes gets disconnected. Sometimes I’ve had to bridge that. I’ve had terrible reviews, where I share the portfolio … and the business president says, “This sucks. The systems were down that one time.” So, it’s not just KPIs, but the perception around them. You need to show value behind the KPIs where it’s unquestionable. Numbers are easy to understand, [such as] how tech impacts gross margin. You can’t just walk in with “I did my KPIs.” The emotional part of KPIs is evaluating how leaders help business[es] solve problems.

SAP: Rapid response question: One topic that keeps you up at night?

Connell: Real difficulty is the fine line around personalization and the new privacy laws that we have to be responsible about. Localization … that last mile where we have environments we don’t know about that are weak backdoors. Isolated computing environments. We can’t predict the world[,] but if we can empower people to close access gaps, we’ll figure out the privacy part.

Hu: Ransomware—minus $100 [million] if you get it wrong.

Kota: The data side. Everyone is a data company. While data is cool for today, it is foundational for tomorrow. You don’t want to miss that. Especially in environments with 30–40 years of complexity; it’s a complex problem to solve.

SAP: Rapid response question: Advice for other CIOs?

Kota: You don’t have to build everything in your own ecosystem. I’m a software engineer at heart, so I want to build everything myself. But it’s also time to value … what do you need to build, versus, what [do] you need to buy and consume?

Connell: Suspend judgment and keep your childhood curiosity. It’s so easy to dismiss technology as “hype,” but be curious to see it, touch it, feel it. … I tell my team members … to go experience these new technologies to keep things fun and curious. Tech is cool and changing fast. Enjoy it!

Hu: We’re privileged and lucky to be tech execs now. Twenty years ago, IT was a dirty word. People looked at you as second-class citizens. Now, everyone wants to give you a hug. For the CIO community, now is our time! Step up and let’s fly!

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