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Gimme Five: Industry Veteran and Advisor Rick Roy on the Role of Infrastructure in IT Success

Rick Roy is a 34-year veteran of the technology industry and a strategic advisor to AHEAD. Throughout his career, he’s served as CIO and peer advisor to large enterprises in financial services, automotive, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and professional services. He is currently Managing Partner of RER Advisors.

AHEAD’s EVP of Customer Success and CMO Tom Pohlmann sat down with Rick to get his perspective on the state of digital technology in the enterprise.

We’re bringing their conversation to you in a four-part Gimme Five interview series covering digital transformation, innovation, the role of infrastructure in both, and the imperative to deliver better software faster in the enterprise. The second in the series discusses the role of infrastructure in IT success.

Tom: Can infrastructure be a barrier to digital transformation?

Rick: If infrastructure is not modernized to be truly agile, it can certainly be a barrier to digital initiatives. Things move fast. A good modern infrastructure can be ramped up and down in terms of capacity, can handle unexpected spikes in activity, and supports the digital business overall. Most legacy infrastructure was not designed to do those things and it’s not going to adapt on its own. 

One example of this is from a conference I spoke at around 2014 when mobile was picking up speed in terms of delivering experiences to consumers via mobile apps. I asked the audience of about 200 CIOs how many had a plan or at least a strong desire to deliver a real interactive mobile experience to their customers. About 90% raised their hands. I then asked, “How many of you have a true 24/7 bulletproof infrastructure secured that is ready to accommodate mobile delivery?” Everyone looked at each other and only about 5% raised their hands. 

If you don’t modernize and architect your infrastructure to anticipate the digital interactions you want to have with your customers, employees, and partners, you’re going to eventually run into constraints that hold back your business. This leads to poor experiences and frustration on the part of audiences who you want to build good relationships with.

I suspect if I asked a similar group of 200 CIOs today these same questions around something like IoT, their response would be somewhat the same.

Tom: So in that five year window, you’re saying IT hasn’t cracked the code? Why does it take so long to see real change around infrastructure?

Rick: There are a few contributing factors. The first is the maybe mundane, but very practical issue of refresh cycles. If a business has recently done a refresh cycle within any area, it can be cost prohibitive to make a change within a contract period. This creates a situation where the business has to wait to make an infrastructure change.

Another factor is when IT isn’t connected to business drivers and needs, especially when it comes to availability. When you increase availability it gets expensive really fast. If IT isn’t informed with enough lead time or given a clear mandate from colleagues running lines of business, it’s difficult to anticipate how IT can support those business needs. Both of these factors require foresight into business strategy so that IT can understand and deliver upon what the business’s digital needs are in order to be successful.

A third component is change management within IT itself. If you have an in-house team that is used to, for example, measuring server capacity in terms of weeks or months and they need to shift to measuring in terms of hours—that can be a big paradigm shift. You have to train your team to be constantly evolving and adapting to the shifts within how infrastructure is applied.

Tom: Considering infrastructure’s role in delivering on digital needs to drive the business forward, what kind of seat should infrastructure and ops teams have at the digital or digital transformation table?

Rick: It’s so critical to get infrastructure right and it’s so painful when it isn’t designed and implemented correctly. I think it starts with, “Does technology have a full seat at the business table?” The answer should be yes. And then infrastructure has to have a major seat within technology leadership—not delegated down a level or two which can sometimes happen within larger companies.

Tom: Does connectivity to business initiatives correlate to where the CIO sits within the org chart or who the CIO reports to?

No, there doesn’t have to be. It’s really about the CIO being included any time there is a conversation about strategic business initiatives.

There are, of course, CIOs who are engaged as part of the executive team and widely respected as business leaders, but there are also those who don’t have that and are one step removed from strategic business decisions.

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes seen as the end of your career as a CIO if you end up reporting to the CFO. Through a twist of organizational changes, this happened to me at one point in my career and it was a great experience. I did have a very business-oriented CFO who didn’t have a massive cost-cutting agenda as his opening line.

Things can definitely go bad if a CIO reports to a CFO who, without any discipline whatsoever, just looks at technology and says, “You spend a lot of money, so let’s just cut that by 20 percent.” This is going to have a negative impact on the business. 

Tom: If you were a CIO and you were hiring a new head of Infrastructure and Ops, what kind of skills would you be looking for?

I’ve always felt that the best infrastructure leaders are those who have some diversity in their background beyond just running infrastructure or components of infrastructure. Of course they should understand infrastructure and have some technical command, but the best infrastructure leaders are those who have also walked in the shoes of an application development leader, project leaders, or other functional roles. This experience lends a much stronger appreciation for what those functions do and an empathy for their challenges and needs from the infrastructure team. 

Read more from our series with Rick:

Part 1 on Digital Transformation

Part 3 on The Role of Infrastructure in IT Success