In this interview, Frank Iannella discusses the influence of his scientist background on his approach to IT leadership, and why aspiring CIOs should seek out experiences in different industries.

Frank Iannella saw big potential in IT early in his professional life when he witnessed the transformative power of emerging databases and other technologies in the 1990s. The draw was so strong that Iannella shifted from his burgeoning science career to take a job as a help desk analyst with a small software company, Spectrum Human Resources Systems.

But Iannella saw in his new career path something even more enticing than the technology itself: using technology to make a difference.

"I quickly realized that technology could be used to solve business problems, and I found myself more interested in the outcomes than in the technology itself. This shift in perspective taught me the importance of focusing on business goals and problem-solving, a lesson that has shaped my career ever since," he says.

He moved from that first tech job at Spectrum Human Resources Systems to PepsiCo, where he spent 22 years developing both his technology chops and his business skills as he moved up through a series of successively more senior roles. By 2015 he had CIO responsibilities for the one of the business units. After serving as vice president, global supply chain – cybersecurity at PepsiCo, he worked as a CIO advisor and then later joined Freshpet, a pet food company, as its CIO.

He joined Heineken USA in 2022 and now serves as CIO and senior vice president of digital and technology. He says the Dutch company’s iconic status as a 150-year-old legendary beer company and the role’s focus on business results attracted him to the position. “Additionally, this role was reporting directly to the CEO and part of the executive team, an opportunity that I could not refuse,” he says.

Iannella spoke with The Heller Report in April, sharing his thoughts on how his science background shaped him as an IT executive, how understanding and addressing your weaknesses as a leader can make you more effective, and why rising IT leaders should consider lateral career moves as a way to broaden their range of experience. 

Mary K. Pratt: You have a bachelor’s degree in biology and started your career as a microbiologist and chemist at pharmaceutical companies. How, and why, did you move into IT?

Frank Iannella 216Frank Iannella: I originally was on the path to becoming a doctor, but after I graduated, I did not know if that was really what I wanted to do. That is when I decided to get some experience in the sciences, which is why I went into pharmaceuticals. I worked in a microbiology lab for a few years and then a chemistry lab. I was doing a lot of technology-related projects at that time – things like Lotus 1-2-3 and early versions of database programs. Coincidentally that happened during the technology boom in the mid-1990s, so there were plenty of jobs available in the market. I found an opportunity at a small software company as a help desk analyst, and it turned out to be a great entry-level role. I was doing everything, from production support to development to testing. It was a dynamic environment with a lot of energy and learning opportunities. I was hooked.

How has your science background influenced your IT career?

My science background has been instrumental in shaping my approach as a CIO. It has taught me to be comfortable with being wrong and to adapt quickly, as testing a hypothesis and pivoting when necessary is a fundamental part of science. This mindset has helped me bring logic and problem-solving to my roles, making decisions based on facts rather than just emotions. However, I have since learned that successful IT leadership also requires understanding and addressing the emotional aspects of change. For instance, during major digital transformation projects I realized that not everyone shared my high tolerance for change. To lead effectively, I needed to focus on the users' motivations and the emotional impact of change, ensuring that people were engaged and supported throughout the process.

Many people are not that self-aware. How did you identify that obstacle to success in yourself and how did you change?

It was a series of things.

I took leadership courses. They focused on personal branding, and how you are perceived, how to manage change – all things that you want to consider to be a successful leader.

I also had really good coaching, and I was getting 360-degree feedback from people on my team, my leaders and my peers. Having that allowed me to start seeing patterns. For example, I saw that I wanted to go faster than everybody else because my tolerance for change is so high and that I needed to slow it down.

I am still conscious of that today when I am excited about something. I am excited about artificial intelligence, but I temper my excitement because I understand it will take time for everyone to adapt to the changes AI will bring.

Why was reporting to the CEO an important consideration for you when deciding to join Heineken?

For years, IT professionals have advocated for a seat at the table, and reporting directly to the CEO or general manager can facilitate this. Being part of the leadership team allows the CIO to engage as a peer with other functional leaders, enhancing their ability to influence key decisions. Over the past two years I have had direct access to my boss, the CEO and other executives, which has strengthened my relationships and impact. Through these relationships, I am more able to identify and showcase ideas for how to solve business challenges or deliver value.

If you are a CIO reporting to a CFO or COO who actively includes you in executive discussions and board meetings, that is excellent. It means you have the support and access needed to succeed and influence effectively. However, this is not always the case for CIOs reporting to roles that primarily focus on cost rather than value. I believe the natural evolution of the CIO role is to report to the CEO or general manager. This shift reflects the growing importance of the CIO as a business leader.

Your title also includes digital. Can you tell me about Heineken’s decision to add and highlight the digital responsibilities for the CIO role?

Global IT within Heineken is called Digital and Technology. Global IT specifically rebranded itself because the leaders saw digital as a much broader term that covers not just technology but also the business side and how digital is impacting the business.

My title reflects that thinking.

I have responsibility for all of technology, the infrastructure including cloud, development, operations and cybersecurity. But most of my role is on the digital side, which is focused on applying technology to business, to processes, to the business problems we are trying to solve, and supporting our longer-term strategy.

 

Related article:

My CIO Career: How Dan Regalado Uses His Relationship Skills to Deliver Great Customer Experiences at Wynn Resorts

 

If you had to pick one skill as the most important one for CIOs, which one would you choose?

I would say change management is the most important skill for a CIO. Whether implementing new technology, introducing a new strategy or rolling out a new idea, managing change is often the most challenging part of the effort. Successfully guiding an organization through change takes up the most time and requires a nuanced approach. It involves addressing resistance, aligning diverse teams and ensuring everyone is on board with the transition. This is why I continue to focus on honing my change management skills, as they are crucial for driving successful outcomes.

In my view, this facet of leadership, coupled with technology proficiency, talent development, and business acumen, makes up the most important skills to have as a CIO.

What advice would you give to other aspiring CIOs?

Be willing to make job moves to gain diverse experiences, even if they are lateral. This was key for me as I built my career, taking on leadership roles in data, innovation, and cybersecurity, all of which helped to broaden my experiences. I also had many cross-functional roles, collaborating with other departments such as sales and marketing as the IT functional representative. This taught me to understand business problems in a broader sense and to put myself into the shoes of each of the stakeholders to understand their motivations. It also taught me the importance of having a business vocabulary when framing and solving a challenge.

Another piece of advice is to embrace challenges. Do things that take you out of your comfort zone, because if you want to grow, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and the only way you do that is if you take roles that are challenging, roles where you are asking yourself, “Can I do this?” In these roles, you will either realize you need more development or gain confidence from overcoming challenges, both of which are invaluable for personal and professional growth.

What are your priorities outside of the office?

I live by the mantra "work hard, play hard," which for me means enjoying life to the fullest with family and loved ones and doing things that bring me joy. It also means living in the moment and cherishing time spent with family and friends. One way I have done that is through travel. My family loves to explore, so we seize every opportunity to visit new places across the United States and around the world, gaining new perspectives and experiences.

In line with this philosophy, when my daughters were growing up, I made a conscious effort to volunteer as much as possible to spend more time with them. Balancing corporate jobs with family life is challenging, so to ensure I was present for my kids, I volunteered as a coach for their sports teams as well as Odyssey of the Mind. You cannot get that time back so it was worth all of the additional effort.

What are your other interests outside of work?

I am an avid reader with a passion for both nonfiction and fiction, especially books related to our industry. Recently, I finished "The Chaos Machine" by Max Fisher, which delves into the societal impacts of social media and the actions tech companies are taking in response. Another thought-provoking read was "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari, which explores the future of humanity and the potential effects of technology on our world.

Choosing favorite books is tough, but a few standouts include "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, a classic in narrative science; "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond, which examines why some societies advanced faster than others; and "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo, an epic tale that has it all (you just need to get through the first 200 pages).

Beyond reading, I love playing tennis and competing with friends. I also love to cook. During the pandemic, I published a cookbook. It took about two years, but now my family and friends have a collection of cherished recipes. Many were family recipes passed down verbally, not written down anywhere. There were a lot of recipes that were just “Mom did this” or “Grandma did this,” and I decided I wanted to get those on paper. Collecting all those recipes was important to me, as was bringing my family and friends along. The process of collecting, testing and perfecting these recipes with family and friends was as enjoyable as writing the book itself.

 

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