Creating a seamless digital experience requires a rock solid technology foundation, writes Andrew Laudato, COO of The Vitamin Shoppe.

It’s the towering glass windows high above ground that give modern skyscrapers their impressive look. Of course, we all know that glass is fragile and that the brute strength of concrete and steel, often hidden from view, is what holds these massive buildings up. 

The same can be said for our technology. Slick websites, glossy mobile apps and other customer-facing technology may be sitting on a robust, redundant, secure network—or propped up on a house of cards. When a consumer dutifully enters her credit card and other personal information into the on-screen form, she is putting her trust in that IT department’s infrastructure and hoping for the best. 

When your company’s strategy changes direction, can the underlying systems and processes be modified quickly to enable the new opportunity, or will IT have to unravel years and years of legacy code, hardwired interfaces and business rules entombed deep into the logic of yesterday’s systems? 

CIOs who understand the need to build upon a concrete foundation will eschew the 'sexy' until their platform is robust, and only then will they create a beautiful and glamorous digital experience built to stand the test of time.

Of course, this isn’t always easy to explain to the CEO demanding real change now. What I’ve learned over the years—sometimes the hard way—is that “pouring IT concrete” is not just about technology. It’s also about strong relationships and fiscal prowess. 

Build relationships with business partners

Building strong business relationships is sometimes a challenge for us technically minded types. Based on my experience, here are a few recommendations: 

1. Learn to speak their language. Before U.S. astronauts hitch a ride to the space station on the Soyuz, they are required to learn to speak Russian. It’s not the other way around. Similarly, CIOs need to speak to their partners and colleagues in their specific business lingo, be it sales, marketing, operations, finance, human resources or legal. This means ALL of the technical jargon needs to be left behind in the IT department and CIOs need to be multilingual in every business area. 

2. Avoid getting involved in conflicts and choosing sides. A huge advantage as the CIO is that you have none of the  inherent bias found in other C-suite relationships. Every business partner is a customer of IT. To build strong relationships, CIOs need to learn the business area, help problem-solve and nurture the relationship. Busy departments heads aren’t going to just invite you to lunch or to their off-site strategy meetings. I have learned that, as CIO, you need to take the lead, meet them 95% of the way, and own the continual nurturing of each relationship. 

3. Solve their problems. Look for small problems that are huge annoyances to your business partners. Bad laptop? Admin doesn’t have the right access? Dashboard is missing a key metric? Fixing these small items provide "quick wins" that show that you can provide value and that you are willing to help. 

Fiscal prowess

leaning tower of pisaFiscal prowess starts with having true dominion over your department’s finances.

A poignant moment in my career came in 2002 when Mitch Weatherly, then the EVP of Human Resource at Pier 1 Imports, stood up in front of a large group of aspiring leaders and said that if you want to advance as a leader, you have to become proficient in finance. Mitch said that finance was “the language of business” and without financial expertise, your career aspiration would stall. This moment had a profound impact on my career because up until then, I had treated financial management as a necessary evil.

Before a CIO can begin to pour IT concrete, he or she has to be able to pay for it. Providing redundant equipment will double the costs for that equipment. Two disparate data circuits usually cost two times that of a single circuit. If your operation requires a DBA, you better have at least two of them. Explaining the need for this redundancy clearly and convincingly is a key competency for a successful CIO. A CIO who cuts corners on these items will not succeed in the long run.

As CIOs, I believe we need to understand a few basic accounting principles, especially:

  • capex vs. opex
  • depreciation
  • adjusted free cash flow
  • operating vs. capital leases
  • amortization
  • accruals

Depending on your education and background you may be on top of these or you may need to do some reading, or seek help from colleagues. In addition, you need to understand your company's fiscal year, budget cycles, and budgeting process.

Some IT costs can get complicated, especially when you’re paying for cloud subscriptions that are based on usage. Understanding, controlling and managing your budget creates a deep and strong foundation to build upon. Creating and publishing IT financial metrics has helped me establish rapport and credibility with CEOs, CFOs and other C-suite peers.

Technology fundamentals

Volumes have been written on the topic of high-availability, redundancy and reliability, so I’m only going to touch on what I feel are five of the most important concepts: 

  1. Consider security first.

    Reliable systems have security built in; it isn’t an afterthought. 

  2. Redundancy rules!

    If it’s important to have one, you better have at least two. People, servers, circuits, firewalls, switches, routers, pots lines, cloud infrastructure, CRAC units, data centers, etc., etc., etc. Two independent servers with 95% availability provide 99.75% uptime! Add a third server and the math gets really fun.

    When the water company digs up the street and accidentally cuts your fiber right before cyber-Monday, the concrete-pouring CIO will sleep well knowing that the redundant, logically independent, and physically-diverse data circuit is working just fine. The business partners will never need to know that a crisis was averted that day. But later, a savvy CIO will make sure people hear about the averted crisis to justify continued investments in redundancy.

  3. Your backup system won’t work if it doesn’t get regular use.

    Exhibit A: software runs on a server with a passive standby. When the primary server fails you have to hope the backup is connected, running, and patched. Then you need the distressed primary server to fail gracefully and somehow have enough wits to do a clean hand-off. These are all unlikely. Remember SQL Server database clusters? The only thing I’ll say about those is they were aptly named. Build only active-active infrastructures and test them regularly. You'll know it works because you are using it daily.

  4. Be smart about state/stateless

    Stateless is one of the most important concepts around for reliability, but half your staff has no idea what it means. If you’re keeping state in a server and the server dies, then your state dies with it. Stateless is an application layer issue. It needs to be built into the code.

  5. Build on APIs.

    Modular, small microservices provide flexibility, robustness and interoperability.

I’ve benefited from researching and keeping myself up-to-date on these topics. As much as I consider myself to be a business leader first, staying close to the technology has served me well. The cloud can isolate a CIO from these concepts. Remember the cloud is simply servers in somebody else's data center. Every one of these concepts still applies in that realm.  

While I am thrilled about leading my company on our digital transformation journey, the first steps start with a solid foundation. Get your technology right, be a maestro with your budget, and create and nurture relationships throughout your organization. Like any beautiful building, the first step is to dig a big hole and fill it with concrete. 

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