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Rosetta Stone IT chief deciphers digital transformation, challenges

A company known for peddling language-learning CDs takes on digital transformation challenges -- and charges into the future.

Many people equate today's Rosetta Stone, the language-learning company -- as opposed to the 2,212-year-old one, the inscribed granite slab -- with an enduring symbol of the 1990s and early 2000s: CDs. On them was software that taught Spanish, Italian and French and other tongues, and they came in bright-yellow boxes and were stocked on bookstore shelves.

That's an image that Mark Moseley, vice president of IT at the Arlington, Va., company, has been working to change. In recent years Rosetta Stone has morphed from a shipper of physical products to a deliverer of digital ones -- software-as-a-service (SaaS) language courses.

As the company's business model shifted, so has IT. It has moved a chunk of its operations to the cloud so it can move nimbly onto new technology and help the company's corps of developers get new services in front of customers as quickly as possible. But moving from supporting the business to helping drive it has posed significant digital transformation challenges.

"We have to be there 24/7 and make sure customers are always able to access the product, that our purchasing systems work, the product systems work, that our support systems work," Moseley said in a recent interview with SearchCIO.

What Moseley calls a "continuous-integration, continuous-development environment" led to a colossal amount of data amassing in Rosetta Stone's colocation data center -- it leases the space but owns the hardware -- outstripping the physical room it has to store copies of data produced by various systems. Moseley discussed how he's helping solve this and other digital transformation challenges, including winning his customers' trust. Here are excerpts of the interview.

What challenges does Rosetta Stone face today and how are you as head of IT addressing them?

Mark Moseley: I've been with Rosetta Stone for going on at least 12 years this winter in pretty much every capacity within IT that exists. I grew with the company (from about employee No. 200) and have been helping it continue to move toward SaaS-based offerings and try to get away from the CD and physical distribution that we became famous for in the early 2000s.

And then [there is the need to] also restructure IT to be more value-sensitive -- cost-sensitive as well. Under the previous CIO, IT had grown quite large. It was in anticipation of certain levels of growth that we didn't quite achieve. So I've been trying to restructure IT to be more flexible, provide value, continue to provide the same services we had but be able to react to the business a lot better.

Our customer base has changed. How we have to provide support, how we have to support our customers, the things we have to think about -- uptime, availability, security -- those are the types of things that when [we shipped] a bunch of CDs, we didn't have to think about too much. [We got] the CD out the door, and IT's job [was] done. We made sure the shipping system was working. We made sure our inventory system was working. We made sure we collected money, and we were done.

[Now] we have to be there 24/7 and make sure customers are always able to access the product, that our purchasing systems work, the product systems work, our support systems work. And now as more companies continue to leverage SaaS, we see the Salesforce.coms, the Workdays, the AWSes [Amazon Web Services] out there and what they do. We're trying to, even as a small provider, mimic some of their offerings, [assuring] our customers that their data is secure with us, that our systems are going to be available, that they can rely on us as they could any other system that they rely on.

Your company has made huge moves to the cloud -- from software-as-a-service apps like Box and G Suite [formerly Google Apps for Business] to cloud-based infrastructure and database services. What benefits has cloud computing afforded you as you continue to confront digital transformation challenges?

Moseley: One is flexibility. If I looked back to how we were in the first half of my tenure at Rosetta Stone, you made a product decision and you were left to deal with that product decision for three or five or seven years, because switching costs were very high. Oftentimes you were bound by a Capex schedule, so getting rid of something was very difficult, just from an accounting standpoint. You made a huge upfront investment, and you wanted to leverage it and ride it for as long as you could. Even if better products were coming out, it was, "Well, we made this investment. Let's stick with it." As we become more cloud-based, more SaaS-based, we have flexibility. As new entrants into the technology markets catch on, we can look at them, evaluate their features and say, "Hey, if this thing over here is really better for us, why don't we move to it? Why don't we take advantage of it instead of staying exactly where we're at?" And the cost to do so is much lower. The time and effort involved is a lot less than it used to be.

Another benefit, as we've made it a real focus on selling our SaaS and online offerings, is that a lot of other companies are doing the same, and so everyone seems to be moving toward cloud- and SaaS-based [products]. We sold our offering as a SaaS-based offering when I started back in 2004, but no one bought it. Everyone was buying the CDs. We sold very little of our SaaS-based offering. That has started to change. Part of it is that's what we're pushing. But another part of it is that's what businesses and people are starting to expect, and they're very comfortable with it.

The third benefit is speed. I can react to my internal customers a lot faster. If they need a new test or development environment or they need a new production environment or we're starting to grow or outstrip the current resources we have, I can leverage the cloud and very quickly and readily be able to stand up stuff. It used to be we had four or five racks in a data center somewhere and we could scratch our heads and say, "Well, if we move this server over here, then we'll have two units of space to rack a new server, but now we've got to try to see if we have too much power consumption based on what our contract is." It was crazy. Today [I can] have my team push a few buttons and stand up a new server. It will be firewalled off behind our environment. We can ensure security, and it takes a few minutes.

A surplus of data posed significant challenges for your IT operations. What caused the problem and how did you solve it?

Moseley: Even though the cloud has made things a lot easier, we still run a lot of our product infrastructure internally, and we've made significant investment in terms of our hardware, our software on the back end, especially when it comes to storage. We buy storage and you're going to have it for three, five, seven years. And as our online offerings continue to grow and as our product portfolio has expanded and as we have transitioned more into a continuous-integration, continuous-deployment environment where we're doing deployments all the time, the need for more environments continues to grow. We need multiple development environments. We're not worried about stamping a CD image and sending it out the door. We're worried about being able to roll out our code every day.

So the explosion in the number of environments and the amount of data that we're having to hold is just incredible. I have very limited floor space inside the data center and I still have very large stands that are holding a lot of data, but I couldn't grow them as fast as I wanted to. But almost all of that growth has been in [non-production] environments: It's the copy of production; it's multiple dev and test and QA [quality assurance] environments.

So I brought in Actifio [copy data management software] to help us. I could have done some of this with the tools that I could purchase on the big iron that I have, but I don't know that I want to stay with those platforms forever. Actifio allows me to virtualize my storage and backup vendors. I don't have to necessarily care whether I'm running EMC and NetApp or HP and all of those hardware environments for storage and backup. I can have a heterogeneous environment and I [don't have to] care as much about what is powering my storage. I can move where I need to and I can let Actifio virtualize my data so I can now store less.

What's the biggest IT project you have ongoing?

Moseley: We have a huge project right now around data security and compliance. It was born out of Safe Harbor [EU-U.S. data transfer agreement] getting dropped, and we've grown it to include all of the different regulations -- both ones that have recently been passed and ones that are pending around student data, student data privacy, European data privacy, security of our systems. It's an IT project insofar that it's being led and driven by me and by my security team, but it's very much encompassing the entire company, because it's something we all care about.

This goes back to what I said early on: Even though we're a small company, we want to instill trust with our customer base. We want them to have faith that they're storing data with us -- they can feel assured that we're going to treat it with the utmost respect and keep it out of the hands of people who shouldn't have it.

Next Steps

Rosetta Stone turns to Docker for application delivery

What Safe Harbor's replacement means for CIOs

Schindler CIO on facing digital transformation challenges: Ensure 'unity of effort'

This was last published in December 2016

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