Article

How has the role of the CIO changed? IRobot's CIO weighs in

Kristen Caretta, Associate Editor
Hi, I'm Kristen Caretta, associate editor for SearchCIO-Midmarket.com. Today I'm at iRobot, headquartered in Bedford, Mass. In this, the first of two videos, I will be talking to iRobot chief information officer and vice president of information technology Jay Leader about what it's like to be a CIO in a growing midmarket company today.

SearchCIO-Midmarket.com: How has the role of the CIO changed and where do you see it going in the future?
Jay Leader: So, I've been in IT for about 25 years, and I've been a CIO for the last five. And I think some of the major changes for CIOs have been the evolution of

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iRobot CIO talks SaaS, strategies for cutting costs and Twitter
going from someone who's a technical expert to much more of someone who has to be grounded in business and understand how to bring technology to bear to solve business problems. When CIO roles first evolved, they were largely oriented around being the chief technical person, and now I think it's much less important to be a super technologist than it is to really understand what it is your business is trying to achieve and to be able to understand what your customers and constituents expect you to deliver. So I think that's been the biggest change I've seen in IT over my tenure.

How have expectations changed?
Leader: I think there is much more of an expectation that the IT function understands the business and is much more closely integrated to it. Rather than being a standalone technical function that's in the basement of a building somewhere remote, you really have intimacy with not only the people that you're dealing with but also with the business functions. There is a much higher expectation that you get the business objectives without having users and customers write them up for you and explain them. You're expected to understand that and be more closely integrated with what the business overall is trying to achieve.

What are your thoughts on using technologies such as Software as a Service, cloud computing -- even virtualization?
Leader: Those are emerging technologies that are interesting, but I'm not sure they're fully developed yet. So, we're following them and we want to understand them, but I do think that they're still, well, SaaS is a little more advanced.

Cloud computing is still in a nurturing phase from a technology standpoint, I think. There are still questions in my mind around how do you secure your data, how do you interoperate, how do you move between providers and move between clouds. And so I think those are evolving and could turn out to be important technologies.

We're watching them. We haven't deployed them yet because for us they're not quite a fit and they're probably not robust enough and flexible enough to fit kind of who we are. But I do think they are important trends to follow. There's a lot of interest in them, obviously, and there's a lot of investment going on. We're watching them, but we haven't deployed them yet.

What do you do to make sure that your IT processes stay efficient? Do you use ITIL or any other methodologies?
Leader: We're still at a state of maturity where those tools are still a little heavy for us, and they're a little big for us given our size and scope. In a growing midmarket company like we are, that's the place for governance and project delivery methodologies. That's worth spending a lot of time trying to enhance them and get them to a good, stable platform and then put the tools in place to be able to make sure that we stay there. So I still think we're maturing those, and that's kind of the blocking and tackling of IT, the challenge of any IT organization, regardless of size. We're not using formal tools yet, not until we get some of our base operating model more structured. We might be able to later lay some of those tools as a kind of a measurement system, but we haven't deployed them to date.

What are some cost-cutting measures that you've found particularly effective?
Leader: We're looking hard at telecommunications costs -- be it the cost of our network or our mobile devices or remote connectivity and those kinds of things. And when you pay close attention to that stuff, you find lots of areas of opportunity for consolidation. We've had good success and good traction squeezing some dollars out of that without really negatively impacting any of our end users. So that's an area that we've spent some time looking at. And, again, working hard on our vendor contracts and on pricing on anything we buy.

The economy has given us an opportunity to look at some things that might've been cost-prohibitive in a different time. But now terms are a little bit more reasonable and vendors are a little bit more flexible on what they're willing to offer. We've done some things this year that we didn't think we could do because they've now come into a cost zone that fits where we want to be. So between cost cutting and taking advantage of some market conditions, that's where I think we're having the most traction.

As a CIO, what are your thoughts on social networking?
Leader: So social networking, you know, is another evolving technology. It's got some interesting characteristics and it's got some challenges outside of a social arena. We talked before about our regulatory environment and our need for security and confidentiality, and some of those requirements kind of run headlong into some of the elements of social media because we have to be very careful about what we release and how we control the information that we have. On the other hand, you can't ignore a workforce that is used to using that in their own personal lives and desires to have that kind of flexibility.

Certainly the simplicity of those tools is attractive and business operations want to be simple as well. So I think again, that's a place where a lot of these new tools are still evolving.

In a social setting they have applicability, and we're still trying to figure out where in a business setting they fit in. So things like Facebook and Twitter and some of the Web 2.0 things, they're interesting and they bring onto the radar possibilities that didn't exist before. But I think we need to spend a little more time thinking about how we can apply them in a business sense. You know, it's always good to allow collaboration and communication between people. For us, in a business setting, it needs to be productive. So how do we leverage that? I think they're going to come, and I think we need to look at how we can apply it in a business setting in a way we can control it and still exploit some of the goodness of the technology.

Great. Jay, thank you so much for your time today.

In part 2, "Leading iRobot's IT: Virtualization, disaster recovery and compliance," learn more about the iRobot IT department and some unique challenges Leader faces as the CIO of a corporation with both consumer and military customers.


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