Transformation Challenges Facing IT Leaders
Zuora CIO Alvina Antar shares lessons from 20 years in IT
“When I first joined, I realized it wasn’t just establishing IT. It was beyond that. And that’s what has been beyond thrilling for the past four years. Working for a company that has defined the subscription economy.” -Alvina Antar, CIO Zuora
Alvina Antar is the CIO of Zuora and a 17-year Dell veteran. At Dell, her work focused on Digital Transformation, Global Delivery, and Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A). Her experience assisting with over 20 acquisitions and divestitures led to her publishing an M&A playbook that received industry recognition.
On top of defining what IT means for Zuora, Alvina is helping other digital enterprises thrive in our current ‘Subscription Economy’ — the most disruptive business model shift of the century.
We had Alvina on IT Visionaries to discuss her road to becoming CIO, the challenges that CIOs face, and why CIOs need to be visionary.
Challenge: CIOs need to be experts at selling and creating consensus
“You can’t ultimately be the voice of your customer unless you establish deep expertise in the product that you sell.”
The number one rule of sales is not to be an expert at sales; it is to be an expert at whatever problem you’re solving. Alvina is in a unique position because she sells her product/service, Zuora, to other CIOs. As a CIO herself and someone who used Zuora while still with Dell, she truly understands CIOs’ needs and how Zuora can solve those needs.
“One of my friends, the CIO of HP Enterprise, mentioned that she was told that all CIOs are sales people whether you know it or not. But the reality is we’re not selling [the product].”
Alvina expands upon the importance of building relationships. She emphasizes that it’s not just relationships with customers that need to be developed. Understanding, learning, and having a relationship with your product is equally as important.
“The relationships [with your customers] are true… Understanding and developing deep expertise in your product is extremely powerful because your peers know that you’re a credible reference. They know that they can come to you and ask for your feedback, ask about the design principles and challenges that you faced internally with your own implementation, and they know that you’ll give an honest answer… Those relationships are the things that I invest in.”
To help build this trust, she started the Subscription CIO Exchange. This networking event allows CIOs to come together, learn from one another, and present business cases.
Key Takeaway: Know Your Product and Build Relationships with Your Peers
Challenge: The Business Doesn’t Wait for IT
“The reality is [being a CIO] is this balance of maintaining the systems that have to run your business while driving agility and innovation. That is a huge challenge, and so it’s having this inner confidence to take calculated risks…
“That’s why you’re the CIO of the company, right? You’re expected to make the right decisions and have an in-depth understanding of your business growth strategy to ensure that the solutions are positioned to meet that growth strategy.”
Companies look to IT to pivot. If IT can’t step up quickly enough and provide a plan, then the business will try a different solution — a solution that may not be as effective. Alvina saw this first hand at Dell:
“IT was either going to solve this problem or the business was going to work around IT. It was one or the other. It wasn’t that the business was just going to wait for six or nine months or longer for IT to figure out how to meet the needs of the business, but it was ‘I will find a different way.’”
The IT department can’t be a bottleneck. Tech leaders need to understand new solutions, not remain comfortable in old systems.
Key Takeaway: Transformation Requires Agility
Challenge: An Acquisition is Slowing Down Business
“If you don’t have an onboarding platform and you continue to maintain your businesses on disparate systems, then you’re unable to cross-sell and upsell across business lines.”
More and more, the type of growth companies see is not through organic growth, but through acquisitions. Unfortunately, acquisitions can poorly affect your business. If the integration process is too slow, it can lead to duplicate processes and make both your new and old systems less effective.
Alvina says that the “reality is you really should plan to integrate your core systems in 90 days or less.” And while that may seem like an aggressive timeline, she believes it can be done as long as a business defines their acquisition strategy.
(To learn more about why you should do this in your business, read Alvina’s article, Here’s Why You Have Only 90 Days To Integrate An Acquisition.)
This quick integration process isn’t only important for financial and customer success. It’s also important for company culture:
“… it’s also important for the culture of the organization and to ensure that you’re actually investing in the talent that you’re acquiring not just the product as a product.”
Key Takeaway: Define your Acquisition Strategy and Integrate Acquisitions Quickly
Challenge: You (as the CIO) got hired too late and are already replacing legacy systems
“Bringing in a CIO… just to ensure that you’ve got the proper corporate security, risks, and controls prior to exit is late. Obviously, better late than never, but it’s late in the game.”
CIOs usually come on prior to an IPO, but that may be too late. Rebuilding an IT team or reshaping systems after the fact is more burdensome than starting out on the right foot.
“Every CEO of a thriving company should be ensuring that they have the right technology expertise in-house… to ensure that they’re able to meet their growth strategies.”
Key Takeaway: CEOs need to bring a CIO on early in the company lifecycle
Final Thought: Be a Visionary
“The CIO leader needs to be a visionary just as much as the product leader needs to be a Visionary and the marketing leader needs to be a visionary. Technology requires vision.”
What app are you using that’s the most fun right now?
Favorite time-saving tool?
“Evernote. I’m able to find anything. I have my thoughts at my fingertips.”
Favorite team, sports or otherwise?
Favorite recent book?
“You aren’t Ruining Your Kids by Sheila Jordan.”
Favorite one-day getaway in the bay area?
“Tahoe? Napa? I can’t decide.”
What technology are you most excited about in the next ten years?
Your best advice for a first-time CIO?
To learn more about transforming IT and overcoming challenges facing CIOs, check out the full interview with Alvina.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.