CxO Corner: Bill Murphy, Senior Managing Director and Chief Technology Officer at Blackstone
Welcome to the first edition of the CxO Corner, where each month we’ll sit down with an enterprise technology leader whom we respect and admire to highlight their role, work, and perspectives on the past, present, and future of the technology landscape. New York is well known as the financial capital world, but is also home to many of the early buyers of emerging tech across its diverse industries, from financial services and media to healthcare, real estate, and transportation.
We’re kicking off our inaugural post of the CxO Corner with Bill Murphy, Senior Managing Director and Chief Technology Officer at Blackstone, on his journey in technology and how entrepreneurs can be successful with tech executives like himself. Read below on Bill’s best practices and lessons learned; you’ll find insights for fellow technology executives and entrepreneurs alike.
How did you get your start in technology?
I consider myself super lucky in that I always knew what I wanted to do. I remember as early as about 10 years old, my dad was a police officer and they gave him an opportunity to test into this new data processing bureau to keep track of everything, such as police reports, traffic accidents, and so on. Because he did that, he always had a computer at home and I learned from an early age that I just liked solving problems and being creative.
In college, I knew I wanted to build systems and solve problems using that system. I went to Sapient right out of school, where I learned the importance of building a team environment and building something that people want to run through the wall for. This was super impressed upon me and has become a core of who I am. Later, I was part of the founding team of Capital IQ in ’99 for 11 years and then joined Blackstone in 2011.
What has helped in your success, and what advice would you give yourself if you were just starting your career?
Having a curiosity and always wanting to learn is probably the number one thing that I think has helped me, but also the inability to relax and smell the roses too. You’ve got to try to balance that. In essence, feeling like the underdog and being afraid of failing, and therefore curious about everything around you in order to make sure that you can work to be as knowledgeable as you possibly can to avoid those failures. Paranoia of failing drives energy, drives learning, and drives the right type of behavior.
To my 21-year-old self, I would say “listen better.” I felt that I had to learn a lot of lessons through trial and error that if I had been searching for the answers or mentors or whomever, I probably could have avoided a bunch of missteps that were kind of painful at the time. As I’m raising kids now, I’m trying to figure out how I can impart some of those lessons on them early. I’d love to have just said to myself at 21, “spend more time networking and talking to people and really understand their story instead of being consumed with only what you’re doing or what you can accomplish yourself.”
What’s special about technology at Blackstone and what are your technology priorities?
Blackstone is one of the world’s largest alternative asset manager. We manage $368 billion of our investors’ capital. We’re consistently working to grow that capital, but also to preserve it and make sure that we rarely lose money, even for a single deal.
At Blackstone, we’re always thinking long term, which really appealed to me when I came. It’s the same ethos as engineering where you’re constantly building and creating value over the long haul. Often times, when people focus on the short term, they just make mistakes because they do things the quick and dirty way and end up building on very fragile foundations. So we really try to resist taking the short-term view on any deliverables.
When I first joined Blackstone, there was a sea of change to shift the culture from reactive order taking to open and iterative. There were really good people trying to meet needs, but when the needs were miscategorized and followed verbatim, there was a massive friction in the system. So, when we started, we said, “let’s truly build a culture where we’re always ask why.” I’m not interested in what you think the solution is, I want to know what your problem is. I need to really get to the heart of that challenge.
With that in mind, we’ve gone through a process where we’ve built all the core tenants of our technology system. Our main priorities today are continuing to build out the pillars of our technical architecture, pushing every ball down the field, and tying all those systems together more effectively to make it easier to use and digest information. Often times I see companies buy this or that technology and think they’re done as soon as they stand up one of those systems. That’s where the leakage happens. You need to tie your CRM to your order management system to your HR system in a way that is totally seamless, so you don’t have that friction and manual processes just to jump from one system to the next.
How do you view emerging technology at Blackstone?
When we select vendors, we bet on the future not the present. You need to really feel like there’s a partnership where they get you in terms of how you like to work. You understand and you believe that they have the right strategy and that they’re going to listen, and therefore you know you can solve not just the problem today, but the problem tomorrow.
One thing that I think is not really understood is that it’s really complex to have a hundred products that all have to work together. When someone comes in with the 101st product that maybe solves a pain point and might be cool, it’s just adding to a mountain of complexity. I always think about George Clooney in “Up In The Air” when he talks about how heavy his backpack is in life. He always wants to stay light. As a CTO, we’re trying to keep the backpack light because the lighter it is the faster we can develop new capabilities, enable new business models, and so on.
I don’t think small companies really appreciate that concept enough. When they come in and sell, they need to convince us of the integration points and lightness of their solution, and that it’s not really adding and maybe even taking something else out of the backpack. If they can do that, it’s so much more attractive to the CIO/CTO. Replacement is a glorified word here.
What are the biggest challenges you face being a CTO?
The most challenging and surprising thing is that it’s amazing how hard it is to change people’s behavior, even if you put something in front of them that is obviously better and easier over the long run. We’re all stuck in our ways and changing people’s behavior is far and away the hardest thing to do.
There are a ton of different ways to do this. Oftentimes it’s a ground game of convincing them slowly, but having a great product to move them to certainly makes it easier. The quality of the solution is by far and away the biggest indicator of whether you will be able to do that. But even if you have a great solution, it often takes a lot longer than you expect.
What has not worked?
I think what has not worked well enough is being able to drive as much activity as I think that I could at Blackstone. If I could get everyone to focus 100% on being more modern, I’m confident that tomorrow we would be a more efficient enterprise. It’s the old “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” it’s the urgent and important, or even the urgent and non-important, always trumping proactive learning for a better tomorrow. We’re constantly looking for new strategies for how we can engage in a way with the business to adopt new things at a faster pace because I think that’s the limiting factor a lot of times on how much value we can add. We work on it every day.
How have you seen yourself be successful in breaking down the dichotomy of technology and the business?
My role at Blackstone is very broad. I have tons of different constituencies who are “buying” the different capabilities that we’re delivering, but they’re not necessarily overlapping and their motivations aren’t overlapping other than we all want Blackstone to succeed. I think the more time I spend on selling and building relationships tends to pay off a lot more than I thought I needed to do. I don’t do technology anymore. I do sales.
Obviously there are pieces of technology, but I’ve spend much more time understanding our requirements so we can build great solutions. It’s really transparency, explaining why we’re doing something, and why it’s going to be helpful to drive that usage to prove the value. It’s constantly being on this treadmill of driving consensus on why we should invest in technology.
From where you sit, you see a lot of emerging technology startups and vendors. How would you advise them on breaking through the noise to get to you?
It’s really understanding the problems. I quickly scan probably hundreds of marketing emails a week in one way shape or form and you have to be extremely targeted to problems that are apparent for me. For example, Blackstone is not allowed to market broadly any of our funds due to accredited investor and qualified purchaser rules, yet the number of people who are hitting me with marketing automation software emails are clearly a waste of everybody’s time, their time, and my time. They’re doing no pre-work.
If someone can come to me and say, “we’re going to help you analyze your deal flow more effectively and we’ve sat with X other firms and here’s how they solved the problem, here’s how we can help you,” that seems relevant and I’m going to spend more time with that. It’s about connecting their value prop to the problems that are apparent in our organization that need solving.
What advice would you give to enterprise technology entrepreneurs building solutions for Fortune 500 organizations? What advice do you have for them to be successful?
Identify the problem that you’re selling, approach it from that perspective. But also be willing to stand your ground and understand when something is truly custom versus when it is something that can be applied across enterprises. I’ve seen a lot of startups get squashed by one big customer who don’t even realize they’re killing the startup by driving them in the wrong direction. You need to have enough voices that you’re listening to so that you can cull the custom from the truly valuable for everybody features.
Make sure you develop enough relationships that you can test what any one customer says to you and then go in the direction that is right for the company. People come here all the time that have heard once or twice from their biggest customer that SaaS is not allowed and then go down the road of building on premise software and deploying it in ways that some out of touch CIO or procurement guy is comfortable with, but that is not going to be the right thing for another company. You need to be able to test that.
On the flipside, you have to be willing to listen, too. I’ve had the opposite where startups come in and you’ll tell them something and they’ll say it’s not their strategy. It’s clear that the feedback we’re trying to give is applicable to more people and could really help their strategy, but they already have their mind made. Oftentimes, people will reach out for advice and only look for you to tell them they’re right. Make sure you really listen or are really willing to listen, because if you’re not willing to listen, don’t waste people’s time.
Any last words?
We think it’s really important to be in the conversation and talk to everybody around new innovations. We’re trying to listen to the market and understand everything that’s out there and not be myopic. We don’t know all the answers. We’re constantly testing our assumptions so we can strive to re-do ourselves in ways that will be successful for the future, not just the way that was there in the past.