Chief Content Officer,
Techstrong Group


In this Digital CxO Leadership Insights series video, Mike Vizard speaks with Rani Johnson, CIO for TIBCO, about IT and strategic business partnerships.


Mike Vizard: Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of the Digital CxO video series. I’m here with Rani Johnson, who is the CIO for TIBCO. Rani, welcome to the show.

Rani Johnson: Thank you, Mike. I appreciate that.

Mike Vizard: I would love to get your insights on this, because it is an issue that kind of has been boggling my mind for two decades. As long as I can remember, there’s always been this conversation about a divide between IT and the rest of the business.

Are we getting any better at closing that divide, do you think, or do you still see IT people kind of acting like they could work for one company tomorrow and another company the next day, and they would all be just one and the same? They don’t really identify with the company. They identify more with their IT role than the company. So where are we on this great mish-mash of things that we’ve been trying to accomplish for the better part of two decades?

Rani Johnson: Michael, I love that question. I can tell you at least probably in my last ten years, I’ve made a concentrated effort to actually truly be a business partner. I think probably a lot of the industry magazines have actually talked about strategic business partnership, and that’s really the true role that IT should be playing.

One of the things that I at least aim to do with my teams, we literally have monthly business partner syncs with every function in the business, so that we understand their sentiments around how IT is serving, partnering with them, and aligning with them to meet their business objectives.

I believe IT have made strides. I talk to my friends and peers in the industry and I think they’re doing something similar. But we absolutely as IT professionals and practitioners have to understand that our role is to meet business objectives. It’s not just to kind of hand out the computers and makes sure things like systems and services are on.

I definitely think that sentiment is changing. It’s unfortunate that your question is still a very relevant one, because we have not turned the tables or changed the tides in how functions really look at IT because we’ve had that historic reputation, but I truly, truly believe that strong IT business leaders understand that our role is business partnership, and that our function should be figuring out how to align with each of the business functions that we serve in our stakeholders, and helping them meet business objectives through the use of technology.

Mike Vizard: Some of these lines of business spend more on IT than the IT department does. I cannot make up in my mind as to whether that’s a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, it may be a symptom of the larger issue, but on the other hand, it kind of does show that IT is more strategic and valuable to the organization than ever. So which way should we be leaning on that conversation?

Rani Johnson: You know what. I honestly don’t have an opinion or bias on that. I mean where businesses are, if you will, doing and buying, procuring and admining their own IT, it means that either IT does not have enough domain expertise to really be a valuable partner. Or in other cases, it means that we really have not either – don’t have the capacity or have not built the partnership to really provide relevant roles in that area.

So I think when it happens, where it happens, IT should understand it, figure out why that is, in some cases should resign with, “No, we’re never going to have the domain expertise to play a role in admining something like a marketing automation tool.”

But in other cases, where we see it happening and we do feel like we offer potentially some expertise in ensuring that that system or service can scale, the role we should have is not to come and take the toys, if you will. It should be let’s define how we govern that, to help them build that asset to scale.

Then over time in building that partnership, I have found that people come and say, “Hey, can you help me do this?” or, “Hey, can you do this?” Then once you kind of build that relationship and you show that expertise over time, rather than kind of wagging the finger and saying someone shouldn’t do it, we find that partnership over time actually prevails.

Mike Vizard: Speaking of the toys, for a long time IT was always criticized as not being fast enough to keep up with the pace of the business. There was always this issue of we want to go fast, but IT has got all these rules and regs and they’re the bad guys.

Yet, I look at it today and I wonder if we’re reaching a point where IT and the technologies are moving faster, at least in terms of innovation, than the business can keep up with. So is now the shoe on the proverbial other foot?

Rani Johnson: I think IT or the technologies especially, because the technologies are so vast, I definitely think tech is outrunning most businesses. When businesses have the opportunities to kind of dedicate functional leaders, who have the responsibility for staying in touch with the tech and looking at the opportunities the technology can provide to support their business objectives, that’s amazing and really can propel a business.

So absolutely I think tech is outrunning the business, no question. I think the business can invest literally functional leaders, who are totally just responsible for looking for those opportunities to leverage it. It’s incredible. Then especially when they’re able to partner with IT or where IT had the capacity to partner with them, to help them review it and look at it is amazing.

I mentioned to you those monthly business partner syncs. One of our key objectives in there is to look at technology with a business partner. Ask them, “What are your needs that could be addressed with technology? What are the areas where you realize there’s not the automation or the integration or the access to the data that you need?”

So we keep, monthly at least, asking that question to our business leaders, to figure out how we can support them through technology. I really think when you take that approach, people will invite IT into the conversations that we may have been left out of for some time.

Mike Vizard: All right. On the plus side, everybody I talk to seems to understand that there’s value in the data, that data isn’t just something that we store for compliance reasons or to figure out who got paid or what the transaction is going to be, that there’s actually time and effort worth analyzing this data.

But at the same time, the data is a mess often, and a lot of it comes down to the fact that IT wasn’t really in charge of creating the data. They’re just in charge of managing it and storing it. The business side created the data, but they didn’t really have a lot of governance to that data, shall we say, to be kind.

Now we’re trying to do all this digital transformation stuff, but nobody knows if we can trust the data. So sort this out for me.

Rani Johnson: That is an incredible challenge and a wonderful question. Oftentimes when you’re dealing with data that has low fidelity, it is what it is, kind of figuring out how to plan for the future. The future needs of that data become really important.

There’s no better example than actually having dirty data as to why you need to partner with IT or your business analyst or your data scientist upfront, just like, hey, you’ve got 20 years of this data, but it means nothing to you now because the way that it was collected did not give you the insights to kind of harness it for future use.

So it is a challenge. There are times we can help sort it, help clean it in IT, but often the best answer is like let’s plan for it. Let’s plan for how you may want to use it in the future, and upfront figure out how to collect it thoughtfully.

Mike Vizard: It scares me in this regard because we could kind of get by before, but now we want to throw all these machine learning algorithms and AI at all this stuff. That kind of assumes that the data is reliable, and we could just be automating things into oblivion. Or as a good friend of mine once said, “It’s one thing to be wrong. It’s another thing to be wrong and scale.” Has AI kind of forced the issue on data integrity?

Rani Johnson: It absolutely has. AI and some levels of machine learning actually can sort through and help cleanse. But in many cases, if you have dirty, bad data that has low fidelity, you shouldn’t be using that to make decisions.

I’ll give an interesting example. More recently, we’ve been leveraging some of our tools at TIBCO to look at data related to reopening our offices. So we have _____ members. We know which office they would have been assigned to. We have been doing some level of surveying around our regions, around their interest in returning, and we’ve actually reopened I think 21 or 22 of our offices.

As we’ve done that, we’ve looked at attendance and we’re able to see, obviously, attendance from our batch records, and we’re able to understand the restrictions or the local ordinances. We’ve been mapping or measuring the level of ordinance and we’ve got, let’s say, like ten levels of those ordinances from no masks to masks, to vaccination mandates, to _____ things like that.

So we measure the ordinance levels against the attendance and against kind of that sentiment. We look at this data and it’s interesting, but it’s not yet something that we can use to inform our decisions, because it’s just we didn’t think about this problem enough to structure the data in a way that we can trust what we’re getting out of it yet. We’re not seeing anything that’s patternistic around it as well.

So have to be very careful when you get data that you didn’t plan to use. You can throw tools at it, but right now we know, even if the AI tells us this, it’s like, “Mm-mm, it doesn’t mean that yet.” There was not enough thoughtfulness around how we collected what we collected, down to being very specific.

Frankly, this office manager’s batch records just aren’t good, because they don’t batch in that office properly. So things like that, once you understand that there’s not enough fidelity and that data is dangerous to make automated decisions off of it.

Mike Vizard: I think some of us will be using COVID for many years to explain why we’re absent from something. Let’s just say for grins that you are Queen for the Day and you could change anything you wanted to change tomorrow in the land of IT. What would it be?

Rani Johnson: That is an amazing question. I’d like to stay queen for more than a day, if I was going to be queen. But if I could be queen for the day, what would I change?

I would have actually changed my mind five years ago around things like BYOD. I sit at home on my wonderful TIBCO-issued computer, while I sit and look at my beautiful desktop that is doing the things that I – you know, has the power that I wish that it had. I wish I would have made investments in – and frankly, TIBCO is now – but I wish I would have made investments in BYOD endpoint management, in truly preparing a workforce for a hybrid modality, and ensuring that we could put the protections and the systems and the policies in place, to have really anticipated that this is the new way that people are going to work, and now we’ve got to secure it. Now we’ve got to enable it.

So if I could be queen for a day, I probably would have just gone back and changed my mind, got in front of this thing in my head, so that we would have the team, the skillsets, the technology investments, and the policies in place to really, really be ready for hybrid work.

Mike Vizard: All right. Well speaking of five years ago, five years ago we were telling everybody that we’d have flying cars and IT would be easy. So here we have a prediction for you. As you look out five years from now, what do you predict will be happening and what will people look back at this video and say, “Wow. She was right about that,” or maybe not.

Rani Johnson: IoT is the new IT. It’s technology. This is happening, things like having, I’ll say, automated or flying drones drop off your deliveries or your food. That’s going to happen, and we all need to make sure that we are weighing in on some of the conversations related to, in some cases, privacy, and in other cases automation decisions.

I was having this really cool conversation yesterday with the chief digital or data officer of NASA. He was talking about the ethics around some of the automation for autonomous vehicles. Like if it’s going to hit something, what does it hit? Does it choose a person, a building? If there are multiple people, what does it hit?

Right now we’re all like, “Yeah, I don’t know if it’s coming or not, so we’re not weighing in.” But I think we do need to think about the legislation and the ethics around autonomous everything because it’s coming.

I also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Jennifer Doudna, who is a geneticist. She won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for genome editing. She is involved in these conversations, but there’s no real policy around can you change the genes to make someone taller, or remove genetics defects, if you will, in a human.

It just feels like we’ve got so much going on in the world right now that we’re not paying attention to the ethics of where technology can take us, and technology is not going to wait for us to make those decisions. If we don’t weight in, it’s going to go where it’s going.

So I guess to me, the next five years, we do need to be concerned around the ethics of where autonomous vehicles or autonomous anything, any kind of machine learning that’s going to decide for us, really what’s the limits of those. Where are those guardrails?

Mike Vizard: I guess in the future, when you get in the car, you’re going to have to check the crash algorithms to make sure that they’re weighted in the right way.

Rani Johnson: I mean seriously you decide, “Here’s what I care about as a person. I would rather hit a house,” if something were to go wrong. But yeah, it’s interesting. Maybe the person that’s responsible for that purchase is the – you know. You buy the, I don’t know, beautiful Blazer on Amazon and you tell the drone what you would rather do if there was a problem. It should be interesting.

Mike Vizard: It should be. All right. So you sit there right now and these are the most unusual times and maybe they’re the new normal for everyone. What’s your best advice to all your CIO-level colleagues out there? What should they be focused on right now? What’s the thing that should really be front of mind?

Rani Johnson: My opinion or my answer is going to probably surprise you. Actually, it’s the people. It’s the workforce. It’s figuring out how to attract the talent.

Everyone is talking about the Great Resignation that’s happening. We’re seeing 40 percent of the workforce is actually actively looking for different opportunities. So it’s figuring out how to make the work that they do, the work that we do attractive to our next team members, the folks who will be joining us, and also how to keep our work interesting for the people who are there.

Again, I was getting some advice from some pretty awesome people I was able to interview at TIBCO now. They reminded me we keep talking about data. We keep talking about data and the systems, but the reality is that there are humans that do the work, that program and operate the systems. So the really, really important thing is to continue to build a culture that people want to be a part of, so that they can advance the technology in the future.

So I’d say don’t forget to focus on the people. We tend to get so focused on the services and the systems that we forget that the people are really the heart of and the innovation behind the work that we do.

Mike Vizard: All right. And of course, those people are the most unreliable factor in any equation.

Rani Johnson: Yes, they are.

Mike Vizard: Rani, thanks for being on the show and spending some time with us today.

Rani Johnson: It was absolutely a pleasure, Michael. Thank you for inviting me.