As technology becomes the dominant topic of conversation among C-level executives regarding digital transformation or simply day-to-day operations, the relationship between CIOs and CTOs is evolving to one of collaboration, not contention.
In the Digital CxO Leadership Insights series video, Mike Vizard speaks with Deb Gildersleeve, CIO at QuickBase, about how CIOs and CTOs can and should work together to advance the technological mission of organizations.
Mike Vizard: We’re here with Deb Gildersleeve, who’s the CIO for QuickBase. They make a platform for building applications using low-code tools. Deb, welcome to the show.
Deb Gildersleeve: Thanks. Great to be here.
Vizard: Personally, I’ve been following this whole debate about CIOs versus CTOs probably now for the better part of, I don’t know, two decades. And I wonder if that whole conversation is starting to get a little more pronounced in the wake of the digital business transformation initiatives that everybody launched right after the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems like the old saying is success has a thousand followers. So everybody wants to get involved or say that they’re the lead dog in the sled, as it were. What is your sense of what the right relationship is between a CIO and a CTO and what are you seeing out there?
Gildersleeve: The CIO and CTO have been defined differently over the years as well. I think you’re right. It’s starting to even out where maybe the CIO is focused more internally. The CTO may be focused more externally or on RND or more of that type of thing. I think getting to a little bit of that focus is helping that relationship. I think the CIO is looking at the business as a whole, supporting all different facets of the business, your finance, HR, supporting your CTO, your engineering function, your product functions.
And I think providing the right toolsets for your CTO and your engineering and RND functions to be able to do what they do to innovate faster or to be able to maybe add more features and functions to a product that you’re providing out to your customer base or to do RND on some systems that maybe you will use internally. I think over the years I think that it’s become a much better relationship and with a little bit more focus.
Vizard: Do you think that tech has reached a point where it’s a level of complexity that it does require two in a box with a different mindset and that’s how we should all be going forward?
Gildersleeve: Yeah. I think so. I think that there’s technology in absolutely everything you do now. So where before we might have been okay with an older financial system, the expectations are growing on having that be in the cloud and having that be more employee-centric and more ease of use. Same thing for HR systems and I think that that complexity that the CIO is now very much focused on and improving that employee experience leaves that area open for that innovation and for focusing on your product and focusing on that level of the technology. So I think that split is a good one because it gives different people a focus on two different areas really.
Vizard: Do you think the rest of the business is able to comprehend that? The divide between IT and business is better maybe than it ever was, but it’s still there. Does this structure help us engage better with all the other C-level executives?
Gildersleeve: I think it does. I think there’s still work to do on building that relationship between the CIO and any form of technology and your business users. I think we need to be out there enabling our business users. People are more tech-savvy than ever. So I think we really need to be enabling that and working with them on the technology they need to do their jobs and again, allowing a bit more focus on that whereas before maybe the CIO would have been split a little bit between that RND function and that support of other parts of the organization. Now you’ve got again, two technology-minded individuals focused on those different parts of the business and that can only help build those relationships because it does allow for more focus in those areas.
Vizard: Do you also think you guys are a provider by low-code tools. So you’re starting to see more applications delivered faster, the pace of innovation is increasing. Do you think that maybe IT is now moving faster than the business can absorb? We used to criticize IT for being too slow all these years, but maybe the shoe is on the other foot now.
Gildersleeve: I think you can say that in some areas for sure. I think as we try and innovate and put more tools in front of our end users we may be doing that a bit too fast. I think using a tool like ours, that low code, no code type of platform allows the business to get in the game themselves so that it’s not just IT pushing new things on them. It allows them to use the technology to solve the problems they’re actually having as opposed to what there might be a perception of the problems they’re having, some of those things that IT or the CTO just can’t get to.
Vizard: And who’s driving that innovation these days? We hear a lot about citizen developers, but we also hear professional developers are using these tools because they don’t have all the time in the day to go write procedural code. So what’s your sense of who’s actually driving adoption of these platforms in organizations?
Gildersleeve: I think when you’re citizen developers, when you’re business technologists, when you have those technology-savvy business people really diving in and using these technologies to solve their problems, I think that’s incredibly effective. By the same token, if a professional developer can use these tools to put forward a solution in half the time, let’s say, then that’s very important as well. These tools can also be used to have a better conversation even between IT and the business in terms of you can rapidly show them something that works and you get that feedback much quicker so that you iterate on what the solution really needs to be. So when you’re done you have exactly what the business needs right in front of them.
Vizard: I think one of the criticisms you hear about low-code platforms is that the folks who use it are not well-schooled in software development. We get a lot of applications that maybe aren’t the best looking. They may not scale so well. There’s probably a whole mess of security issues. Is there some way that that’s gonna improve as we go forward? Do you think the platforms themselves will guide people through how to build an application more so than it does today?
Interviewee: Yeah. I think that there’s a couple different ways to approach this. I think, yes, the tools and the technologies are improving and figuring out where some of those areas are where an end user might need more help. But also I think in any organization if you stand up a low code, no code platform it really should be done between the business and IT and make it such that you build those guard rails in before you really get a whole lot of things developed. I think if an end user knows where to go for help or they know what areas they should stay away from or which areas are really good for them to work in before you really get started, it can be a great education process along the way by setting up a center of excellence around these types of tools within an organization.
Vizard: There’s a lot of debate about that center of excellence idea. Some folks think that the center of excellence winds up becoming a bottleneck. Other people, they’ll argue that you need to distribute out the capability more so to individual units and departments. Is there a balance to be struck there or is one approach better than the other fundamentally?
Gildersleeve: I think there’s always a balance. I think we’ve seen this through the years. You saw this with the tools for data visualization and that sort of thing already that we’ve walked through. I think this is no different from that in that again, putting up those guard rails and protecting people from themselves a little bit I think is a really helpful thing to do. I believe there’s a way to set it up that’s not such a bottleneck. It’s not meant for IT to check every piece of code that goes into one of these tools.
It’s more of a, “Hey, if you’re gonna approach this type of problem we can help you.” I think building that relationship and I think that’s – I think there’s a little bit of trial in error in that center of excellence model, but I think each company will get to that level that works for them and that’s – it ends up somewhere in the middle. If it’s too restrictive how much use are they gonna get out of it? If it’s too loose then you do end up exactly with what you’re talking about. So I think you start with somewhere in the middle and you end up with a pretty good approach.
Vizard: Do you think there might be a backlash coming around all these digital business transformation initiatives that people launched? It seems like a lot of them were launched immediately after the pandemic in a bit of a hurry and maybe not fully thought through or maybe they’re just trying to boil the ocean and maybe is now a good time to take a step back and say, “What should we be trying to accomplish that is reasonable within a defined period of time,” versus some of these more ambitious efforts we’re hearing about?
Gildersleeve: Yeah. I think you always have to do that. I think you should always be looking at your projects in that way. There was a lot of work spun up as the pandemic hit and people were suddenly having to work from home. I think we learned a lot through that process and I think now there should be a little bit of a rationalization as to, “All right. We ran really fast here. Maybe we need to go back and clean this up,” or “All right. We stood up this application really quickly for this purpose, but that purpose is not necessary anymore.”
I think within the IT sect you always have to be looking at the portfolio and I think within low-code applications it’s no different. You always should be looking at where you’re spending your time and is that the best use of the resources that you have. So I don’t see it as a backlash, but as that natural evolution of there’s often a forcing function that makes people do things a little bit quicker and then take that step back and see what worked, what didn’t, and let’s go all-in on the things that worked.
Vizard: All right. I think both of us have been at this a lot longer than either one of us cares to admit. What do you know now that you wish you knew five, 10 years ago when you were moving down the management track for the first time and what is it that you would tell your younger self that you should be thinking about more than you did at the time?
Gildersleeve: That’s a good question. I think early on you get really gung-ho on all the latest and greatest technology and that’s what your team wants. And I think you learn over time that you have to temper that with the business and technology for technology’s sake often doesn’t succeed. You need to have the technology in place to solve a problem and I think the more that I’ve learned that over the years, the better off I’ve become. I think in tying that to really understanding what your business does, that combination you can make some significant changes in an organization combining those two lessons learned I think over the years.
Vizard: All right. Be aware of those shiny objects. Hey Deb, thanks for being on the show.
Gildersleeve: Thank you so much.