COVID-19 and changed organizational IT priorities - three CIOs explain how their companies tech teams have responded

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 2, 2020
IT teams have had to respond rapidly to the organizational demands of the COVID-19 crisis - three perspectives from three business CIOs.

(via Pixabay )

If you would have told me several months ago that COVID-19 was going to be the new champion of accelerating the digital agenda, I'd think you crazy, but today that's the reality.

So says Paul Chapman, CIO at cloud collaboration firm Box, looking back at the past few months and how he and his tech team have been called upon to respond to the global pandemic. It’s been a time of learnings, he adds, for some organizations more than others: 

The key thing is that I've seen a lot of organizations or spoken to a lot of organisations that are somewhat nervous. They've not grown up in what you would call a ‘work from anywhere’ style and some organizations are struggling with transition over others. You can't speed up the culture of an organization. You can roll out technology maybe faster. The pace is interesting…You have to be careful about speed over perfection. Speed is one thing, but you have to make sure that you don't  introduce any security risks, so it's sort of combining those two things together I think is extremely important at this time.

Box is fortune to have been ‘born in the cloud’, he adds, growing up a digital company:

Our ethos has always been that our services don't discriminate between any single location. We're a distributed organization globally, but work is more of a state of mind, not a place. So culturally we were tuned to working in a sort of any place, anywhere, any time way. So the actual shift to working remote from a technology standpoint was not such a big one. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges, he admits: 

We needed to make sure we had a little bit more of a distributed VPN and a couple of things around the network edge, and some third party service providers, but in the most part we shifted to working remotely very seamlessly. Of course we saw all platforms that support communication and exchange go through a dramatic increase in usage, whether that's video chat, collaboration and so on. It's been quite fascinating to see the metrics of usage. At Box, where we can see the movement of content all over the world, millions and millions and millions of files, we can actually see the changing pattern of the work day, a lot of very interesting data that that's emerging. 

Security paradigm

An uptick in attempted hostile security activity has also been a concern that has had to be tackled head-on and has led to some altered priorities, he adds:

We have seen a significant uptick in COVID-19 malware attacks, using bogus news articles, malicious emails, fake real time COVID-19 update maps, all these types of things. Bad actors are trying to figure out ways to go after vulnerabilities, so we keep very close attention on the numbers and the metrics of what's going on underneath the covers. We're looking at accelerating and bringing forward some things in and around some security areas and some some areas around our user experience and things like that.

From an actual Corporate Services standpoint, obviously now we're looking more at services that integrate with video, with chat services, whether that's remote collaboration software for white-boarding, developing code, things like that, looking at things that integrate with services like video, to do translation or transcripts of conversations, things that are going to integrate with these services now which we're living by. Anything that provides a service to support the communication fabric of the organisation, like video, chat, content collaboration and so on, those are the areas we're going to go after.

Cyber-security is “the new working paradigm”, agrees Michael Santiago CIO /VP IT, Cytiva, (formerly part of GE Healthcare Life Sciences), a global provider of technologies and services that advance and accelerate the development and manufacture of therapeutics:

For sure, the attack surface for a potential attacker is definitely increased, tenfold, a hundredfold. It now extends beyond the office, beyond the manufacturing plant and into the home office. Security awareness and security vigilance is of utmost importance now. Social engineering is on the rise and getting worse and cyber state attacks are on the rise as well.

We have regular security awareness training that goes out to all associates. It's part of our credit crisis management plan. We also have, on our intranet, security awareness bulletins. People on a daily basis make sure that cyber-security is part of their daily life. We do daily scanning of all of our endpoints. We have incident response teams that are global and ready to respond whenever necessary. But most vulnerabilities are due to humans and not necessarily intentional or malicious, just someone clicking on the wrong thing at the wrong time. So security awareness is really important and something that we are really emphasising.

For Cytiva, the timing of the crisis has been such that it came just as the firm was purchased by Danaher Corporation, a move that had already triggered tech changes:

We've had to transition over 40 sites globally from GE to Danaher. Obviously that includes a lot of equipment, not only infrastructure equipment, but also end user devices, PCs that are localized, regionalized for particular geographies, mobile devices, routers, switches etc. All of that is impacted by supply chain, by our vendors, and even our vendors vendors. And you know, we're not the only company that's that's out trying to buy in 10,000 PCs. Everyone else is also trying to stock up and  the demand for them is quite overwhelming. 

So we've been very flexible and agile in how we transition these sites. Obviously these sites are all over the globe and they have their own shelter in place guidelines from their own local governments, so we've had to adjust accordingly. When can we travel? Can we travel even to do discovery work to identify what's needed to do the transition? So it's been quite overwhelming. I think the trick here, not only for the site transition, but in general, is to be flexible. We're pivoting every day, priorities are changing every day and that's also how we're responding to supply chain.

Speeding up

At London-based fintech firm Finastra, the timing has been more serendipitous, suggests CIO Russ Soper: 

We were in the midst of implementing some improved collaboration tools and [working from home] just drove adoption through the roof pretty quickly. So from a silver lining perspective, it was probably the easiest rollout we've ever had do, with some new video capability and chatting capability and all kinds of collaboration tools. People have really gravitated towards that. 

From a speeding up of our strategy perspective, we were born in the cloud, so that's certainly a big part of our strategy. For over two years now, we are digital everything and cloud everything, so this has sped that up from our products, our services. We have some on prem services [and] even the way we support those [has changed], doing them in a more distributed and online fashion. I would say [there's been a] heavy shift towards being focused on improved collaboration tools, video, everything. Trying to see people's faces is important, whether it's the sales process, the internal working team process. Video everything, digital everything and cloud everything would be the three pillars of what we really tried to do and and how we work internally, and how we deliver our services and maintain a global workforce.

Even in a crisis, there’s a need to find ROI in tech strategy, he adds:

We really do two  three things - we build software, we host financial services for clients and we sell IT. Those are the three things. So from a technology perspective, [we are] really looking at those three processes and understanding, given the the changing world we're living in, how do we best enable those services in the most effective way, with technology, in the most cost efficient efficient way. So, the sales example. Traditionally in a sales cycle, very travel-oriented sales people would be on the road throughout the year. They fly to clients. They sit down. They build a relationship. They do a sales pitch in person. They may install something on the clients premise or we may host it, but there's a lot of personal interaction.  That's all changed. 

So how do we facilitate that from a technology perspective? Clearly there’s funding and investment that goes with that, but we would offset it with the reduced travel and other things, trying to re-direct funding into the most pragmatic way. Looking into development, finance has a large population of software developers, previously a mix of on site and Centers of Excellence around the world, maybe some remote, but predominantly on site. Now it's 98%,99% off site and remote working from home. Some areas were fairly smooth transitions, where we already had people who were technically savvy, so they could they could make that transition. 

But as with Box, there were still challenges with the shift to remote : 

When you get into the day-to-day working, as they're doing large scale file transfers or other things that they may do throughout their course their day, those things take orders of magnitude more time, if it's going back and forth from their house, particularly in certain countries around the world. So how do we facilitate that? How do we facilitate BYOD? How do we improve our perimeter security, now that our entire workforce is working remotely? It continues to be an effort of understanding what are the business processes, where we spend our money today? The foundation is understanding how money is spent, whether you want to call it cost containment or demand management, different terms I think for different processes. But the first step is really having absolute clarity on where you're spending your money and are you getting value for that spend? Then you can align that against the shifting environment you're working in and we've had a big shift in the last 60, 90 days and understanding where you need to re-direct accordingly.

That means modifying future plans in some cases, he says, but the crisis response has also validated existing assumptions: 

This event has made us re-think some aspects of it, particularly around the workplace the future, but it's also reinforced a lot of what we were already focused on. {We’re] saying, ‘How can we do this quicker, whether it be digital tools and collaboration and video cloud adoption of our products?’…It has sped up a lot of our existing strategies and reinforced them, maybe shifted a few, but looking at where we're investing money and making sure it's aligned to those future state strategies - around mobility, cloud everything, digital everything - is really the key.

A grey colored placeholder image