Author: Alvina Antar, CIO, Zuora
Some say the only permanent thing in this world is change. In the world of technology this is a constant truth. The experiences in my life have prepared me for this; whether it be my change from a technology leader in the Fortune 50 to a SaaS super-grower, leaving Kuwait before the Iraqi invasion for Texas, or living and working in Silicon Valley. Growing up, my father was a geologist and a professor and I always wanted to follow in his footsteps to become a mathematics professor. But he pushed me to consider a field where I could apply my strong love for math especially calculus, probability and statistics in other ways. I found Computer Science to be the perfect intersection that fueled my passion and energy for math and analytics to solve complex problems through technology.
I joined Dell right out of college as I was inspired by Michael Dell’s build-to-order business model with the customer at the center. I spent 17 incredible years solving real business problems from inception through delivery. My first role was a programmer and then an enterprise architect and ultimately a management position. I proceeded to lead a global, highly diverse team of business analysts, solution engineers and architects and loved inspiring my team of all cultures to strive for greatness.
I was driven by developing a deep understanding of business needs and an intense focus on customer experience. Every new initiative was an opportunity to dig deep into existing business processes and challenge the status quo with disruptive technologies. We always took on new business partners with genuine humility and constant curiosity, not assuming we knew what they needed, but rather with a fresh set of eyes and open mind.
What inspired me to join Zuora was CEO and Founder Tien Tzuo’s business mantra of centering a business around the subscriber and the customer relationship. I saw first-hand companies, like Dell, needing to pivot and drive digital transformation as they evolved from a hardware company to a software, solutions provider by adopting the subscription model. Zuora’s vision to be at the heart of every industry’s digital transformation is what I love most about the company. Zuora has built, into its roots, a culture of what we call ZEOs – empowering all employees to drive impactful change and have unlimited growth opportunities. We are all ZEOs at Zuora, and we innovate and make decisions in the best interest of the company as if we were the founder and CEO. If you embrace this culture early on, no matter how fast your company grows, it is infused in your DNA.
What it Takes to be CIO
So what does it take to be a successful CIO in a digital enterprise? It takes a deep understanding of your business and its accelerated growth strategy. It takes a strategic vision and plan to ensure your systems are able to meet your business needs. It takes inner confidence to let go of legacy investments that aren’t positioned to transform your business. It takes guts to take calculated risks and make tough decisions. It takes an understanding that agility is critical and that you have to be architected and positioned to meet your time to market needs. It takes constant curiosity to learn new systems of innovation that are nimble and flexible to adapt to ever-changing business needs. It takes a visionary and inspirational leader who builds an empowered team of rockstars who are self-motivated and driven to achieve greatness. It takes credibility to gain support at every level within your organization. It takes trust to build partnerships with your executive team, extended organization and direct reports. It takes respect and pure leadership to invest in each individual’s career and help propel them beyond their own expectations. It takes self-awareness to reflect on your areas of improvement and focus on those critical to you and your team. It takes networking to build meaningful relationships with your peers in the CIO community.
Subscription CIOs are a new crop of technology leaders who challenge the status quo, drive innovation with agility and disruptive technologies to differentiate their business. These leaders are focused on enabling business transformation and operational excellence that are key to staying competitive in the marketplace.
The Challenge of Finding Tech Talent
As if our roles weren’t demanding and complicated enough, finding the best talent is one of the biggest challenges for CIOs today, especially in Silicon Valley where every company is a tech company. I’m fortunate that given Zuora’s brand reputation as a visionary leader coining the ‘Subscription Economy’, I’m able to attract strong candidates to apply to positions. Once that talent is in the door, the key for us is transparency throughout the entire interview process.
We showcase the incredible team of individuals that inspire each other daily as well as our credibility within the organization that is truly unique and not the norm for IT. Through the interview process, candidates are able to see how IT is entrenched in the business given IT’s expertise in our own product as Zuora’s biggest and best customer. By doing so, we have built this direct relationship with product and engineering departments, allowing us to have a direct influence on our product strategy, priorities, best practices, and design principles based on our own firsthand account of the impact Zuora has on our subscription business. Technology company CIOs are among the chosen few who are able to create an even greater impact to their business and revenue by becoming their own best reference account. This transforms the CIO role to an entirely new level of impact from service provider to strategic enabler to customer zero.
It’s never been more exciting to be a CIO! As companies look to pivot and transform, they look to their CIO to fuel their business priorities through differentiated technology. The CIO is the only person to have an end to end functional and technical blueprint of the company and should feel the accountability, pressure, and opportunity to empower a company to take on any new growth initiative they choose at any time. CIOs must have confidence to take on greater risks to differentiate their business and hire bigger and better than themselves as that is what great leaders do!