Recently I sat down for an interview with the former Global CIO of General Motors, Ralph Szygenda, who joined iRise, a provider of enterprise visualisation software for business applications, as a strategic consultant and member of its advisory board earlier this month. Szygenda is heading up the creation of a CIO advisory council for iRise, which will focus on transformation and business and IT communication issues. He is also leading content direction and speaker recruitment for iRise's events, as well as moderating some of its executive roundtable sessions.
iRise's CEO Emmet Keefe joined us during the call to elaborate on Szygenda's value to the company.
CIO: Out of your previous positions at GM, Bell and Texas Instruments (TXN) which one did you find the most challenging and rewarding?
Ralph Szygenda: Every one of them. If you look back at TI, it was building all the technology even before I became CIO. I was there for 21 years and built computing systems and software, missile systems and a number of other things.
In the telecom area, there was deregulation in the industry. Therefore you had to rebuild all your technology because you were moving into a whole new world. It was moving from the old Ma Bell telephone company to a futuristic information services company.
With GM, it was taking a very decentralized company that had thousands of information systems and make it run in one way throughout the world. I never looked just for a job, I looked for something that would be interesting to me but also something that was going to change existing environments to something that was better in the future.
Why did you join iRise and what do you hope to accomplish there?
Szygenda: I've been retired since the end of last year, and I've been looking for another discontinuity. Something that would be different, and something that would be important for the industry and customers over the next five years. I wasn't just looking for a job. I was looking for something that would really drive a change.
I see the world going back to building applications. We've been through five years of efficiency, saving costs, virtualising, computing centre consolidations, the cloud, SaaS. Most companies have gone through that and are pretty efficient. Now the pendulum will turn back around to grow these companies, which typically means people will go back and change their business processes to differentiate them from their competitors. But CEOs these days are not waiting three to four years for information systems to be built to change their company.
So how do you build systems and make sure they are correct? iRise's products let you visualise what the world will be like before you do it, whether you're building automobiles, missiles, or anything else. You need to simulate that and visualise it first in the manufacturing sector. The same thing occurs in software, but there hasn't been the capability to do it before. You look at the screens of what you want to do before you generate the first lines of code to make sure it's right from the customer's perspective. It lets them visualise what the worlds might be. I saw iRise having that capability, being a company in the right place and the right time.
What's the role of the CIO advisory council?
Szygenda: For any company going through a transformation, you want to have a lot of input from CIOs. You want to communicate to them and get their opinions, and I think our goal is to build up a strong CIO group that can do that and that will believe in this product and vision going forward. We want that group of people to be part of a transformation that can happen in the industry, both from a design environment and from an acquisition from the outside markets.
Emmet Keefe: There are a couple other key points we want CIOs to advise us on. A lot of people ask, "Why are you not a billion revenue company?" The answer is, it requires people, process and technology transformation in order to affect iRise on a broad scale. Traditionally, business analysts would gather business requirements first and developers would prototype second. With this new visualisation approach, you flip that around and put the visualisation capability in the hands of the business analysts and you don't have to do prototyping anymore. That's a big process change, and a lot of people get really nervous about it.
One of the reasons we are so excited to have Ralph on board is he was a true transformational leader. We really want to get CIOs together to talk about how to be a transformational leader. The other topic that I think is fascinating is the whole business and IT communication problem. The whole requirements process is the reason the business and IT have such a hard time communicating. We want to zero in on that subject.
What role will you play in heading up content direction for iRise?
Szygenda: It's [developing] content for the different seminars iRise has, the meetings with CIOs in other areas. It's content we would put together that would benefit CIOs and iRise. It's linking the company to the marketplace, the consumer, the CIOs and vise versa.
Keefe: We've done 15 roundtables so far in January of 2010, and the mantra is world class content, world class networking and no selling. We bring together 30 to 40 CIOs and we produce a world class event for them, studying topics that are relevant at the time. One of the reasons we wanted to bring Ralph in and have him be the chairman of that series is to take it to a more legitimate level. It's almost historically been the iRise Executive Roundtable, and it's going to be Ralph's baby now. Whatever topics Ralph thinks are most interesting for CIOs, Ralph will then collaborate with speakers we have and take the content to a whole new level.
What's your advice for IT professionals who want to move into senior management and someday become CIOs?
Szygenda: I would first say it's a great opportunity. I think a lot of people have become disillusioned in the last five years - that it's not an exciting position, that most things have been outsourced, that most things are being bought these days vs. being customised, that there isn't a lot of innovation or development being done in the IT industry, and that most of the products are being done in the personal area vs. the corporate enterprise. We've gone through a lot of deficiencies, and now we are on the verge of innovating and changing business again. I've watched this peak and valley about six times in my life over 40 years. It's going to be an exciting next decade.
The next piece of advice I'd give is the CIO position changes to one of putting the overall puzzle together. It's really an IT-business broker. You buy pieces of things, you put it together, and you transform companies. If you are not a great business person and a great technologist, you are really not a great CXO. If you are good at doing both, you get to see more of the corporate enterprise than any C-level position, and that's amazing. The CIO is going to become much more important again.
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