This article originally appeared in Forbes.
By Peter High
APR 24, 2017 09:45 am PT
NetApp is in the throes of a major transformation from a data storage company to a data management company. The implications are profound, and the company’s chief information officer Bill Miller is at the center of a lot of the change. As the CIO of a company that serves many IT departments, he and his team have multiple programs that impact and influence product and service design, from being customer one to running the NetApp-on-NetApp program to helping evolve what the company refers to the Data Fabric, which is a set of solutions that allow NetApp’s customers “to gracefully, securely, intelligently, and quickly move information across their on-prem and off-prem environments,” as Miller notes in our interview. His IT team tests the new utilities and provides feedback on NetApp’s tools and partner solutions.
Miller also notes that his team operates as a bit of a talent factory for the product development organization, for as his team develops insights into the product, some of them are logical candidates to fill needs of that team, either temporarily or permanently.
Peter High: For the past six months, you have been the senior vice president and chief information officer at NetApp. What is in purview of your role?
Bill Miller: I was attracted to this position because it provides me with the opportunity to contribute at the strategic level as NetApp continues to evolve. The reshaping involves functional organizations such as information technology, as well as product lines, product offerings, and how we offer solutions to our customers.
I play two integral roles as the CIO of NetApp. First, I am helping to retool the business as we move toward more cloud offerings and software enabled solutions around data. While the first 24 years of the company were focused on data storage, we are shifting to data management and helping our customers do more with their information. The opportunity to help transform the company and its systems, particularly in the go-to- market space and how we bring those solutions to our customers, appealed to me because it would not be business as usual as a CIO.
The second aspect of the position that intrigued me is that NetApp can utilize its own systems and run its own solutions in its own IT shop to leverage increased productivity, performance, uptime, and a variety of other desirable characteristics. NetApp shares these outcomes not only across the business, but also with customers.
High: Part of the retooling at NetApp includes the programs NetApp-on-NetApp and Customer-1. What role does your team play in these initiatives?
Miller: The two programs that you mentioned and a third that we are spinning up align with our core mission in IT. We relish our roles in all three. In the Customer-1 program, the IT team beta tests our solutions, our products, our software, and the workflows before we introduce them to our customers. The process starts when the Engineering and Product Development teams envision and develop new technologies. The IT team then deploys the product or solution in our hand-crafted, exquisite, global data centers using the latest technologies and NetApp platforms. We provide early feedback to the Product Development and Engineering organizations about how to tune and optimize the products and solutions. IT’s role with the Customer-1 program, however, is not only to be the pre-release customer, but also the early post-release customer. It is a valuable internal feedback loop that optimizes the products by utilizing the partnership, or handshake, that NetApp has between Engineering and IT, which is not the case in every organization.
The second initiative is NetApp-on-NetApp. We run our new products and capabilities in our own operations for a period of time and gather statistics and information such as uptime, availability, change control, and restoration processes. Then, we share what we have learned about best practices both within the company and with our customers through executive briefing visits, roadshows, and through collegial relationships with our peers. We enjoy it because while we are trying to sell a solution to our customers, we also bring information technology and real world experiences to the table which allow us to share the true flavor of what it takes to run the equipment, the platforms, and the software, as well as to discuss the benefits gained by running those solutions.
Our third initiative, the Data Fabric, has evolved from our shift toward becoming a high end, data management solutions company and away from our legacy as a superb storage company. The Data Fabric is a set of solutions that allow our customers to gracefully, securely, intelligently, and quickly move information across their on-prem and off-prem environments. The IT team’s role in this initiative is to test drive the new utilities and provide real time feedback on NetApp’s tools and partner solutions.
High: Are there organizational adaptations that are necessary for accomplishing these new initiatives and having IT more involved in the strategic planning process? Or, is success dependent on the culture and the expectation that this is part of everyone’s job?
Miller: These initiatives require a certain type of culture. An organization must be open to trying new processes and solutions that by definition are early in their lifecycle and are not always going to work elegantly the first time out. For example, you cannot put pre-production release software elements in your production data centers and expect them to work 100 percent of the time. To run these types of initiatives organizations must be limber and open to taking chances, which does not mean exposing our customers to risk, but that internally our teams are willing to quickly plug in new solutions and try new things — to experiment and evolve. This is a different kind of mindset than that of an organization that runs a traditional order management system or an ERP system. NetApp has a culture of collaboration and inclusiveness, which results in people stepping up and engaging in a fraternal way.
Additionally, with initiatives like the Data Fabric, you have to be dynamic with security solutions, which are always top of mind. We consider and test drive numerous security solutions developed by our partners that can be plugged into the Data Fabric. These solutions are often different platforms and tools than we would employ in our pure internal operations. The IT team at NetApp enjoys this duality of running the core infrastructure of the business day in and day out, and then also reaching out and plugging partner systems, tools and APIs into the Data Fabric because it gives us an opportunity to explore different software solutions, hardware solutions, and to stay current on technology. However, it is not for the faint of heart. We are constantly investigating new technologies and evaluating not only what we want to use internally in the business but also what provides the most value to our customers.
High: You mentioned that you spend time with your CIO peers that are also customers, or potential customers, of NetApp. This is advantageous because it provides you with the ability to talk to customers about the evolution of the products and to learn how NetApp is functioning in their environments. Can you discuss how you utilize this feedback?
Miller: It is a pleasure coming to work every day, partly because in this role I get to spend time with my peers in the industry and discuss problems and solutions that we all have such as mobility, information security, and collaboration. We talk about any number of issues that are pertinent today, but invariably, the discussion comes back to data; and more specifically big data, analytics, and digital transformation. These are the hot topics today if you are a CIO in a progressive company, and they all play together because the digital transformation is driven by the availability of both structured and unstructured data. Although each of us has a different view of what the digital transformation means for our business, we are all dealing with the same basic concerns. When I engage with my peers, we discuss the power of data and how it can be used to transform the business. We ask questions like, what do you want to do with the data? How do you leverage the data? How do you monetize the information that is unique to your industry to gain a competitive advantage? How do you make sure the data is clean and accurate? What analytics tools and platforms are there for making sense out of the data? How do you present the data to customers in a manner that is meaningful and sticky, that makes our customers stay with us? These are fun discussions about realizing the potential of the business through data, and I get to bring the ideas back to the business. It is exciting to be part of the real-time evolution of our industry.
High: Prior to NetApp, you were the CIO for four years at Broadcom and nearly eight years at the Harris Corporation. As you reflect on your experiences at these three tech centric companies, what types of unique value can IT bring to the table when you are surrounded by people that see themselves as technology experts?
Miller: IT organizations that support an engineering centric operation could look at this as a burden, in the sense that everybody’s a critic and thinks that they can design it better than you can deliver it. However, this is generally done with a positive outlook and a progressive attitude toward improvement. It is the nature of an innovative company, and with engineers in particular, that they want to reinvent and to innovate. In the years that I have worked for technology companies, I generally find that it ups everybody’s game. For example, in a company like NetApp there are many technically capable and competent IT engineers, electrical engineers, computer engineers, and computer scientists that work with the business on a daily basis to design and build out data centers, to bring software capability to life, and to enable the products, the expertise required to participate in an intellectually rich and creative environment like this is beneficial for an IT organization because it keeps you sharp and ups your game. While I can see it might be a perceived as a double-edged sword, for me, it creates an exhilarating place to work.
Another benefit of working at a tech centric company is that it offers people the opportunity to move around. We readily and frequently move people between the IT organization and the development organizations; people get familiar with the product, they bring the product into the enterprise, support it in the enterprise, and then they might move into a design position in the product line. This fluidity not only creates opportunities for rotational career positions, it also provides collateral benefits for the organization. Such flexibility is possible because while some engineering organizations are edgy or competitive, NetApp has a cooperative, collegial, and civil culture. That does not mean that everybody agrees on everything all the time, but at NetApp, we argue the merits of solutions and approaches in a civil fashion. Frankly, with my background, I cannot imagine being a CIO in a non-technical company. The innovation, the emergence of new products, and the ability to adopt them is faster and more stimulating in a tech company than in many other industries.
High: In the time leading up to joining NetApp and then in the first 100 days of your time with NetApp, how did you prepare and set yourself and your team up for success?
Miller: For any higher-level job there is an immersive period that involves several rounds of interviews and discussions with executives and leaders in the company. During that time, it is essential that you discover if your views of the culture and future of the company match the company’s expectations. In preparation for these discussions I recommend that people spend time listening to the last few quarterly earnings calls. I did this during my interviewing process at NetApp and I took notes on the focus areas; how the company was reporting and what the company was reporting. Then I went back and carefully studied those notes to gain insight into the organization. During the Q&A section of interviews I mined this information to ask questions and gain an understanding of NetApp’s internal perspective. When I was in the later phases of decision making on joining the company, I had a clear picture of the current challenges of the company and where they wanted to go.
I also made many phone calls to colleagues as we got closer to the end of the selection process. I called peers that I knew were, or had been, customers of NetApp and asked what they thought of the platforms, what they liked and what did they not like, and what they thought of NetApp versus the competition. I was able to glean current experiences, likes and challenges associated with the business, and gain insights into current views of the company from individuals that I respected across the industry. I highly recommend that anyone taking an IT leadership position develop a 100 day plan because systems and business processes are at the core of our roles and we need to know which way we are going to move early on so that we can be maximally effective. There is a lot of energy expended on that, but it is time well invested.
High: We have covered rising trends such as analytics, big data, and digital transformation, as you extend your gaze farther out, say two or three years, are there additional trends that are beginning to make their way onto your strategic roadmap, or piqued your interest and curiosity as to how they might affect NetApp?
Miller: Organizations will move aggressively, but not completely, to the cloud. Large corporations will retain an on-premises solution in their data centers for some time to come. They may a use co-located data center outside of their own four walls, but they will manage the assets from the floor panels up. Companies will manage their invested infrastructure and optimize it for their business. The on-prem model is likely to persist for a long time.
We will see cloud based solutions that are application and industry specific coming from companies like Workday, SAP, Salesforce, and Oracle. These companies are developing incarnations of the cloud that offer tremendous utility to their customers because they allow us to partake of many services that connect from a data flow and an integration standpoint to our on-prem data services. These are not two discrete, unique communities, although they may separate to some degree. For example, you may do more of your product development internally and you may run more of your operating business functions in the adjacent cloud from a core supplier.
There is a third layer to this that involves hyperscalers like Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and Google Cloud and using them for provisioning capabilities completely off-prem and utilize a pay-as-you-go model. Every CIO is doing some of that today and exploring if they can move workloads out to the hyperscaler cloud. This is a provocative business model because while it is difficult to move data around and often expensive to get data out, the productivity and time to ramp up a service or a workflow is short.
For the next several years at least, the predominant cloud model will be a hybrid one where organizations will invest in multiple tiers. Customers will demand that data can coalesce and be analyzed effectively to show trends and opportunities for bringing new services to market. The solutions that we provide for our internal users and for end-customers will be a blend of cloud based utilities. We will need to figure out how to provide services in a graceful way that combine the best of all these possible business models. This is a significant challenge and one that all organizations will struggle with because there is not a one size fits all model, and it is unclear that one of the models is going to win out in the long term.
Another piece of the cloud puzzle is that it will utilize a consumption model. People are not going to want to capitalize in the cloud, regardless if it is on-prem or off-prem. They will want to buy access as a lease or with a pay-as-you-go model. This is a trend that companies need to come to terms with and offer to their customers. There are variants to this that are fascinating. For instance, if you look at Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud, the tools are there for putting well-known equipment and operating systems, such as NetApp tools and solutions, into those cloud utilities so that a customer has both on-prem and off-prem capabilities. This gives organizations the benefits of familiarity and consistency with how they manage their world on-prem and access to what sits out there in the hyperscaler cloud. There are numerous business models available, it is up CIOs and CTOs to figure out which business model to use to optimize and maximize for our organizations. To some degree, this trend ties into digital transformation because it determines where your data sits and what you can do with it. This will be the challenge of the next several years, and if you are not spending time modeling that and thinking notionally about how you will deliver services through that complex world, you are missing something.