Generating IT value by solving business problems with Mark Settle


This week I’m joined by Mark Settle who is the Chief Information Officer for Okta. Mark has served as CIO for a number of companies prior to his role at Okta including IHS, BMC, Corporate Express, Arrow and Oxy. Mark is also author of the book ‘Truth from the trenches: A practical guide to the art of IT management.’

During our conversation, Mark outlines the value of IT in today’s enterprise and how IT can generate value through seismic changes. Mark outlines the challenges that many CIOs gets caught up in and how they can escape the vortex. We discuss the role of the CIO and get Mark’s very interesting and enlightening perspective on ‘data as the new oil’. Mark outlines his perspective on how technology orgs lose sight of the problem and how they can realign themselves.


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Book – Truth from the trenches: A practical guide to the art of IT management:

Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello and welcome to the CIO In The Know podcast, where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection between business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO and strategic advisor at Avoa.

Tim Crawford:               This week I’m joined by Mark Settle, who’s the Chief Information Officer for Okta. Mark has served as CIO for a number of companies prior to his role at Okta, including IHS, BMC, Corporate Express, Arrow and Oxy. Mark is also the author of the book, “Truth from the Trenches, a practical guide to the art of IT management.” During our conversation, Mark outlines the value of IT in today’s enterprise and how IT can generate value through seismic changes.

Tim Crawford:               Mark outlines the challenges that many CIO’s get caught up in and how they can escape the vortex. We discuss the role of the CIO and get Mark’s very interesting and enlightening perspective as data as the new oil. Mark outlines his perspective on how technology orgs often lose sight of the problem and how they can realign themselves.

Tim Crawford:               Mark, welcome to the program.

Mark Settle:                  Glad to be here. Good morning.

Tim Crawford:               Good morning. So Mark, you are the Chief Information Officer at Okta and have served as CIO for a number of other companies. I just want to dive right into the CIO and talk about what is different if there is something different today, what is different in the CIO role today from your perspective.

Mark Settle:                  So I would say it’s changed and will continue to change in the future. But by the same token, there’s certain aspects of the role that remain the same as well and in some ways, the part that remains the same to me outweighs or takes on more importance than some of the more recent changes. So when I think about the value that IT can deliver to a company, I think of three different dimensions. One is just the efficiency and internal effectiveness of IT itself, managing costs and delivering services and meeting the expectations of employees and executives in the company.

Mark Settle:                  Second is partnering with the business to enhance existing processes, whether it’s an order management process, a supply chain management process. But to show that you, the IT group, can understand the problems that the business faces, work with them collaboratively and actually enhance business operations in some fashion. And I think if you can successfully show that you’re running a tight ship within IT and you know how to partner with the business, than you get to sit up at what I call the big boy table and talk about strategic initiatives and ways in which IT can really think about tackling some of the bigger, harder problems, like opening up new markets or addressing a new sales demographic or getting into a whole different product line or globalizing the business.

Mark Settle:                  So there are a lot of big strategic issues. But I think it’s unlikely you’re going to be asked to participate substantively, unless you build up confidence on the other two sides. Those are maybe time tested principals or processions about how IT works and I don’t think they’re going to change a whole lot, whether we’re dealing with Y2K problems or digital transformation, everything that happened in between.

Mark Settle:                  But what is a little bit different today is we’re drowning in technology. So I just reflected in a recent blog about the 15 anniversary of Cloud computing. If you go back and look at when Salesforce went public and when AWS introduced the elastic computing Cloud, EC2, we’re about 15 years from those early pioneering days. And Cloud really does revolutionize the way you think about supporting business operations.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah.

Mark Settle:                  Apple had a marketing tagline called there’s an app for that, that they used to market their phones in the early days. And I think it was really intended to address the variety of consumer apps that were out there that people could use. But it’s come back with vengeance in the business world as well. So there’s literally thousands of different applications that do everything from large end to end business processes, like order management down to really niche things, like helping to plan a user conference and register people that want to set up their agendas for what sessions they’re going to go to.

Mark Settle:                  And a wide gamut of capabilities in between and so, how you manage the application stack in that kind of a world and then start to back out of the way from being responsible for data center operations and worrying about security and use of mobile devices. The landscape that we manage is very different, but I’m sure you could go back and people that went from mainframe to client server or went from client server to internet/e-commerce kind of technologies would probably all say that they went through some seismic changes as well.

Mark Settle:                  So the technology will force you to change, but the way you generate value I think is pretty time tested and pretty much stays the same.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. And it’s interesting how you’ve connected Y2K to digital transformation. I think you’re the first person I’ve heard that said that.

Mark Settle:                  I may be dating myself there.

Tim Crawford:               Wow. I think many of us have been through Y2K at least once, if not twice if you switch companies around the late ’90’s.

Mark Settle:                  And maybe my scars are just a little deeper, that may be [inaudible 00:05:13].

Tim Crawford:               But well healed over. When you get past what I call the table stakes, right, the efficiency piece of it really should be table stakes at this point. For someone that is carrying the CIO title, if you have that title, Chief Information Officer and you truly are operating at that level, not just because you were promoted to it, not just because it was the next title they could give you, regardless of whether you’re actually exhibiting the traits. But if you truly are a CIO, isn’t the table stakes really the efficiency piece and then looking beyond that is really where the meat comes in?

Mark Settle:                  Absolutely. No, that’s absolutely right. But in certain organizations some of individuals become myopically focused on that. I mean they somehow lock their perspective into thinking the only way I generate real value is managing costs efficiently and worrying about my customer set score on the service desk, et cetera. And especially in companies that have been challenged financially, where cost control was a big issue for a long period of time. This has happened to me in the past. You refine those muscles, you’re working those muscles all the time and then if things change, you have a new job opportunity or the business turns around, et cetera, your innovation muscles may have atrophied over that period of time.

Mark Settle:                  And you’ve got to realize the situation that you’re in. So unfortunately, many of our peers have gotten captured in the black hole of just a myopic focus, an obsessively myopic focus on cost management and some just don’t escape the vortex.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. How much of that is driven by the outside perception as well, by the rest of the C-suite in terms of what they view IT’s function or the CIO’s function as?

Mark Settle:                  To answer that question in a slightly different way. IT organizations tend to spend a lot of money for lots of different reasons. And it’s been my experience that people are just confounded by, where does that money go? You’re spending X million dollars, what do you do with that? And it’s because IT addresses so many different needs of the business, there are very few people in the company that really understand that full gamut of responsibilities.

Mark Settle:                  And so, they interact in some loaded capacity with the IT function. So I’ll tell you an anecdotal story here. I remember one time one of the executives, this is past employer, complained that the IT group had gotten too large and we had about 400 people in IT at the time and we were spending way too much money, I think we were spending $100 million.

Mark Settle:                  And there’s two guys you have over there, Larry and Tom, I love those guys. I think they’re great. And I said, “Well you know, so you like two guys, if I had one person for every other FTE in the company, the IT organization would be much larger than 400 people.” So the fact that I can keep people happy with 400 is an incredible testament to how effective we are.

Mark Settle:                  But I do think there’s aspects of day to day operation. Well, take a data center, nobody out in the business really understands what it takes to run the data center, nor should they. I’m not suggesting they should.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. And I think that’s the other piece that goes with this question, right, which is really around that relationship between the CIO and the rest of the C-suite and how it’s changing and does the CIO need to, and you’ve heard this question as much as I have. But does the CIO need to learn more about the business or does the business need to learn about IT and technology?

Mark Settle:                  I think very much the former, right. So I think the IT organization, it’s very easy to get drawn into conversations about technology and operational issues, et cetera, within IT and the folks who, the CIO, his or her direct reports, just look at the way people use their time. How much time do they actually spend visiting the warehouses or visiting the manufacturing facility or going out on a sales call or really trying to understand the world as it’s perceived by the other leaders of the organization.

Mark Settle:                  And what’s doubly criminal about this is that the CIO and his or her direct reports, are uniquely qualified to do that. A director, with all due respect, or senior director is much more limited in their ability to branch out and have those opportunities. It’s been my experience that whenever I’ve invited myself in, so to speak, my presence in those conversations or activities has really been welcome. Frankly, kind of enthusiastically.

Mark Settle:                  After the initial shock overcomes somebody that oh the CIO wants to actually go to the warehouse. Once they get past that stage, it’s like god, I’d like to actually be used … come with me on my next trip.

Tim Crawford:               That kind of fits in with where I wanted to take the conversation, because I know you spend a lot of time in front of customers, a lot of time. And that seems to be a unique trait amongst CIO’s, yet a growing trait among CIO’s. Can you talk a little more about how you did that? Because I can’t imagine that you just showed up on a sales call or went to the head of sales or to a sales rep and said, “Hey, when you go out tomorrow, I’m going to be in the car with you.”

Mark Settle:                  So I’ve had the good fortune of working in several companies where the product that we produced was sold to an IT organization. So again, we both have peers and in many cases software companies where maybe they’re providing some kind of a B to C service or they have a B to B model in which the software their providing could be like an Autodesk, the capabilities that an auto desk would produce, are not really substantively useful within the IT organization itself.

Mark Settle:                  Whereas if you’re a storage equipment manufacturer like Net Add or Pure Storage, you can use that to support internal operations. If you’re a company like Okta, we can use our identity management tools to support the way Okta operates. And so, you just develop much more practical insight into how to implement these tools and obtain the greatest benefits.

Mark Settle:                  And so, I think it’s not just a courtesy kind of a conversation or a courtesy that hey, our CIO is here to pay his respects at a C-level for your business or demonstrate the level of commitment that we have to turn you into a customer. But there’s a lot of practical knowledge and experience that I’ve been fortunate to be able to communicate through those opportunities.

Mark Settle:                  So we would have other peers that would really struggle because of the nature of the product. Now having said that, I think one of the highest callings for any IT executive, is to try to bring the voice of the paying customer into the IT organization. And this has been a source of annoyance to me for a long time, probably more than annoyance.

Mark Settle:                  Because if you really step back and you look at most organizations and all the different functional teams that are out there, any kind of a demand signal that’s coming from the true paying customers, is getting processed in fairly non-linear way through the personalities and politics and priorities of the sales ops team or the supply chain management organization. Or the manufacturing counsel or whatever that’s within your company.

Mark Settle:                  And so, if you’re in IT and somebody’s saying, “Well this is our highest priority.” Geez, I connect the dots, bubble it back to the paying customer and what they originally asked for, I think there’s a loss of signal to noise in the translation. And so, anything that you can do to expose yourself, I mean it could as simple as rotating people into the customer support center and just mike in and listen desk side to what some of the common problems are.

Mark Settle:                  And you may be solving problems that are exponentially more complicated and complex than what the paying customers are really asking for at the end of the day. But there’s no way you can even argue that point with the demands that are being placed on you by these difference operational teams, unless you arm yourself with that kind of knowledge and experience.

Mark Settle:                  So there’s no prescriptive formula for how to do this, it’s defined by the company, the business model and the way it interacts with its paying customers. But CIO’s need to really take a leadership role and find a wedge that can drive between the functional teams to get to the real world perspective of what the paying customers really want.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. I like how you pulled that out, because there are a couple of things to unpack there. One is the type of company. So being in a technology company like you are with Okta and being able to speak first hand to the person across the table. I mean, that’s the other piece to this, is you may actually have a relationship with that CIO that you’re sitting across the table with. You may know who they are ahead of time, it might not be someone’s that new to you.

Tim Crawford:               And so, of course that creates an implicit level of trust in the conversation. But the other thing is that lost in translation piece, especially for technology companies, I think is really key and valuable. But the piece that I really want to underscore, is what you said right there at the end, where the CIO needs to take that initiative to drive that wedge. It can’t be something that they’re invited to or asked about and they wait until that happens.

Tim Crawford:               They have to take that drive. And I think that’s something that we see a lot in our peers, that they’re sitting back and waiting and waiting and waiting and they’re going to be waiting for a while.

Mark Settle:                  So Tim, I haven’t patented this idea yet, so I’m going to want to put that out there as a placeholder basically. I’m getting my act together to do this. But many of the listeners have probably heard of a parlor game that folks called six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. And so, there’s a barrier that’s based on the principal that anybody in the entertainment business, the movie making business, can somehow connect the dots between other actors they’ve worked with and directors and writers, et cetera, and find easily six connections or less to get back to Kevin Bacon.

Mark Settle:                  And I’ve sometimes fantasized about making that a game for people in IT, to think about roles in IT or activities that are performed and try to connect the dots back to that paying customer. So, if you’re at the service desk and you’re supporting a sales person who’s calling with a laptop problem, who’s on his way or her way to a meeting with a customer, you’re two connections away from the customer.

Mark Settle:                  But there’d be many other jobs, if you were the server admin down in the data center, it would take a lot of leaps to get to the interface to the customer. And I think the way we generate value is to stay as close to that customer interface as possible and history has shown that the farther you are away from that interface, those roles, activities and responsibilities tend to get commoditized. They’re economies of scale that can be achieved by third parties that you’re not going to be able to achieve yourself.

Mark Settle:                  It’s a real equity or value that the IT functions providing is through the business systems analysts or people that are configuring platforms or daily updates to the e-comm system of whatever and the closer you get to that paying customer interface, I think it’s good for IT, it’s good for the company and then frankly it’s good for everybody’s personal job security.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. You know, I had moderated a couple of panel discussions last year talking about CIO’s engaging with customers. And one of the things that I kept hearing was that CIO’s, rather than being in front of the customer, would rely on reports as a means to understand the customer. And I wanted to shift the conversation to data, but before I do that, what’s your take on that? About relying on reports as opposed to in front of the customer?

Mark Settle:                  So I’ll build that out a little. So what kind of a report? Like a written memo or a document or a statistical analysis?

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, more of a statistical analysis of here’s the personas of customers that were engaging with either coming from marketing or coming from sales and then using that as the guidance to understand what the customer looks like.

Mark Settle:                  So I think personas are hugely valuable, largely because of the exercise that it takes to construct a persona and if that becomes an educational process or people better at corporation headquarters who have relatively limited interaction with the customers. So it obviously serves a purpose for directing marketing resources and determining the size of different teams you want to put in place to pursue sales opportunities with different types of companies and industries, et cetera.

Mark Settle:                  But I think the process of constructing that personas forces the headquarters team to really take much more seriously and much more focus away, to your point, who’s really buying the product at the end of the day, how do they think about the value that they’re obtaining with the product, et cetera.

Mark Settle:                  It’s in the absence of the persona framework, I think people can become pretty easily confused and they can mix and match different perspectives that the buyers may have and really just get unfocused, in terms of how to articulate their value proposition. So I think those are very important.

Tim Crawford:               Very good. So data. We hear about data’s the new oil. Is it the new oil? Where do you believe data and digital fit in as a whole?

Mark Settle:                  It’s funny you use that term oil. So I tend to think of data in two ways. So one is I think of it as a lubricant, there’s your oil analogy in routine business processes. And so, I think the challenge is how can I squirt the right data/information into a process like order fulfillment or stock management or health and safety, et cetera. What do people need to know at different stages of this process and can I supply it in a timely, consistent and accurate way.

Mark Settle:                  And it doesn’t have to be a lot of data, not tons of reports or anything like that. It could be really quite focused. So a data service, an incredibly valuable purpose if it can be mustered and delivered at the critical moment of utilization or engagement, whatever. And again, I don’t mean with customers, I mean even internally, you could have a 17 step process just to get the initial order just through the final invoice and receipt of payment type of thing.

Mark Settle:                  And so, if you can squirt some of the right data along the way, maybe that becomes a eight step process.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. Let me back up on that a little bit though, because I agree with you, but at the same time, doesn’t that require some level of understanding of what your business processes are in the first place? And I don’t mean just an individual business process, but how one ties to the next, ties to the next, so that you know which process is going to be most valuable to squirt that data into.

Mark Settle:                  That’s exactly right. But to your point, there’s a hierarchy process, that’s the beauty of this, is you can start small and practical and build out. Because I’m not talking about dashboards or dumping tons of data, logs or whatever, yeah it’s just having enough insight into the business process as you correctly point out. What are those critical three things that somebody should know at this stage before they provide a delivery data for this order or commit to this timetable.

Mark Settle:                  So that’s the one, but the other thing you would do, which to me is the other side of the coin, is more of the ad hoc kind of analysis. That you’re really trying to provide business insights that are going to be used to drive bigger decisions and possibly strategic initiatives.

Tim Crawford:               Which then sounds like a great entrée onto the CIO being able to get more involved in those conversations.

Mark Settle:                  Absolutely. And here’s a good illustration. So let’s say you and I were working for Sephora, tactically it might be important to know foot traffic versus time of day in all of our Manhattan locations and that might help us with product placement, et cetera. Then, the more strategic ad hoc kind of analysis might be, let’s look at the credit card information that was generated through sales on those same days and look at the demographics of who was buying once traffic got into the store, right.

Mark Settle:                  So separating those two things out, you might use traffic to drive product placement, particularly as you start discounting things towards the Christmas holidays and then you take a deep breath past the Christmas holidays and say like, who really bought our stuff this year and back to your personas, like what is the customer base and are we correctly presenting ourselves and marketing our capabilities and differentiating our products for that new rediscovered demographic base.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, and I wonder how much of the thinking start to shifts beyond just looking in the rear view mirror as to who has purchased and what they look like, but rather to say, why did they purchase that. So for example, maybe the weather was bad in Manhattan or maybe there were other external factors that drove, that could be economic, it could be social, it could be political. Have you ever thought about how that might come into the equation? It’s a pretty complicated question, right.

Mark Settle:                  But I think that kind of analysis is done on a much more regular basis. I think people would be surprised, I work for an organization who are one of the services that we provided was a return to market report for car buyers and the data that went into the analysis included exactly what you’re talking about, the zip code level or even a sub zip code level, census information about the economics of the zip code, the voting habits of the zip code were in there as well, number of children, weather conditions, price of gasoline over the period, the whole thing. And the service was purchased by the OEM’s, the people that build the cars and they would try to decide too, Mark always buys a Ford.

Mark Settle:                  And he’s done that for 20 years and every car he’s ever bought for himself, his wife or his kids has been a Ford. So why would Toyota want to worry, doing one to one marketing to Mark. But somebody may be going through a different stage in their life, the kids may have moved out, they have shown a proclivity to shop around and try different models, et cetera, et cetera, then that might merit a small investment of marketing dollars to try to get into the attraction or the interest of that individual.

Mark Settle:                  So I think a lot of that kind of analytics has been around. I think what happens is companies just don’t brag about it because they don’t want you to know what they’ve been up to.

Tim Crawford:               I mean, arguable it could be taken as a little big brother, I mean if you look at the number of public data sets that are available today on all of us, if you were truly to put it together, it would be pretty scary.

Mark Settle:                  There’s a perfect example of that. So over the weekend I listened to some old rock music on YouTube and as you would know Tim, our annual user group meeting is going to be held here in San Francisco next week. And so, when one of the YouTube recordings came up, I was invited to register for the conference. So somehow, YouTube knew that I had an interest in Okta ’19, though I don’t even want to think too long about how that association.

Tim Crawford:               Sounds good. Well speaking of technology, there is a lot of fast moving emerging technology that is plastered all over the place these days, right. We’re getting hit right, left and center. You mentioned Cloud and its 15 year journey. But of late, it’s been machine learning and AI. Where do these fit in, rather than where they fit in, what’s your take on these emerging technologies? How do approach it?

Mark Settle:                  I mean you’re always going to have to come back to the business benefit of the business value. All too often, and I don’t mean to impugn the utility of any particular technology, but Tim we’ve all been guilty way too many times of finding an interesting hammer that we found at the hardware store and then chasing around trying to find a problem or an egg we can break with the damn thing.

Mark Settle:                  We kind of lose sight of the problem that we’re trying to solve or problems that we’re trying to solve. I’m thinking of a story here that comes to mind of episodes in the past where I’d fallen in love and an organizations would try and pursue different agendas. Actually one of them in the not too distant past was around the use of AWS and I was working for a company that are very entrenched. So the data center capabilities and operations, large number of people that worked there, long standing relationships with strategic vendors.

Mark Settle:                  I managed to get a subset of the folks over there to go up to Seattle, to get a little training and exposure, I put the seeds in the ground and I watered them, but I just couldn’t get them to flower in the period of time that I was there. So technology doesn’t solve itself, you really got to go find that compelling business problem and this is another related story.

Mark Settle:                  So one time I was with one of the venture capital firms here in the Bay area and I passed the VC guy. A lot of these companies all sound exciting and they all got an interesting take on some new capability. So where do you see the ones that succeed and the ones that fail? Why is that because they all appeal at a certain level.

Mark Settle:                  And he says it’s pretty simple. He said, “What I see happen is, some of these startup companies, they latch on to maybe a big name prospect.” I’m going to make it up, Johnson and Johnson, Proctor and Gamble or whatever. So they’ll take 10 meetings in a row with that prospect, trying to convince them that their blockchain technology or their machine learning technology or their mobile technology will generate real benefits and needs to be purchased and adapted and utilized by that big name brand company.

Mark Settle:                  He said, “Those are the guys that fail. The ones that succeed is they have 10 separate meetings to try to find a problem that the blockchain technology can actually solve.” And so, rather than trying to force the big name company to come to the realization that a-ha, blockchain is great and I could use it to do this, you need to place your bets more strategically and just keep banging away at opportunities until you find one that has a problem that’s the right one for you to go off and solve.

Mark Settle:                  And unfortunately, when I reflected on that, I thought you know what, IT organizations do the same thing. People come back and much like I did in the organization I referenced before, I was convinced that AWS was going to be a significant strategic solution for us and dammit, I was going to force it down their throats one way or another, whether my own team thought it was cost effective or useful to do or whatever.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. It might have been because you were in Redman trying the data out.

Mark Settle:                  Well that’s true, yeah, that’s true.

Tim Crawford:               So as we wrap on the episode. So what excites you most about the CIO role today and IT as a whole. If you were to just say the top thing that comes to mind, what is that?

Mark Settle:                  I think business models change from much shorter time scales these days. That’s not true universally, I mean there are companies that are offering the same products today as they did 10 years ago, the way they sell it an make it and everything has probably changed and because IT is uniquely positioned to enable the revenue generating business processes, end to end, IT has a finger in every aspect of that, whether it’s the same product, but it’s being manufactured differently or being marketed differently or the customers have changed, the delivery mechanism has changed, phones are the current seed by which people are placing orders as opposed to sending something in the mail like they would have in the past, et cetera.

Mark Settle:                  I think it’s the change the pace of change. It’s kind of a trite answer, but a lot of times I ask people why they got into IT, they’ll tell me it’s because things change around here and that’s really true. So if you’re easily bored, IT is probably one of the best professions you can get into.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. Mark, thank you so much taking the time to be on today’s episode.

Mark Settle:                  Thank you Tim.

Tim Crawford:               Always great to chat with you and look forward to more conversations. We’ll leave it here, but hopefully we can have you back for another episode in the future.

Mark Settle:                  Super.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on the CIO In The Know podcast series, visit us online at or you can find us iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and Sound Cloud. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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