Enabling the millennial and Gen Z workforce with Wendy Pfeiffer


This week I’m joined by Wendy Pfeiffer who is the Chief Information Officer at Nutanix and the UC Berkeley 2019 Fisher CIO of the Year.

In this episode, Wendy shares her perspective on how IT and the role of the CIO is evolving. She talks about how she runs IT in a fishbowl and the impact to her personally. Wendy goes further to talk about the dramatic changes needed to support the millennial and Generation Z workforce of today and tomorrow. She discusses how they view technology as an extension and why they don’t think of it as technology. Lastly, I ask Wendy for her perspective on ‘software eating the world’. Her response: Software already ate the world.


Wendy Pfeiffer Twitter: https://twitter.com/wendympfeiffer

Wendy Pfeiffer LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wendypfeiffer/

Nutanix: https://www.nutanix.com/

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.

This week, I’m joined by Wendy Pfeiffer, who is the chief information officer at Nutanix, and the UC Berkeley 2019 Fisher CIO of the year.

In this episode, Wendy shares her perspective on how IT and the role of the CIO is evolving. She talks about how she runs IT in a fishbowl and the impact to her personally. Wendy goes further to talk about the dramatic changes needed to support the millennial and generation Z workforce of today and tomorrow. She discusses how they view technology as an extension, and why they don’t think of it as technology. Lastly, I ask Wendy for her perspective on software’s eating the world. Her response, software already ate the world.

Wendy, welcome to the program.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Tim Crawford:               Wendy, it’s always great to connect with you, and we’ve known each other for a number of years and we’ve shared the stage a number of times. And so I’m really glad that we could make the time work for you to join the podcast today.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Well, thank you for having me. I’m always learning new dimensions about you and your role in advocating and creating for the CIO community, so I’m delighted to take part in this.

Tim Crawford:               Well, you’re very kind. Why don’t we get started by telling us a little bit about who Nutanix is, and your role as the CIO there?

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yeah, absolutely. Nutanix makes an operating system that is capable of running on virtually any server hardware, is capable of running in virtually any public cloud. And it also runs almost every workload that you can imagine is certified. Everything from running SAP HANA certified, to running Zoom certified. What it does is it allows CIOs and IT organizations to make a varied set of choices about the vendors that we might want to purchase hardware from, or the public clouds that we might want to run in, or the software that we might want to run, without having to refactor our data centers or make significant new CapEx purchases, or buy our way out of ELAs.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            And so, that mixed mode that we operate in, that mixed ecosystem that we operate in, it’s an operating system that’s purpose built for that sort of hybrid cloud world.

And as the CIO at Nutanix, we are a publicly traded company, we’re roughly a billion and a half dollars in revenue. I run IT, I do all the normal things that a CIO would do. Because of the nature of our product and the business that we’re in, about half of my job is public facing. And essentially, I kind of operate IT in a fishbowl, and kind of make the things that we do…. We run on Nutanix’s operating system and we use all of the tools that Nutanix has instrumented that with. And so we make that visible to my peers and to peer IT organizations, and we showcase our mistakes and we showcase the cool things we’ve done. And I partner with lots of CIOs. I’ve probably talked to over 300, 400 CIOs individually so far this year.

Tim Crawford:               Wow.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            It’s a lot about just, how do we operate at scale, how do we operate in this hybrid cloud world? And just, personally I’ll say, up until this point in my career, I have not been a very public-facing person. I chose a tech career because I like to think that I sort of function low, but at least on the social EQ scale. But I’m not naturally a people person. This has been really different for me to be public facing, and also just kind of exposing how the sausage is made every day. In many cases, people who I’ve known and admired from afar. So, it’s been a great new skill.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. And I love hearing these examples of how each of us have changed personally. It’s more than just that technology has changed, but our roles have changed, who we are have changed. And so it’s important to kind of understand what that looks like. And so I kind of want to start there in our conversation a bit, and talking about how the role of the CIO has changed.

And from your perspective, how have you seen the role change, in terms of where it plays best and where it has played? Kind of that comparing and contrasting of where it’s going.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            First of all, I’ll say, I’m perhaps more well aware now than ever before of how my own perspective limits my ability to answer that question. Part of my answer relates to my own journey as an executive, and part of it relates to the industry as a whole.

I’ll start with the industry as a whole. I think the role of CIO was created out of a need for businesses to have a translator for technology. Businesses would need to accomplish something and they might need to implement technology in order to accomplish that. But the business leaders knew about business, not about technology, this newfangled thing. And likewise perhaps, there might be some technology that was in play in an industry or in a particular business, and that would need to be translated back to the business.

And so, starting with that role of being the interpreter, the translator, ultimately the enabler, I think there was a period of time, maybe a 20 year period of time, where the sheer utility of that function was what elevated technologists to this C-level role, this C-suite role.

However, then there was this part in the middle, up til, I’m going to say maybe five ish years ago, where society, executives, people, were much more familiar with technology either because of their business experiences, or because some of the advancements in technology like the Windows operating system, or Apple devices, so some of those consumer things. And so this role of translator or interpreter or almost the witch doctor who would go off and speak to the gods on our behalf. Like that, it wasn’t needed anymore.

And so although the title remained of CIO, the role was much more downstream. It wasn’t a seat at that C-suite table. The CIO didn’t have that same clout as like a CFO, but it was still responsible for doing technical things and operating technology.

As time passed, this I think led to things like a little more shadow IT. Anyone could implement technology, and as public cloud infrastructure and those capabilities more accessible, I think that role of the CIO was even more bifurcated.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            But then we got to this point, this interesting inflection point, where no matter the source of technology or technical capability, the operational efficiency and operational excellence and sort of the competitive advantage that comes from changing up a business model with digital technology, that began to be more important again.

And it began to be more important because once everyone was on that common playing field of being able to use all the amazing technologies in an… Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud, et cetera.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Once that was… That playing field was level, then that expertise on how to run and operate and go to market, and interaction design, and some of these other layers of capability and operational excellence, and integration, and cybersecurity, and all those things, those began to be differentiators again.

And as those became differentiators, if you look across the suite of executives who have those skills, well that leads you back to IT. Those have always been core functions and skills and tenets of how IT operated these things at scale. And so whether you’re operating public cloud, or a collection of SAS applications, or your own homegrown applications, or something that you developed from scratch uniquely for mobile devices, those underlying learnings and techniques and models around operating technology at scale began to be differentiators again. And so then that led to the rise of… The brief but awesome rise of the chief digital officer title. And you see some of those kind of imploding now, right?

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            The shorter term roles. And back to that CIO coming back to that corporate table and having a seat at that table, because the CIO is now speaking about technologies that combine operational capability with the ability to change a business model. Things like machine learning or blockchain that are inherently both things, they’re technologies, but they’re also marketplaces or business models in and of themselves.

Tim Crawford:               That’s an interesting way to look at it, is that history and also what’s happened during that period of time. And I don’t think many people understand or appreciate the changes that have happened outside of the IT organization, or the CIO’s role specifically.

I could maybe add one more component that I was thinking about as an IT leader in the probably 10 to 15 years ago timeframe, which is we had finally crossed the threshold where people entering the workforce were at a point in time where they may have had a computer in the home from birth.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yes, yeah.

Tim Crawford:               Prior to that, they didn’t have a computer in the home. But in that 10 years or so timeframe, that’s when we crossed that threshold. And I think that’s an interesting point because it leads to what you were talking about, of people being more comfortable with technology. They’re understanding technology. You don’t have to explain that that thing on the front of their computer is not a cup holder.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yes, yeah.

Tim Crawford:               And those of us that have been in IT long enough will understand that joke.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yeah, I read about it in books. I wasn’t actually alive then. Yeah.

Tim Crawford:               Of course. But my point is understanding that is incredibly important as we start talking about not just what I call the anthropology of IT, but also helping guide us on where we go from here and how we think about IT, and the importance of IT.

And so I want to kind of shift that a little bit into how the CIO is being involved in that process of how we work and the future of work. And I know you have some real interesting perspectives that I want folks to hear about, but you’re also doing some real interesting things in that space too. Maybe you can share your perspective on the future of work, and how this is all kind of tying together?

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yeah. Well I mean I think the future of work is bound up in two things. One, sort of autonomous work and also people. And so I want to talk about people first. When you think about work and you think about people working, people affect the nature of work. And I was looking at a study recently where it said that by the year… I believe it was 2026, 70% of the U.S. workforce will either be composed of millennials or gen Zers.

Tim Crawford:               Wow.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Right? So, we keep saying like, “Oh, the millennials are entering the workforce.” No, that was 10 years ago.

Tim Crawford:               That’s right.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Right? So, 70% of the workforce will be millennial or gen Z, six years from now basically. And so those are the people who are working, and they have really, really different characteristics than either the corporate structures of today, or the enterprise technology models of today.

For one thing, you hit on it just before. These are folks who have absolutely grown up with, and their entire existence has been augmented by technology on absolutely every level. Just things that even 20 years ago were difficult, are not even a thing anymore.

I remember traveling 20 years ago, and you’d land at the airport, and you’d go to the rental car counter, and they would pull out a flimsy map, and give you an inaccurate pencil drawing of how to get from there to your hotel. That doesn’t even exist anymore. You use your mobile device for that. And by the way, you’d just call a Lyft or an Uber, and there’s so many things that have just dramatically transformed with technology, that this external consumer technology that has augmented 70% of the workforce’s lives, they expect that same augmentation at work.

And at its core, this consumer technology is highly personalized, and it’s extremely private in many ways as well. You look at kids today. I’ve got a 14 year old and a 12 year old, and they don’t ask me to drive places to get together with friends on the weekend. They don’t ask… They don’t want to go outside and play. Right? Because they’re having their social interaction with their real life friends, but in these technology-augmented environments. That sort of thing… Those are the people who will be the workers.

And so for example, there’s no need for them to come to a particular location to work. People who are building rich social lives completely online, why would they need to sit around a table for a meeting?

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Right? There’s so many things that are different, but it’s all… It’s highly personalized. It’s much more private. And then there’s this… There’s a different sort of thing about loyalty, and that imbues everything.

As an example, if I’m using my mobile phone and I’ve… I don’t know, I’m using Twitter. I don’t say like, “Well, I’ve chosen Twitter as my standard, so I don’t do any other social networking.” Like how illogical is that? I use Facebook, I use LinkedIn, I use a range of tools. And I know… I choose when to use them, and how to use them, even though every one of them is social networking.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            But inside of corporations, we say, “Oh, well our standard, our hardware is this. Our collaboration platform is that.” Well, that will be… Already that’s unnatural, but that will be unintelligible by 2026 to this workforce. Right?

And so at a minimum, we can look ahead to the future of work by looking at our mobile devices and how applications and social interaction and communication and development happens there. And say at a minimum, five or six years from now, 70% of our workforce will have been acculturated and socialized to work that way. And so we have to support that.

And then secondly, in that consumer world, there is so much more diversity, different work styles, different choices of applications and interaction design and hardware, different locations, different languages and nationalities. And all you got to do is go online and play Forza, or play Fortnite, and look at the international assemblage of people who are interacting in quite complex ways around these applications. And that’s how we’re training this workforce, right?

We have to be on every level, six years from now, diverse reflections of the human beings who will be engaging and doing the work and creating the productive things that move our companies forward. We have to ensure that we’re taking advantage of the ways that they work that are most productive. And so, this requires us to think differently, to open our minds, to search differently. I have so many amazing examples of this.

For example, I’m going to give you two really quick.

Tim Crawford:               Okay.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            One, I needed a data center manager and I received a resume from a guy who was a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic. And I said to myself, “Wow, like what a stretch. Like I got to admire the guy’s ego, but he’s a mechanic. Why on earth?” Right?

But he was a veteran and I thought, “Okay, well I’m at least… I’m going to give him… I’ll give him an interview, and I’ll give him the benefit of my wisdom and my feedback.” Right?

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            With all of my pride intact, I got ahold of this guy. I learned something. The Black Hawk helicopter actually is the world’s most complex network, as in IT style network. The entire thing runs on software, and the job of the mechanic is to administer and engineer the network.

Tim Crawford:               Interesting.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            I ended up hiring this guy, who had two great skills. One, he had battle-tested network engineering and administration skills, if you can imagine, right?

Tim Crawford:               Literally.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            He literally. And he had leadership ability. He had the ability to communicate and work in teams.

Tim Crawford:               That’s brilliant.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            And so I discovered that veterans are this diverse, untapped source of talent for us in technology. And what we have to do is we have to see that talent where it lies. We have to do our own translating.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Another great example, I participated in an internship program. I was guilted into this thing by some colleague of mine, and it was working with underserved minorities and groups, kids basically who had just graduated from high school, and were interested in these internships because they didn’t… They weren’t interested in going on to college. They wanted to do sort of low level tech jobs.

And so I kind of was guilted into this thing and I said, “Okay, I’ll take one intern.” And I thought to myself, “My gosh, I’m going to have to babysit this person.” And this amazing young woman showed up. She was just as disgusted as I was, and she kind of gave me the eye roll and said, “I’m not technical, I really don’t do anything technical. I don’t know anything technical. I’ve done babysitting. I got my high school diploma, but I don’t really know why I’m here. My mom wanted me to do this.” Right?

Tim Crawford:               Okay.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            So, all right. Like both of us were disgusted with each other, but neither one of us could get out of the trap.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            We’re like, “Okay.” “Well,” I said, “I’ll have you do filing things and whatever.” Right? And then I noticed in the first week she was really distracted by her mobile phone. And so at some point I was going to give her this lecture on like, “You can’t have your mobile at work, blah, blah, blah.” Right?

And I said, “What are you doing?” And she said, “Oh, well, I built this like Facebook app, I’m connecting people with these things they’re interested in, and blah, blah, blah.” And she shows me, so she’s running this top 1,000 Facebook website that she built using the Facebook tools. She’s getting a small fee for these connections she’s making, and it’s for marching bands. Okay?

Tim Crawford:               Interesting.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Kids in marching bands who needs uniforms or shoes or whatever, but can’t afford it.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yeah.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            But that was not technical.

Tim Crawford:               Wow.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            That wasn’t technical for her. That wasn’t technical. Because that wasn’t… Like technology is that old school thing, where you have to go to a desk, and there’s a work… But this was just like Facebook and her mobile phone and like an app.

Tim Crawford:               Interesting.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            And so I learned, right? Tapping into these influencers, these people who are creating these YouTube sites and these Facebook things, like all these things, they are consummate users of technology, and they’ve done so many creative things, and principled things, and interesting things all in this sort of gig economy mode.

And so I point to those two people and I say… She went on to run web operations. She ended up going to George Washington University.

Tim Crawford:               Oh, wow. Wow.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            But it’s that transformative power of technology that people who will be working in our companies six, ten years from now, they’re using it naturally, as an extension of them, the same way that maybe you and I thought about a car. Like the car is almost like an extension of me as I go to work, as I go places. But I’m also… It’s kind of my identity. I have a certain kind of car, I take care of it a certain way. Maybe I might’ve dated a boy for his car at one point. Right?

And so you’re attracted to people because of that. Like this is that. Consumer tech is that for people. It’s an extension of them. They are not even thinking of it as technical, that’s our workforce. That’s the workplace of the future. It’s these people and how they are using technology to do things, to interact, to work.

Tim Crawford:               And something that you brought up, Wendy, that I want to emphasize in a slightly different way, which is we as CIOs, as IT leaders, as developers of technology, as vendors of enterprise technology, we have to think differently about how we approach the tools that we use, the tools that we develop, how we engage with our teams, how we organize, how we mentor, how we lead, how we manage, how we organize the team itself in terms of diversity in thought. It’s more than just, hey, how do we start to evolve and make these incremental improvements? What you’re talking about is, and this is kind of the bow I want to put on this, you’re talking about a demonstrably very different way that organizations function and operate because the way that people, individuals are functioning and operating and engaging with technology is dramatically changing. And I-

Wendy Pfeiffer:            It’s… Yeah. It’s so different than the bubble that we exist in inside of enterprises. And at the end of the day, the CIO will only be valuable to a company if the CIO is doing what we’ve always been supposed to do, which is enabling our companies, enabling our people to be as productive as possible, enabling our companies to be as efficient as possible, enabling that transformation. And that starts with us enabling the people. If the technology that we’re delivering on a desktop in an office, is not as performance and flexible, and frankly complex and diverse and delightful and interactive as the technology that the person was using in their Lyft on the way to the office-

Tim Crawford:               Sure. In their personal lives.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yeah. Then we are actually doing the opposite. Then we are making people less productive, less engaged, less delighted. And so, the change we need is not evolutionary, right? It’s revolutionary. CIOs need a revolutionary change of thinking. We can’t… Like nobody can have that within their own self by themself. We have to open ourselves up, we have to seek others. We have to expose ourselves to people from different cultures and different backgrounds and with different ways of thinking and different opinions, because it’s… Like that’s kind of, painfully, the fastest way we learn.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. I mean diversity is a strength, not a weakness. But, yeah.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            It is. It is in any ecosystem for sure. Right?

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, yeah.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            I mean a few species die off, but the rest do pretty well. Right?

Tim Crawford:               That’s right. We only have a couple of minutes left in the episode, but I would be remiss in not asking you about your perspective with some of these emerging technologies. Maybe we could do like a lightning round of a couple of concepts. Software’s eating the world, so where does software come in? And then maybe some emerging technology around cloud ML, AI. Just quickly your quick thoughts.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            I think that 10 years ago to run software or to run hardware, you needed incredibly specialized vendor-specific skills and you needed people to do those things. Operating systems, starting with the way, if you remember the first Apple Lisa.

Tim Crawford:               I read about it.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Yeah. Yeah, perfect. Or the command line, the command line prompt went away.

Tim Crawford:               That’s right.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            And you had to interact with it visually, right? Since that advent of things, software already ate the world, right? That was software doing those interactions. That same kind of utility and ease of use and naturalness, and frankly a complexity of interaction can now be had with our infrastructure. And so that’s the last piece of the puzzle. But in every other instance, whether it’s how our car runs, or how our refrigerator runs, or how public cloud runs, software already ate the world. It already happened. That’s how we interact with everything now.

Tim Crawford:               And if we were doing a video right now, that would be the mic drop, software ate the world.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Awesome. End of the day I want the machine to do the rote tasks that we needed people to do 10 or 15 years ago. I want the machine to do the programming for those old school systems that don’t already have that software interface. I want machine learning tools and robotic process automation, and so on. I want that to take care of those tasks, because as people we’ve evolved beyond that, and we are interested in these delightful interaction designs. We’re interested in these mash up of ideas and technologies and tools that are frankly beyond the capability of the machine, but we won’t be freed up to work on those things and engage in those things unless we give those rote tasks to the machine that is well suited to do them.

Tim Crawford:               Sounds like a great place to pause the episode, but just your quick take on is it really the best time to be in IT?

Wendy Pfeiffer:            I think it is, if you’re open, and if you’re interested in this moment in time, then it’s the most interesting time ever to have been in IT. Informed by history and with hope for the future.

Tim Crawford:               I completely agree. And Wendy, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your perspective on the future of work and how the workforce is changing, and the role of the CIO. It’s been an incredible discussion, thank you.

Wendy Pfeiffer:            Thank you, Tim.

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

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