Creating value where people and tech intersect with Sharon Mandell

This week I’m joined by Sharon Mandell, the Chief Information Officer for Juniper.

In our discussion, Sharon shares her perspective on how business is changing and how the role of IT is changing alongside of it. She discusses how she views digital transformation as a continuous improvement process versus a project. Sharon talks about the changes we are all facing and how AI can help alleviate some of the pressure. Lastly, she discusses how she views technical debt and the risk associated with it.

Podcast Episode

Links

Sharon Mandell Twitter: https://twitter.com/sharonomink

Sharon Mandell LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharon-mandell-juniper/

Juniper Networks: http://www.juniper.net/

Transcript

Tim Crawford:

Companies are looking for new ways to transform their business to remain relevant and differentiated within their industry. Technology now plays a central role in this transformation.

Tim Crawford:

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

Tim Crawford:

This week, I’m joined by Sharon Mandell, the Chief Information Officer for Juniper. In our discussion, Sharon shares her perspective on how business is changing and how the role of IT is changing alongside of it. She discusses how she views digital transformation as a continuous improvement process versus a project. Sharon talks about the changes we’re all facing and how AI can alleviate some of the pressure. Lastly, she discusses how she views technical debt and the risk associated with it.

Tim Crawford:

Sharon, welcome to the program.

Sharon Mandell:

Hi Tim. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tim Crawford:

Well, I’m glad that we get a chance to chat and I think there’s some real interesting perspectives that you’re going to bring to this conversation. But to start us off, so Sharon Mandell you’re the Chief Information Officer at Juniper, maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your role there as CIO.

Sharon Mandell:

Sure. I have a long history of being both a CIO and a CTO. Started out as a software engineer, found myself in the media industry, and I have been on the product development side of things as well as on the IT and operations side of the house. For the last 10 years or so, being out here in Silicon Valley, I have an MBA from the University of Chicago, I’m really interested in how the business works and operates, and so I think I’ve landed in the CIO role in technology companies because it feeds both sides of my brain. It lets me be close to engineers and technology and exciting things evolving on that front, but I also have what I say is the best front row seat to how a business works or doesn’t as the case may be when you’re in the CIO chair.

Tim Crawford:

That’s great. That kind of keys right into one of the questions I wanted to get your thoughts on, which is when we think about everything that’s changing, especially in the last year, year and a half, what’s your take on how businesses are changing and their need to transform?

Sharon Mandell:

Sure. I think to begin with we were already on a path of everything in the world is happening faster, that velocity change, increased use of technology was driving dramatic business change. What we layered on top of that with the pandemic was suddenly how we went about gathering together to make those things happen, get completely turned inside out. I think different businesses were at different levels of preparedness to handle that at different levels of tooling to facilitate that.

Sharon Mandell:

While we thought that it was wow, a lot of work to make sure that we got everybody productive, kept them productive and we’ve even seen, obviously increased levels of productivity, now we’re thinking about how to come back. I really think it’s made us completely rethink how and where work gets done while we’re still dealing with those accelerations that were going on just as the ongoing evolution of how use of internet technology, cloud technology has changed how companies deliver their products and services, as well as what customers expect from businesses because of the consumer applications on their mobile phones that they use in their everyday life has really driven almost every business to rethink what it means to deliver a customer experience.

Tim Crawford:

Yeah, it seems like there are two aspects, I guess, to that. There’s the internally focused one. We all went home and worked from home. And now, as you mentioned, trying to figure out how do we go back or what pieces go back or what pieces don’t go back. But then there’s also that customer piece that has changed too in terms of maybe mobile apps or just how customers engage with us has demonstrably evolved. I’m curious if you’ve seen some changes there too.

Sharon Mandell:

Well, I really think, and I felt this way for some time, seven to 10 years ago I came out of the consumer internet side of the house and the media space, which I think led with a lot of online experience, and when I went to work as a CIO for the first time in a while, it was stark how the experience of an employee was different than at the office than what they did at home. Then the ease with which people could bring tools into the office that had a more consumer feel. Take a Slack for an example, transforming how collaboration is done and how work can get done.

Sharon Mandell:

What I really think drove this change in customer experience is sort of from the outside in that’s [inaudible 00:05:46]. Then you start to try to think about that for your employees, but you’re also thinking about it for your customers because they are coming to your contact with the same expectations of, I want to engage in the way that best suits me to solve this business transaction or this business dialogue or this business purchase.

Sharon Mandell:

I think that B2C companies got on it pretty quickly. B2B companies have lagged. But I don’t think I, as a CIO, look at how I engage with my vendors in the business world a whole lot differently than how I decide to purchase a new product for my home that’s a considerable purchase. I want to do research. I want to be able to ask questions sometimes on the phone, sometimes through a chat window, sometimes more as me, sometimes more anonymously. I think businesses realizing that if it’s going to serve all businesses, realizing if it’s going to serve its customers well they have to engage in the way customers want to engage.

Sharon Mandell:

This all tied back for me to when I was watching the transformation of television to more streaming technology and people would say, “Oh, this is how people want to watch TV.” I think everybody wants to engage with things in their own unique, personal way, and you’re not going to be able to predict who and how many they are so you better be where they’re going to show up to make things easy for them.

Tim Crawford:

Right. That requires some forethought in change, as you mentioned, within the organization. Often we talk about this in this context of this thing called digital transformation. Does that fit into this conversation, and where does the CIO fit into that shift?

Sharon Mandell:

Sure. I think that digital transformation sounds like a one-time event. The reality is what you see about digital is the work is continuous and you will kind of rise to the current set of expectations, but almost by the time you get there, there’s some new innovation, there’s some new change, there’s some new way of thinking about engagement or how to deliver a product. You might be on the leading end of that sometimes and have to bring the rest of the business with it. Sometimes you’re catching up with your competitors. I think we have to get away from the concept of this sort of project that begins and ends and has a depreciation and has a time window and a life because I think that this movement is continuous.

Sharon Mandell:

I relate to that from my background as a dancer of you’re never good enough. You’re always having to continually evolve and improve. I think in many ways in companies people get used to processes being done a certain way, and the technology almost becomes the physical representation of that process. You have to have both an adaptable workforce that can evolve along with tooling and talent to move the technology they use along, because if it sits in place too long you get your company stuck in certain places.

Tim Crawford:

Sure. But arguably this is not new. We’ve had to evolve our organization, evolve our technology as our company has changed and our business has changed and extensively our customers have changed. What’s different this time?

Sharon Mandell:

I think a couple of things are different. I think the velocity and the pace is different. I also believe that previously because the technology was so mysterious to people, it happened at the center and worked its way out. And now I would argue that it almost happens at the edge and the center has to catch it on its momentum and take it forward, because when you sit in a service role, you’re focused on scale, repeatability, security, efficiency, you’re not necessarily the subject matter expert. I think often the ideas form at the edge where the people are meeting the technology, but they’re not best equipped given their skill sets to make it repeatable, reliable, performant, secure. So you kind of have to strike a balance with your business partners where you’re close enough to them to catch those things before they become unmanageable, but yet be able to bring them into that kind of scalability swim lane and connectivity between that thing that’s coming from the edge and how it’s going to engage with other parts of the business.

Sharon Mandell:

I always think of IT as the connective tissue or the fascia where things are inherently cross-functional. I think today people are getting pretty tech savvy and if something was truly functional or departmental and it didn’t have to touch anywhere else, what value do we really add to that in a SAS world where the capability is delivered pretty well probably by a number of competitors.

Tim Crawford:

Just go swipe your card and off to the races you go, right?

Tim Crawford:

Sharon, you talk about the edge and you talk about how people are becoming more tech savvy. We hear this term of customer engagement coming up, and as customers have changed and especially over this last period of time, how are you thinking about that involvement or the importance of customer engagement in what you do and where you fit into that and how’s that evolving for you?

Sharon Mandell:

Yeah. There’s probably a number of facets of this. There’s how the CIO serves the internal customer or enables the internal customer to create really that end customer engagement. I’m always telling my team to empathize with the people who are going to use, because at the end of the day, there’s always humans on the other end of technology. Well, maybe not always. Maybe you’re [crosstalk 00:12:18] you’re only talking to [crosstalk 00:12:19]. But at the end of the day, I have a belief that value is really created where the people meet the technology.

Sharon Mandell:

I always try to think about what is it like for the person who’s engaging with what I delivered rather than did I deliver the checklist of items I thought I was responsible to deliver. You can deliver things that meet requirements, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re really making it easier for them to do the job or deliver the outcome that they came to you with the technology they need to deliver.

Sharon Mandell:

I think empathy is a huge part of being a strong IT person. I also think I’m an enterprise technology customer in a company that delivers enterprise technology. In my role at Juniper, I try to be the voice of a customer. When I hear us saying things about customers, and often they’re talking about people like yourself, myself, our peers that we talk to all the time, when I think they’re getting it wrong, even if it’s not my domain expertise, I feel an obligation to speak up and to try to represent our community to them, to be that voice of the customer in-house as people have ideas about how to best serve.

Tim Crawford:

That’s great. Especially when you’re in a business that is selling to organizations that are within the CEO’s framework, I think that makes a lot of sense and being that voice of the customer.

Tim Crawford:

You mentioned about technology, and I want to kind of shift gears a little bit and ask you about something that has come up in past conversations. I think there’s a lot of confusion, a lot of marketing, a lot of opportunity around this term of artificial intelligence. As we think about those opportunities to leverage AI, what are you learning as you go down that path and kind of tease apart the pieces?

Sharon Mandell:

Yeah. I first think about it in the way if there are, again, things machines are really good at; scale, consistency, delivering at a rate of quality, speed, being able to handle simultaneous complexity, and there are things humans are really good at. When I think about AI, which today is primarily machine learning and not necessarily intelligence the way we think of human intelligence, I think there’s certain things the machine is really good at; answering questions that have been asked and answered many, many times before recognizing patterns to predict what a reasonable solution to a problem might be. Automation; recognizing a series of steps and being able to put it together over and over and over again, which is often very tedious for smart thinking people. I think of AI as being able to take away some of the tedium or being able to handle tasks that people wouldn’t be good at doing very fast. That frees us up to do the things that we’re really good at, which are creativity, communication, connectedness, engagement.

Sharon Mandell:

That’s how I like to think about AI and where the positives of it can come. Now it also creates challenges because not everybody is creative or high order thinkers, and how do we take advantage of those skills too where maybe what they’re doing is the same as what machines can do. I think those are the questions we’re going to have to think about in terms of training workforces of the future.

Tim Crawford:

I like how you’ve kind of teased apart the fact that there is AI and then there’s machine learning and we’ve used analytics as well in there. The point is there’s this continuum that takes place and intelligence kind of is part of that. Maybe cognitive being another aspect that might get you more toward AI. Is there a concern that comes from using AI too when you think about where it fits in or how you might deploy it or where you might find value from it?

Sharon Mandell:

I think there are concerns. On the one hand we use it in our daily lives through many of the apps and many of the things we do and we don’t even think about it. In other ways, where are the data sets coming from? Who’s curating the datasets? Who’s making sure there isn’t bias in data sets where those decisions that might be made by a machine instead of a person who has empathy? Do we make bad decisions that have implications for society? If I’m using AI to look at a set of resumes, I need to make sure that the models that they’re based on don’t bias in a certain way. As a woman in technology and being on the small end of the spectrum, are the algorithms that are being built? If they all come from people who look a certain way, we’re going to lose a lot of diversity.

Sharon Mandell:

I think that there are many concerns that we have to work through. On the other hand, there are so many things where it’s so obviously adding value now, we’ve got to keep progressing forward like we have with technology in the past.

Tim Crawford:

As we keep progressing forward and thinking about what we leave behind technical debt often comes up as part of that conversation. From your perspective, how do you think about, or how do you manage that? How do you strategize around technical debt? It seems like such a challenging space for folks to navigate through. How do you think about it?

Sharon Mandell:

I ultimately think of growing technical debt … and we talked about it a little bit of does it get you stuck in the past? Does it become the boat anchor around your ankle that prevents you from taking advantage of the new things that do drive that velocity that’s needed to be competitive? I think the way I try to channel it in a company is to relate the technical debt to enterprise risk that may be incurred. As you think about how you prioritize your projects or you prioritize your technology investments, everybody’s energy is always towards the things that drive growth and revenue, but you need to balance that equation always with mitigating your risk, because the more of the growth and revenue you have, the more you have to lose if you don’t manage the risk.

Sharon Mandell:

We use OKRs at Juniper to drive our priorities. Most of those are around the growth aspects and the revenue aspects and the market share aspects, but we equally have an enterprise risk management program. And so when people come to me and say, “Well, we’d like you to invest your dollars and people into this problem,” the first question is, “Is it helping an OKR?” If not, the second question is, “Is it reducing enterprise risk?” Tech debt gets built into there as well as does security. Obviously you have to comply with the law and regulations. If you’re not answering one of those questions, well, then you take a further place in the back of the line.

Sharon Mandell:

The challenge for the CIO goes, is when there’s more ideas around revenue and growth, then they take up all the air in the room and you completely forget about risk. And unfortunately, as a CIO, you have that role of having to bring the bad news to people and you have the responsibility to educate them and balance that … be that someone’s sitting on someone else’s shoulder saying you’ve got to pay attention here. You’ve got to pay attention here.

Tim Crawford:

Yeah. It’s not all roses. There are a few thorns along the way.

Sharon Mandell:

Exactly. Well, hey, if this job was easy they wouldn’t need us to do it.

Tim Crawford:

That’s true. That’s true. Well, Sharon, we’re going to have to leave it right there. Appreciate your time today and joining the podcast.

Sharon Mandell:

I really had a good time being here and would love to talk to you again.

Tim Crawford:

For more information on the CIO In the Know podcast, visit us online at ciointheknow.com. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcast. Please subscribe and thank you for listening.

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