IT has become more critical to delivering value and impacting business outcomes, and Shehzad Merchant, CTO at Gigamon, shares his thoughts on IT's changing role.
By Patrick K. Burke
IT is undergoing a fundamental transformation, and during this change CIOs are expected to implement mobility, cloud and BYOD initiatives while shoring up their organization’s security. IT departments are now being driven by business needs as well, and the CIO’s seat at the executive round table has never been so critical to a company’s success. Shehzad Merchant, CTO of Gigamon, discusses with CIO Insight the changing role of the CIO, the growing complexity of networks and the challenges ahead for today’s tech leaders.
CIO Insight: As Chief Technology Officer at Gigamon, what is your No. 1 priority?
Shehzad Merchant: Cloud, mobility and consumerization of IT are fundamentally changing the business landscape as well as forcing IT transformation. As enterprises look to migrate to this next generation of business infrastructure, they are challenged by the increasing complexity of securing and managing that transition. My primary focus is to drive innovation in technology solutions that significantly simplify securing and monitoring networks and managing this move to next generation business infrastructure.
CIO Insight: As networks become more complicated, and more processes are virtualized, does this make it more difficult for IT to pinpoint a problem if and when one occurs?
Merchant: Yes, absolutely. As networks become more complex, and as applications move to a hybrid cloud model, not only does it become increasingly difficult to pinpoint a problem, but it also becomes increasingly difficult to ensure comprehensive security, or to deliver a consistent end-to-end user experience. This is driving a growing need for solutions that can monitor, manage and secure not just the network infrastructure, but also the applications and services that are delivered over that infrastructure.
What is also interesting is that today the network is the primary medium that spans the physical, virtual and cloud worlds. Consequently, looking into network traffic is becoming the primary avenue for achieving end-to-end visibility. This is giving rise to a variety of tools that examine network traffic for security, application performance monitoring and customer experience management. However, all of these tools are now contending for access to traffic from similar points in the network, and are also challenged by the rising volume of network traffic and increasing use of encryption, which creates blind spots for these tools. In order to create a scalable, cost-effective and simplified traffic delivery model for all these tools, a visibility fabric is fast becoming the preferred approach to traffic-based visibility. A visibility fabric delivers traffic from the network to the array of tools that use network traffic to monitor and manage security, application performance and the end-to-end customer experience. Several key functions, such as decryption of encrypted traffic, can be offloaded and centralized within the visibility fabric so that the tools can function effectively and provide the most accurate analysis and data back to IT administrators, as well as to the CIO dashboards.
CIO Insight: How do you segment your workday?
Merchant: A significant portion of my time goes into understanding where the business of technology is going to be 2-3 years down the road, understanding the challenges this will create, and trying to address those challenges with innovative technology solutions. I spend a lot of time with customers to understand their strategic IT needs and roadmap, and I spend a lot of time with chip vendors and software technology vendors to understand where their roadmaps are going to be in 2-3 years. I also spend time working with standards organizations, and a significant chunk of my time internally focused within the company to ensure our own technology strategy and roadmap align with where the industry is heading. I’d say my time is equally divided amongst these activities.
CIO Insight: Some CIOs I've spoken to don't believe there is much of a disconnect between IT and business, yet surveys seem to indicate CIOs and tech leaders are expected to become more involved in the business side of things. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Merchant: IT is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Whereas traditionally IT was viewed as a cost and productivity function designed to support the employee base, in today’s digital, online and on-demand world, IT has become more critical to delivering value and impacting business outcomes. Companies are moving critical business functions such as order processing, support, billing and customer communication among others to an online model; marketing increasingly is leveraging digital, social media and other online assets, and there’s a growing use of cloud and SAAS-based application delivery models, meaning IT is being increasingly driven by business needs, business demands and business requirements. Consequently, the role of IT has evolved from that of a supporting organization to one that is a business enabler and business driver. That is a fundamental shift. As a result, CIOs now have to think in terms of how IT can enable business velocity and the role they play as an equal partner at the executive round table.
Clearly this comes with a set of challenges as well. Due to business productivity’s growing dependence on IT, there is an increasing expectation for CIOs and IT business heads to provide and track KPIs that impact business velocity. Additionally, in the face of all the recent cyber-security breaches, there is a growing need for and scrutiny on CIOs to fundamentally rethink their security models and respond more quickly to cyber-threats and breaches. All of this is driving CIOs to have clear, insightful and relevant visibility into business-critical IT infrastructure at their fingertips.
CIO Insight: Would you consider this an exciting time to head up an IT department?
Merchant: I can’t think of a more exciting time to be in IT. As I mentioned, IT is becoming a critical business function. Simultaneously, there are secular shifts such as mobility, cloud and BYOD that are all driving IT transformation. The move to cloud is changing cost models from capex to opex models. Mobility and BYOD are driving increased productivity. Companies are increasingly leveraging a global workforce across all organizational boundaries, with IT serving as a key enabler. These are once-in-a-generation type transformations, taking place right in front of us. And IT is at the heart of all of these. Again, the challenges and demands on IT are also growing. From managing security, to ensuring great end-to-end customer experiences, the demands made of IT are growing significantly. Consequently, the use of new, innovative technologies that give IT immediate and continuous visibility into business critical infrastructure are also growing. All of this makes for some very exciting times to be in IT and to head up IT.
CIO Insight: If you could offer advice to CIOs or other tech leaders, what would that be?
Merchant: Given how rapidly the IT industry is transforming, I think two aspects seem to rise to the forefront. First is that CIOs have to increasingly think of themselves as being business leaders, i.e., they have to think strategically about where the business is going, what the business drivers and requirements are going to be, and how IT can play the role of a business driver and enabler.
The second is to regularly carve out some time to understand some of the fundamental technology shifts in play today and how they are going to impact the business of IT. Several of these shifts, if not planned for or anticipated, will create challenges in security as well as performance and user experience. However, if these shifts are planned for they can become powerful drivers for significantly enhancing productivity and driving operational efficiencies. At the core of the success of these technology shifts will be the ability to gain continuous and pervasive visibility throughout these technology transitions. Planning for these and taking a structured, scalable approach for pervasive visibility will be increasingly critical to the success of business-critical IT today and in the future.
CIO Insight: What was your first job?
Merchant: My first job was at a company called SRI International, which is a think tank and R&D organization based out of the Bay area. I was involved in doing work in the area of policy-based routing in the Internet. It was a fascinating time to be in this space as it was the early days of the World Wide Web and there was tremendous innovation in the area of networking and communications.
CIO Insight: If not technology, what field could you see yourself in?
Merchant: I am a technologist at heart. I think I will always be involved with technology, innovation and the business of technology.
CIO Insight: Technology has added many complicated layers to communications, social interactions, work procedures and many other aspects of our work lives and personal lives. Do you feel IT has a responsibility to simplify some of the noise that comes with the territory in this new digital world?
Merchant: I think the role of IT is to enable and empower the adoption of new technologies that can increase business agility, increase operational efficiencies and simplify the business lifecycle. Ultimately, it comes down to the user to strike the right balance between work and life. IT should enable people to make that decision, not make that decision for them.
CIO Insight: Can you think of an instance at work that you are particularly proud of?
Merchant: I try to enjoy each at work to its fullest, but I must say I get the maximum satisfaction when any technology or solution that we develop is embraced by our customers and they in turn endorse that solution to other customers. Those tend to be the most satisfying moments.
Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.