IT's Shift From Service Provider to Business Partner

By Peter High  |  Posted 03-08-2016 Print Email

The CIO of the largest public retirement system in Texas juggles many responsibilities, which include serving as a business leader and a sounding board.

Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) is the largest public retirement system in Texas in both membership and assets. It is the sixth largest public pension plan in the U.S. and is among the 20 largest in the world. The agency serves more than 1.4 million people--1,081,505 are public and higher education members, and 377,738 are retirement recipients. System net assets total approximately $128.5 billion. As CIO, Chris Cutler oversees and provides strategic direction for the use of technology and information resources that enables TRS to successfully fulfill its mission. As Cutler tells CIO Insight contributor Peter High, he wears many hats: business leader, technology evangelist, business partner, recruiter, change agent and bridge builder.

Peter High: Please describe your role as CIO of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.

Chris Cutler: As CIO, I wear many hats. These hats include: business leader, technology evangelist, business partner, recruiter, change agent and bridge builder.

Business Leader

As a business leader I serve as a member on the TRS Executive Council. The TRS Executive Council is comprised of C-suite executives and led by our executive director. This council provides guidance to the executive director and makes final decisions on overall corporate policies and directions.

Technology Evangelist
As technology evangelist, I am responsible for educating the Executive Council and our business leaders on the technology and services IT provides and how they can best leverage our offerings. This role also includes marketing the value of IT and building support for future technology initiatives.

Business Partner
IT is a business enabler, providing secure and highly available technology solutions that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of TRS and our members. As such, it's my job to ensure IT is seen by our individual business areas as a true business partner, not just simply a service provider. IT needs to truly understand the business of TRS and be proactive in helping solve business problems and recommend innovations that move our business forward.

The most important asset an IT division has is its people. This may sound a bit cliché, but it is true--especially in IT. As CIO, it's my job to promote the TRS IT Division both internally and externally as well as to actively seek out individuals who would make good additions to our team. Also, just as important, is demonstrating the leadership, vision and support needed to keep the great employees we already have.

Change Agent 
The one thing that is certain in IT is it's going to change. Many times these technology changes have a significant impact on the rest of the business and/or provide an opportunity for improving efficiency. As such, the CIO often finds himself or herself in the position of change agent, promoting and leading enterprise projects that bring about significant shifts in the organization.

Bridge Builder
Finally, as CIO I have a unique view into the varying business units and their cultures. This gives me a unique perspective on how the business runs, how it communicates and how decisions are made. This also provides opportunities to build strong business relationships within the different business areas. With this knowledge and relationships, I can often be a catalyst in helping build bridges and achieve understandings across the different business areas when conflicts arise.

High: How is your team structured?

Cutler: The IT Division is structured in somewhat of a hybrid model, organized in part by technology expertise and specific business support. The core areas are IT Governance and Planning, Information Systems Architecture, Information Security, Information Systems Delivery and Support, IT Operations, and Client Services and Support.

High: Can you offer some insights into your strategic priorities for the year ahead?

Cutler: Our core focus over the next few years is a core legacy modernization program that we call TEAM (TRS Enterprise Application Modernization). TEAM is actually 10 separate but related project initiatives that include replacing our mainframe-based CRM and ERP systems with modern distributed-based systems built on Web- and mobile-based application platforms. We are in year three of this five-year program. As a part of this initiative, IT has built a very scalable and reliable internal and external cloud-base infrastructure to support these new systems. Applications are being developed using a service-oriented architecture approach (SOA) and leveraging an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) architecture for application-to-applications communications and integration. These new architecture models will serve as our core framework as future applications are developed and implemented.

High: How technological are your constituents, and how has that evolved during your time at TRS?

Cutler: I have had the privilege of working for TRS for over 21 years. As you would expect, I have seen a lot of changes during this time. When I arrived at TRS, I was hired as a network administrator in charge of implementing the first local area network. At the time, everything was mainframe- and terminal-based, and no one knew anything about this thing called the Internet. Flash forward to today, we have a large modern data center supporting hundreds of mission-critical systems in a distributed computing environment that is highly virtualized, redundant and available. We support a world-class Investment Management Division and a Benefit Services Division that serves over 1.4 million members. Each division has demands for advance technology solutions to help reach their business goals. It's a true privilege to be seen as a business partner and play a part in their success.

High: Do you and your team spend time with the ultimate customer of TRS, and what have you learned from your time with them?

Cutler: Our ultimate customers are our members, the teachers and educators of the state of Texas. My family comes from a long line of teachers and administrators, including my daughter who is in her third year teaching at a local elementary school. I am continually impressed at the creativity and innovation I see when I am able to visit with them. Here are two quick examples:

A few months back, I was visiting with a school administrator who was telling me about a program they are implementing where they are providing Google Chromebooks to all of their high school students. These Chromebooks would be outfitted with all the books, software and materials needed for their classes. They were using Internet-based polling tools to get instant feedback during classes. For support, they had created a student-led-and-run IT help desk to provide support for the Chromebooks and provide students real-world IT experience.

Just last week I was attending a board meeting at our Region 10 Education Service Center. At this center, they were advertising Reggie's Robots, a device that allows home-bound students recovering from illness, injury or other factors to attend and actively participate in class. This is a physical robot that the student can control in class from home using advanced telecommunications technology.

High: What trends particularly excite you as you look out, say, three years into the future?

Cutler: There is a lot to be excited about in IT over the next three years! The proliferation of the Internet of things (IoT), the incredible advancements in 3D printing, and efficiencies realized in solar energy and self-driving cars are just a few that come to mind. However, if I had to pick two that will have the largest impact on TRS, I would say it would be in the advancement of data analytics and software-defined applications and infrastructures. Advanced data analytics will be used in the coming years to help improve our prediction and identification of investment market patterns, provide more real time fund actuarial and demographics information, advance views of medical and prescription trends, as well as play more of a role in advancing cyber-security analysis based on our own risk-based security models. Software-defined applications and infrastructures will continue to be impactful as the lines between local and cloud computing resources are blurred, centrally managed and virtualization expands from servers and storage to the network and data center as a whole.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.


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