Sybase's CIO on Cloud Computing, Mobility

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 01-19-2010

Sybase's CIO on Cloud Computing, Mobility

Sybase has made a major transition to become a mobility software provider. But beyond boosting the company's core offerings, CIO Jim Swartz is looking heavily at cloud computing, SaaS and maximizing the potential of the Millennial generation. 

Swartz, formerly an IT leader at several companies, including SRI International and SAIC, spoke recently with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson about his priorities for 2010.


CIO Insight: What's your outlook for 2010?

Swartz: It's certainly been an exciting year because the company has had nine quarters of extended growth and profitability. So we haven't been hit by this downturn in the same way as other companies. We're all thankful for that and have continued to work toward making it happen.

We can't rest. It's a renewed effort. We have to think about how to posture ourselves to grow to that $2B mark and beyond--what kinds of information systems and technologies are people going to need, and how can we work with the business to improve their processes and advise them on the right technologies to improve their margins by doing things more efficiently and improve the top line to help bring more business into the company.

So what are your technological priorities for the year?

We as an organization are looking more and more into what workflow improvements will make us more effective and efficient. We're going to be looking at a new approach to on-premise versus off-premise application hosting. Not unlike many CIOs, I have a number of initiatives, with cloud computing right up at the top. What does it mean for us? What does it mean for the business? How can we leverage it? And how can we look at that cloud and push away all the foggy mist that exists in it?

When you stop and look at some of these metaphors, "cloud" is probably not the best word to apply to something that's trying to make you more effective and efficient.

We would love to go down the pipe and have the ability to use cloud services existing as a commodity and treat them very much like you'd use treat electricity or some other commodity service that you'd buy at the lowest price and move from vendor to vendor without disrupting your business.

We're probably quite a ways away from making that happen. I say that even as we've made some partnerships with cloud-providing companies, but unfortunately, the standards aren't quite there to make it real. In the next year, we're absolutely going to be looking at this more closely in terms of what it's going to mean, long-haul, because as an organization, to help the company keep its margins in perspective, I don't want to go out there and have to build expensive data centers. If I can use outside services, where appropriate, that's a great thing.

We've been looking at it with some skepticism. It's a no-brainer for SMBs, but bigger-company CIOs are weighing what it is, and whether it's an internal or external thing. What do you see as the big obstacles?

There is this issue around security, that you're going to be very cautious putting your financial information into a third-party's hands. However, some of the early ventures out into things like Salesforce, you are putting some sensitive information out there. And it's a multi-tenant offering, so some could see that as dicey.

But I think we're going to end up, in a period of time, with much more of a hybrid environment where you'll keep your sensitive applications on premise, but those applications will exist in what you will call your own internal cloud. You'll be able to use virtualization to move that information around in internal clouds. Instead of having a failover into another environment, you'll be able to push over into another site.

You create that competence to be able to do it, along with the security regimes around virtualized environments. As vendors create more standards to accept those virtualized data centers you build, then you'll feel more comfortable putting them out there. It'll take a while. There will be some successes and failures, as there are with anything. I still think we're five or six years off from the point where we'll send out something like an ERP into a hosted environment.

I'm just waiting for something to happen in the near-term where some SasS or cloud offering has some major failure. Then the business will have some trough of disillusionment, as Gartner would say, before people slowly and behind the scenes pick themselves up and improve their offerings. There's interesting buzz, but this is still five to six years away. Still, there will be some things that tend to work. It's interesting what Google is offering with Google Apps, and I see some people moving in a direction of they'll host their e-mail offerings off-site. It may make sense to small or medium business, but for a lot of us, mail hosting is just as sensitive as ERP hosting, because they're such sensitive information that goes out in attachments. So you have to think about that very carefully. We're looking at the effect of email re: attachments. We're trying to move attachments to a central repository so they don't go out with the e-mail and are protecting within the company. Those types of step-by-step protective measures--which are also cost-effective in terms of storage because an attachment doesn't go out 10,000 times, though a link might--can save a great deal. There are some of those incremental, less exciting savings areas that will come about in the next few years as people change the way they behave in terms of e-mail toolsets and take advantage of centralized computing and storing things more centrally in peripheral devices.

We use SharePoint inside the company, and it's become an fairly attractive tool. But we've also realized that as we put more information inside SharePoint, we become more tied in to that vendor. So we start to use more Office tools because they're so integrated. It makes us think about how tied in we are. Some of their products are very good, but there's a price for that. We are looking at open source and other alternatives to Microsoft as a primary vendor, but it's not without its issues or downfalls. Some open source office tools aren't as compatible with Microsoft as we'd like them to be. If everyone we're using them, it would be fine. But since most people are using Microsoft, it makes it harder to use alternatives to deal with customers. The kinds of things we can do with SharePoint and related toolsets, as well as collaborative tools like Facebook and Twitter and their corporate derivatives, we have to be doing more and more with those toolsets because people coming in are going to require it, and it's becoming more accepted across the industry for people to communicate over a Facebook-like toolset. We can't stop it. We can put dictates out saying we won't do it, but we'd have to back-pedal after some period of time. I'd rather lead the charge and shape its use, rather than being shaped by the demands of the marketplace altogether.

Some of these things are risky. If you want to get out ahead of it, you may have to take some risks and have some skunks-works going on inside to test this stuff out, so you have to be careful. And we've been caught more times than I'd like to remember trying to roll something out to early. So you have to have a balance in determining how and when you roll these things out so that you don't roll them out too early, but you don't want to be a laggard in rolling them out too late.

That's probably one of the biggest challenges IT leaders face in advising the business. Do stay behind and be a fast follower, or take the lead? Almost every decision you make has the potential to be a game-changing decision in the marketplace for your company, so it's very interesting.

The other thing is, the numbers are all over the map when it comes to things like cloud computing. It's supposed to be cheaper, but when you get under the covers, sometimes it's not as cheap. That makes the metrics and measurements more important.

SaaS, Mobility

What about SaaS? We're seeing more actual use, as compared with the cloud.

Whether you include Software as a Service (SaaS) in your cloud offering is, I guess, an interesting debate. But we use a lot of SaaS services inside Sybase. We're a customer of Salesforce.com. We use ServiceNow for our helpdesk provisioning. We use Quonos for our time reporting and concurrence. We're a big believer in using SaaS technologies, but we have to continue to evaluate what we move out there, and for those we use, we have to look at if we're taking advantage of what they offer.

Continuing to look at cloud and SaaS is a big thing as an alternative to building or hosting things internally or handling peak loads.

Another area is client computing. I use that as a term instead of "desktop computing," because I'm not sure what that means anymore. It's a personal workspace that can reside on a laptop, a desk-side computer or a mobile device. How do you exploit that and make it more effective for people so that it's cost effective, highly available and protects our intellectual property and makes things as secure as possible. Also, what happens when one evening someone announces that you can't go into the office because of H1N1 concerns? Cloud computing, SaaS, client computing, virtualization in the data center - all of these technologies, in one way or another, have a big impact on your thinking about disaster recovery.

And you're a mobility software company, so I'm guessing you have some initiatives there.

Mobility is also interesting. How do we play that card going forward? We are a mobility software provider, so it's of course very interesting to us. We're very agnostic as to the types of devices people use. I see this idea that we're coming, to some extent, to becoming more standard-centric in the back office, as opposed to being device-standardized. It's more difficult to tell people they can't use an Apple iPhone or MacPro workbook versus a Windows device versus a Linux device versus a Droid device. We standardize our applications to be able to push out to all these devices. What we're doing in terms of standards and pulling them back in house, we're saying you can't win a war in saying that you have to have just an Intel-type device that runs a Windows platform. The world is changing in that respect. it's no longer desktop computing as it is personal space computing for the task worker, and for some of your productivity people, we need to provide workspaces for people that give them access to multiple operating environments without changing the physical platform. All of these things are coming to play for us next year.

But all these things are being done in the context of doing more with less, and focusing on the measurements and metrics that tell us how well we're delivering on these promises. That means we're working more, not just as technologists, but as partners with the business to make sure their processes are more efficient and cost-effective. If we can do that at a reasonable cost, we help the company on the basis of both revenue and margins.

What about the staffing front? How does your workforce figure into these priorities?

A lot of this is driven by the new generation coming out of school. It kind of goes back to a philosophy we're developing in our company and in my organization. We want to bring in new graduates. It's a water-fountain effect: you bring them in at the top bottom, have them rise up and then stream out into the company. That means everybody needs to be part of this dynamic "streaming up." To be dynamic, you have to attract these people at this nurturing level--you have to have the thinking, the tools and the structure that makes it attractive for them to come into your organization. These people probably don't have a concept of what a vinyl record is, let alone 8mm tapes, and some won't even know what CDs are. You have to accommodate their needs. How do you create an environment that's attractive for them, and show them they can move up in this water-fountain effect and help you grow the company?

So we have to think about the technologies they like or are accustomed to, which may be very much removed from our fairly rigid, batch-mode, serial processing functions we've had in companies for so long. You have to think about using collaboration technologies inside the company to allow for effective communication. I hate to say it, but e-mail is such an old technology that we're seeing it being phased out by successors like chatting and presence and collaboration technologies that are moving in. And we need those people to help us get there.

Millennials

I recently participated in a roundtable about Millennials, and many CIOs seem to consider them to be "mercenaries" who won't stay at any particular job for an extended period of time.

I remember when I graduated from college. People no longer will go to General Motors and work for that company their entire lives. I don't think it's an entirely new concept. But because they're more mobile, due to the availability of these new technologies, that people will move around, and maybe even create their own companies from time to time. But that doesn't mean they won't want to work for a large corporation. As long as the company is reinventing itself, and not moving along some stagnant vector, they'll want to stay with that company for a long term. But if we can't provide those dynamics for people that allow them to reinvent themselves and help reinvent the company, people will be leaving their jobs more frequently. It's up to us as leaders to understand these dynamics. We can't altogether control them, but we can begin to accommodate them and understand how to mitigate the risks of losing people we've made significant investments.


What other issues do you think CIOs need to focus on this year?

We don't have any effects of the downturn, but that doesn't mean it lessens the pressure. In fact, it seems like the more success we have, the more the pressure comes on us.

I think you're right in the sense that 2010 is unclear. There are some indicators that say the economy is turning around. But I think the hiring practices will lag behind, so there will be pressure to keep doing what we've done to help the company. And there will be a hesitation to do anything too bold unless the projected benefits are off the charts.

We'll continue to do what we did last year to improve margin improvement and the top line, but we'll also do some things that help step up the momentum for the company to grow. We've uncovered some issues that, if we fix them, will make the company more efficient. For example, a better ERP system, or helping the salesforce make better connections that can bring in more business.

We're not looking at things we need to do to get through 2010, but instead to help prepare us for three or four years out, based on some of the business models we've developed. So we'll be cautious in what technologies we pursue so that we're ready to grow again.

Our biggest challenge as a company--and probably for most companies--is making sure the people we have on staff are the right mix to help the company grow. The good news is that we may have people who have been loyal and have been with the company for many years. The bad news is that they've been with the company for many years and haven't reinvented themselves. The biggest challenge is to help people understand they need to reinvent themselves every six to 12 months--and help them reinvent themselves. Once you get into a group, it's hard to reinvent themselves. There is training you can do. You can give them courses, but it doesn't necessarily change the behavior. We have to be very careful in how we invest in people. For some, training will make a difference in making good people even better. But it won't make much of a difference with people who won't reinvent themselves. I don't have a magic bullet for this--it's a major HR issue, because everything is litigious these days. This could be the one thing that hangs us up: getting the right people, with the right skills sets and the right desires, to move us forward and the willingness to reinvent themselves the right way.

The key change we're seeing is that there really aren't IT people, per se. Maybe it ought to change to business technology, not information technology, because that has the connotation of someone who's playing with bits and bytes in the back office. So much of what we do now is joined at the hip with the business. Today, our people need to understand the business as much or more than the business. IT people need to be more renaissance oriented than they used to be because they need to understand a broad range of topics and understand them well so that they can be emphatic and help lead change. And they're not all technology-related issues. We need to understand how to relate to the business, understand where they need to go and help them get there. Once they see use develop technologies that help us become more efficient, the fear is that someone will have to leave the building, because that's why we did the project in the first place.

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