IBM on the Evolving Role of the CIO: Interview with Kathryn Guarini, CIO of IBM

The chief information officer (CIO) has always balanced a variety of IT and business leadership responsibilities. As more enterprise technologies become enmeshed in customer and employee experiences, though, the role of the CIO is expanding and evolving to meet stakeholder expectations.

IBM logo in black and white.

Kathryn Guarini is the CIO of IBM, one of the oldest and most widely recognized technology companies in the world. In this interview with CIO Insight, Guarini explains what the CIO and her team do at IBM. She also describes the current trends and the projected future of the CIO role, how the CIO can use their influence to affect meaningful organizational change, and how aspiring leaders can start building their skills for the future of IT.

Tech leadership roles at IBM

CIO Insight: What are your primary responsibilities as CIO of IBM?

Guarini: As IBM’s CIO, I’m responsible for our entire internal IT estate at the company, which means all of the infrastructure, tools, and applications that support the IBM community and our businesses. 

IBM has over 250,000 employees around the world, we do business in over 175 countries, and we have different lines of business: our IBM consulting business, our IBM software, and our systems infrastructure and cloud infrastructure businesses. 

So, together, that’s a lot of different types of business as well as different markets around the world. My team now supports more than 4,200 different applications and services that power all those different parts of IBM. 

The CIO’s role in rolling out new business technologies

CIO Insight: What role are you and your department playing in the rollout of hybrid cloud, AI, and cybersecurity initiatives across IBM teams? Why do you think these tech investments are important to the organization as a whole?

Guarini: All of those technologies are major trends in the industry at large, and probably nowhere more so than at a company like IBM, which is also investing in developing those very same technologies. 

We acquired Red Hat because of its hybrid cloud capabilities. We are developing our own solutions around artificial intelligence and applying that to areas like automation and IT management. Cybersecurity is also top of mind for everybody across the world today, and certainly in this industry, so it’s something that we need to prioritize.

All of those things are priorities for how we develop, modernize, and implement IT at IBM. Specifically, hybrid cloud is the future. My view is that hybrid cloud is not a step along the way like I think many in the industry may have imagined just a few years ago. It is the reality today that most enterprises are using a variety of different public cloud, private cloud, legacy infrastructure, and SaaS solutions, and I expect that will continue to be true going forward. 

Hybrid cloud allows us to create a unifying fabric across those environments so that our developers can create the best solutions and then deploy them over the appropriate environment. If you need to be able to burst into additional capacity, then a public cloud environment may be appropriate. If you’re looking for a unique security or data privacy consideration, you may have a private cloud environment. SaaS solutions will be appropriate for other applications. 

That is the reality. And so really embracing that as the destination means we make thoughtful choices around how we empower our developers and give them a bit more autonomy to optimize at the application level without being as concerned about specifying what’s at the infrastructure level. 

It really is changing the way our application teams are affecting faster deployments, and more security is being built in that delivers value more quickly to our employees and parts of the business. It’s providing a lot of value today, and we’re continuing to adopt all aspects of hybrid cloud at IBM. 

Specifically, hybrid cloud is the future. My view is that hybrid cloud is not a step along the way like I think many in the industry may have imagined just a few years ago.

Kathryn Guarini, Chief Information Officer, IBM Corporation

Similarly, with AI, we are finding so many use cases for applying AI in the IT environment. We use chatbots that help to facilitate our client support for our employees who have IT questions because we want to enable them to self-service and accelerate their learning on their own. 

We use AI to automate our business processes and accelerate time to value from much of the data that we have around our IT, our sales, and our marketing environments. So AI is also a tremendous lever for us to drive efficiency, improve overall outcomes, and generate insights from the very large amounts of data that we have in our environments today. 

And cybersecurity: no conversation in 2022 is complete without recognizing that the increasing threats we’re seeing require a lot of attention. We are applying a lot of innovation there: How can we be more cognizant of those threats? How do we prevent and respond quickly when there are new vulnerabilities or when there are challenges around both insider access and hacking? 

Through very good partnerships with our innovation teams and our application teams, we’re able to secure IBM’s assets, our data, and our people.

Learn more about how AI can support the employee experience: Harnessing Artificial Intelligence to Transform the Employee Experience

Balancing tech and business leadership

CIO Insight: How can CIOs and other emerging tech leaders effectively balance tech initiatives with other business goals? How can they successfully collaborate with outside departments while still being a change agent for IT?

Guarini: We need to do both. There’s a lot that we’re responsible for that is truly running the business, so there’s no ignoring the fact that our applications require a certain level of service, reliability, consistency, and experience. We can’t push that to the side while we’re considering net new initiatives and new innovation opportunities. We have to continue to support the needs of the business while, at the very same time, we’re co-creating something net new. 

And that can be tricky, right? We know that we’re all resource-limited and there are challenges to go do this. But what we do is look to make sure that there’s a business case, that the outcome of this new solution is something that will be compelling at the business level. It’s not simply because somebody asked for it, but because we’ve convinced ourselves, when we get to this new solution, that we will be better off for it. 

As far as the business outcomes go, we will be able to improve our sales pipeline, grow revenue, improve employee retention, or whatever the business goal is of that innovation. That’s what’s driving the prioritization. 

The outcome is what’s going to help us make those trade-off decisions about whether we invest in this project versus that one, and the technology innovation is what helps us to actually execute on that. Leveraging AI will help us deliver a better solution more efficiently with better outcomes, but the choice to go do that project is based on what the outcome will deliver to the business.

We have to continue to support the needs of the business while, at the very same time, we’re co-creating something net new. 

Kathryn Guarini, Chief Information Officer, IBM Corporation

CIO Insight: How can CIOs make businesses more efficient, agile, and/or profitable through their work?

Guarini: To me, it’s really about co-creation between our IT and our business teams. It requires that our CIO and the teams that run our IT infrastructure and application environments understand the priorities and needs of the business. What are their pain points? Is it customer satisfaction? It could be all sorts of different challenges, and it’s only through really understanding what those challenges are that we’re in the best position to create solutions that really address those pain points. 

We do a lot of user research to understand what the friction is and architect a solution that will help address that. We test that with early deployment, and then iteratively, develop a more scaled solution. 

So to me, that is the way that we transform not just IT but really transform the business. That’s why it’s a co-creation opportunity; it’s the only way we’ll really drive the value that’s needed for the business.

Learn more about iterative development and DevOps: Best DevOps Tools & Software

CIOs as agents of organizational and cultural change

CIO Insight: As leaders in both the IT and greater business spheres, how can CIOs use their positions to improve sustainability, DE&I, and other global good initiatives in an organization?

Guarini: As leaders, I think we all have responsibility for those important topics, not just CIOs. But we can affect those outcomes in a broad way because of the important integrating role we play. We touch every part of the business and every employee. 

Let’s start with sustainability. With sustainability, every single company has this at the top of their agenda because it’s important, employees care about it, it matters to investors, it’s being measured by many governments around the world, and many more reasons. It’s essential that we’re thinking about what our current sustainability posture is and how we can improve it by reducing our carbon footprint, driving better reuse and recycling, and being thoughtful about the impact we’re having on the environment. 

As the CIO, I’m responsible for a big piece of what we deliver in this space. Our hybrid cloud solutions allow us to shift workloads into data center environments that are more energy-efficient. We can optimize the use of resources. We support our workstations, mobile devices, printers, and everything else that has a carbon footprint associated with it. 

So driving reductions as appropriate, working with our teams in real estate, and partnering with our product development teams, we have an opportunity to help streamline IBM processes. Overall, this leads us toward the goals that a company like IBM has set for ourselves to be net-zero greenhouse gas by 2030, and other very aggressive and important goals that we’ve set. Every part of our company plays an important role in helping us get there, and we’re bringing important tools and technology to have visibility into how we’re doing and also to actually lead us on that journey to achieve those goals. 

As leaders, I think we all have responsibility for those important topics, not just CIOs. But we can affect those outcomes in a broad way because of the important integrating role we play. We touch every part of the business and every employee.

Kathryn Guarini, Chief Information Officer, IBM Corporation

Sustainability is one topic that you mentioned, and DE&I is another. IBM as a company has had a long history and commitment to diversity and inclusion that dates back to very early in its 111-year history. When we made a commitment to equal pay for equal work, we included all aspects of identity as part of the protected groups, and we continue that to this day. 

That manifests in many ways in how we attract and support talent. An example is our activities around supporting neurodiversity in our work environments, wherever they happen to be. And even recently, we led an initiative we call the preferred naming initiative, being sensitive to the fact that many people, particularly the trans and nonbinary community, were being deadnamed in a set of IT systems that they couldn’t control. 

About six months ago, we rolled out the ability for all IBM-ers to designate a preferred name that could get propagated into thousands of different applications across IBM. So except in the very few systems that it is legally mandated to have a legal name, it will surface the chosen name that an employee designates. It’s just one more example of where, as an IT leader, we can be proactive and sensitive to creating an environment that is inclusive for all employees.

Using technology to recruit and retain talent

CIO Insight: What can/should CIOs do to affect recruitment and retention strategies in their organization?

Guarini: I think there is so much that technology does to influence an employee experience. Most of us, when we think about whether we want to accept a job or not or stay at a job or not, the environment that we have in that position will make a big difference:

  • Do you have the tools and technologies to do your job well?
  • Is it easy to get access to systems?
  • Do you spend a lot of time being frustrated because you can’t find the answers to your questions, or are you welcomed with a very intuitive set of tools and technologies? 
  • Can you collaborate with your peers effectively?
  • Can you find somebody who has the expertise to support you?
  • Can you get the learning modules you need?
  • Is your laptop delivered and configured automatically? 

There are so many aspects to this, from the subtle to the very complex, that make a big difference to our employees, and they tell us that. We do surveys and we ask, ‘What is the impact of your IT environment on your desire to stay at a company or even come to a company?’ It actually makes a big difference. 

And since we know that, we put a lot of effort into simplifying processes, streamlining the experience, and making sure the industry’s best tools and technologies are put in the hands of our employees.

We also want to continue to modernize those experiences. Where we have legacy tools or solutions that we’ve had around for decades, it’s important that we continually reevaluate and modernize those to make sure they’re relevant and meeting the needs of the future business, which is going to be different from the business of the past.

More on this topic: Improving Culture and Community in Remote Work: An Interview with Anna Dearmon Kornick at Clockwise

There are so many aspects to this, from the subtle to the very complex, that make a big difference to our employees, and they tell us that. We do surveys and we ask, ‘What is the impact of your IT environment on your desire to stay at a company or even come to a company?’ It actually makes a big difference. 

Kathryn Guarini, Chief Information Officer, IBM Corporation

CIO Insight: What kinds of business technologies do you think are most impactful to organizational, employee, and customer satisfaction?

Guarini: I’ll use automation as an example. I do think that for mundane and repetitive tasks, there’s a tremendous opportunity to automate them and enable employees to do the more complex, thought-provoking, and influential activities in a business. So I do think that does improve the employee experience because it keeps us driving value. 

There’s some significant innovation that’s happening in ways that enable effective virtual collaboration and teams that can work across geographies and different environments. That includes collaboration tools and communication tools, the ability to use natural language processing, to be able to quickly get transcripts from video, and then be able to distill that down using AI to summarize that information. 

All of that technology allows us to spend less time watching a video or doing mundane things so we can more efficiently use the precious time we have. I think something we’ve all learned in the last few years of the pandemic is that time is precious, and we want to make sure we’re using it effectively. Tools like automation and AI are examples of where technology and innovation can really help us to drive efficiency in how we do our jobs.

Read next: AI, Automation, and the Future Impact on Jobs

Current and future trends for CIOs

CIO Insight: Generally speaking, what differentiates the CIO from a business’s other tech leaders?

Guarini: Since IBM is a technology company, we have a lot of leaders across the company who are technologists and have an important role to play in leading with innovation and leveraging technology for differentiation. But what’s a little different about the CIO role is that we’re supporting our own company. We’re about deploying technology to the benefit of our people and our business, and there’s a particularly compelling and important responsibility there. 

None of the individual parts of our business, whether it’s the software development team, our marketing function, our sellers, or our consultants, could be successful on their own if they don’t have the tools, applications, infrastructure, and collaboration solutions that allow them to do their jobs effectively. So there’s an important connecting responsibility that we have and something we take very seriously.

CIO Insight: How have you seen the roles and responsibilities assigned to CIOs evolve over time? What are some of the biggest changes and challenges you’ve seen?

Guarini: The role has changed quite a lot. I think, in the very beginning, the focus was largely on behind-the-scenes kinds of activity. It was about how we keep our systems up and running, but it’s so much more than that today.

None of us can do our jobs without the right workstations, mobile technologies, and applications; software and technology are essential to everything we do. The right technology is a competitive differentiation for the business, and it is all about the experiences that we have as employees, so it’s become more and more important. 

The role of the CIO and the function that I lead is all about asking, ‘how do we continue to evolve that? How do we make it better, make everybody’s job easier, make us more productive, and make sure that our company is able to be as effective and frictionless as possible?’ 

And it’s a very different world today to lead an IT team than it was just a few years ago.

Compare the CIO to other tech leaders: CIO vs CISO: What Are the 5 Big Differences?

Perspectives and advice from a top CIO

CIO Insight: What advice would you give to someone who hopes to become a CIO someday?

Guarini: One of the most exciting things about being a CIO or an IT leader is that it is a multifaceted job. There are never two days that are alike; it’s not boring. It requires technical skills, but even more so, it requires business acumen, collaboration, leadership, and communication. 

So if you aspire to be CIO, don’t look at what it is today; reimagine what it will be in the future. We need people who think differently and who will help us to create the future of IT.

Kathryn Guarini, Chief Information Officer, IBM Corporation

So I would encourage somebody who wants to have a role like that to try different experiences to grow those skills, embrace a growth mindset, and recognize that there’s not one path or recommended set of jobs that you follow in sequence to come to any one of these roles. But it’s really the collection of experiences from an interesting career that allows you to take a job like this and bring it a new perspective.

I think jobs are changing. The job of the CIO five years from now will be different from the job it is today. So if you aspire to be CIO, don’t look at what it is today; reimagine what it will be in the future. We need people who think differently and who will help us to create the future of IT. That’s what I think will make people very successful: if they embrace change and they continue to grow their skills to lead.

Not sure how to develop your skills and knowledge for an IT leadership role? Get started with this IT Certification Roadmap.

About Kathryn Guarini 

As IBM’s Chief Information Officer, Kathryn leads a global team of more than 12,000 employees whose mission is to create a productive environment for IBM’s employees worldwide and to deliver the future of IT. The CIO organization operates in a centralized shared services model as IBM’s single IT department, enabling IBM’s transformation to a hybrid cloud and enterprise AI company. Prior to being named Chief Information Officer, Kathryn was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of IBM Research and Vice President for Impact Science. 

Kathryn’s innovative technical research has been recognized with various industry awards. She holds more than 65 U.S. patents, and she is a prolific writer with over 60 technical publications. She is also the author of the blog about leadership, science, and innovation. Kathryn earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University and a B.S. degree from Yale University, both in applied physics.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Shelby Hiter
Shelby Hiter
Shelby Hiter is a writer with more than five years of experience in writing and editing, focusing on healthcare, technology, data, enterprise IT, and technology marketing. She currently writes for four different digital publications in the technology industry: Datamation, Enterprise Networking Planet, CIO Insight, and Webopedia. When she’s not writing, Shelby loves finding group trivia events with friends, cross stitching decorations for her home, reading too many novels, and turning her puppy into a social media influencer.

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