buchachon - Fotolia

When running IT like a business, consider the bagel shop

Ciena Corp. CIO Craig Williams expounds on the importance of running IT like a business and how to identify the type of IT people who can execute on that strategy.

Veteran IT executive Craig Williams is a big believer in running IT like a business, and he's come up with a method for explaining how CIOs can get started: They need to think of a bagel shop.

In this interview, Williams, former head of IT at LinkedIn, former senior director of IT operations and infrastructure at Red Hat, and current CIO and vice president at telecom equipment maker Ciena Corp., talks about the importance of finding "PhDs": in Williams' parlance, the acronym stands for employees who have passion, heart and drive. He also explains why the bagel shop is a simple -- but powerful -- analogy for running IT like a business.

Editor's note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You've been vocal about running IT like a business. Can you give our CIO readers a specific example of how you're doing that at Ciena?

Craig Williams: I've been focused on creating teams of -- I like to call them PhDs. They are people who have passion, heart and drive. They are people who can learn the technology, they can meet the problems of the business and they can understand them.

You don't always have to recruit them. Sometimes you just have to discover them. Often, they're people within your own organization, and a lot of the times, they're very raw talent and may not have the experience of senior people. Sometimes for me, it's been about identifying those high-potential people and then stretching them by putting them in roles where they might not have the resume for it, but they have the chemical makeup to potentially be a great leader. And then I give them encouragement and feedback. You can't just kind of guess or roll the dice. You have to actively participate in their careers.

Craig WilliamsCraig Williams

How can CIOs discover 'PhDs' in their own organizations?

Williams: One of the first things is to say what the benchmark is. We say that we're in the business of identifying people who have the passion, heart and drive to do the work. What I find is there are a lot of people who say, 'Hey, that's me.' Or, 'I want to be that, I just need some coaching.' So, I think it starts with making sure people know where the bar is.

When I say benchmark, I'm talking more about looking at our industry peers to see how they're doing in terms of technology enablement. We're all pretty connected with our peer groups, and we know some of the challenges that they're talking about. We also know that if we create this culture, we can catch up or surpass what I think is kind of the industry benchmark when it comes to technology deployment, customer satisfaction -- those types of things.

Also, if you're not that type of person, that's OK, too. We need, for example, great programmers, but we also need to inspire people to be leaders and to try new things and be innovators and be OK with risk-taking. It's about trying to get those people to rise, to take a chance, to feel vulnerable.

For CIOs who aren't running IT like a business, can you provide concrete advice on where to get started?

Williams: When I got here, a lot of people wanted IT to focus on solving business problems, but they weren't making the connection that to do so, you needed to run IT like a business. To make the idea easy to consume, I made the analogy that IT is a bagel shop. We sell bagels. We have customers who come in at certain times, and we have to make sure that they're happy. But we can't expect them to just show up at our door because, guess what, next door a bakery is going to open soon.

So, we broke IT down into action service areas. IT is a service, sure. We're a bagel shop. But each of the teams I have -- my network team, my video team, my security team -- I've asked them to talk about their business in terms of running a business. That means identifying what their business does, what their customers want, if those customers are getting what they need, what their costs are.

The point is, if we can't understand our business to the point of understanding the cost, the customer satisfaction, the inventory levels that we have -- if we can't run like a business -- then we're going to be out of business.

Dig Deeper on Digital transformation

Cloud Computing
Mobile Computing
Data Center
and ESG