I have always enjoyed talking with Ralph Loura, CIO of HP's Enterprise Group. Loura talks as easily about big ideas, such as the future of IT, as he does about the nitty gritty of network architecture. In our most recent conversation, Loura discussed the evolving CIO role, what makes DevOps work, and offersed advice for tomorrow's CIOs.
Martha Heller: How would you describe the CIO role today?
Ralph Loura: Being a CIO today is about collaboration, co-design, and co-creation. Five years ago, CIOs ran ERP projects, got networks running, and issued PCs and cellphones. From there the role evolved into a business relationship manager who would call on the finance, sales, marketing, and other business divisions like an account manager, and come back to propose multi-year transformations to solve business problems.
With today's rapid pace of business change and constant risk of disruption in the form of new products, services, and go-to-market models, multi-year programs are much less palatable to the business. So it's essential for the CIO to be part of the strategic leadership team — co-designing and creating solutions in partnership with the business. Engagement and delivery models internal to IT are also changing, requiring development and operations teams to work in close partnership to deliver rapid innovation to the business.
DevOps is one clear example of the blurring line between applications and operations.
DevOps works incredibly well for certain kinds of work. I remember in the late 1990s, we operated in both the analog telephony world and the digital data world — and never the two would meet. But along came voice over IP (VoIP), and with it massive debates about how IT should organize to support it. The voice people and the data people had different agendas and were hesitant to work together, so it was difficult to get VoIP projects off the ground.
Back in 2000, we did the organizational equivalent of taking both groups out to the parking lot and telling them to duke it out. Ultimately, the data people developed respect for telephony protocols and the telco people began to understand what the data people were doing. We wound up with these new architectures where an IT network could support telephony with five nines [99.999 percent] of availability.
That's where we are now with DevOps. The developers and operations teams need to work together, but we've got to get them in a room together so they can set aside some inherent distrust and begin to understand each other's perspective.
What does it take for a DevOps program to be successful?
Successful DevOps programs depend on only three things: Culture, culture and culture. If your idea of automation is pushing a button, which sends a ticket to someone else, who decides to push another button to move the program into production, that's not DevOps.
Some organizations struggle to put their trust in a code model for infrastructure, because they’re accustomed to human eyes and a sign-off process at every stage of change. But the true business benefit DevOps offers is the large scale, automated machine learning model it enables.
It's like being a parent. If you are constantly helicopter parenting your teenagers, they never learn that choices have consequences, because you are always there to catch them before they fall.
It's the same with developers. If a developer makes a mistake, and someone in operations catches it before the program goes into production, the developers don’t learn from the mistake. But with DevOps, the developers are the ones who get woken up at three in the morning because their code failed. They become better developers very quickly.
What is most challenging about the role today?
To be a CIO today, you have to be the master of almost everything, including technology. For a while, there was this trend that CIOs should be from the business. The thought was they didn't need to be technology leaders, because it's all about the business. But if you take somebody who has a great finance background and put them in front of a cloud-based vendor who is talking about a new architecture for large scale data that's about columnar compression and in-memory and node-based architecture, then those business CIOs' heads are spinning.
On the other hand, if you don't have a good understanding of how finance works, it's hard to be an effective CIO. And you need some legal savvy to manage service contracts or you can find yourself exposed to unanticipated incremental costs because of some subtle language in a contract. The list goes on. The challenge for today's CIO is to be expert in a large number of disciplines all at once.
What advice do you have for future CIOs?
Don't be afraid to have a point of view, but do the work required to make that point of view an informed one. The mode for CIOs in the past was to keep your head down, deliver what you've promised, and stay out of trouble. But that approach doesn’t work anymore. If you want to have an impact in your company, you need to have a point of view that sometimes challenges the status quo. But do the homework, and have the data to back it up.
About Ralph Loura
Ralph Loura is CIO for HP's Enterprise Group and the HP Labs division of the newly formed Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Before joining HP in 2014, Loura most recently served as senior vice president and CIO of The Clorox Company. Prior to Clorox, he served in IT leadership roles at Cisco, Symbol, Lucent and AT&T Bell Laboratories.
Loura holds a master's degree in computer science from Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree in computer science-mathematics from Saint Joseph's College.