by Martin Veitch

Dell’s renaissance man

May 03, 2010
IT StrategyMobileSmall and Medium Business

I meet Dell’s global CIO Robin Johnson on a bright and breezy day in Bloomsbury, central London in the swanky offices of the PC giant’s PR handlers. You might expect Dell’s IT chief with a $1.2bn annual budget to be a Texan or at least an American but Johnson was born and raised in west London, and still manages to watch the odd Queens Park Rangers football match from his home in beautiful Austin, a fine city with parks and lakes to explore by day and a marvellous musical heritage to check out at night.

Johnson previously worked in IT at big names in retailing (Marks & Spencer, Brooks Brothers and the US Safeway) and business consulting (Ernst & Young in both London and New York) as well as Dell’s European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) operation before taking over as worldwide CIO. However, he is pretty blunt about the challenges, saying: “The sectors are different but I don’t think the IT is.”

They have all been large companies with big brands, he notes, and the requirements are similar so long as the CIO has the right status.

“The key thing in the role is whether you have end-to-end accountability and that also drives speed,” he says.

Read Robin Johnson’s responses to the CIO Questionnaire

“For me it’s always been companies with a good technology footprint but how they ‘do it’ is different. M&S was using technology to drive organic growth. Safeway is very acquisitive so it used technology to drive integration and did an exceptional job in acquisitions. Dell uses technology to drive its business and eats its own dog food.”

‘Eating your own dog food’ is, of course, American for becoming a consumer of your own product and at Dell – famed for its attention to detail and monitoring of metrics – it’s not hard to imagine the number crunching.

Measure for measure

After becoming the darling of the Nasdaq market throughout its years of rapid growth, Dell has stumbled very publicly and perhaps only since the return of founder Michael Dell to the helm of the company has faith begun to be restored.

Johnson thinks maybe those ‘measure everything’ principles were over-extended.

“Maybe we went too far,” he says. “We started publishing scorecards and one was ‘units lost as a measure of capacity’. No-one asked about what calculated the formula. We started to believe too much of our own story and got inward-focused. It had almost become a dogma. Any measurement was good if it pointed the right way. If you lose sight of the customer, you lose your way but it was almost heresy to challenge some of that.”

He believes that Dell now has a “renaissance” underway and, having completed the task of hardware, datacentre and application (from 10,000 to 2800 apps) consolidation in EMEA he is now addressing the challenge of supporting the new Dell with its growing focus on services and a cutting-edge design ethos.

“The Dell model was all about the ability to uniquely configure and there’s still an enormous audience for that but as the PC has become mainstream, the usage pattern has become ‘am I net-enabled?’ and you get a broader audience where worrying about processors and how much memory doesn’t matter so much.”

He believes that both for Dell and its IT it’s critical to shift focus from consistency of device and software image towards recognising that people work in various modes and roles and have different requirements.

“Consumerisation in the commercial environment is important,” he says. “For years, we managed a corporate image and we loved that stability of a single client image whether you’re a financial services account manager in New York City or working in a call centre in Morocco… but reps in retail had that same corporate PC, whereas now it’s a Vostro [Dell’s stylish notebook].

“Everybody gets focused on [the consistency of] the device but what’s more important is how corporates learn from ways people interact so you don’t have to retrain everybody.”

Serious business

Dell might be changingbut the company is still light years away from the fluffy and fanciful business models that even now are very common in technology, and Johnson reflects the focus on executing strategy that translates into revenues and profit.

“Everything I delivered up until last night is baked into the P&L of the company. The way I help the P&L is I make [systems] run better, faster, cheaper. Attacking fixed cost is the number-one thing. We shift that value into development to create new revenue streams – that’s the lens. We have 400,000 user devices. If every single one runs well and that was my achievement you’d describe me as a mechanic. We’ve crossed the 50/50 threshold of creating versus ‘keeping the lights on’ and we need to go further.”

Another big part of the job is security and governance in the post-Sarbanes-Oxley world. “SOX made us stronger,” Johnson asserts. “I questioned it at the time but it brought a lot of discipline into IT.” However, as with the lights-on aspect of the role, this is the heavy lifting that affords opportunities for the “fun part” of supporting more forward-looking projects such as [reseller portal] PartnerDirect and [laptop colour scheme programme] Design Studio, and building new applications that will help drive Dell forward.

“You can’t hide what you are: I came through the development side of the IT world and have always been involved in application development,” he says. “The people who can lead IT well can describe a business agenda and understand technology too. It’s being able to say: ‘There’s a technology-enabled opportunity you haven’t thought of’. In the good years, you’re spending 60 to 70 per cent of your time enabling the business.”

Johnson recognises that what worked for Dell in the old days won’t work as well today and his team have been working to refit the site to have a “faster cadence where 60 per cent of changes hit globally in one go”, whereas previously it was effectively five different systems. That sort of velocity will be critical to Dell’s progress, as will continued support for the fast-moving world of social media in the shape of blogs and wikis alongside chat, email and desk-to-desk videoconferencing to ensure fast interaction.

“The regionalisation model was fabulous for the high-growth world but you can’t replay that because we’re in all countries. In services and solutions it’s a different strategy and requires a different set of applications. If you start duplicating, you will never get there fast enough. Ten years ago we were happy with [Dell’s customer portal] Premier Pages but now companies want to order from anywhere and be invoiced there. We will be successful if we fit the system architecture to fulfil that.”

And of course, Johnson has been intimately involved in accommodating Perot Systems, the services purchase that, at $3.9bn, is by far Dell’s biggest M&A venture and could form a template for more post-merger integration at the company.

“We’re in a transition with Perot,” he says. “We’re looking at ourselves and we’re creating a model for the mega-deal. There’s not a lot of overlap [in terms of activity] so it was interesting for me. They’re services, we’re more product; Perot was heavily in the US, we were globally spread.”

Dell was an early big adopter of and has been quick to position itself as a cloud provider. Johnson, while not counting himself as one of those who believe the world and its wife will move wholesale to the model, is supportive. “I like the cloud where appropriate,” he says. “Software-as-a-service is here to stay, we use the Inovis business services exchange and and we’re a big provider of cloud technologies to the providers like Microsoft Windows Azure and Salesforce. It’s just the cost equation: you can do so much more over the wire now, without tons of support. Broadband and connectivity are changing what we can do.”

Cultural compatibility

Having worked on both sides of the pond, he has a balanced view of the various qualities of Britons and Americans. “There are subtle differences,” he believes. “Britain does countryside really well; America does cities well. [At work] the Brits are gritty: we love a good war story where you’ve got the scars. The Americans are more blue-sky and optimistic. The blur between the two – ‘big vision’ and ‘can it really be done?’ – is a perfect fit.”

Johnson sits on Dell’s Leadership Team and, working for one of the biggest computer companies in the world, he believes he has the full respect of his executive peers even if they are characteristically unyielding in their demands.

“I’ve worked with the business unit leaders for years. It does help that they’re in the technology business and they support IT and have got around the concept of simplification and ‘standardise, consolidate, automate’. The standard response to the IT guy is ‘you’re not doing enough’ but we’ve demonstrated that we’re really serious about fixed cost.

“Michael [Dell] will absolutely push what he thinks but there are examples where I’ve pushed back. He will challenge you but if you’re right he’ll understand that.”