by Thomas Kiessling

The CIO Questionnaire: Thomas Kiessling, CTO at Bwin

Dec 03, 2009

Where were you born? Selb, a small town in Bavaria/Germany

How many people work in your IT department?  650 total manpower

What is the size of your annual IT budget? In the high double digit figures (millions; EUR)

What is the basic structure of your IT department?

CTO direct report organisations: – Development and Delivery Management – QA – Architecture & Tools, including Enterprise Architecture – Database and Datawarehouse Operations – IT Operations – IT Security

However, it is important to note that the line organisation is just one part of the organisation puzzle. It is a core strategy of the company to have IT define the ‘how‘, i.e. the IT architecture, tools, IT processes, etc., however, to have product owners and business at large, to define the ‘what’, i.e. developers, testers, and even to some extent architects, and application engineers, within their respective product lines (like sports betting, poker, marketing tools, etc). This means that these IT functions are directly tasked by product owners within projects or release teams (we are running monthly Sprint release cycles). Thus we give as much accountability of and direct access to productive resources, which is very much in line with agile development methodology, which bwin introduced in 2005 in Stockholm and 2007 in Vienna.

Who are your key suppliers? Microsoft Oracle (incl. Hyperion, Siebel, Coherence)/SUN (HW,JAVA,mysql) Adobe SAP (incl. Business Objects) EMC (Storage) HP (hardware) Linux (Redhat) Cisco F5 Version One Service Now

Who has/have been the most influential people in your career?

E-commerce entrepreneurs and visionaries like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have been quite influential in shaping the view of how powerful well-defined business models and good execution strategies can be.

I also learned a lot from former bosses and colleagues: i.e. complex solution selling as presales manager, general management, effective leadership, how to motivate individuals, as well as to work in complex political corporate constellations from my former boss at Global One, between 1995 and 1999. GlobalOne was a strategic alliance between US Sprint, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom at the time.

Between 2002 and 2006 my colleagues at Amadeus IT Group (in particular eTravel) were influential in showing how to create a strong e-commerce business through tough focus on commercials, the right product/technology strategy, combined with strong focus on execution and cost control.

Do you believe in mentoring?

I do believe mentoring can have a great, positive impact on self-reflection capabilities (and thus self-learning), motivation and competence. In 2005 I pursued a course with an internationally renowned mentoring organisation, and received a certificate as mentor. Experiences of coaching include repeated coaching workshops I organised for direct reports in the past. Typically two (or more) of my direct reports had a conflict or lack of trust in their working relationship. In these workshops I acted as a moderator, consciously and explicitly ‘changing hats’ from superior to observer and coach. The feedback was positive, so I continue to do these exercises.

Which tools or tactics have given you most success in communicating up/down/across?

Up: ‘Manage your boss!’: This is what most bosses (including myself) like. Perceive your boss as yet another customer. Interpret strategic objectives that are more or less well communicated by your boss, play back what you have understood, ensure a handshake on common understanding, do the job, and communicate back achievement (or non-achievement). Since many of my bosses were and are non-technical in a technical environment, I spend quite some time translating technology back to finance impact and strategy. Down: give clear guidance and motivate wherever possible. I work under the assumption that most people need simple and clear boundaries, as well as security in the job. Then, within these boundaries, people will be motivated and effective. Now it is key – and often very difficult – to ensure that messages from superior downwards have actually been received in the specific domain language of the respective working level employee. Thus, communication is key, including a conscious attempt to mutually check that those messages are clear enough. The rest is empowerment, and re-iteration of strategic guidance, combined with as little interference in day-to-day work as possible.

Across: I am convinced this works just like good parents work. There need to be fully aligned messages to the outside and working level, conflicts should be resolved face to face and behind the scenes, it is my experience that the ‘alignment factor’ between the C level directly translates into more or less smooth operations below.

What has been your biggest mistake? In the 90s I thought I had to build up my professional capabilities as an IT manager thoroughly, step by step, from networks to datacentres to applications to product development, from consulting to presales to tech management, etc. Although I still think this enables you to be a holistically thinking, highly effective professional, the approach led me to fail realising some of the greatest opportunities around. For example, in the framework of my doctoral thesis in the early 90s, I looked at a number of powerful, disruptive business models around online retail, banking, auctioning, etc. With hindsight, I should have started an online business like auctioning or book sales on the net myself, instead of writing a bunch of academic papers about it. However, I guess, there is lots of people with the same regret.

And your greatest success? Right from my first steps in the IT business in 1990, walking between business and technology thinking was key for me. The power of translation is enormous. The greatest success was to stick to this conviction, and apply it throughout the IT business in a pervasive way. Understanding IT operations, development, architecture processes, etc., and translating this into business opportunities, excellent products or more effective business processes is a really powerful asset…

How do you keep up to date with the march of technology? First of all: technologies come and go, but business success factors are rarely linked to specific technologies, much more to a number of simple principles around good strategies, clear business goals, good translation/interpretation in IT, and above all: clear, detailed focused execution, and the right team. When it comes to technology, I spend 1-2 hours per week on latest technologies hands on (down to coding examples, or hands-on tool usage), dedicated one-to-one technology coaching, and direct communication with tech key players (not only direct reports). 2x/year tech events Gartner etc., 1x/year visit your key partners, MS, Oracle etc.

How do you deal with stress? I believe in the stress-reducing power of the right mental attitude, including techniques around breathing, etc., which is well understood in meditation practices. I am not really a meditation practitioner, but rather take a mental attitude: this day will be full of stress triggers, both on the professional and personal front, the key is to take a strong mental stand; Philosophy also helps here: the Stoics maintain that adverse events can strike you anytime, and your mind can shape the world only to a very limited extent – even if you’d love to change the world with your thoughts. Most of the time, your mind simply has to deal with stress and adversity. You have to be prepared taking the right attitude at any point in time to deal with this.

The rest is simple effective stuff: run as much as you can (man is made for running), swim, evacuate tension and push it out through movement.

What profession would you most/least like to attempt? Least like: I could not be a lawyer, although I deal with them all the time.

Most like: CEO of a very large company

Which word or phrase do you most use/overuse? ‘Guys, we will only get this project off the ground if we ring fence the needed resources…..’

Which business (or other) books have been influential in your career? Michael Porter’ Competitive Forces Software development classics like the Mythical Man Month and others Stoics, in particular Seneca A range of books on timeless truths of strategy A number of history and economics books, all explaining why great powers, ideas and individuals fall or survive Schumpeter’s books on creative destruction

Do you have a sport you practise or sportsperson/team that you follow? I used to do half triathlons. I am still running and swimming regularly, once a year a week of bicycle. Lots of Badminton in the past.

What else do you do outside of work? I spend as much time as I can with my wife and three little kids, as well as with my friends and wider family.

Read Thomas Kiessling’s views on alignment for CIOs and CTOs.