by Byron Connolly

Being a CIO in a business built on innovation

Jul 14, 20146 mins
CareersData CenterInnovation

Not so long ago, Brian Lillie wanted to become a CEO. Instead, on the advice of a recruiter, he decided that being a CIO was perhaps a better fit.

It was. So much so that Lillie – CIO at the San Francisco office of global data centre provider Equinix – was last month named Silicon Valley’s CIO of the Year in the public company category of the Bay Area CIO Awards.

Lillie left Verisign in 2008 after almost seven years in IT, PMO, corporate strategy, and global sales operations roles. Prior to that, he spent just over three years at SGI and six years as a project officer and commander in the United States Air Force.

He recalls talking to a recruiter about pursuing a CEO role.

“He said ‘you could do it but there are plenty of CEOs that have more experience than you and will probably be tapped for the plum CEO jobs before you. But you have an extremely credible background to be a CIO’.

“It was excellent advice and a week after that advice came, I was called by an executive recruiter for the Equinix role. It was very serendipitous.”

Built on innovation

Lillie has been Equinix’s CIO since 2008 and since then, he’s made sure the organisation’s IT team has developed a partnership with the business that exceeds that of a traditional service provider.

Like many other CIOs, Lillie is adamant that IT needs to be run like a business with a service-oriented structure that enables the organisation to grow and innovate.

“You can have run of the mill IT work that is important for employee satisfaction and I never want to denigrate that, but you need to run IT like a business.

“You need to squeeze it as much as possible so that you can shake out not only money but management bandwidth to focus on innovation,” he says.

And creating innovative products is certainly high on the list of priorities for Equinix’s IT group. Last month, the company unveiled the Equinix Cloud Exchange, a service that enables organisations to gain on-demand access to multiple cloud and networks across the world. The organisation has also been building some unique apps that improve the way it interacts with customers.

“I think we have a real focus on innovation,” he says. “We’ve focused a lot on building customer portals and mobile apps to help customers deal with the company in a pretty unique way,” he says.

Last year, Lillie and his IT team built a global customer app that enables customers to place orders, view their bills, and look at their inventory online.

Up to 35,000 transactions per month are completed using this online app, which is also available on Apple or Android mobile devices.

“We don’t have all the functions on a mobile app but the most frequently used services like being able to place a visit request and accept an inbound shipment – all of those things our customers can now do on their mobile devices,” he says.

Earlier this year, the IT group created the Equinix International Business Exchange (IBX) Map app.

Photographs of one of the organisation’s IBX data centres were built into the iPad app, which enables Equinix’s sales people to provide rich content to customers who tour the data centre building.

“We’re using MobileIron as our internal app store and we’ve been publishing mobile applications over the last year and a half,” says Lillie.

The IT group has also worked hard to help the company’s sales staff communicate more effectively with CIOs at existing and potential customers.

“Until recently, I owned the global solution architecture function – I helped get that started – but I’ve since transferred that the CTO,” he says.

It’s a customer-facing role designed to convince CIOs that “you don’t have to be Facebook, Twitter or Google to have their kind of infrastructure,” says Lillie.

“We really are successful in converting prospects if we have a customer go on tour and see one of our facilities,” he says.

Equinix is a technology organisation but that doesn’t necessarily make innovation any easier, says Lillie. Each year, the organisation’s operational and capital expenditure on IT is well within Gartner benchmarks for spend per employee.

He says an organisation like Equinix has a lot of technical people who ‘feel they can do IT’, which is also a challenge.

“There are many examples where a solution architect or engineer wherever in the world sends me notes say ‘hey I built this really cool app’ or ‘I want you to check out this provider of mobile apps’ or ‘have you seen this latest expense reporting software?’ I get that from highly technical people … so you have to have a lot of patience,” he says.

Getting a seat at the table

Lillie says he has previously looked at other IT leadership roles in other industries such as manufacturing where IT is still viewed as a cost centre and not as strategic or core to the business.

“I report to the CEO, I have a seat at the table with the presidents of the regions. The situation at Equinix is perfect because I have a growing global platform that believes in what we are doing with a set of executives that are my peers,” he says.

The ability to communicate well and be ‘story tellers’ is what makes a good CIO, he says.

“[CIOs] have to be passionate what they do and if they throw at a board member [rhetoric about] technology for technology sake, they are nuts, they’re never going to win,” he says.

And Lillie has a five step recipe for success, which he shares with the company’s sales staff who are selling to other CIOs. The first step is to determine the current state of “whatever it is you want to change,” he says.

Step two is determining the issues with the current state.

“You have to excite them [other executives] or perturb them, make them uncomfortable,” he says.

Step three involves panting a picture of the future state infrastructure, explaining what it could look like and how it will help the organisation secure more customers.

“Tell them, ‘here’s how we can drive customer satisfaction, increase revenue and cut costs and drive employee satisfaction,’” he says.

The fourth step is to determine how the proposed future state solves the issues or take advantage of the opportunities that have been identified in the current state.

Step five is to lay out a roadmap detailing the time and resources required to transform the business and the role you as a CIO will play.

“That recipe I think CIOs need to realise – is that it’s important to share, communicate and story tell inside their own organisations.

“I don’t think CIOs place enough value on that communication skill. It’s easy to manage out of fear and out of the back office than it is to step out and be a leader from the front office from a position of passion. And sometimes that’s risky,” he says.