by Ishan Bhattacharya

Smart CFOs Can Handle Excess Data: Alex Davern, National Instruments

Sep 23, 20144 mins

Alex Davern, COO, CFO, and EVP of National Instruments, talks about how can CFOs handle data overload and cope up with uncertain economic conditions.

Alex Davern, COO, CFO, and EVP of National Instruments, talks about how can CFOs handle data overload and cope up with uncertain economic conditions.

As the CFO and COO of National Instruments, what are the kind of challenges you generally face?

Handling business in this changing economy has been a challenge. Access to talented engineers is also hard to come by.

From a technology point of view, we generate analog signals which are turned into digital value and sent back to corporate or IT operations. In this case, one of the barriers is access to a secure wireless network. This has held back the proliferation of commercial technology into industrial applications. A critical game changer will be the introduction of robust security protocols in the market.

Cost and reliability also remain a challenge.

Today, a company is flooded with data. Do you think due to such information overflow, the decision-making process for a CFO is becoming slower?

This is not a problem exclusive to India. Companies all over the world do not know what to do with the information available and are struggling to make sense of the data they generate.

One needs to think about what can be done with all this data. To answer this, one should determine what is valuable to him and then accordingly drive his core IT infrastructure decisions. For a smart CFO, excess information can never slow down the process of decision making.

There is disconnect between the technology IT professionals are interested in and the business value that technology brings. One can’t implement a particular technology because it’s new, business heads look at the business value attached to it.

There are large enterprises which have almost 10,000 air-conditioners running. If the CFO or the CEO wants to bring down that two-billion-dollar energy spend to one billion dollars and if there is a technology addressing that, he or she will definitely implement it.

Therefore, things need to start from the perspective of business value. Things like IoT are very expensive, unless it has a considerable business value attached to it, it will never get a go-ahead.

How important do you think it is for a CFO to invest in new disruptive technologies like mobility and IoT?

When my IT professionals asks me the same, I struggle with the answer. I feel investing in disruptive technologies is almost worthless. The first thing I ask is tell me what is the business problem a new disruptive technology will solve?

As a COO and CFO, I need to connect any new technology to a business problem. Companies dealing in research and academics can afford to experiment with disruptive technologies, but in business, it needs to be connected to a business problem. Even though my IT team does not always agree, I tell them to go for simple technologies which solve business problems.

How do you deal with changing cost structures in an uncertain economy?

Products of National Instruments stay in the market for 15 to 20 years. Talking in terms of engineers, dealing with an uncertain economy is like ensuring that a machine works on all temperature ranges. From a business point of view, a CFO needs to have enough cash, for the company to have an upper-hand in decision-making.

CFOs get into trouble when they decide to have someone in the decision-making chain who is fundamentally out of his or her timeline. Say, you let a banker into your decision-making chain because you borrow money from him. Once you do that, they become the boss in times of requirement. The bank wants its money back and your company’s success does not really matter to them. It is essential to have strong financial backing.

During the 2009 recession, we did few interesting things to ensure our business remains strong. When is the best time to hire smart engineers? When nobody else wants to hire. That is what we did. In 2001 and 2009 we had access to tremendous talent because back then, even the best could not get a job.

We also brought back our stocks in February, March, April, and May of 2009, as they were inexpensive. Business sustainability is all about understanding the timeline of your market and choosing to control.