GE Healthcare CTO Says IT Needs to Embrace Mobile, Cloud to Remain Relevant
GE Healthcare CTO Nevin Zimmermann talks with IDG Enterprise Chief Content Officer John Gallant about mobile, cloud, big data and more. Zimmermann also discusses how his team is evolving and why CIOs must embrace technology changes.
By John Gallant
Nevin Zimmermann has a lot on his plate right now — mobile, cloud, big data, running hosted solutions for a couple hundred major customers. Oh, and don’t forget helping GE Healthcare capture new global business opportunities — especially in emerging markets — and navigating the dramatic changes reshaping the healthcare industry everywhere.
Zimmermann, chief technology officer, IT & Process Excellence for GE Healthcare, joined the GE family in 1999 and earlier served in a couple of CIO roles for the global giant. In this installment of the IDG Enterprise CIO Interview Series, Zimmermann spoke with Chief Content Officer John Gallant about how his team is evolving to realize the promise of mobility and why cloud is taking on such a vital role in his IT strategy (hint: that big data thing is a big driver).
Zimmermann also talked about why it’s so important for CIOs to embrace the massive changes taking place in technology today and how those changes — far from diminishing IT — are creating new opportunities for collaboration and engagement with the business.
You have a CTO title, and that’s one that means a lot of different things in different organizations, whether it’s on the vendor side or the customer side. How do you define that role of the CTO?
It’s a great question, and it’s even different within GE in different places. And the CTO role in [GE} Healthcare is changing, too — it’s changing as we speak. In many organizations the CTO role is more of an architecture-only, or maybe standards and design. But my role has been one of both design-build-run and strategizing. I have everything from enterprise architects to networks in the data center, up to and including a commercially-facing hosting opportunity, where we run almost as a mini-P&L hosting applications for our customers. I’ve got operations, enterprise architecture, database, project management, compliance, because we’re a regulated environment as well, so we have to have a compliance team. It’s different than many of the traditional, just pure architecture and design/secure roles.
What are the strategic business initiatives for GE Healthcare and how is the company being reshaped by all that’s going on in the healthcare landscape today?
I would also talk more about the global market as well.
Yes, I definitely want to go into that. That was my next question, actually.
If you don’t mind, I’ll tie the two together, because I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. When you talk about regulations or the changing landscape, it’s changing all over the world. At [GE] Healthcare, we are doing as much business outside the U.S. as inside the U.S., if not a little bit more at this point. We continue to see that shifting into emerging markets, and in emerging markets you have some unique and different opportunities. I was in Algeria, Moscow and Istanbul earlier in the year, and if you look at things as a U.S.-centric market or European-centric market, they don’t readily translate.
That could be from the shape of the network to the shape of an operating room. It’s very different, requiring innovative and different solutions, both technically and from a product perspective. Reaching further into emerging markets right now is a huge initiative, and being able to have products that can deliver in those emerging markets.
Again, as an example, whether you’re in Israel, India or Algeria, being able to design products that can work in the local market. That could be making sure that we have the right features or the right ability to actually deliver it. One of our products, a portable ultrasound, you can put it in your hand. Those become very important in emerging markets where you don’t have all of the features and all of the products available. What’s interesting about that is then technically, how do you move information around, as well?
From your team’s perspective, what are the key initiatives in order to drive forward these business opportunities?
From an IT perspective, we mostly support the enterprise. Traditionally, if you think about application development — how have we developed applications in IT for a long time? We build them where we believe we have lots of network capacity, computing capacity, wireless capacity.
What we haven’t done is design for mobility. Mobility, I think, is actually more important maybe in the emerging markets than it is in the developed markets. The reason being that in a lot of these markets, it’s the only way some of these folks are connecting.
What does that require of your team, and how do you capture that opportunity?
I think there are a couple of things on that. One is you’ve got to have a mindset, and it’s not so much about the mobile device, but about designing for mobile first. I use my apps now on my phone for 80 percent of what I do, maybe 90 percent of what I need to do. When I need to do something more I’ll go to the Web app or I’ll go into a [physical] location. But many applications we all build anywhere I’ve ever been, are sometimes for that 20 percent. [They] become very heavy.
Think about your phone, right? What can you do on your banking app? You can do maybe five or six things. But those five or six things cover 80 percent of what you need to do. When you start thinking about mobile first, you build simpler apps, which are easy for people to use whether they’re on a phone or they’re on their desktop. They become more efficient, they become leaner, they become cheaper, they become more global, they become more transportable and, quite honestly, I think you get higher adoption rates of the app itself. Then for the 20 percent of the people who really need something [extra], you can build something separate for them as well.
So what it does mean, Nevin, for the way you structure the team? How do you get to that mobile-first mentality?
It’s a good question, and we’re really in the midst of that right now. To say that we’ve done it would be an overstatement. But you’ve got to do a couple of things. One is you really have to retrain an organization. Number two is you have to start thinking about things that you didn’t think about before, like user experience and UI, because the UI is dramatically different in mobile than it is for on premise.
The third part is really being able to work with your vendors. Because if you think about the world we live in in IT, much of what we deliver today are also package solutions as well. You have to look at those three areas. You have to understand how to design the UI. You have to work with your vendors to make sure you have the right products. And there’s a retraining and an understanding of what are the key requirements vs. ‘I’m going to go out and collect all their requirements and build an app.’
You’ve mentioned two pretty significant things that your team has to transform around. One is this idea of understanding the global market that the products will play in, and then understanding this mobile-first mindset. How do you manage that transformation?
Correct. It’s the same question, I think, from a leadership perspective around any change. First of all, you have to have a vision and you have to be able to change the culture with that vision. I heard this the other day from someone: ‘Vision eats culture’. I think we’ve all been in environments where you say: ‘We’ve really got to change’. And people say: ‘Well, I don’t see why I should change. It’s been working like this for us for a really long time’. And actually it has been — we’ve been very successful in the model we’re in. But what I’ve been laying out for the organization is: ‘Look at the pace of technology change. It’s not that we aren’t doing well. It’s that we need to evolve as an industry. IT needs to evolve or we’ll become irrelevant. Things are moving too fast’.
So back to your question — How do you get people to change? You have to lay out that transformation for people. Because if you don’t, organizations will just naturally snap back to what they were doing yesterday. If you don’t create that vision, if you don’t help people understand why, if we keep doing the same thing, you become irrelevant, you can’t expect any change.
I ask everyone in the room who’s wearing a watch to raise their hand. Almost everybody raised their hand except people who had cell phones. Okay, of those people holding their hands up, how many of you people have a watch that has moving parts in it? Only one person kept their hand up. And I said — That’s because we’ve gone digital, and think about that. If you were a watch maker, how many watch makers are there today?
Now the ones that are left are really good and important, but the reality is that technology has really eliminated the need for watchmakers, except for a few. And I think in this industry, getting back to your question — How do you effect changes?, you have to get people to understand that technology changes the way we work. And for us not to become irrelevant to the business, we need to change and evolve as well.
So do these kinds of changes require that your team have more interaction, not with internal customers, as they’ve always had to, but with external customers as well, to understand those needs and the environments better?
That’s a great question. We do, but there’s also an individual, Evren Eryurek, who has been named Software CTO for [GE Healthcare], so we also have a group that is solely focused on transforming our product development as well. Someone on my staff sits on his staff, so that we can work together to provide the solutions. We work very collaboratively on that.
I wanted to talk about a big initiative that the CEO of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, has been very vocal about, this whole idea of the Internet of Things. What does that mean for you and your team? What kinds of opportunities and challenges does that present you?
A lot. Good ones though. I think No. 1, it helps folks understand the transformation that we were talking about. It really puts it in business terms, which I think is a great driver. It’s also, as we were talking about earlier, an interesting challenge for us internally in areas like big data and how do we ensure privacy. I think in IT we’ve always felt we play in big scale. We do big ERP systems, big reporting systems. This makes some of that look relatively small.
So what kinds of initiatives does it drive within healthcare, and how is your team helping to enable those?
One of the biggest things it’s driving for IT organizations is a much faster adoption of cloud computing as well. And let me explain why that’s happening. Cloud is a tough word, because it’s everything to a lot of people. But traditionally we’ve been very good at providing scale. When you talk about big data, we have to be able to scale up and scale down. And traditional IT departments struggle tremendously, at least in my experience. We’ve always struggled with scaling down. We know how to scale up. We know how to add more.
The other problem that IT has is traditionally, internally, when we look at these things, when you get to an inflection point you get more capacity and then you fill that capacity. But that is not a very linear approach to cost. You spend the money and then you make a big investment. You spend money so you make a big investment.
I think for companies, when you get into big data, that’s much harder to do. I’d much rather leverage someone else’s investment and be able to flatten out those steps and make it more of a smooth line up and down. And so big data is really causing us to think more about how do we create that next environment between internal and external so that we can leverage that? Think of it as a straight line or a smooth line going up and a smooth line going down vs. the stair step going up and down, which is very tough for internal organizations, especially IT.
This whole Internet of Things and big data create these opportunities for IT to become more of a driver of revenue-based services. What kind of things are you thinking about in that area?
On the commercial side, and the Internet of Things, you’ve heard Jeff talk about this as well. We’re collecting more data. In healthcare we have a very large install base of equipment out there where we can do proactive measurements on systems. We can collect information from our MRI and CT machines and do preventive maintenance. We recently acquired a pathology business. And you start looking at the amount of data that you collect from that as well as you start looking at moving toward molecular biology.
These are not small steps in the amount of data you’re talking about. You’re talking about exponential growth of data. It’s just exponential. You get into molecular biology or pathology, that’s much, much higher. And we start digital, the CT or MRI with a lot of data. Now you’re talking about an order of magnitude higher, the amounts of data coming in, which is causing us to rethink how and where we build networks and how we build data centers and how we collect all the information. It’s a total rethinking. And there are certain immutable laws like the speed of light you have to take into account.
I want to go back to your point about that design, build and run triad. How do you move everyone in build to design and run? I know you’ve got an aggressive time table. Can you talk about that process and that transformation?
The transformation is very similar to what I talked about before. Again, this is where I think IT needs to evolve or we become really irrelevant to business. Think about the evolution, starting seven years ago or so, where we thought virtualization was how we were going to get scale. It actually worked quite well — the density and the number of servers that we were able to get, and reduce costs and provide faster service. When you look now at some of the external factors, the cloud providers, whether that’s an Amazon or HP or Oracle, the build process, we’ve always done this in silos. That introduces an enormous amount of time and rework.
But just like PCs, where years ago you’d have to build a core load and distribute it out to PCs, today you turn on your PC and you get updates from Apple or Microsoft. The build process itself, it’s very repeatable, and very easy to automate. And quite honestly, unless you get into specialized areas, obviously you have specialized builds just like the watchmakers, the value isn’t there.
There’s a lot of time that’s spent in getting the machine, laying down an OS, putting on a database, putting on the middleware, adding these layers in place. And for what? Most of the time you’re taking it down and putting it back up again. Where Amazon has done a great job of doing Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), what we haven’t got to, is the Platform-as-a-Service. So by taking those processes and using the tools that are available and automating it, you can virtually eliminate that middle step.
You can improve quality because it’s repeatable and actually, from a compliance perspective, we can actually show that we’re more compliant because we can show that the steps we’ve done we’ve actually taken and you can document it and you can show it and it’s very consistent. The value is not in build anymore.
What really becomes interesting is operations. That now becomes a much more challenging job. It used to be just watching the servers and saying — What is available? How much computing power do they have? What’s CPU utilization on the database running? But computing power has become so powerful now we rarely look at that. That’s not what breaks from an operations perspective. The interfaces break. We’re doing on-premise-to-cloud integrations; we’re doing cloud-to-cloud integrations; middleware integrations. We don’t look at a lot of traditional metrics anymore.
You guys are making a big commitment both in terms of moving toward IaaS, as well as offering your own hosting services to customers. What concerns do you have about this transition to the cloud?
When you say transition into the cloud, if you’re only talking about external, that’s one thing. But when I talk about the cloud there’s the private cloud, there’s the public cloud and there’s the hybrid cloud. I think they’re going to be around for a while.
The mix will change over time, but I think just to say that there’s only going to be one cloud in the next 12 months, I think that might be a little bit ahead. We’ve got to make sure, from a Healthcare perspective, we are compliant. From a GE perspective there are guidelines we have to make sure that we’re compliant with, and we’ve got to make sure when we change the mix, that we do not sacrifice anything in privacy or security or anything around governance, that we make sure that we apply the principles and we adapt them to the new technology. I think now our job is to figure out not how to say no, but to say how.
How do you see the role of senior IT, such as yourself, changing?
As I mentioned before, IT has to be an organization of saying how, not no. I think traditionally a lot of times people, business would come and they’d say we want to use an external CRM system. We would say — No. We have this on-premise CRM and we have to use it, as an example. I don’t mean GE or GE Healthcare specifically, because I’ve been doing this for a number of years. I think traditionally IT has always been an organization of saying — No.
We need to do it this way. With the speed of things changing, we have to be an organization of how, not no, no. 1. Otherwise again, I’ll go back to my statement, we become irrelevant and people will go around us. They should. If we can’t provide the solutions for the businesses to grow, they should go around us. So I think that’s a huge change in the IT organization. It might be the biggest, as a fundamental shift. Once you do that you actually start changing people’s roles and positions, you have the power to change, but once you start with that mindset you actually start coming up with completely different thoughts on how to approach solutions. I also think IT has got to take more of a stance in simplification.
How is your relationship with the P&L leaders changing in the company?
I see it in a very positive way. I think there were parts of many organizations, say engineering or marketing, where it was traditionally difficult or challenging to work together, because they may have their own solutions or their own capabilities to do things on their own.
I think what we’re seeing now is a much more collaborative approach where you can take the knowledge of IT professionals and help in those areas. If we don’t have to own every solution then the business starts looking at you and saying, “Well, can you help us with the security model? You guys understand how to protect data or to provide privacy, or can you help us understand what vendors we should work with? We need guidance.”
We don’t become the roadblock because we’ve got to build it. We become the enabler because we can get them there faster. That’s a big shift, because traditionally IT departments have always wanted to do that, and then go build it, because that’s what we knew.
We have to start thinking very differently, because in the future we won’t own many of the things that we potentially own today, or we’ll own them in a different way, maybe is a better way to say it. We’ll manage it differently.
As we move into the mobile and cloud era, and we see the client-server era coming to an end, the set of strategic vendors changes fairly dramatically and will continue to change pretty dramatically. How do your expectations of your strategic vendor partners change as part of all of this?
I’m laughing because I just had this conversation with a vendor the other day. The vendors kind of created this to some degree with the cloud. But they’re very slow to adopt changes themselves. For example — and you can just pick any of the very large vendors out there — if you think about their pricing models, they still want to sell licenses because they get a big chunk of money up front. Then they want to sell maintenance. But if they want to move into this world, they’re going to have to move with us and they have to rethink their strategies on how they provide services. Because in this world I want to go up and down, so they’re going to have to change their models. And they’ve got to change fast. Because I think otherwise some small company is going to come along and eat them up, because they’re not going to be able to sell x number of millions of dollars of licenses up front.
How does that change the vendor management skill requirements for you and your team?
I think over time it’s going to change it a lot, because we become less concerned with some of the parts that we were concerned with in the past, and we have to be concerned with new parts. Again, I may be less worried about the actual hardware that it’s running on. But I’m much more concerned with the design and the operational aspect of it. They’re commoditizing themselves. I think it’s going to be really interesting for the folks who sell both hardware and software, how they manage through this. It’s going to be very interesting in the next couple of years.
What most excites you about IT today in terms of opportunity, in terms of the landscape ahead?
What excites me the most right now is it’s all changing. These kinds of changes you only see a couple of times, I think, in your career. I think this is a massive shift that we all have to be prepared for. This also makes it important to get it right, to get aligned to it better. Getting it right may be [too] strong. Because maybe at this point it’s a little early to get it right, but we want to be aligned to take advantage of it and leverage it.
If there were a mantra, if there were a theme for you and your team moving forward, what would that be? How would you encapsulate that in kind of a one-sentence theme?
In one sentence I would say IT, we need to change, and that will allow us to be much more relevant to the industry and to the business.