Leaning in with Cisco’s ‘disco’ CIO, Jacqueline Guichelaar

We talk to Cisco Group CIO Jacqueline Guichelaar about the tech giant’s response to COVID-19, what it means to be an effective tech chief today, the importance of women and diversity in the profession and the power of 70s disco.

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Cisco

COVID-19 has made an already powerful spotlight burn a little brighter for Cisco’s Group CIO, Jacqueline Guichelaar.

The Australian expat was certainly no stranger to the challenges of facilitating secure remote working at scale, but the task of enabling it for all of the company’s 140,000 staff – as well as some 30,000 contractors and an entire community of supply chain workers – wasn’t something she would have considered when she took the job in February last year.

“When we originally started realising what was happening in China we jumped right on it,” she tells CIO Australia. “We saw the challenges they had just to keep the company going.”

It took the team just 10 days to have everyone up and running working remotely, up from between 10,000 and 20,000 prior to the crisis.

Guichelaar acknowledges that without Cisco’s own deep expertise and technology there’s no way the job could have been done in such a short time frame, suggesting that companies of similar size would take 6-12 months to achieve the same “without the right underlying technology platform.”

Being the CIO of a major technology vendor is not something many of her peers will ever do, and she accepts some may consider it to be a difficult challenge making the best technology decisions while balancing the commercial interests of the firm.

With Cisco’s broad portfolio of solutions it’s fair to say it’s by far and away its own preferred supplier, although Guichelaar stresses that the company’s growing deployment of hybrid cloud has seen it procure services from a widening array of other solution providers.

“We’re using some SaaS offerings we don’t build ourselves. We’re buying more commodity software and infrastructure where we need to,” she says.

Invariably being the CIO of a technology firm demands that you have some part in actual product development.

At Cisco Guichelaar is one of the key voices in the company’s ‘Customer Zero’ initiative, which brings her and the IT team together with all the engineers bringing ideas to life in the labs, and then figuring out how to scale them for customer deployment.

“I’m injecting the team further into the development life cycle.”

This in turn ensures she has a complete understanding and hands-on experience with every aspect of the portfolio, knowledge she is frequently asked to draw on in yet another role as an enterprise solutions consultant.

The concept is that all products and services Cisco sell to other CIOs around, Guichelaar - and Cisco - are also customers.

“We could potentially provide advice on things that don’t look like they’re working,” she explains, adding “CIOs often ask questions like ‘how did you deploy App Dynamics’?”

Banking experience

It’s not the first time Guichelaar has worked on the supplier side. Her first IT job after graduation was as a director of information technology with IBM in Sydney where she worked from 1993 to 1999, followed a by a three-year stint with the same title at DXC (formerly CSC).

For the next 14 years she really cut her teeth in the financial services sector, beginning with three and half years as CIO (Europe, Middle East, Africa) with Deutsche Bank, based in Frankfurt. Clearly not averse to major relocations, she then returned to Australia as GM for National Australia Bank’s technology operations, working out of Melbourne for the next 12 months.

Then it was back into the Deutsche Bank fold, this time as global head of technology production (Americas) based in New York for three years. Two years later Guichelaar was heading across the pond to London having been anointed the bank’s CIO of group IT. Following that it was two years running IT for Lloyds Banking Group and a year as CIO with media stalwarts Thomson Reuters before becoming CIO as Cisco in February 2019.

She reflects that while the finance sector is clearly at the vanguard of digital transformation and innovation, its inherent regulatory and security constraints contrast sharply with the tech sector, making it relatively harder to drive change.

“In financial services it’s harder to drive change faster because you have more regulations, more checks and balances: You’re always having to find the right balance between security, speed and agility.”

Now with over year in the top tech job at Cisco Guichelaar says: “I’ve found a nice convergence of how tech companies run their organisations and how banks run their organisations and how to bring both worlds into one.”

In particular she feels the two industries have helped her refine an appreciation of the importance of creating great CX, and how best to achieve it.

“We’re [Cisco] very fast at those things. But we don’t compromise.”

Asked to nominate the most transformational technologies over the past five years, she continues down this same road.

“You could argue that’s an obvious statement but I’d say it’s the concept of self-service CX and how to you allow a customer to buy solutions that make it really easy for them to buy, download and implement," she says.

“The biggest transformation is development of solutions that make it easier to help customers get what they need. Everything we do should be about putting customers front and centre and making their lives better.”

It’s one of the most repetitive mantras in business yet still the message is failing to get through to technology managers. “Too many times I feel IT professionals don’t put the customer first.”

It doesn’t need to be complex, rather CIOs should focus initially on getting the fundamentals right.

Guichelaar has been closely involved with the development of Cisco.com, and notes the power of one its simplest capabilities.

“If a small customer in Australia goes onto Cisco.com, we should be able to identify them and send them to our people in Australia. A big enterprise customer on the other hand will likely be routed to the international sales team.”

Looking ahead to the next five years, Guichelaar believes that conversations about technology will be even more dominated by networks, collaboration and security.  

“The ability to be able to transact in a digitised way means we design our networks, security and collaboration to be at the centre of everything we do,” she says.

COVID-19 will accelerate this transition even further.

“Network collaboration and data centres have been at the heart of the industry for a long time: Now COVID-19 has made that front and centre,” Guichelaar stresses. “More people will communicate and collaborate via the internet into the future.”

In a more fundamental sense, she believes the crisis has also forced people to go back to the 'heart of what technology is', to discover what the new paradigm means for their organisation and to ensure they’re able to scale their digital platforms by a factor of two, three or more to meet demand and maintain continuity in the future.

A man’s world

Something that strikes you talking to Jacqui Guichelaar is how down to earth and self-effacing she is. Long stints abroad – California is home at the moment – have done nothing to dilute her distinctly Australian accent, developed growing up in suburban Sydney.

This despite being one of the highest profile – and influential – CIOs working today. And a women in one of the most male dominated professions around.

According to the 2018 ‘Harvey Nash KPMG CIO survey’ women held just 12 per cent of senior IT roles across the globe.

Having enjoyed the success she’s had, naturally it’s difficult for Guichelaar to conceive of it being a disadvantage being a woman, although she acknowledges that things do need to change.

But she cautions against forms of affirmative action such as quotas, arguing that organisations need to think more in terms of 'diversity'.

“Since I was a young girl my philosophy has always been about diversity of thought,” Guichelaar explains. And fighting for her own voice – whether in English, Spanish and Italian – has always come naturally, having been born in Uruguay before migrating to Australia with her family in the 70s.

And while something of a cliché for South American people, music is an important outlet and something which resonates diversity and creativity in Guichelaar’s own life. Only it’s not so much about candombe, murga or tango, rather 70s and 80s disco that gets her moving.

Another thing you’re unlikely to know about this unlikeliest of global CIOs is she’s no slouch as a DJ, more than willing to get on stage spinning the decks herself to help the party along.

In fact, her next certification may be a little left of field for one of the world’s top CIOs.

“I keep threatening I’m going to start my DJ lessons.” 

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