Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Qualcomm’s Cisco Sanchez on structuring IT for business growth

Sep 28, 202313 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

The SVP and CIO takes a business model first approach to establishing an IT strategy capable of fueling Qualcomm’s ambitious growth agenda.

Cisco Sanchez stylized
Credit: Qualcomm

As senior vice president and CIO at Qualcomm, Cisco Sanchez leads a global IT organization laser focused on setting the company up to achieve scale and speed in a world of complexity. Sanchez’s organization was honored with a CIO 100 Award at this year’s CIO100 Symposium Awards and Event, recognizing the innovative work his team is doing to deliver business value.

Sanchez joined me for a leadership masterclass at the symposium, offering a closer look at his digital transformation roadmap, including his foundational pillars for leading “tech inside of tech” and the five things he is doing to set people up for success as the company scales by moving into new markets. That conversation was recorded live for an episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast. Later, we spent some more time talking about what matters — or what should matter ­— to CIOs today. What follows is that discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: Having the right frameworks or models matters. Legendary CIO Charlie Feld has observed that you apply the models he’s developed but approach things very differently than most CIOs, and that has become a big differentiator for you and your company. Can you unpack these models and how you approach each to bring value as a business leader first?

Cisco Sanchez: Charlie Feld is truly the godfather of helping CIOs drive efficiencies and gain speed. He has a framework that we follow to ensure good discipline and structure and to give you something to shoot for. There are actually six models, but in the six, three things kind of get grouped together.

The first is understanding the business or the market, known as the business model: What do we do as a company? Do we have a hybrid approach? Do we do distribution differently? Where are our warehouses? How do you drive change? It’s about truly understanding what the business does. To do that, you have to be entrenched in, how does the business function? How are we operating? What does it look like regionally, globally, etc.?

Once you have that model nailed, then you move to the other models. The next grouping, which he calls the technical systems model, looks at how you want to drive the business from a technology stack. In other words, now that I understand the business, the technology drives how things are connected. Are they connected in a way that’s easy to decompose? Is everything point to point?

Next is the enablement model, which is really three things: understanding your economics — how are things funded, where are they funded at, what is the breakout of your resources? Then there’s how we do work. Do we do it in a waterfall, safe, agile format? What’s the structure of how we do the work? How’s the DevSecOps being illustrated? How are those things being broken out?

And then there’s an HR model within it that’s focused on how people are structured in the organization and are we skilling them properly. The enablement model is really focusing on how you get speed. And you spend a lot of your time driving for the enablement model to be successful because that’s how you allow the organization to take flight and start to move with speed and agility, and how you pivot to the next framework or capabilities for the company.

Could you drill down more on why it’s important to tackle the business model first?

The reason why you do the business model first is, one, you get to understand the business. You get to collaborate with the business partners. You get to identify how you care about the company, not just the technology, but what we’re trying to accomplish, what the business goals are, what are the things that are going to drive change within the business, where are the big bets we’re going to be making.

By doing that first, what it’s giving you is credibility with the business. You’re wanting to help drive change with them. You understand where the current state is, you understand where the future state is — where we want to be — and you start to define where the gap is on how to achieve it.

As an example, in Qualcomm’s current state, we do handsets. Tomorrow, we want to do automotive platforms and IoT. To make that change, there’s a stair step of capabilities that have to be established and understood. When you start creating new business markets, you can’t do it the way we’ve done business before. That business model doesn’t scale.

So the reason you do that first model is to understand the business and where you want to go and then identify what has to change to allow for that, which then feeds the technology model and the enablement model.

What does that look like?

Continuing with the Qualcomm case, when you’re looking at the business model and saying, ‘Here’s all the things that we have to do,’ the technology starts to form: We can’t ‘white glove’ people; we need to start creating more self-service. We can’t allow for an engineer to pull documentation; we need to start making the documentation more aware and self-service to ensure that multiple customers have access to it so you can democratize a lot of the capabilities while still maybe having your white glove activity for key customers that are important for the market.

Also, when you start looking at the technology, because the business model is changing, you start to identify patterns that are happening — of how you want to look at data, how you want to identify APIs, what type of people interaction you want to have so you can start to cater it differently. How do you cater to an IoT user? The way you go to market changes. The way your sales compensation is structured changes. The way you show key capabilities on your website has to change, because it needs to tailor to all of those different industries, not just the handset.

All of it matters. And the reason why I’m so excited about being in the role is I’m getting to see an industry that’s starting to change forms into something else, which allows for key technology enablers to be stood up and available to help drive change for the company. Again, that’s why the IT teams, CIOs, and CTOs are so important to help make the pivot into a different industry than they were before.

In the 18 months you’ve been at Qualcomm, the company has grown from a $30 billion to a $44 billion company. Your CEO recently made the proclamation during investor day that Qualcomm would become $100 billion company. Can you talk about those ambitions and IT’s role in them?

It’s happening, and I think there’s going to be an acceleration on all avenues. Handset is our bread and butter. It is what we do really well and it will continue to grow, particularly with this AI change factor that’s happening. I wouldn’t call it a hype cycle. It’s real. The AI on edge is going to be important to a lot of consumers that will help drive change in their cycle of how often they purchase a phone. With the phone handset business, we got really spoiled with great camera and battery life and apps. The next wave is this ecosystem around AI that’s going to generate more creativity and interaction for the end user.

As an example, let’s say I’m texting you and I tell you I’m going to be in town and we should grab coffee at a Starbucks near your house. You say that sounds great, and without me having to prompt anything, my AI engine pops up and tells me there’s a Starbucks near this spot and here are the directions, and I can send it to you. So the first one is this acceleration that’s going to happen with the mobile devices.

The second is in the automobile industry, where cars are becoming computers on wheels. Everything on the car has to be quick and allow for fast movement, understanding, and a capable, aware platform to ensure that you are interacting with updates and keeping everything fresh, from mapping to games to interaction. And that’s our sweet spot. If you add more stuff for your car, you need a Bluetooth interaction, which we do on the phone, and WiFi, which we do on the phone. And now you create this whole stitching of fabric of displays and content. It also has to continue to evolve and not get stale. Pushing of new updates into the vehicle is going to be super important, which we’re good at. So I think that’s a second way we’re seeing the acceleration.

The third is in this IoT growth area where the TAM [total available market] is something like $400 billion of just growth because of all of the key capabilities that are going to be driving efficiencies — from sensors on windmills so you can know when they need to be repaired to shop labeling in stores so you can update pricing very quickly versus having to change labels, or interacting with drones. This whole capability we’re good at, and I think you’re going to see continued acceleration because everything’s almost in motion right now.

The last is AI everywhere. And again, I think we’re pretty good at it. All that to say, the growth, even though it’s significant, is achievable. In IT, our requirements and responsibilities will include ensuring that you do that very profitably as you’re growing to these areas — that you have less duplicity, streamlined core capabilities, foundational components, and that you’re leveraging resilient applications frameworks to ensure that none of this ever goes down. That you have it secure, reliable, and also heavily supportable as you build these common components out. That’s how you get speed.

We know scale and speed matter, but it’s not easy in the face of so much complexity. What are some of the things IT is doing to enable the company to go faster?

Remember the big red easy button? What we’re trying to do is create easy buttons for a lot of capabilities. Another way you could say it is we’re creating reusable components or guardrails to allow for speed and agility to show up. Typically, when people think of guardrails, they think we’re restricting you from access to other parts. The way we’re thinking about it is, if we can get out in front of you, we allow you to go as fast as you want without falling off the road and getting into an accident. We allow you to identify where the curves and turns will be, where the slopes might happen, to allow for our business counterparts to go as fast as they want.

What that means, though, is we have to identify the methodologies, the capabilities, or frameworks that will help build resilient patterns, and the reusable items that can be leveraged quickly so you can start making the turn.

In terms of the methodology, we’re leading into an agile framework because we want to know in two weeks if the capability is right or we need to readjust. We can get speed and agility out of being able to go back faster. With the reusable components, we’re looking at the full stack, from hardware, networking, storage, all the way up to the stack of the UX design and saying, ‘How do we build the stack to ensure that we understand patterns really well?’ We’re building a stack that’s generic enough so that when the business starts throwing other items or capabilities that they need, we can focus on how this stack lines up so you have good architecture discipline.

Our enterprise architecture community is wrapped around these areas to say frameworks matter, how we do things matter, and here’s how we should build so we can be a reusable component versus having to rip something out and start all over. There’s a lot of standardization in the architecture that we’re putting in place and in the UX on how things are getting created.

Once you start to establish that architecture, bench, frameworks, capabilities, and methodology, you’re going to get speed; it’s just inherent. Because the next person that takes advantage of that component can use it and get it for a fraction of the cost. We built it for auto but IoT can use it, and I know it’s secure, it’s supportive, it’s resilient, it’s monitored, it’s alerted — they can pick it up and use it.

What we’re trying to show is that this can be done over and over again if we can identify the business model and understand where the business is heading and why it’s heading that way and start leaning in and creating capabilities.

If you had to boil it down to its essence, what’s most essential for driving the kind of change that’s necessary in a fast-growth environment?

Frameworks are important; culture will drive change. Even in the midst of issues, when you have a good strong culture, you can pick up and move and almost navigate around discomfort. But you need both. It’s not just that framework and capabilities and technology, you need the culture to drive the change.

This stuff is hard! When I came to Qualcomm, people asked me if it’s different than the last place, and the answer is, not really. We use the same tools, we have the same problems, the things we’re being asked to do are similar. The hardest part is people. Technology doesn’t have bias on how we do things. People do. And the people are all rooted in the culture of the organization. We have to drive change there so that the technology part is easier.

For more from Sanchez, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast for his CIO 100 Leadership Masterclass on “Unlocking Business Value — Digital Transformation that Goes Beyond Technology.”

Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."