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Rethink Everything: The Role of the CIO in a Digital-First World

Salesforce's CIO

Quick Take:

This is the first of a 3 part series designed to help CIOs navigate this new digital-first world by bringing together various respected industry voices to share their insights, opinions and commentary on relevant topics. The next two installments will focus on:

  • The CIO’s impact on employee experience (June)
  • How CIOs are helping their organizations adapt to the new hybrid working model (July)

Driving New Solutions:

The Chief Information Officer role has changed drastically over the last decade, and that pace of change accelerated even more in 2020.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about my job, especially given all that happened last year. But when our entire company went remote, my team played a key role in making that happen. Overnight, technology took center stage and some of the longer-term projects we were planning became imperatives. 

At Salesforce, we had a few specific Rubik’s cubes to solve during the COVID-19 crisis, and speed was the common underlying theme throughout. We took our Dreamforce conference virtual for the first time. We spun up all hands calls with 50,000 people in attendance to help keep our employees connected. And we launched—our platform for helping companies keep their employees safe and productive—in five weeks flat, drastically shrinking what would have typically been a months-long development process.

We did all this while maintaining our “day jobs.” My team went into 2020 with a plan, and we still had to deliver on that plan while tackling the new demands of a digital-first world.

And as 2021 marches on, it is becoming clear that the processes and technologies we implemented to adapt aren’t going away. In fact, they’re becoming permanent. The bottom line is the work of a CIO is more important and more dynamic than ever before. We need to work fast, stay agile, and come up with creative, lightning-fast solutions that can scale in days (if not hours).

Now, IT leaders across the globe are asking ourselves, “what’s next?” One of the best parts of my job is staying in touch with other IT leaders and lately, we aren’t just talking about technology when we discuss that question. We also cover culture, process, and the employee experience. 

I’ve asked a few to share their thoughts about what’s on the horizon so we can hopefully all learn from their collective experience.

Q. How has the CIO role changed the most over the last 12 months?

“CIOs had to help the rest of the enterprise work in a virtual world as quickly as possible. As a consequence, CIOs had to keep up with the relentless pace of an accelerated digital transformation. That left even less space for long-term strategies. As a result, CIOs became ‘doers’ and practitioners much more than agenda setters or five-year planners.” Paolo Malinverno, VP of Strategy and Innovation, MuleSoft 

“In my experience, pre-2020 CIOs tended to fall into one of two groups: those who were technically oriented and focused on IT operations, versus those who were business oriented and drove transformational change. What the pandemic did was blur the line between these two styles of leadership. Many CEOs probably leaned toward the former kind of CIO at first, because they had to deliver the technology to enable everybody to work from home. Suddenly, CIOs were setting up VPNs, guaranteeing internet capacity and reliability, and so on. But once that infrastructure was in place, then the transformational CIOs came into their own. Once we all got our home offices set up, many of us realized that ‘doing business’ had changed dramatically and permanently and that we’d have to evolve our technology to deliver a new experience from anywhere, to anywhere.” Craig Walker, SVP, Strategic Customer Advisor, Salesforce (former CIO, Shell)

“Time to value is more critical than ever before as digital transformation projects have become crucial to business operations. Now, failing to deliver high quality projects and releases on time can result in lost lives if you’re building something like a vaccine management app to avoid COVID-19 spread. It can also mean lost business as every company seeks to pivot to a new digital-first customer engagement model to survive.” Federico Larsen, CTO, Copado

“The landscape has changed over the past year due to the expansion of the digital workspace and the opportunities and vulnerabilities that inherently come with it. Organizations have suddenly experienced the need to be fully remote, and that means CIOs have to rethink the lines of connectivity between teams. A large part of the CIO role now is focused on ensuring employees are able to connect securely to conduct business in a remote way.” Leo Minervini, CIO, OwnBackup

“The last 12 months has accelerated the need to fuse a digital strategy with decisive action. The world has become ever more connected and, as a result, technology now plays a significantly bigger role in our lives and work. That’s been a steadily advancing trend, but COVID-19 was a major inflection point that has made it clear companies need a digital strategy and a plan to quickly implement it. The CIO’s job as it stands is about implementing that plan in an agile and iterative way, while deploying and operating online services, mobile, self-service, and all the other technologies and processes that encompass a digital strategy.” Casey Coleman, SVP of Global Government Solutions, Salesforce (former CIO, GSA)

Q. How has the accelerated adoption of digital technology impacted your job?

“With the amount of data flowing into organizations from various sources, we’re no longer talking about the data explosion. We are now fast approaching data chaos. And the challenge for CIOs in a data-driven organization is to control this chaos, harness the data, and turn it into an asset on which they can build success. CIOs have to do this in a way that balances trust in the data, while empowering people to do as much as possible with that data.” Andrew Beers, CTO, Tableau

“Fifteen years ago, I could have made a decision and not been proven wrong for five years – now I can be proven wrong in five weeks. CIOs need to adopt a continuous improvement mindset. They need to commit to setting aside 10 percent of their time every week to learning. A CIO now has to walk into board meetings and assure them that they’ve got everything under control from a cyber and security point of view, while also ensuring they have enough technology knowledge to make the right decisions that will set the company up for success in the future. It’s an exciting but tough balance.” Craig Walker, SVP, Strategic Customer Advisor, Salesforce (former CIO, Shell)

“This is a trend that you either get in front of or you get left behind. If CIOs aren’t acting decisively to execute a digital strategy, others in the organization will go find what they need themselves. A call center team can subscribe to call center software on their own. They don’t have to wait for the CIO to act in order to solve their problem. That agility is good, but it means solutions are developed in stovepipes, which can create problems. The CIO needs to get in front of this, in order to make sure that the work that’s being done is connected, secure, scalable, and supports a broader strategy.” Casey Coleman, SVP of Global Government Solutions, Salesforce (former CIO, GSA)

Q. What are the biggest challenges you’ll face in the year to come?

“CIOs will need to strike the right balance between traditional governance and letting people self-serve to discover data and take action on it. The organizations best prepared for the future will be the ones working on ways to harness and use all that new data to help them make better, faster decisions. But that’s not just about finding the right technology. Putting in the work to build a vibrant data culture within the organization is equally if not more important. To truly be transformative, organizations need to foster a culture where everyone treats data and analytics as a strategic asset.” Andrew Beers, CTO, Tableau

“The biggest challenge currently is in managing the workforce’s return to the office in a phased way that allows for a hybrid virtual model. That will mean taking advantage of an increasing number of technology producers outside of the IT world, while never forgetting to keep modernizing the existing foundational systems that drive productivity. Put those two factors together, and CIOs can build agile ways of working for agile workers.” Paolo Malinverno, VP of Strategy and Innovation, MuleSoft

“The three biggest challenges that CIOs face now are business continuity, risk mitigation, and recovery. To survive, businesses need to have their data in the cloud to provide them the necessary flexibility and autonomy. They also need to find ways to help customers run their business securely when operating remotely and provide services that keep their data safe, backed up and protected with access at any time. Finally, CIOs will have to think about how to safely and securely bring teams back together into this new world.” Leo Minervini, CIO, OwnBackup

“CIOs need to adopt a mindset and culture of continuous improvement and continuous innovation. Adaptability and agility should not end with the pandemic. All CIOs need to be in control of their development lead time, knowing exactly how long it takes to push a change in production, and they need to be in control of the quality and security of their deliveries. Releases must be delivered error-free to ensure the business runs smoothly, as production bugs and downtime are the biggest source of cost in IT projects.” Federico Larsen, CTO, Copado


CIOs must remember that their companies, the customers they serve, and the world around them are forever changed. That means our roles are even more multifaceted, with responsibilities that go far beyond providing traditional IT support. In the post-pandemic world, the CIO’s work is tightly interwoven with every strategic decision a company makes. 

There’s a natural tendency after a crisis to go back to how things were. It’s our instinct to return to what’s familiar. But I’d encourage any and all IT leaders to see this moment in time for what it is—an opportunity to rethink everything. We are building back better than before while leveraging the digital reach and efficiencies gained during our work from everywhere world.

Tune in to TrailheaDX on June 23 to hear from leaders from organizations like CarMax, RBC US Wealth Management and Deluxe about how they are helping their organizations adapt and succeed from anywhere. And please check back here later in June for the next installment of our CIO Cabinet Series.


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