ServiceNow’s CTO on future-proofing tech priorities and moving faster in IT

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CIO Cloud Strategy

Knowing where to put your resources is a challenge for companies both big and small. Allan Leinwand, CTO of the cloud-service provider ServiceNow, shares his formula for deciding where his team should focus.


The Enterprisers Project (TEP): How does your team prioritize its research and development?

Allan Leinwand: Our R&D teams look to strike a balance between product innovation and maintaining our product quality. As with any SaaS product with a large installed base where your customers depend on you for both of these initiatives, we needed a way to know when to tip the balance in either direction. We came up with a metric that allows us to look at the quality of each of our service offerings in a near real-time basis based on the customer incidents generated by each service. 

In other words, we prioritize innovating rapidly for products that cause fewer customer incidents and slowing down innovation and focusing on quality for products that generate customer incidents. We don’t think about the absolute number of customer incidents, but rather the slope of the line of incidents. 

If you have a product offering that is generating a lot of customer incidents, you need to focus on quality. If you have a product offering that is seeing good customer traction without generating incidents, you can innovate all day long. So, for us, we prioritize our R&D efforts by making sure we listen to customer issues, resolve them first and then focus on innovation.

TEP: How do you communicate the importance and prioritization of tech initiatives to your non-tech business counterparts?

LeinwandBeing that we are a cloud service, we communicate the importance and prioritization as follows: 1) making sure the cloud service is available to all customers, 2) making sure that the cloud service is securing our customer’s data, and 3) making sure the cloud service is performing to the expectation of our customers. Those are really table-stakes for running a SaaS service.

We measure ourselves on each of those metrics in a very precise and discrete manner that we believe is understandable to our non-tech business counterparts. We also then prioritize the advancement of our features and functions as I described above – driven in large part by balancing innovation and customer incidents. Our sales counterparts appreciate that effort, we believe.

TEP: What is the speed of IT? How can you react fast enough without jumping the gun on due diligence and research?

Leinwand: Ever since I have been in this business the speed of IT has been increasing. Today, the speed of IT needs to keep up with the business and be a partner for making the business successful. Long gone are the days where IT was the team of buying laptops, fixing printers, and getting mobile phone plans. Now, IT needs to build applications that drive the business forward – and that means providing transformational services to many different lines of business.

Now, IT needs to build applications that drive the business forward – and that means providing transformational services to many different lines of business.

From our perspective, we believe that cloud services are key to this transformation, and enabling IT to be the heroes for their enterprise is key to our mutual success. One method to react fast enough but not be stuck in analysis-paralysis is to use techniques such as low-code development and continuous integration to enable people in the enterprise outside of IT to develop applications using the cloud. 

Why does everyone across the business seem to build tools and graphs using Excel macros? Because it’s easy to understand, transferable between companies, and produces fast results. What if there was a cloud service that enabled something as easily accessible with similarly fast results for many other types of business applications but still with IT governance and control? That would allow IT to drive the speed of the business.

TEP: We have access to a ridiculous amount of data. What systems do you use to make sure your team isn’t overwhelmed by it?

Leinwand: We are fortunate enough to have access to our own cloud services that provide performance analytics and visualizations for vast amounts of data. So, to process and view the data in our cloud service, we use these tools. To help us operate our cloud service, we needed to develop a high signal-to-noise ratio in very large datasets to understand the health of our cloud. 

Imagine many thousands of servers, network devices, software modules, and so forth running in tens of locations across the globe. Now imagine trying to find when something is broken or is about to break and alert our customer with a high-fidelity signal in seconds. For that, we use open source frameworks to cull through this data.

TEP: Where will your tech focus be by the year 2020?

LeinwandWow, I used to think 2020 was a long way away, but now I realize that it’s only three short years from now. Similar to today, I think we’ll be focused on pushing ourselves on the three priorities that I mentioned above: availability, security, and performance.

We’re currently pushing toward 99.999 percent availability and I suspect that by 2020 our customers will want 99.9999 percent availability (that’s an average of 31.5 seconds of downtime a year), better security and faster reactions to security issues (I can’t imagine that in 2020 we’re going to be tolerant of mainstream security issues like we saw at [major retailers] over the past few years), and predictive analytics to avoid performance issues (the cloud will be able to anticipate a performance issue in minutes, hours, days and make the necessary changes automatically). 

We all know IT will be faster and more complex – but I suspect that in 2020 the business itself will be moving fast and tech needs to focus on how to match that speed or go faster.

I also think that a lot of our tech focus will be on leveraging machine learning to help IT process the even larger sets of data coming from IoT and system-to-system communication. The amount of data that will be generated when systems communicate will require IT to think differently – humans just can’t process that data today and, given that data will probably increase by a few orders of magnitude, we need a new way of thinking about the issues. 

Lastly, I think our focus will be simplifying the adoption of technology for the business. We need IT and the cloud to be easier to use, easier to configure, and easier to develop applications that the enterprises need for their businesses. We all know IT will be faster and more complex – but I suspect that in 2020 the business itself will be moving fast, and tech needs to focus on how to match that speed or go faster.

Damon Brown is a consultant and advisor for potential entrepreneurs, budding startups and established media companies. Damon’s latest book, "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur: 21 Ways to Ignite Your Passion & Pursue Your Side Hustle," shares the tactics he used to lead his last startup, Cuddlr, to acquisition within a year.