CIO Spotlight: Mark Settle, Okta
Human Resources

CIO Spotlight: Mark Settle, Okta

Name: Mark Settle

Company: Okta

Job title: CIO

Time in current role: 2 years

Location: San Francisco, US

Education:  I studied Geology in college and went on to obtain a PhD. I published scientific articles and at one point was on my way to becoming a college professor.

A former Air Force officer and NASA Program Scientist, Mark Settle is a seven-time CIO with broad business experience across a variety of industries. He has led IT organizations that supported the global operations of Fortune 500 companies; maintained the R&D infrastructure required for software product development; and hosted customer-facing delivery systems for commercial products and services. Settle sits on the advisory boards of several Silicon Valley venture capital firms, has received multiple industry awards, and is a three-time CIO 100 honoree.


What was your first job? My first full-time job after college was as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. My first commercial job was as a Research Director at ARCO’s R&D lab in Dallas, Texas.

Did you always want to work in IT? I couldn’t even spell IT when I was in school! I learned how to program, but had no interest in computer systems or software engineering.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I would characterize my career path as opportunistic. That’s a polite way of saying that I’ve bounced around a bit. I’ve been fortunate to work in a series of companies that vary significantly in terms of their size, location and industry. Nevertheless, the central theme of my post-geology career has always been technology management.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organization in the coming year?  We’ll be making investments in three key areas in 2018:

  • We currently employ over 150 Service as a Service (SaaS) applications to support our internal business processes. We have no legacy on-premise business applications. We can easily add or subtract individual applications to our SaaS portfolio as we expand the scale and complexity of our business operations. In 2018, we’ll be investing in new capabilities to support our sales and marketing efforts in general, and our partner distribution channel in particular. 
  • Another focus area is endpoint security. We have a formal bring your own device (BYOD) policy regarding employee devices, so it’s critical that we secure access to company information from a wide variety of end-user platforms.
  • And finally, we’ll continue to make investments in collaboration tools. These are becoming increasingly important as we open new offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The overriding priority for our entire executive team is growth –  growth in the diversity and utility of our products, growth in the number of customers we serve, and growth in our international operations. The challenge of IT is to support this growth while keeping costs down and constantly improving the efficiency of our internal work processes. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on formalizing our internal Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) processes in 2018 and improving the efficiency of core procedures for incident, problem, change, configuration and capacity management.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Every CIO role is a little different, and as a seven-time CIO, I’ve learnt this from personal experience. The responsibilities invested in the role are determined by the business challenges faced by individual companies and the relationships that a CIO builds with other members of the executive team. Some CIO roles include responsibility for product development, supply chain operations, information security, business operations, etc. In each case, the mix of responsibilities is determined by current business needs and the current level of trust in the CIO. My expectation is that those responsibilities will continue to evolve as business needs evolve, and that’s a good thing for the industry and those of us in IT.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasize customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? The term “digital transformation” has been so overused that in many circles, it has become cringe-worthy, so I hesitate to claim credit for leading one! But I continually try to evaluate the effectiveness of the collaboration tools we’ve deployed within our company. We have tools for email, file-sharing, messaging, document co-authoring, information sharing, project management, video conferencing, etc. There’s a continual need to balance the standardization of tools to promote enterprise-wide collaboration, while at the same time enabling small teams to creatively leverage non-standard tools that are uniquely suited to their needs. Collaboration tools play a critical role in digitally transforming the inner workings of every company and should not be left to chance.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Every major function within our company employs an extensive set of metrics to monitor its performance and IT is no different. We’ve established KPIs to monitor the effectiveness of our employee support services, our ability to complete business-requested projects on-time and on-budget, and our ability to supply data from our data warehouse to support routine business operations and inform strategic decision-making.

What does good culture fit look like in your organization? How do you cultivate it? When I recruit new employees to our organization, I specifically look for personal maturity, technical expertise and a diversity of business experience. In a rapidly growing company such as ours, we need people who work well with others, extend our skill base and understand the internal business operations of large enterprises. Successful individuals typically display high levels of energy and dedication and they bring an instinctive sense of urgency to their work assignments.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The toughest jobs to fill these days are generally in the areas of data analysis and information security.  There’s obviously explosive interest in individuals with artificial intelligence and machine learning experience, but there’s still ongoing demand for individuals with business intelligence and data warehousing expertise. Additionally, the information security field continues to expand and there’s heightened demand for individuals with experience in building technology architectures to secure critical systems, running security operations centers to deal with alerts and incidents, and enforcing controls required to maintain compliance with external standards such as PCI, SOX, ISO, HIPAA, etc.

What's the best career advice you ever received? During the very early stages of my career a mentor told me: “Stop worrying about the next position you think you should have – just do the best possible job you can in your current position and you’ll be amazed by the opportunities that you will be offered”. He was absolutely right!

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. We maintain succession plans for every senior management position within our organization at the Director level and above. I review these plans on a quarterly basis to assure myself that our emerging leaders are being given the opportunities they need to develop the capabilities required for future career advancement. I specifically look at their current and near-term work assignments to ensure that their analytical, organizational and people management skills are being tested. Equally important, I look for evidence that our leaders have stopped doing their former jobs. All too often individuals develop a comfort zone around the performance of their current responsibilities and they continue to perform many aspects of their former positions after they’ve been promoted. True leaders embrace the expansion of their roles and responsibilities. They proactively leverage the opportunities afforded by their new positions to achieve an even greater impact on the overall organization.  

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Technologists have a tendency to prioritize technology over process, and process over people in the ways they elect to use their time. Leaders focus on people, process and technology in that prioritized order. No single individual has the time or intelligence to cope with all the issues confronting an IT organization. That’s why you have to hire people who are smarter (and sometimes even more experienced!) than you are, and mold them into effective teams. Successful leaders figure that out pretty early in their careers.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Five individuals who reported directly to me in the past have gone on to become CIOs in their own right. Others have taken on IT leadership positions with broader management responsibilities. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that in some small way I assisted these individuals in advancing their careers.

I also published my first book roughly a year ago. It’s called Truth from the Trenches and is intended to be a practical guide to IT management. I’m hopeful that the career lessons I’ve shared in the book will help emerging leaders avoid some of the management pitfalls I experienced. I never intended to write a book, but sharing the lessons I’ve learned with aspiring leaders has turned out to be a very rewarding (and cathartic!) experience.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I have absolutely no regrets about the sequence of roles that I’ve held, but I sometimes wish that my work experience on the vendor side of the IT industry had occurred earlier in my career. CIOs spend so much time dealing with vendors that it’s extremely helpful to understand their goals and business imperatives in crafting mutually beneficial relationships.



What are you reading now?  A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic by John Ferling. It is a fascinating rendition of the founding of the American republic and the tug of war that occurred between a conservative faction led by George Washington and a liberal faction led by Thomas Jefferson, without all the usual hero worship that accompanies most historical descriptions of that era.

Most people don't know that I… Studied actively erupting volcanoes when I obtained my Masters in geology.

In my spare time, I like to… Tour battlefields. They dramatically underscore the importance of clear, timely and frequent communication.  More than half of what goes wrong in almost every historical battle can be attributed to faulty communications.

Ask me to do anything but… Leap out of an airplane – too much like coming to work in IT everyday… anything can happen!



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