CIO Spotlight: Craig Williams, Ciena

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? "Our top priority is fostering our greatest asset - our people."

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What was your first job? My first job was at a tennis centre in Edmond, Oklahoma. I did everything from running the front desk to sales to maintenance. Professionally, however, I started out as a Network Manager at Cigna Insurance, where I led a regional claims office and was responsible for all systems and IT infrastructure.

Did you always want to work in IT? Originally, I wanted to be an architect, an oceanographer, and I later thought of working in marketing. However, once I took a few business classes in college, I knew I wanted to explore the business field and I eventually focused more on my core work in technology but with an emphasis on business. I was also a computer lab manager in college which became the tipping point for me - it gave me valuable hands-on experience in IT and managing people that I carry with me to this day.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I received my Bachelor of Business Administration and Computer Information Systems from James Madison University in Virginia, and a Master of Science in Information and Telecommunication Systems from John Hopkins University.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I've been working in IT my entire career and across multiple facets of the industry. After running Cigna's IT, I spent 7-8 years supporting IT designs and development for the Department of Defense (DoD) in the Washington DC area. I then accepted an offer to join Cisco's IT team and ran a myriad of functions including network and security operations in San Jose as well as Raleigh, North Carolina. After about 9 years at Cisco, I joined Red Hat to run infrastructure and operations. In 2013, I moved to LinkedIn and was responsible for running their IT department. Following that, I joined Ciena in 2016 to be CIO. While I didn't take any detours, I did take some risks - moving from the DoD to the commercial world and moving between the East and West Coasts twice was nerve-wracking at the time.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Digital transformation is a key driver of IT investment for us. With technology rapidly changing and customer demands evolving at an infinite pace, IT needs to be part of a company's competitive advantage and mindset to help move the company forward. It's imperative to cultivate that mindset within IT and to spread it virally throughout the company's culture.

At Ciena, we went all-in on digital transformation about 3-4 years ago. We implemented an agile network for an agile workforce, moved our corporate data centers to the cloud, and rolled out new collaboration tools so people could work anywhere, any time on any device. In addition, we're focused on business process re-engineering efforts and working on our data strategy to further improve analytics.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Our top priority is fostering our greatest asset - our people. We continue to be extremely focused on ensuring that our employees are supported and provided with the IT tools and resources they need to succeed. To do that well, we have to remain hyper-focused on cultivating our number one operating priority - talent.

We'll also continue to focus on aligning internal IT initiatives with business goals, cultivating new business partnerships and implementing cross-company programs to streamline internal and external processes. These efforts will support our vision of being a competitive advantage for our customers by providing world-class technology solutions.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I would say there's no such thing as a conventional CIO role anymore. Modern CIOs need to be knee-deep in all aspects of the company. As such, the role of a CIO is very broad and needs to constantly evolve in response to not only industry and technological shifts, but also to the company's needs and priorities. Digital transformation has played a huge part in transforming the role of a CIO into a multi-faceted business leader that demands technical prowess, customer-centric focus and business acumen.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes, I am. Digital transformation is key for Ciena, and we greatly emphasise customer experience, revenue growth and operational efficiency. Quite frankly, if you're not operationally efficient to begin with, you can't truly lead a solid revenue growth transformation - you need to have both. We realise that our customers have their businesses to run so it's important for us to know that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for them. That means we must be an organisation that standardizes architecture principles while being agile enough to accommodate different tools, processes and needs of our customers. It's imperative to continually listen to what customers are saying, putting yourselves in the customers' shoes and thinking of ways to better enable them.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? It is quite difficult to quantify IT with KPIs these days, given the nature of the team's roles and responsibilities. My favorite analogy is that IT is like air - you don't see us, but you need us. That said, we make it a point to check in on our external customers' level of satisfaction through ongoing surveys and feedback that look at factors such as closure rates and project completion. We use this to identify areas of improvement, as a starting point for our employee training programs and eventually, to determine how we're able to sell more to the customer. But ultimately, we're working towards a ticketless model, so we can improve productivity and value to an employee by getting them back to work quicker. I'd rather that we spend more of our time progressing to where we need to be rather than looking at KPIs that only tell you what you already know. We're actively working to change the paradigm around measurement and metrics.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Good culture starts with defining your brand. For Ciena, what has always defined our brand has been our talented people. And our talent remains our top priority - it is the starting point of our internal meetings and all-hands sessions. We place great value and emphasis on people, their development, their careers and their satisfaction. When you take care of your talent, everything else will work out. You won't have to be too prescriptive because they are motivated and inquisitive enough to perform well on their own. Everyone needs guidance but it's amazing what can happen when you have an organisation that feeds itself.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? I look for people with what I refer to as PHDs - passion, heart and drive. They have to be passionate about the trade, have a heart for others (such as the ability to help others and give credit where credit is due) and be driven to succeed. These are the qualities I value most, but that isn't always easy to come by. It's quite easy to teach PHDs the ins-and-outs of the technology because they already have all the other basic skills and are quick learners. Finding PHDs are sometimes difficult.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Perspective. When I asked one of my previous managers about his leadership style, he shared that when he went home, he was no longer a corporate leader, but instead, he was a husband, father, friend and social activist. When he came to work, he described himself as having to play a role no different than a hockey goalie - he put on his mask in the office, played his role while there and went home with the hockey mask off. Sometimes you have to act a certain way because it's your job. You also need self-awareness to recognise how that must fit into your personality - if you feel like you're ‘acting' too much, people will see right through you. That advice really made me think about the type of leader I wanted to be.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Yes, I do but I don't believe in training people to get them to a certain level. Instead, I aim to put the successor directly in the driver's seat and let them take the reins while the predecessor sits in the passenger's seat and eventually moves to the back seat - all while providing the guidance and support needed. When that happens without anyone noticing, I think you truly have a good succession plan. It's a constant discussion, not only for the successor in question but also for the leadership team.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Figure out what you're passionate about and don't be afraid to experiment. Personally, in my career, I made the choice to try out different paths and various roles to learn more about myself and where I excel. It's important to be retrospective and ask yourself "if I look back at this, would I be proud of the road I went on?" Take a moment to look backward and project not only what your future will look like, but if it's the right path for you. Also, be YOU.  Success is what YOU define, not what others define.

What has been your greatest career achievement? It isn't a career achievement per se, but a highlight for me has to be a job I decided to pursue but did not end up getting. I was about four years out of college, and I drummed up the courage to apply for the role of the CIO of a well-known public school system in Virginia. The role required at least 50 times the amount of experience I had at that point, but I decided to make the bold move and sent in my resume. Two weeks later, I received a call from the recruiter asking me to come in for an interview. I went in dressed to impress and left the interview not expecting anything. To my surprise, I was called back for another interview. Armed with confidence, I went in again and was grilled by 12 senior leaders on every technology and leadership topic imaginable. I was informed the next day that they decided to go with another candidate, I was their second choice. I remember feeling elated and yet, relieved, as I knew I was not confident in myself as I should have been. It was definitely a turning point for me and gave me the confidence I needed to go after the roles I wanted.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have been more patient and believed in myself a lot more much earlier in my career. We are undoubtedly our own worst critics. Everyone should realise that as early as possible, so they can take more swings at the plate. Too many people hold themselves back until they find someone who believes in them. But figuring that out on your own can be tough.

What are you reading now? I've been working my way through "Atomic Habits" by James Clear and I have "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell teed up next.

Most people don't know that I… an introvert - and I'm not ashamed of it.

In my spare time, I like to…...take the boat out and go fishing. I also enjoy spending time with family, friends and my dogs.

Ask me to do anything but… ... go to a fabric or yarn store. As a kid, my mother would take me to these places because she would knit our clothes. As a kid, there was absolutely nothing to do in these places except sit in a corner and wait patiently. To this day, I shudder every time I drive past one - but I have to admit, I think of my mother and smile too.

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