Informatica CIO Chases Big Data, Velocity, Innovation

Eric Johnson is IT boss at a business analytics veteran and sees rapid change everywhere

Sometimes in technology, day-to-day operations can appear to be a victim of ‘Cobbler’s Children Have No Shoes’ Syndrome; that is, companies often spend more time making products rather than using them themselves. I can think, for example, of customer relationship management software companies that have creaking contact databases and chip giants that have computer systems regularly going down.

Eric Johnson is CIO of Informatica, a Big Data company even before the term was coined. I spoke to him by phone about how this Californian business intelligence veteran, founded 20 years ago, makes use of the modern influx of information.

“With Twitter, Facebook, sentiment analysis, there’s a lot of data out there and there’s always a struggle to manage and be predictive in the way we do business,” he says. “At Informatica we have sales, marketing, even HR wanting to know how to take all this data we have, especially on the social side and asking, ‘how do we correlate that?’ For example, in HR, what are past employees saying about us? The war on talent is heating up so how do you ensure you’re providing the best environment for employees?”

Johnson runs a modern IT shop with a bring-your-own-device offering and he makes heavy use of cloud services including for CRM and sales automation, Workday for enterprise applications and Concur for expense and travel management.

With mobile technology, he says the challenge today is one of how companies enable staff to be maximally productive while also ensuring corporate data isn’t leaking out. The Mobile Device Management category has emerged to help but Johnson feels there are still nuances to be worked out when it comes to the fine art of doling out permissions and setting controls.

“Everyone has a perspective,” he says. “We started with old-school ERP, we were very locked down and you just had to use the [services] but now we’ve locked in to best-of-breed solutions and there are so many ways to do the job. People say: ‘I can do this with Google and this with Facebook so why can’t we do this at work?’ It’s a major challenge and you don’t want to be the IT executive who says ‘no’ all the time. There’s enough technology out there to do some very creative things behind the scenes but there are also architectural principles around security.”

Big Data tends to divide IT between proponents and the seen-it-all-before sceptics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson sits in the first camp.

“I would be a big cheerleader for it but I also know that when you say ‘Big Data' there’s a number of different interpretations. Industry-to-industry and company-to-company, people have different data volumes but dealing with these significantly larger volumes of data and making some sort of business sense of them is the future of many companies. Infrastructure has become something of a commodity and then in the apps stack I don’t think [ERP] ended in a tremendous amount of added value. But there’s so much data floating around out there and the question becomes how do you use that to sell something that’s more attractive than your competitors and create something customers like. Sources of data are becoming more complex, there’s social data and machine data and that’s the new wrinkle in that story that starts to provide an opportunity.”

Being a Big Data company in the age of Big Data, Johnson acts as a reference for his company’s wares although he demurs when I suggest that IT at Informatica is eating its own dog food. (“We prefer ‘sipping our own champagne’,” he laughs.) But he also sees the data analytics piece as just one component of the changing CIO role.

“Before, if you were an expert in ERP or CRM, that was good enough to keep you in work for a long time. Even five years ago IT was seen as a cost centre and over the last five years CIOs are becoming much more business-savvy and talking more in business terms as technology has become much easier to deploy. IT is going to need to be much more business-centric. There’s always going to be a need to understand hardware, patching and all those things but those aren’t the high value-add and the folks in IT are going to have to understand business metrics. Negotiating, vendor management skills, penalty clauses, SLAs and risk will come to the fore, but a CIO also has to understand that an SLA is worth nothing if the supplier is out of business.”

Johnson contends that CIOs have to move faster than ever.

“There are so many new companies showing up. Look at the rate of IPOs today: it just shows you the rapid rate of innovation. So it’s OK to fail fast [when pursuing] a competitive advantage. You really have to be on top of the technology and we’re always asking about the latest innovation so we can always be talking to those providers.”


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect