CIO Spotlight: Michael Cantor, Park Place Technologies

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? "There's [...] a willingness to go hands-on when necessary. No one will hesitate to step into any role..."

Name: Michael Cantor

Company: Park Place Technologies

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: July 2018

Location: Cleveland, Ohio

As Chief Information Officer, Michael Cantor leads the delivery of technology initiatives to improve Park Place Technologies' internal and customer-facing capabilities while ensuring the globalisation and security of Park Place's systems as the company continues to expand. Cantor comes to Park Place with over 25 years of experience in the IT industry. Most recently, he served as CIO for Cardinal Health at Home, where he was responsible for all segment-specific IT initiatives and the creation of a new digital front-end for the B2C portion of the business.

What was your first job? My first ever job was working in the parking lot at Six Flags over Georgia, which was much more formative and influential on my career than it may sound! My first IT job was as a Customer Information Control System (CICS) programmer at Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Did you always want to work in IT? It was a strong second, but not my first choice. I really wanted to be a pilot, but back then, uncorrected 20/20 vision was a requirement, which meant I needed to change career path.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? This is one of my favourite career stories. I started out as an Information and Computer Science major at Georgia Tech and while I didn't quite ‘flunk out' with a GPA just under 2.0, I recognised after a couple of years that physics and calculus weren't quite right for me. Since these were mandatory subjects there, I decided to switch to a Computer Information Systems degree at Georgia State University. More business-oriented and less science-oriented than the previous, I did much better with this and recovered to graduate with honours. Taking most of the computer science courses at Georgia Tech and combining that with the business information systems and other business courses at Georgia State has had a big impact on my career. It was painful to give up on Georgia Tech at the time, but it was definitely a life lesson that recognising failure and moving on is a key skill.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I didn't take any detours outside of IT, but it has been a winding path through various industries and IT disciplines. After Norfolk Southern, I was a consultant with Grant Thornton and rode the first wave through a big mix of industries. I followed that with a long corporate stint in a variety of IT roles with UnitedHealth Group. I then jumped to private equity with a small start-up company that I was a part of, selling into a private equity company and then successfully selling out of private equity three years later after tremendous growth enabled by the digitalisation of the business. That was my first CIO role. I then took another CIO role with a subsidiary of Cardinal Health before landing with Park Place Technologies, which while larger than my first private equity-backed company, is in a similar private equity situation. So, throughout my career, there has been a back and forth between small, fast growth companies and extremely large public companies.  

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? We're just finishing up on a complete revamp of our back-office systems, so the core of the application suite is refreshed and ready for significant growth. This will allow us to turn our attention to some truly market-leading innovation opportunities. For example, ParkView, our proactive monitoring solution, is already market-leading in the hardware monitoring space, but we're going to do a lot of innovative technology implementation on top of that platform to expand our monitoring capabilities and bring some interesting ideas we have to market. Our customer portal is also top of market in our space, but we still have a lot of investment opportunity to further digitalise our customer interactions.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Our priorities are straightforward: support the continued growth of the business, ensure we hold a market-leading position with our technology, and do it all in a highly secure way. As I mentioned, a complete revamp of the core systems has prepared us for almost any growth. We're making a lot of innovative investments in continued digitalisation of the business, and like everyone else, dealing with cybersecurity continues to be top of mind and consumes a lot of time and money.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The CIO role and the needs related to it differ from organisation to organisation, so it's hard to generally say there are responsibilities that should be in the role or shouldn't be in the role. My strongest belief in the CIO role is that when there's a gap in the organisation or an initiative that needs some leadership drive, the CIO is qualified to take those responsibilities on regardless of where the natural fit is in within the organisation. I have seen CIO roles that cover facility management, vehicle fleet management, contact centre operations, and process improvement in cases where the CIO saw gaps in those functions or new capabilities and drove the change themselves.

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? Park Place Technologies is largely a digital business today, but there are still improvement opportunities to implement. Most impact operational efficiency or customer experience, and it's definitely harder to balance those two considering that operational efficiency tends to have an actual hard dollar EBITDA impact. Customer experience, on the other hand, typically does not. We use our IT Steering Committee to balance between the two, although the larger share is usually going to go to the operational efficiency side. Factors such as customer demand for a feature, or a feature that a competitor has that we don't have, are some factors that help us justify some customer experience investment over hard dollar savings.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? I would best describe it as ever-maturing! It's unlikely I'll ever be satisfied with our maturity, especially since the maturity needs change as the company grows. What worked a few years ago for a twelve person IT team doesn't work for today's 65-person team, and I'm looking forward and preparing initiatives for the maturity that's necessary to operate a 120-person team. KPIs are certainly one of those maturity items, so the establishment of our IT Steering Committee and a project management office process to drive the business of IT were key elements to starting to measure and provide transparency to our KPIs. Some have been readily at hand, like our service-level agreement compliance, and some take time to mature, such as measuring our ability to reliably estimate project cost and duration.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? A few of our key cultural traits include understanding the importance of working as a team and being in the office as part of a team. All of our IT staff, like the rest of non-field Park Place workers, are expected to be in the office and interacting with their teammates. This isn't easy when you're in one of our ancillary offices like El Cajon, but it's still important to be present. There's also a willingness to go hands-on when necessary. No one will hesitate to step into any role when necessary to get the job done right and quickly - I've been known to work our portal support email queue when it gets a little behind!

The recruiting process and explaining our values is a clear way to drive culture and ensure that new hires have the same values. I'd also say that the leadership team living the values every day is an important demonstration for the organisation. For example, I don't sit in an office - I sit with the rest of the IT staff and am just as likely to address walk-up questions as anyone else.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? We anticipate some of our of first predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning opportunities will be difficult to fill, due to the specific nature of the roles. It will be challenging to find experienced Python / TensorFlow developers and analysts who also have the right statistics background.

What's the best career advice you ever received? The best career advice I've ever received was to get out of the office and into the field. I've followed that tenet all the way back to my earliest days sitting in a classification railyard watching rail cars get sorted, to working in a warehouse to pick, pack, and ship material. Too many assumptions about how something really works in the field leads to bad decisions, and it's important to me as a leader to sit next to our front-line staff and feel what they're experiencing in person.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Yes, it's infused in Park Place Technologies from top to bottom. We recruit a good mix of experience from entry-level to CIO-ready, and we're constantly evaluating to ensure individuals are on their career paths. The type of role certainly changes as you become more senior. In particular, what becomes more important is rotation: seeing different aspects of IT and being planful about those rotations to ensure individuals and teams feel safe in a rotation. My best application development leaders understood their impact on infrastructure because they had actually spent time in infrastructure.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? The great ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky quote paraphrased: skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. I've seen so many people focused on that very next step in their career and not looking forward to the next generation of value in a company. You might win that next position, but it may not accelerate you as much as if you had figured out where the company needed to be next and made sure that you're standing in that spot. 

Another of my favourite career stories: when I started consulting with Grant Thornton, my first client engagement was to be a Baan implementation, which, at the time, was the hottest technology around. It turned out after I started that the client wasn't ready for me, which was disappointing since I was fired up to get on the hot new technology. However, while I was in the office waiting, I figured out that we were working on a new practice in one of the early web application server technologies: NetDynamics. I decided that was where the puck was going, learned it, and positioned myself to be one of the first web-knowledgeable consultants at Grant Thornton. We all know where Baan ended up and where the web is today!

What has been your greatest career achievement? My first private equity company: digitising a paper process, which enabled a huge shift in productivity and ability to grow the business at a much faster pace than had been available previously. This allowed for a 3x growth in three years and a successful sale of the company.  

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? From a career standpoint, nothing. Even what I thought were mistakes have in hindsight turned out to be critical learnings that had a later positive impact. One mistake, however, that I've made repeatedly and that I haven't trained myself out of yet is not challenging prior decisions loudly enough. I've walked into situations more than once where a particular decision was set, and I thought to myself: I don't think that's the easiest solution to implement, but since that's the decision, I'll make it work. I've had the rug pulled out from under me when someone else came across, questioned the decision, and forced a change in direction.

What are you reading now? Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America's Forgotten Border.

Most people don't know that I… Collect vintage computers and video game consoles.

In my spare time, I like to…Hike - I spend way too much time indoors and would much rather be outdoors!

Ask me to do anything but… Do something without a plan. I have to have everything figured out before I do it: I've got vacations scheduled two years out, tickets to concerts in 2020, and so on.