CIO Spotlight: Thomas Phelps IV, Laserfiche

"Without motivated and passionate people who believe in the mission, you cannot achieve your strategic initiatives."

Name: Thomas Phelps IV

Company: Laserfiche

Job title: VP of Corporate Strategy and CIO

Time in current role: Four years (in May)

Location: Long Beach, CA

Education: I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a business degree in Management Information Systems. Shortly after joining PwC, I obtained the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification from ISACA. Today, I teach the CISA review course and chair the Certified in Risk and Information Systems Controls (CRISC) Committee for ISACA Los Angeles. IT leaders can all benefit from the CRISC certification as they will learn how to become better strategic partners in mitigating and managing enterprise and IT risks.

Thomas Phelps IV is the Vice President of Corporate Strategy and CIO at Laserfiche, a global software company leading content management and business process automation. In his role, he oversees Laserfiche vertical marketing, analyst relations, corporate training and enterprise IT governance. His professional experience includes working as a director for PwC; and today he speaks on cybersecurity at industry events, guest lectures at USC and CSULB, and is a UCLA IS Associates, Ascend Los Angeles and ISACA Los Angeles board member.

What was your first job? My first full-time job was at Motorola, where I worked during my college days. At that time, the company dominated the market with StarTAC cellphones, Iridium satellites and PowerPC processors. I started in manufacturing and redesigned a quality assurance process to reduce defects for a new two-way radio manufacturing line. I then joined the new MOS-12 semiconductor fab in Chandler, AZ. Before I left, I helped launch a new business called the Motorola Internet Software Products Division in Austin, TX. I built out an internet software lab—procuring servers, configuring VoIP solutions and testing software. We were on the cusp of disrupting an established telephony market that had entrenched legacy telephone companies. The coolest (and most stressful) part was demoing our products to both the CEO and President of Motorola when I was still a college kid. Not a bad first "real" job for a former Iowa farm boy!

Did you always want to work in IT? Not at first. I grew up in a rural Iowa community where I spent a summer without running water and lived out of a camper trailer. It was hard to see a future in anything technology-related. Yet, after being introduced to computers in high school and working several jobs to save up for my first PC, I began seeing the possibilities of how technology can change lives.

What I experienced as a kid still inspires me today. Technology can play an amazing role in helping people, for example, giving even the poorest kids access to resources and a promise of a better future. We can also see how organizations like Heifer International use technology in its mission. Pierre Ferrari, CEO of Heifer International, spoke at Laserfiche's annual conference about how ECM software helped Heifer scale up to fight poverty and hunger across the world. This is one of many reasons why I enjoy working in IT today.  

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I'm at my third major job in my professional career. I started at Motorola and helped launch the Internet Software Products Division. After graduating from UT Austin, I joined PwC's Global Risk Management Services in Dallas to launch the new Telecom and Network Services practice. I updated the business plan, created marketing collateral and developed methodologies. I later co-authored a book on telecom cost management and went on the speaking circuit to generate leads for the new practice.

After a few years, I moved into cybersecurity and served as the PwC security practice leader for the Southern California/Phoenix market. I always enjoyed creating new practice capabilities and soon took on a national role to provide thought leadership in the entertainment and media sector.

With every new role, there was always an opportunity to innovate. And that's what is great about my role at Laserfiche. We are constantly innovating our product and our business.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organization in the coming year? Our software engineering group is making significant investments in AI, machine learning and robotic process automation. The goal is to expand core Laserfiche enterprise content management products to enable case management and accelerate business process automation. Naturally, this means that IT will be collaborating with our software engineering teams to develop and pilot early versions of these new products for internal use first.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? At Laserfiche, I'm responsible for IT, Vertical Marketing and Analyst Relations. The CEO's top priority for me is to provide leadership and vision for the right solutions that enable our people, our customers and our resellers to get their jobs done more effectively and grow their business. This ranges from IT infrastructure upgrades to a new LMS platform and program redesign that supports our global training and certification program for resellers and customers, the Laserfiche Certified Professional Program.

I also spend about one-third of my time in an external-facing role—interacting with customers, resellers and analysts. My goal is to listen to their feedback, understand their needs, and influence the future direction of our software product development, marketing and corporate initiatives.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? For some organizations that are in highly regulated industries, the CISO function may be more effective if it reported outside of the conventional CIO role. This reduces inherent conflicts and gives appropriate visibility to a mission-critical function. However, this does not mean the CIO abdicates security responsibilities. The cybersecurity breaches you see in the news are not the result of zero-day attacks, but relatively straight-forward patch management and vendor management issues that the IT organization did not address in a timely manner.

The CIO should establish an enterprise IT risk management function—if it doesn't already exist within the enterprise—to proactively assess, mitigate and report on IT risks that could impact the business. ISACA has some great resources on enterprise IT governance and risk management.

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? Although Laserfiche has been successful for more than 30 years, we are actively scaling our technology, processes and talent to accelerate our growth. Part of this includes moving away from internally-developed systems to leverage more SaaS solutions for business needs—enabling our software engineers to focus on developing Laserfiche products for our customers vs. supporting home-grown systems. Our digital transformation initiatives will continue to support our customer-centric culture, while driving revenue growth in new markets and looking at transforming every aspect of our business—including marketing, sales, engineering and technical support.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? At Laserfiche, we have a fairly mature digital business—it's gotten to a point where I will be about to sign a contract or birthday card and I can't find a pen. Being an enterprise content management company, we've automated many internal processes using our own software—electronic forms for service requests, workflow automation, and digital signatures. IT is also serving as the pilot group for our case management initiatives.

What does good culture fit look like in your organization? How do you cultivate it? Laserfiche was founded on the idea that technology could help the world work smarter, and the product was created with the goal of being "software that people love to use." This has created a customer-centric culture where we look for individuals who are perpetually curious—they have a passion for learning, ideating and creating new solutions.

We also have a global community of users who are enthusiastic about our software and our brand. A good culture fit at Laserfiche shares in that enthusiasm, embeds themselves in that community and is open and collaborative.

We strive to foster a culture that is innovative, dynamic and fun by listening to employees and to the industry. Culture is not static, so we are constantly looking at how we do things—the effectiveness of new employee onboarding; professional and personal development opportunities; work/life flexibility, and even how much our employees enjoy our lunch menus!

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? As you can imagine for a software company, we're always looking for software engineering talent—especially those with experience in AI, machine learning, analytics, security and technical product management. Thinking long-term, Laserfiche proactively partners with various organizations to address the tech skills gap and promote STEM education for the next generation entering the workforce. Since Laserfiche is headquartered in Long Beach, this includes my participation on the advisory board for the College of Engineering at California State University Long Beach as they launch their new minor in Cybersecurity Applications in 2018.

What's the best career advice you ever received? The best advice I received is from one of the senior global leaders at PwC who was also a mentor. He stressed the importance of investing time to develop high-performing teams. Without motivated and passionate people who believe in the mission, you cannot achieve your strategic initiatives. As leaders, we have a responsibility to not only set the vision, tone and direction for the organization, but we also need to focus on aligning our employees' talents and personal goals with the right roles—where they feel empowered, valued and fulfilled in their careers. We need to celebrate their success and encourage growth in developmental areas.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. You should always have a succession plan. The most important thing you can do as a leader is to give people opportunities to learn, grow and aspire to leadership roles. Everyone has different goals and priorities, however. When I was at PwC, I knew that not everyone wanted to be a director or partner. In industry, not everyone wants to be CISO or CIO.

When training high-performing staff, you have to give people "stretch opportunities" where they can achieve their goals without burning out or breaking down. Set the right tone to remove the fear of failure. When employees hit speed bumps along the way—and there will always be a few—encourage them to recover quickly. Remind them to fail fast, fail forward and learn from the experience.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Aspiring IT leaders should have a seat at the table in making business decisions and influencing change that delivers lasting results. Yes, you should strive for quick wins, but make sure they are sustainable and truly help the business.

To be relevant, you need to learn the business and the industry. Since technology changes rapidly, create a culture where people are encouraged to always be learning. Don't wait for someone to come to you with a problem to solve. Proactively seek out ways for IT to be a catalyst for revenue growth, business innovation and positive change.

What has been your greatest career achievement? One significant career achievement was being part of the team that launched Laserfiche Cloud in 2015. It was an exciting milestone for our company. On a personal level, however, I feel very blessed to see people grow in their careers and get promoted at Laserfiche. At PwC, my favorite day was national Promotion Day and seeing my coachees' names on promotion placards throughout the office. One special highlight was having my LA engagement team win the PwC Chairman's Award and seeing team member photos featured on the big Panasonic screen in Times Square—that was a little surreal and a nice surprise.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? There's not much I would have done differently. I tell the young professionals I mentor through the Ascend Pan-Asian leadership organization to be fearless in taking appropriate risks—whether it's saying "yes" to an opportunity, pitching ideas proactively or starting a business.

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