CTO Sessions: Grant Caley, NetApp

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? “I believe the principle of cloud is overhyped…”


Name: Grant Caley

Company: NetApp

Job title: Chief Technologist

Date started current role: November 2015

Location: UK&I

Grant Caley has been with NetApp for 17 years and is now Chief Technologist at the company. He has a wide and varied experience, across many industries, of helping customers realise and achieve their business objectives through the adoption and creative use of data and technology to drive Digital Transformation.

What was your first job? My first job was flipping burgers in a café in Aberdeen. The pay wasn’t great and it made me really think about what I really wanted to do in the future, career-wise. After this, I went back to University and had an industrial placement with Organon Laboratories, part of the Akzo Nobel group. This was as a Systems Analyst providing DEC VAX support.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, actually. I fell into IT when a friend persuaded me to go to university to get a computing degree. I’d already got the tech bug after my mother bought me a ZX81, many years before. My Computer Science degree gave me the fundamentals I needed for a successful career and was the first step on my path to Chief Technologist.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Bachelor of Science (BSc) Honors Degree in Computing Science from the University of Paisley. This degree taught me how to design, build and analyse computer systems.

I chose the university path but I think it’s important for those looking to future careers in the IT industry need to be aware that, with the current cost of education, there are many ways to enter the industry. As long as you have an interest and aptitude for the sector, you can apply for a job and work your way up the corporate ladder, for example. For some, this is a faster and more cost-effective route and it’s important for those looking to start their careers in IT to consider.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career path has been really exciting. As previously mentioned, one of my first jobs was as Systems Support for Organon Laboratories, then Desktop Support followed by Database Systems Management in the NHS. After that I ended up working for IBM Global Services providing Project Technical Design for what eventually became Aviva Insurance

More recently, I joined NetApp as a Pre-Sales Systems Engineer 19 years ago in 2000 and since then, I have held various roles including, Enterprise Engineer, Global Technical Account Manager for a large bank, and now Chief Technologist for UK&I.

I think my step into Pre-Sales was the most defining move I made, I not only had to understand technology, but had to be able to match this to the business outcome it enables. Really understand customer drivers and needs and then map that to technology enablers. My industry and market knowledge, as well as general business and technical acumen, has enabled me to help drive successful business with our customers and partners, allowing businesses to realise the potential of their data as a key component of driving Digital Transformation, especially in the Hybrid Cloud.

What type of CTO are you? I actually go by the title Chief Technologist at NetApp which means I have a different role to a traditional CTO. My job involves looking at and improving the external technology landscape for our customers, whereas a CTO usually works to help their own organisation understand how technology can better improve their own business.

The roles are similar but on different ends of the same spectrum. So rather than looking at what technology and trends will improve my business, as a CTO does, I look outwards at what NetApp and partner technologies can offer into other companies, with a specific focus on Data, AI, Cloud, DevOps and Enterprise Applications.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? One of most important technologies right now is that of artificial intelligence (AI). While it might sound cliché to say, the implications of AI really will touch every industry and every business and consumer interaction of the future. AI will transform everything about our world.

When it comes to the IT industry in particular, as AI automates processes, the focus of the traditional IT roles will become more creative, more focused on the business outcome rather than the way that outcome is delivered. I foresee this also fundamentally changing the topics studied at university to be less focused on technology and more on creativity– something AI can’t yet do well.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I believe the principle of cloud is overhyped, yes, it is dynamic, and offering a fast way to leverage new technology services, but at the end of the day this isn’t unique, just very well executed. The danger of the cloud is being locked in and then beholden to specific cloud vendor economics. In-fact this is NetApp’s strength in helping companies not just adopt the cloud quicker and more cost effectively, but also helping avoid cloud lock-In and truly being multi-cloud capable and mobile.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Ever so slightly longer than 12 months, but still ongoing, and that was to help the company understand the use of technology to help our customers on their journey to GDPR compliance. It was a complex well overhyped topic and one where technology wasn’t the answer, just the enabler to achieving compliance quicker.

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? The role which I provide as NetApp’s UK Chief Technologist is to articulate our unique business and technical value in order to help our customer CTO’s achieve their objectives. So, whereas a customer CTO is ingesting knowledge to transform their business, my role is to provide that knowledge and understanding by effectively bridging the business and technical gaps and showing where NetApp can help digital transformation with its solutions. So I guess you could say I’m helping our customers lead their Digital Transformation.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? One of the biggest issues we help customers with is helping them to unlock the potential of their data. What we often see with new customers is that while they have always had data, their ability to access that data and leverage it through technology such as AI, or analytics, is a huge challenge. We help customers unlock access to that data and enable them to integrate new technologies and mindsets such as Cloud, DevOps, AI and many more.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? As mentioned, it’s my role to align our (NetApp’s) technology to meet the business goals of our customers. I do, however, find that in today’s day and age, while most businesses want to innovate, grow and transform through their data: digital transformation through data is something they struggle to do. My role is to help accelerate that Digital Transformation journey, through the adoption of NetApp and other adjacent technologies.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Interestingly, in my role, I have actually found that customers aren’t interested in product strategies. They just aren’t important anymore. What is important however, are business outcomes and results. Customers don’t want to know the ins and outs of a product but they do want to know the tangible business benefits it can deliver.

When providing counsel to clients it’s important to not go straight to the products you are selling, or you won’t get to an outcome your client wants. I have learnt to think outside the box and listen carefully to our clients. It’s important to work backwards from their ideal outcome, to how we can help them if you want a successful partnership.

What makes an effective tech strategy? This is a really good question and something more organisations need to be thinking about. I personally believe that an effective tech strategy is based on understanding what a business is trying to achieve and what is needed to be effective. It sounds simple, but we see many businesses which didn’t think about the business outcomes before embarking on a transformation journey and as such, have failed.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I might be biased but I believe we will see more Chief Technologists – such as me – in the technology sector especially, with a focus on their customer technologies. Tech vendors understand how important it is to keep customers happy, so why not appoint a role with a focus on those all-important business outcomes? Alongside this, organisations will start to see the access and mastery of data determining their performance and so will need a Chief Technologist at their vendor of choice to help them unlock this.

I also believe we will see a change to the traditional CTO role. While, as the moment CTOs are reactive to their CEOs strategy, we will see people in this role becoming more proactive, being bold and as a result, having more control over the direction their company takes with its technical innovation. This will allow them to more successfully drive the charge to hitting business outcomes at a faster rate.

What has been your greatest career achievement? As you can imagine, there has been a lot of change in the tech industry in the 19 years I have been at NetApp and so I have been proudest of my ability to keep abreast of the changes which have happened across both our, and our customer’s, industries. Having a high-level view of these disciplines, the technologies they need and the business outcomes they can deliver is no mean feat and has allowed me to best serve our customers over the years.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I may be aging myself here, but thanks to my ZX81 home computer, I always had an interest in tech. One thing I do wish however, was that I had grasped the impact technology, as a whole, was going to have on our future at a younger age. I would have gotten into tech as a career option a lot earlier if this was the case.

What are you reading now? I enjoy reading about where technology is today, or where it might be tomorrow. Currently I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which basically is about nano-technology through the themes of education, social class ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

Most people don't know that I… I may work in tech but most people don’t know that I am a complete technology geek (not a surprise I guess!) – to the point where I have automated my whole home. It means I can do anything at the touch of a button including, being able to control the temperature in a specific room and even ensuring the doors have been locked, the garden is watered, the list is long and I’m constantly adding new capabilities!

In my spare time, I like to… Other than being a tech geek and automating every last part of the house, I love to walk. My favourite area to visit is the Lack District which has some of the most beautiful walking country. I currently live in Manchester and so am very lucky to be on the doorstep of some of the best walks in the UK.

Ask me to do anything but… Become a doctor or do anything medical. I was never going to be a doctor and the sight of blood gives me butterflies, I have huge respect for those in the medical field that do this day in, day out.