CIO Spotlight: Jim Chilton, Cengage Learning

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? "Success is the best revenge!"

Cengage Learning

Name: Jim Chilton

Company: Cengage Learning

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: February 2017

Location: Boston, MA

Jim Chilton is CIO at Cengage, a $1.3B, global education and technology company based in Boston. Jim has more than 25 years of experience delivering technology and business system innovations. At Cengage, he is responsible for driving the company’s digital transformation efforts and building successful internal technology strategies. He is also actively involved in Boston-area community work as a mentor and Advisory Board member for Apprenti. This non-profit organisation is a proven, reliable pipeline for underrepresented groups inclusive of all races, genders and veterans to gain training, certification and placement within the talent-hungry tech industry.

What was your first job? My first job in the technology world was at Dataproducts, a computer printer company, where I started on the assembly line to make and test computer printers. The company developed and manufactured computer printers for IBM, DEC, Wang and produced American Airlines first ticket printer. Oddly enough, no one really wanted to work on the “toy computers” associated with the low-end printers, providing an opening for someone like me who learned basic programming in my senior year of high school. This became my entry point into my love of both process-based manufacturing and computer technology. As a result, I began pursuing my degree in those disciplines while working at Dataproducts.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not really – my initial interest was in mechanical and process engineering. During my studies, computer science emerged as my preferred area of interest, so I changed my majors and later pursued my MBA. Since then, I have completed numerous certificates in technology, and additional executive programs. I believe that we never stop learning, and that insatiable appetite has served me well across several industries and five CIO positions. 

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I began by pursuing a degree in Mechanical & Process Engineering. During my studies and my work at Dataproducts, computer science emerged as my preferred area of interest, so I changed my major and completed my Bachelor of Computer Science and went on to complete my MBA. Long before online school was an option, I was a “night student,” attending classes in the evenings while continuing my work in the computer printer industry. In my earlier days, I was a certified Novell Engineer, and an Aix, HPUX, and SunOS certified Administrator.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I have enjoyed a broad and varied career. I’ve been lucky to have had a great number of opportunities which have allowed me to explore different aspects of business from a variety of vantage points and functions. For example, I was able to run operations at an enterprise software company while pursing my MBA. In this role, I led the professional services team, technical support and traditional IT organisations. It proved to be an amazing learning experience being able to see the enterprise implementation world from both sides of the table. Much later in my career at Dassault Systemes, I stepped into a Strategy and Sales operations leadership role as we focused on the transformation from on premise software to SaaS-based solutions. All of these experiences along the way have led me to becoming a more effective CIO.   

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Over the course of the past several years, our Global Technology Solutions (GTS) team has followed a consistent method of identifying and planning technology investments on a three-year basis. Using tools designed and developed by our team, we work with our business partners to understand their challenges and needs. By evaluating technology requests against a set of business strategy and technology criteria, we’re ensuring we focus our investments on efforts that produce the greatest business value and ROI. Examples of ‘game changing’ technology implementations in support of business goals include:

  • Customer Facing initiatives including re-engineered business systems, infrastructure and cloud services critical to accommodate three times capacity required by the Cengage Unlimited product launch – the first, all-access subscription service for the college course materials market which today has more than 2.2M subscribers. We also implemented a subscription engine resulting in reduced call volumes for customer support, elimination of highly manual activities, and better tracking of student account handling. Powered by SAP, the Subscription Engine is ever more critical for our company’s acceleration of digital transformation initiatives, with COVID-19 increasing the urgency to deploy digital solutions. Finally, we implemented com CRM, delivering service cloud/sales cloud implementations for our library business, GALE, as well as our higher ed business. This also established a foundation for a full 360-degree customer view in a simplified manner using an industry leading SaaS platform.
  • Internal efficiency implementations are focused on simplifying our data models and data management to accelerate business transformation and organisation of tomorrow. We also implemented OKTA with MFA presenting a roadblock that attackers must overcome, greatly reducing the number and impact of security events leveraging stolen employee credentials.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT?  One of our strategic priorities is the continued transformation from textbook publisher to a digital-first education and technology company. Our world class content provided by some of the best minds in their fields, such as Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, delivered on our innovative SaaS-based platforms requires a foundational enablement provided by our technology solutions team.  

My team’s mission is to accelerate digital transformation by enabling innovation, simplifying our technology landscape, automating business processes, securing our environment and becoming customer focused. On top of this, we are ensuring safe and secure business continuity with 5,000 employees working from home, whilst still continuing our transformation of our industry by providing quality digital learning solutions for our customers. Our multitude of behind-the-scenes systems will support these initiatives and help accomplish their delivery.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? One of the real benefits of the CIO role is the ability to participate in every area of the business. While we must manage all the “conventional” responsibilities to earn the right to participate in other areas of the business, today’s modern CIO is participating at the strategic level of the corporate, product and services capabilities. This is especially so for those companies aiming to transform their business models. CIO’s must adapt to each unique role and defy boundaries for which a CIO has traditionally been expected to participate or lead in. I see the role of the CIO as expanding especially as the end-to-end experience is over traditional product use cases. At Cengage, we are working together with R&D and Customer Support to provide the best possible connected experience for our customers. This project would not be possible if we hadn’t expanded the CIO role to oversee and ensure accountability from all teams involved. Depending on the company and industry, I see a CIO owning more on the product side, because most meaningful digital solutions today are an integration of products, back-office, web, and cloud to deliver a frictionless experience for the customer. 

In terms of CIO responsibilities that should potentially live elsewhere, there are a few areas I have seen an evolution of in recent years that could necessitate a shift in structure.  Recently I’ve seen Security and Cloud separate, largely to do with the unique demands and needs. I have spent the majority of my career at Software and High-Tech companies, where we see additional value in these roles separated from the CIO team. As an example, a security company that is focused on selling to CSO/CISO, will have a great sales tool if their CSO is capable of being customer facing and able to help tell their story. Also, in highly regulated industries where security standing on its own, may provide additional visibility within the company. Unfortunately, I have also seen the downside of this as distance between the teams creates tougher work conditions as they really are interdependent between these groups.  

I also see a benefit if more project management leadership and Program Management Office (PMOs) could roll up into the CIO. Today many business unit leaders from all functions find their ways into SaaS based solutions, getting deep into selection and implementation – and then stub their toes when it needs to be integrated into the rest of the eco-system. This is especially the case as they learn about compliance requirements for GDPR, CCPA, etc. and security and implications of PII. Many business leaders, albeit experts in their function, struggle to navigate these waters. Too often these leaders are not able to see beyond their function or business unit, leaving the systems to be recreated, replicated, or worse re-purchased somewhere else in the company. It is imperative that the CIO organisation is “Business Unit and Function agnostic” whose primary job is to see across the entire company and provide cost effective and capable systems to everyone, not just one part of the company.  

When I think about digital transformation by companies moving toward SaaS and cloud-based solutions I see many opportunities for CIO’s to take on additional duties and areas. As an example, I moved into a strategy role from the CIO role at Dassault Systemes as we began our transformation to lead our customers into the 3D experience from our legacy house of brands. It was my knowledge from the CIO lens that uniquely prepared me to help during this pivotal time for that team.  

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? Cengage has transformed from a 100-year old traditional textbook publisher into a digital products and content SaaS provider to millions of students globally. We are changing our business to align with the needs of the market and our customers as opposed to “doing what we have always done.” We are changing the education industry to reflect our belief that learning should not be something that is only available to those who can afford it -  but rather available to all who want to learn.  

We are leading the way in customer experience – a big differentiator from other companies in our industry. All technology companies have challenges in their customers experience and the question that differentiates us from our competitors is how we deal with them during difficult times. As a result of COVID-19, we have moved all of our employees to remote work, including customer service agents who have to continually perform, especially during peak back to school season. To enable this from the technology side, we have accelerated our telephone remote capabilities, our chat capabilities, our complete deployment of SalesForce to enable this workforce and better support our customers. Though the short-term has been hard – including when 45,000 professors who were not customers called us in March to help finish their semester. We didn’t ask for purchase orders, we just helped them. Cengage was the first publisher to offer free access to digital materials and learning platforms as well as support to educators and students across the country when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We were able to quickly pivot to support students and instructors with online learning because of the Cengage Unlimited access model which made it easy to “flip the switch”  – allowing educators and students to have access to all our content and learning tools.

Our teams are constantly working on finding the right balance between business viability and customer enablement. We are able to balance the two because our deep-rooted culture of meeting the needs and empowering students is leading us into markets where we can innovate and impact learners at scale.

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