CIO Spotlight: Pierre-Luc Bisaillon, AppDirect

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? “… to me, the role of the CIO is to maximise the return on technology investments in the support of the company’s objectives.”


Name: Pierre-Luc Bisaillon

Company: AppDirect

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: January 2021

Location: Montreal

A seasoned executive with more than twenty years’ experience in the technology industry, Pierre-Luc leads the global IT organisation at AppDirect. His background is a unique combination of strategy consulting, entrepreneurship and technology, enabling him to provide sharp insights and impactful recommendations.

What was your first job? If you don’t count driving a truck to deliver chips in the summer in university, my first ‘real’ job was Product Manager for Matrox Graphics, based in Montreal. I had just finished an electrical engineering degree, but I knew right away that I wanted to do more than just technology. This provided me with an opportunity to learn about and coordinate all aspects of a product life cycle - development, market research and analysis, marketing, sales, production, and operations. It showed me how much there was to learn in all of these areas and led me to apply to my MBA a few years later.

Did you always want to work in IT? I did not always work in IT, but I was always interested in technology. After my MBA while working at McKinsey I explored a number of other industries, including banking, insurance and mining. After that I worked in different sides of the technology industry - funding startups, working for a vendor (Dell), a technology service provider (managed AWS services with CloudOps), and in the last 6-7 years, in corporate IT.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold a Bachelor in Electrical Engineering from McGill University, and an MBA from the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I certainly took many detours - After my MBA I worked in management consulting. I did not work on many IT projects, but it was a great way to learn about how business works, how to analyse what is important and make actionable recommendations. For the next chapter I was self-employed, which was a great time to explore different projects such as writing business plans (and funding) for startups, contributing to research projects and to a business book and building a consulting practice. I think all of these experiences, both the successes and the failures, helped me better understand the world of business and technology but also my own strengths, weaknesses and preferences. Next I worked for technology products and services providers - first a large product-based company (Dell) then a small cloud services provider (CloudOps). Again, I learned a lot from these experiences and understanding how different sides of the industry operate. Finally, I combined these experiences and have been working in the IT industry for the last 6-7 years, first with BRP, then Cirque du Soleil and now AppDirect. As Steve Jobs said, sometimes you don’t see how all the dots connect until after the fact. So, when you are in the moment, trust your gut and keep exploring and learning!

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Since we are a technology company, there will continue to be large investments in technology on the product side. If I focus only on the enterprise IT investments, the two most important initiatives will be growth (working with sales and marketing) and cost optimisations. I think IT can be a great partner in cost management not just in managing overall licenses costs but also in supporting the business itself through process definition, optimisation and automation.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? As mentioned above, the CEO’s top priorities for us will be growth and cost optimisation. To support the business with IT we will continue to focus on three aspects:

  • Business process and automation - I continue to believe that IT can play the role of ‘internal digital consultant’ to support the business units in maximising the return on their IT investments.
  • Data - Managing data to extract meaningful information and support rapid decision making is a key aspect of supporting an agile business.
  • Cybersecurity - securing the business will always be a top priority, as an enabler for everything else.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? That’s a difficult question to answer since the ‘conventional’ role of the CIO is evolving rapidly! I always like to return to the basic mission: to me, the role of the CIO is to maximise the return on technology investments in the support of the company’s objectives. However, this might mean different things depending on the company’s maturity and priorities. At AppDirect we are a young company with few legacy systems, so the focus is on leveraging the business cloud applications to optimise business processes by focusing on integration, data and cybersecurity.

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? I would say we are ‘born digital’ but we definitely have to balance our investments across both. I don’t think there is a silver bullet to answer the question. Even in the digital world you can have annual governance around investment priorities. Even in an agile world you can decide how much to invest in each area, with an expected return, without having to frame everything as a project.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? On one hand I would say that we have a very high level of digital maturity since all of our core business solutions are modern SaaS solutions with the basic integrations (for example, for identity management, provisioning and deprovisioning). On the other we are working to improve other related aspects such as having better visibility, reporting and governance on SaaS cost management.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? I like the tag line developed by our HR team: “Be seen. Be yourself. Do your best work”. Culture is a broad term that spans everything from the office environment to how teams communicate and collaborate. Of course in a remote work environment it’s been a little more challenging. At AppDirect it starts with strong values, which we really use as guiding principles from the hiring phase to how we make every decision. From there we add a number of global and local cultural events to stay connected globally. I learned a lot about the Diwali celebrations with our India-based team this year!

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? In the more traditional IT roles, I think finding good business analysts who have a good combination of technical and business skills is a challenge. As the IT organisation focuses less on running data centres and more on supporting the business, this role, with a highly collaborative mindset, will become increasingly critical. On the technical side, finding strong DevOps candidates is rapidly becoming a challenge. Bridging the gap between infrastructure and coding, but also understanding the change in culture required to run a real DevOps team, is an ability that is challenging to find.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Although I have had a few mentors, I have typically chosen to forge my own path and have not listened to too much career advice!

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Developing a high-performance team is the way to succeed as a leader, surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you and that have a shared vision. Developing skills takes time and attention because everyone is different - so each team member might learn differently (reading, watching, doing, etc.) and they need to focus on different areas. Still, investing in your team should always be a top priority.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? First, I would say “learn about your business”. How does your company make money? What are the key drivers, and who are the people and organisations behind those? What are the leaders most struggling with? A second and related point would be to build strong relationships with the business leaders. That takes a lot of time and listening, but really pays off down the road. Lastly, I would encourage aspiring leaders to balance their technical and interpersonal skills. The more you advance in your career, the more personal and communication skills will become important. Take the time to reflect on your own style, get some feedback and do some training.

What has been your greatest career achievement? In recent years I would say it was the complete transformation of the IT organisation at Cirque du Soleil. We went from an organisation that was siloed by technical role, to a model that was organised around delivering value to internal customers. It was a 6-month complete overhaul with a lot of participation and collaboration from the team and led to much more impactful solutions for the company.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? My career has been a lot of fun and experimenting, giving me lots of opportunities to make a difference and to learn (from my successes, and more importantly, from my failures). All of this gives me the unique perspective I have today, so I would not change a thing!

What are you reading now? In recent years there have been a lot of changes to operating and organisational models, with all the transformations brought by agile and DevOps, to name only those. I am interested to see how work continues to evolve and how to organise teams in this new context. I am currently reading How to survive the organizational revolution, by Ard-Pieter De Man, Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars.

Most people don't know that I… Still play ultimate frisbee!

In my spare time, I like to…Spend a lot of time outdoors, on the lake in the summer and downhill skiing in the winter.

Ask me to do anything but… eat hot peppers!