CTO Sessions: Mike Mitrione, Turnitin

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? “While not necessarily overhyped, I think the ongoing resistance of companies to fully adopt cloud-native solutions impacts delivery velocity and business enablement.”

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Turnitin

Name: Mike Mitrione

Company: Turnitin

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: October 2021

Location: Dallas, TX

Mike Mitrione is an innovative leader with over 25 years of success working with business partners, defining corporate strategy and aligning cost-effective technology solutions to solve complex and crucial business problems. As CTO at Turnitin, an assessment and education technology provider, Mitrione communicates at all levels of the business to create positive change, efficiency, and increased profitability, and interfaces directly with owners and corporate governance to realise company vision and mission.  

What was your first job?  My first job was working as part of the tax technology group at accounting firm Arthur Andersen. In this role, I utilised my experience with computer science to develop tax software. This was also my first exposure to the importance of work life balance, a key foundational lesson to learn early in my career. As an eager young employee, I would easily put in seven-day, 100-hour workweeks, and while this was valuable experience, it was not sustainable. This role cemented the value of ensuring a healthy balance between work and life outside the office.  

Did you always want to work in IT? Funnily enough, I once took an aptitude test that told me to follow in a farmer’s career path. However, my lifelong interest in science and technology (and my software developer father’s lead) led me to the software, tech and the computer science field. Technology is a unique combination of science (writing and developing code) and art (elegance of design and maintainability), and I’m glad to have followed my father in this career journey. 

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Central Florida. I’ve previously earned certifications in numerous Microsoft programs and can affirm that being in the technology field requires a lifelong passion for learning. Because things change and develop so quickly in this industry, it is imperative to constantly evolve your knowledge. 

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After starting my career in tax tech at Arthur Andersen, I moved into government contracting, writing contracts and software, developing proposals and managing project plans. Eventually this role evolved into a customer-facing one, presenting our solutions and inspiring prospects that we were the right company to solve their problems, and taking me around the globe training customers to use our software. Seeing people interact with our products helped me to understand in real time what was and was not working, and what could be made better, further driving home my passion for hands-on technology work and leadership. Following this, I moved to Texas to start at Southwest Airlines as a software consultant, confident in my ability to help customers solve problems with my skillset and background. I eventually worked with senior leadership to rearchitect the airline’s technology strategy and led a team in deploying it. Four years and nearly 200 new direct reports later, my team helped rewrite nearly every piece of software at Southwest Airlines.     

What type of CTO are you? I like to call myself a ‘snorkeler.’ This reflects my leadership style, where I am focused on sound business strategy and team alignment with this strategy. I then look for opportunities to optimise, take a deep breath, dive down and help solve that problem with the intent of getting back up to the surface. I do my best not to ‘scuba dive,’ where I take a dive down and stay down. I prefer to stay on the surface for a bit, overseeing, and diving down as needed to fix issues and optimise with the overall strategic endpoint in mind. I get very involved with my team and love forming relationships and mentoring anyone who might need coaching on any number of topics. I'm a driven leader with a desire to succeed, but I want the company to succeed more than anything else. My team’s success supersedes mine every time.  

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? While not necessarily emerging, the concept of data and data activation remains fascinating to me. Data is foundational and enabling an organisation to use their data to drive business decisions and help customers is critical.

More specific to my current position, I’m excited about the opportunity to help people learn in my role at Turnitin, a leader in evaluating and improving student learning. We’re a company founded on integrity, which for us looks like supporting students’ learning journeys and moving them forward to better learning outcomes. 

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? While not necessarily overhyped, I think the ongoing resistance of companies to fully adopt cloud-native solutions impacts delivery velocity and business enablement. I recommend committing to and diving deep into native cloud solutions and becoming familiar with every nuance – this is the way to maximise engineering value.    

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I’m most proud of leading an overall transformation with my team at ExamSoft. I was previously CTO at ExamSoft, which was acquired by Turnitin in fall 2020, and transitioned to CTO of Turnitin shortly after. The experience of creating value for ExamSoft in the market, developing a future state vision with the business and supporting the sale was especially rewarding. Creating a tightknit, activated team, delivering above expectations all within an amazing organisational culture will always be a fond memory.   

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 believe that any goals or future-state visions strictly based on revenue are destined for failure. To me, digital transformation comes back to motivating a team through a compelling and an inspiring business strategy. To be successful in this, organisations need a unified company mission, vision and strategy. Revenue and architecture change are going to come and go, but everything must start with something compelling that the whole company can get rallied behind and understand.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Right now, I am working with customers to help them realise what may seem unimaginable.  How can we provide solutions that give educators more time to teach and improve student learning and institutions confidence that their graduates are prepared for the workforce. This isn’t a pie in the sky goal – we work to make this a reality.  

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? This hearkens back to developing a holistic business strategy and letting that be a key driver of everything you do. When teams are aligned on a singular, clear vision, it provides a sort of freedom to imagine and bring real solutions to fruition. Teams then build upon their success, constantly iterating and reimaging in the best interest of the customer and our shared vision. 

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I find that effectively matching product, service and tech strategy requires an understanding of the organisation’s technical debt first and foremost. My role is to find that technical debt, determine how to pay it off and align solutions with the overall strategic initiatives. This way, we are enabling new capabilities for the business as we work to address that technical debt.    

What makes an effective tech strategy? Curiosity. Organisations should carefully examine every line of code that isn't geared toward delivering customer value. This is another reason that a native cloud solution makes sense for us, as it provides all of the infrastructure and glue-type code that frees up your teams to deliver more business value, instead of actually writing this code themselves. Many organisations still write this infrastructure and spin their wheels on software patches and system upgrades, instead of relying on a purpose-built solution for support. Native cloud allows organisations to focus on writing business solutions, not complex middleware, and enabling these to drive value. 

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I predict that the CTO of the future will report solely to the CEO in every organisation. You can determine a lot about how an organisation considers and values technology based on who the CTO reports to, and if they report to the CEO, it signals that the company understands the value of software in how to enable a business.

What has been your greatest career achievement? So far, my greatest achievement has been at my current location. Working first with ExamSoft and then Turnitin has exposed me to one of the best, high-performing, activated, enabled teams I've had the honor to collaborate with.  

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Nothing! I’m pleased to say that my career path provided me with a wide breadth of challenges that led me into my current role, and I am grateful to have learned as much as I have.

What are you reading now? I’m currently reading a book about the different varieties of grapes. As a wine enthusiast, this literature is particularly interesting and informative for me.

Most people don't know that I… Have a deep passion for winemaking and operate a 27-acre vineyard. My wife and I produce wine and are in the process of starting up our own winery.

In my spare time, I like to…Build stuff. I love working with my hands. I did a lot of construction during high school. It kickstarted my passion to create. When I’m at our vineyard I try and spend as much time as I can in my tractor. There is something therapeutic about working a piece of land. I also enjoy developing code, working with robotics and learning more about artificial intelligence and other technologies.

Ask me to do anything but… Not drink and learn about wine.