CIO Spotlight: Michael Meskes, Instaclustr

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? “All of the technologies we offer are fully open source, and supporting, expanding, and investing in those technologies and projects will continue to be at the forefront of our initiatives this year and beyond.”

Headshot of Michael Meskes, CIO of Instaclustr
Instaclustr

Name: Michael Meskes

Company: Instaclustr

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: March 2021

Location: Moenchengladbach, Germany

Michael Meskes is the CIO of Instaclustr, a platform for open source infrastructure. He took on the role when his previous company, credativ, merged into Instaclustr in 2021. He has been an open source developer for nearly thirty years, working on different open source projects such as Debian and PostgreSQL. His educational background is in computer science.

What was your first job? My first job was as a member of the research staff at my alma mater, which I did while I was working on my Ph.D. I then finally got my first industry position as a project manager for a small system integrator.

Did you always want to work in IT? I suppose it depends on when “always” starts. As a young kid, I didn’t dream of IT – but this was when only very few had actually seen a computer, let alone used one! But when I grew a bit older and computers became more common, I developed so much of an interest in the new technology that I decided on a career in IT and never looked back.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied computer science at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, with a minor in mathematics. After graduating, I stayed at RWTH Aachen University as a research assistant working on database theory. I received my Ph.D for work on deductive database systems. I have spent most of my career in the open source ecosystem, where active participation is more important than any certification.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After my first position (at the small system integrator), I switched to a large consulting company (but was still doing project management). My next step was setting up and running a branch office for another medium-sized system integrator before starting a company of my own, an open source services business named credativ. When we merged credativ into Instaclustr in 2021, I became the CIO across the entire organisation. I also teach at a local university as an adjunct professor.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? All of the technologies we offer are fully open source, and supporting, expanding, and investing in those technologies and projects will continue to be at the forefront of our initiatives this year and beyond. Open source data infrastructure is stronger than ever within enterprises, but it takes purposeful support and contributions to keep open source projects reliable, available, scalable, and secure. Part of my role as CIO is to ensure we are thoroughly vetting and supporting any open source project that becomes part of our ecosystem.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? When it comes to our CEO’s priorities towards my division, the top one certainly is giving back more to open source communities. Besides the standard of having people work as developers across certain open source communities, I plan to explore other avenues as well. For instance, I’m setting a program into motion that enables each and every person in the company to find ways they can help support and grow their preferred open source project (and be able to devote time to doing so). We explicitly cast a wider net and do not concentrate solely on the tools we run in our own platform, but include the whole stack underneath it, as well as any software in the wider ecosystem of said tools.

While this program is very specific to our needs, I think the broader idea of being part of one or more open source communities is generally a good way to improve any business’s IT posture. CIOs and technical leaders need to remember that using open source is a two-way street, though, and the better the cooperation, the more benefits can be taken out of it.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? To take one definition as an example, Wikipedia defines CIO as the “title commonly given to the most senior executive in an enterprise who works with information technology and computer systems [...]”. From the vantage point of a non-IT company, this is a fairly clear definition of the position and the responsibilities. But when it comes to IT companies…well, I think the definition becomes much more murky.

By definition, CTO, CPO, CDO and maybe some other roles also have strong ties into IT in our industry. I found that the definition of these roles varies, to a large degree, between companies. As the definition of my own role shows, the responsibilities have a lot to do with the concrete business of the company. What I do think is very important, though, is to define these responsibilities clearly. For example, the CTO and CIO should know exactly who is responsible for what. We are fortunate to have a very clear distinction between the roles at Instaclustr, which has made cooperation very smooth and effective. It’s important to get that right.

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? Our business is helping clients with their digital transformation, and we use open source (pure open source – not “open core” varieties that come with license fees and lock-in) because we believe it is the best way going forward. With open source as part of their digital transformation, businesses are in a good position to keep budgets in check and to operate (and scale) more efficiently. For us, the CIO’s responsibilities are improving the open source projects used, and thus laying the groundwork for everyone’s digital transformation.

Do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We do have KPIs for our open source work and are implementing (and honing) how we go about those. In the process, I expect some of the KPIs to become less useful. Subsequently, they will be replaced by better-suited KPIs. This is still very much a work-in-progress, though!

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it?  First and foremost, good culture to me means working as a team. There are a lot of things done to cultivate that feeling, starting with a low hierarchy. Over the years, I found that open communication is really, really important. Obviously, not all information can be shared and not all decisions can be made jointly, but literally and figuratively keeping one’s door open for any question and discussion is important.

More specifically to myself, I think it’s important to continue to stay in touch with my open source project development work. Doing so ensures I remain a close member of the team and culture here, and not just the CIO.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The most difficult roles to fill so far have been higher qualified technical positions. But even more entry-level positions require quick a bit of effort to find right now! It actually gets easier when the role is less technical but more of a management position. I anticipate this to be getting even worse.

The people we are looking for are expected to have a significant background (and interest) in open source technology. Specific knowledge in tools in our stacks is preferable, of course, but we are more than willing to train people up on a special toolchain. Now, one would think finding open source expertise (even at more entry-level) is rather easy, as people tend to get into these technologies at a younger age and do not need access to huge infrastructure to learn the basics. This mostly holds true, but  the need in this industry hugely outweighs the amount of people really interested in open source. (The same holds for almost the whole IT spectrum, but it appears that it is even worse in open source.) With open source becoming mainstream, the needs have increased so much that education cannot keep up with it.

I usually make it a point to ask my students what area of IT they are most interested in. The question used to have two answers “network” or “databases.” Nowadays, though, the most prevalent answers are “mobile” and “games.” But even for students who are into server-side and infrastructure-related topics, “network” gets much more interest than “databases.” With our company Instaclustr mostly operating data-layer software, the pool of potential hires is thus fairly small to begin with.

What's the best career advice you ever received? My first supervisor told me to concentrate on data and data processing software because, at the end of the day, IT’s main job is to process data. Everything else is necessary to make sure data is processed as quickly and reliably as possible. It’s stuck with me throughout my career.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. We certainly have a plan to build out the next generation of leadership in two of my core areas as CIO: the open source division and the European branch. For both, a small group of executives has been identified that, together with me, forms the leadership council. Increasingly, responsibilities will be handed down to them. There is no exact schedule, but it’s a process that in the end will enable a small team to handle the whole position. In my opinion, it is very important to start such a process on day one.

The challenge, as you might expect, is finding the right people to join the council. Most of the time such a position is a step up, and excelling at one level does not necessarily mean being good at the next level. Also: one needs to find people that understand and live the culture of the company while at the same time understanding its current and future needs. That’s a combination that is much rarer than I originally thought.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? The times of strict hierarchical structures are over. Hopefully, they never come back. In modern times, IT leadership is much more about leading by example, making the leader the first among equals. A team works much better when they are motivated, and the best motivation is feeling the leader sees themselves as a part of the team. To sum it up I think the advice is: Picture yourself as a member of the team. What would you like your supervisor to do or say or how would you expect them to react? Whenever possible, that is what you should do.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Back in 1999, I started credativ with a good friend of mine. We bootstrapped the company and grew it into an international open source specialist. With its open source support centers, credativ helped a multitude of clients improving and running their open-source-based infrastructure, while at the same time keeping very close ties to numerous open source communities.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I don’t think there is any major thing that I would have handled differently. There are quite a few smaller things, that I could or should have done differently, though. Overall, however, I’m pretty happy with how I did things and how they’ve turned out.

What are you reading now? In my spare time I’m currently reading Better of Dead the latest novel in Lee Child’s Jake Reacher series. While the series certainly has changed over the years – particularly now that Lee co-authors with his brother Andrew – I still enjoy reading the latest about Reacher.

Most people don't know that I… Started developing open source software before the term was coined. I still find myself sometimes using the original term, “free software,” and actually know the differences between the two.

In my spare time, I like to…Play a round of golf. I’m not exactly good at it, but it’s really relaxing.

Ask me to do anything but… Singing. Even in school, they made sure I stayed off the stage.