CTO Sessions: Thomas Benjamin, NI

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? “I believe in this simple formula: Customer Value =(blend) People + Process + Reusable Services (Platform) + Applications.”

Headshot of Thomas Benjamin, EVP/CTO and Head of Analytics Business at NI

Name: Thomas Benjamin

Company: NI [National Instruments]

Job title: EVP/CTO and Head of Analytics Business

Date started current role: September 2021

Location: San Francisco, CA

Thomas Benjamin serves as Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Executive Vice President, and Head of Product Analytics at NI [National Instruments]. In this role, he leads NI’s development of software-driven business models essential to the test and measurement market, while driving disruptive technology innovation in new areas tied to data, product analytics and enterprise software. Benjamin comes to NI with extensive experience building software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud native solutions powered by APIs, data, and insights. Most recently he was the CTO and SVP of Technology at SAP Ariba. His career has also included CTO and VP roles at General Electric and Emirates Group, and technology leadership roles at Visa, Walmart, and Oracle.

What was your first job? My first job was running the operations of a manufacturing line of Tube Products of India, manufacturing Cold Drawn Welded Precision Steel Tubes used for propeller shafts of automobiles, front forks of bikes, etc.

Did you always want to work in IT? I have always loved programming since I learned BASIC programming when I was 14, and, like many kids into programming, went on to learn Fortran, Pascal and Java. Programming soon evolved to be a hobby of mine and as I was working towards my master’s degree, I knew I would like to find a career in IT.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering from University of Cincinnati and a Bachelor’s in Engineering from The College of Engineering Guindy, Anna University, India.

As part of my continuing education have certificates in:

  • Disruptive Strategy – Harvard Business Online School.
  • Exponential Technologies – Singularity University
  • Negotiation Skills & High-Performance Management – Stanford University

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started my Software career at Oracle, working in the consulting division for 3 years and Product Development for nearly 9+ years. Those 12+ years at Oracle provided me exposure to database, middle-tier and front-end architectures and gave me a foundation for leadership through leading complex projects. After Oracle, I moved to Walmart Labs as Chief Architect for the Walmart China E-Commerce site, and from there I moved to VISA as Chief Enterprise Architect for their Digital Wallet Program. Both Walmart and VISA gave me significant experience in building highly scalable, reliable, and resilient systems that operate at over four 9s of availability.

I then took an expedition to Dubai as VP of Architecture for the Emirates group, leading their technology transformation from an airline to a lifestyle brand of travel. After 2.5 years in Dubai, I moved back to the Bay Area as CTO for GE Aviation, helping find ways to add value to airlines using insights garnered from sensor data collected from GE Aircraft Engines and transitioning solutions to the public cloud.

Prior to joining NI, I served as CTO of SAP Ariba Procurement Cloud, helping modernise the Procurement stack using APIs, Microservices, low-code No-Code UI Frameworks and Big Data technologies to implement concepts of Autonomous Procurement and transitioning the Ariba solution to the GCP Cloud.

Throughout my career, I have consciously taken on roles that provide an opportunity to explore, port and fuse ideas across domains (e-commerce, payments, airlines, procurement, etc.)

What type of CTO are you? I am a CTO who is focused on finding ways to use technology to add value to customers in a simple, lean, and agile manner.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I am excited about discovering opportunities to add customer value by equipping them with actionable insights gained from their data in the industrial space, especially around semiconductor, electronics, and transportation, which are some of the focus domains for NI. Our goal is to enable customers to make the best use of their data to both improve efficiencies and bring their products to market faster.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I see value in VR technologies, which are still struggling to find a critical mass of use cases that drive broad adoption. For example, when I look at the data in video games where VR is very popular, sales of VR games are <1% of the total sales of video games. In my view, a rich, natural-like, 3D interface with simplicity of access and availability, coupled with a rich ecosystem of applications, could drive broader adoption of VR. I would love to see VR become more mainstream.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? One of the key initiatives I am focused on at NI is the work we’re doing to add value for customers using concepts of Hyper automation powered by Data Fabrics and Intelligence over the last 5 months. I am amazed at how colleagues from all parts of the organisation have come together as a collaborative, mission-based team to help make this vision a reality in a short span of time.

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? Like almost all companies right now, NI is undergoing a digital transformation - and I’m working with a group of cross-functional colleagues to lead that initiative. I stay grounded in customer value and focus on our ability to deliver this value through a simplified customer experience that’s powered by the right technology building blocks.

I believe that if the customer value is sustained, revenue will follow. The key is delivering value with the right balance of simplicity, speed, and operational efficiency from the customer’s point of view. Once we strike the right blend of test and measurement with data and insights, we can bring in a lot more hyper-automation into the test and measurement space, leading to significant operational efficiency improvements for our customers.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? One of the key issues I am working on is helping customers democratise the best practices of testing and measurement in a data driven manner powered by APIs and Insights. At NI, we’re seeing today’s rapid pace of technology driving both increasingly complex products and a need for more efficient product development. By democratising test and leveraging a software-connected approach, organisations can unlock the value of test data to not only keep up with that pace but get there faster, smarter and with the right data insights to make informed engineering decisions.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? I take a customer-first approach, staying grounded in customer value. Delivering on that value helps to realise the business goals.

The key to getting the value to customers in a timely manner is through the pragmatic use of technology in a modular manner. The trick is finding the most pragmatic way to fuse legacy solutions with modern solutions through APIs. Having done this multiple times over my career, I have lessons learned that guide me in the process.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I believe in this simple formula: Customer Value =(blend) People + Process + Reusable Services (Platform) + Applications

Given that technology strategy is the means to deliver products which provide customer value, I focus on finding the pragmatic path to realise that value to customer with simplicity in a timely manner factoring quality, security, reliability, and resilience. The trick is making the right trade-offs and going back and fixing the trade-offs.

What makes an effective tech strategy? A technology strategy centred on the customer and grounded in the value we bring to them is pivotal. To achieve this, the key is finding the right balance of fusing new technology with appropriate facades built around legacy technology in a manner that’s future-proof yet evolvable in phases.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I see the role of the CTO evolving to be one that’s focused on preparing the organisation for the future-- not just in terms of technology, but also from the business and strategy standpoint. In a connected digital world, technology is the oxygen that drives many business processes in delivering value to customers.

What has been your greatest career achievement? There have been a few across my career: -

Delivering Version 1 of Wal-Mart China E-Commerce site in about 10 months.

Building a Big-Data platform for Customer 360 (genome) for 100 million passengers for Emirates.

Modernising SAP Ariba’s Procurement solution powered by APIs, Microservices, Machine Learning Based Search and a Data Plane deployed on GCP.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Looking back at my career, especially in the early days where I was leaning more on technology purity over speed of delivery, I would lean more now towards speed of delivery with the right balance of technological purity to deliver value to customers.

What are you reading now? I am reading Conflicted – How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes by Ian Leslie

Most people don't know that I… still enjoy coding, and programming is my hobby and passion of mine.

In my spare time, I like to…Work on photography and home automation

Ask me to do anything but… Sing. That’s a skill that I am not blessed with!