CIO Spotlight: John Matthews, ExtraHop

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? “A sense of humour is required to survive in IT.”

Headshot of John Matthews, CIO at ExtraHop

Name: John Matthews

Company: ExtraHop

Job title: Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: December 2014

Location: Seattle

John Matthews is the chief information officer at ExtraHop, where he oversees the continuous expansion of the ExtraHop IT environment and counsels the company's enterprise customers as they evolve their IT operations. Before joining ExtraHop, Matthews led IT strategy at F5 Networks, where he was CIO for nearly a decade. While at F5, Matthews provided strategic technology and management assessments, as well as a common-sense approach to IT operations that provided the best capabilities to the business with the least risk. Matthews guided F5 to the early adoption of new technologies, such as SaaS and cloud computing, to drive costs down while raising overall quality. Previously, Matthews served as an IT leader for MSN Operations at Microsoft, as CIO at Towne Exploration Company, and as director of IT operations at Adobe.

What was your first job? I worked on a farm, herding cattle, bailing hay, fence work…a lot of fence work. Then a million different jobs — barista, before that was a name we had for someone who makes fancy coffee, neon sign installer, and advertising sales to name a few. My first job in high tech was customer support for Aldus Corporation.

Did you always want to work in IT? I don't think I knew what I was getting into when I first joined IT. The person who administrated our phone system was going on sabbatical so I applied for his backfill position. They trained me how to admin a telco switch, and from there to be a server admin. I loved the way that common sense thinking and logic could make things better.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I almost got a degree in short story writing but in terms of IT and technology, my education was hands-on experience. I came up through the IT ranks, learning in each role as I went. As I grew in my career, I sought out certification and training programs.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Once I landed in IT, I worked my way up through the ranks. I’ve been an ACD admin, telco engineer, server admin, network admin, network manager, director of IT operations, VP of IT operations and finally CIO. I believe that my early farm work set the stage for my success. I learned some key lessons — willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, understanding the difference between urgent and important, and knowing when to speak up and when to listen (this is still an area of development for me!).

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? ExtraHop is GROWING. This is awesome, but it is also a giant pile of work for IT. That being said, it is all the stuff we love. Our focus is on growth and building (or rebuilding) systems to scale, securely. We are particularly  focused on our customer and partner-facing systems – how to make these better, more streamlined, and easier for every user. Also, like most organisations, we’re focused on the cloud and continue to look for opportunities to get more stuff out of our data centre.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The goals of the CEO and the office of the CIO, my organisation, are the same: growth. The clarity of purpose is very clear — build an ExtraHop for the future that can support more employees, more customers and more partners no matter where they’re located in the world. One way we will support that growth is by continuing to drink our own champagne – leverage our own ExtraHop network detection and response platform to keep our organisation secure.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I think what’s key to underline is the importance of having the CIO at the leadership table. We know that IT and IT systems can enable the business to grow. We also know that poor IT systems and IT technology can hamper a business from growing. Tech is a strategic tool for any business to grow quickly and having IT at the table where business decisions are being made facilitates growth. That's how we do it at ExtraHop — and I appreciate and advocate for this model.

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? We’re always in transformation mode. New tech is always arriving at our shores and we need to figure out what we do/don’t want to use.

I think it can be a mistake to separate customer experience and revenue growth from operational efficiency. They can all support each other if done well and injure each other if done poorly. My focus has to centre on: what is the business trying to achieve? Once I understand that, I can figure out the right balance and what should be a priority.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We have a mature digital business. We’re not only a technology company, we’re also a cybersecurity company — digital first is part of our DNA.

The KPIs I use to measure my team are the business KPIs that we have as a company. IT exists to help the business succeed so our KPIs and goals should be aligned. Our entire purpose is to help the business grow and scale, securely. Security has to be a core part of the IT process. It would be easier to grow if we didn’t have to do it securely but in today’s world, security is paramount.

To manage IT inside the business and within my team, I do measure the basics of IT — mean time to repair, uptime, service windows, etc. — but this isn’t how I view success or failure of the team. I use our general business metrics.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? A sense of humour is required to survive in IT. I work diligently to create an environment where humour, honesty and ownership are the way we deal with problems instead of agony and despair. I strive to be transparent with the team and this helps me create an environment where all subjects and topics are open to team discussion.

To cultivate this type of team and one that values mutual respect for team members, I often go back to kindergarten rules. I ask that team members raise their hands to speak (virtually or in-person). This creates an environment where people who are more comfortable interrupting, like me, have to be a bit more thoughtful and take our turn so people who are less likely to shout out an idea have a good process to participate. This has created a very inclusive environment on my team where everyone knows that ideas can – and do – come from anywhere.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? No surprise, security personnel are the hardest roles to fill. Operational security people are tough to find because everyone needs them. It is a supply and demand problem. What we’ve found has been most successful is growing our own talent and investing in entry level employees or employees looking to reskill into IT.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Here's the story: I was a newly minted admin for a netframe server at Aldus. I had just gotten my certification and was looking to make an impact. I noticed a particular server had a volume on it that was taking up about ⅓ of its space and hadn't been accessed in about 11 months. Thinking I would be a superhero to the team helping everything run faster, I deleted the volume. About four hours later, I learned that this volume was only used once a year and was essential to closing the fiscal books. Needless to say, I was upset and distraught. This was all me, my mistake. A senior team member found me wallowing in pity (and tears!) in a server room and shared this nugget: you have to care, be invested in how it goes and do your best, but you have to maintain professional distance or it will destroy you. It was a magical statement. I care deeply but I also understand that this is my job and not my entire life. I try to help junior team members remember this so they don’t get burned out.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Yes, it is essential to have a succession plan when you’re in a leadership role. It should be an ongoing, living plan. To grow the people underneath me who can take over the CIO role, I need to bring them into projects that elevate them to work with other senior team members so they have visibility across the organisation. Every time I’ve ever been promoted, it felt like everything I thought about the new job was wrong. My goal is to give people the chance to play above where they currently are for two reasons. First, so they can decide if that’s a thing they really want, and second, to show them they have the skills to succeed no matter where they want to take their career.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Find out what your people’s dreams are and make sure you talk to them about their dreams every single time you meet with them.

Regular communication and touchpoints with the entire team is also essential. For every conversation, I always make sure to ask about what their vision is for their future. Be interested in their goals and future. You want people to feel like they’re supported and encouraged to grow in whatever way they want to grow. Loyalty is a two way street.

I will also add that I encourage people to embrace change. My personal career growth journey can be tracked by embracing disruption that happens in the normal course of business and seeing the opportunities that it could present.

What has been your greatest career achievement? The success of my people is what I view as my greatest success. People management is no easy task. I’ve put a lot of work, trial and error, and practice into my work and management philosophy and I hope that it shows in the diverse and long-tenured team I've built. That diversity has helped me create a team that is more flexible, able to adapt to change, and most pertinent, provides different approaches to problem solving that can come up with creative solutions.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I don’t think I would be where I am today unless I had done everything I did in my career — including every single mistake. Every screw up helped grow my base of knowledge which is the foundation for my role now. My journey and path have been essential to forming who I am now as a technology and people leader.

What are you reading now? I’m an avid reader, especially anything science fiction. Right now I’m reading The Rosetta Man.

Most people don't know that I… am an artist. I sculpt in my free time.

In my spare time, I like to…Play disc golf. I’m an avid disc golfer.

Ask me to do anything but… Clean out a chicken coop. The first job I ever quit, at 12 years old, was the offer to clean out a 100-foot chicken coop.