CIO Spotlight: Amy O’Connor, Precisely

What's the best career advice you ever received? “By far the best career advice I have ever received is to build and nurture a strong network of the people you meet and work with over the years. It’s these connections we can rely upon…”

Headshot of Amy O’Connor, Chief Data and Information Officer at Precisely

Name: Amy O’Connor

Company: Precisely

Job title: Chief data and information officer

Date started current role: September 2019

Location: Boston

As chief data and information officer, Amy O'Connor leads the global IT and cloud operations, data analytics, and information security teams responsible for delivering a world-class digital experience as Precisely continues its rapid growth in data integrity. O'Connor has extensive experience using data-driven approaches to align IT services with user needs. She is also a frequent speaker in the data management space, advocating for the benefits that organisations can gain by using a data-driven approach in their IT infrastructure. She has expertise in enterprise business applications, data engineering and data science, information security, employee productivity tools, and network and cloud management.

What was your first job? I began my career as a software engineer at Data General, one of the first minicomputer companies. During that time, I developed software for an embedded real-time operating system, including work on network device drivers. I still think back fondly on this experience, as it exposed me to the very basics of the inner workings of computer systems. I use this knowledge to this day when I think about performance, security, and availability of applications and services.

Did you always want to work in IT? While I didn't necessarily always aspire to work in IT, I always really wanted to work in roles that could affect change. Early on, I aspired to be a doctor, yet the sight of blood made me quite queasy. Then I realised I could take computers apart and put them back together. Over my career, the positive impact of technology on our lives has accelerated, and much of that impact is enabled by the increasing importance of IT. I feel blessed that my early career choices have led me down a path where I leverage technology and lead people to build and automate processes that have transformed businesses and lives.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I earned degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Connecticut. I also gained a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University. While I also have a Six Sigma certification in process improvement and an ITIL certification in IT service management, fundamentally I am a continuous learner who is always reading across a variety of topics from technology, to economics and emerging trends. I find that by listening intently, I learn from the people around me every day.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. While I have always worked in IT, non-linear is a good way to describe my career path. After starting as a software engineer, I moved to consulting, then to IT programme management, strategy, marketing, and many other positions. In these roles, I had the fortune to work with many technologies, including networking, data, applications, consumer devices, data centres and so on. I have the experience sitting on both sides of the desk, as a buyer of IT as well as the seller of IT. I am thankful for all of the people I have met through my career who have made these experiences available. I have discovered that often stepping into a role that is not an obvious next step can result in the most rewarding experiences. This diverse path gives me a broad perspective and helps me every day with the opportunities and challenges I face in my current IT leadership role.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? I have found that every successful IT initiative exists to produce, process, and utilise data. Which leads me to putting data initiatives at the core of every IT investment. At Precisely, we help businesses every day automate and accelerate confident decision-making based on trusted data. So, throughout our own digital transformation journey, we have depended on our own software to instil and maintain our culture of data integrity. We are a business that is well versed in M&A activity, so this has been essential in ensuring that the various business integrations have run smoothly. Through M&A, we bring great people and products to Precisely, and lots of data about how they ran their separate companies.

We are also continuously building stronger relationships with our customers and developing a clear view of operational data to run our business more efficiently and effectively, while ensuring that we are properly handling all the data for which we have fiduciary and privacy responsibilities. To achieve this, we’re consolidating systems of record for efficient operations, and maintaining a focused data culture so that we can trust our data and make more confident decisions.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? With continued M&A activity (our most recent acquisition only just happened at the end of January!), our number one priority is to support the growth of the business through scalable and transformational ways. This means we heavily rely on our own data to tell us where we have inefficiencies, where we need to focus, and to transform the way we think and act. We will also continue to double-down on how we protect our data to ensure it is secured and used only in appropriate ways. I have a motto here at Precisely that I continue to advocate: information security is everyone’s job. Perhaps more important than these themes, is that we are vitally focused on the engagement of our people. Our talented workforce is our most important asset, and to ensure our people thrive here, we continue to focus on developing them and prioritising their needs.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I think the CIO role needs to adapt to the business needs, these needs often change for different industries. You'll also find different needs depending on the maturity and size of the business.

In my case, I do play the traditional CIO role, and I lead the traditional IT team. But I also lead our data team as well as our information security team. Sometimes you see those teams structured separately, but for our business, it makes sense to bring them together. This is partly because we are growing so quickly, so we wanted to put the people responsible for processing and improving data, and doing first-level analysis and governance, in the same team as those who are responsible for operating the systems that secure our environment, and manage email systems, and so on. We find this aids collaboration, meaning we can keep up with the pace of the business.

I have recently taken responsibility for some critical business process improvement programmes. Our business processes, such as ‘hire to retire’ and ‘lead to cash’, are automated, yet they are not as efficient as we would like. While it’s not typical for a CIO to lead business process improvement efforts, in our case, we are marrying our business folks very closely with our IT teams to better understand what business needs to scale and effectively automate process improvements.

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? In 2019, Precisely’s IT systems could not accommodate a business with our growth potential. I was excited to join the Precisely team to lead the digital transformation needed to more than triple in size in a few years. I devised a strategy where we built out an entirely new enterprise applications landscape on best-in-class software as a service (SaaS) applications. We also developed our strategy around data centre consolidation, productivity tools standards, and our cloud approach. We developed and executed our information security plan, and during the past three years, we have had significant organic growth while acquiring multiple businesses.

We are a company that has long and strong relationships with our customers. Once they start using our products to improve the integrity of their data, they continue using them. Therefore, the data never stops and the need to improve that data never stops. First and foremost, our digital transformation was focused on customer experience and revenue growth. Now that we have those critical building blocks in place, we are shifting slightly to address issues in operational efficiency. We also have quite a bit of variability in some of our business processes, particularly given our fast growth through acquisition. This variability causes inefficiencies and frustration on behalf of our employees, which can lead to a degradation in customer satisfaction. This year, we initiated a few critical business process improvement programmes, with the aim towards digital transformation not only for processes, but also the experiences of our employees and customers.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We have grown so quickly. Three years ago, our business was less than half the size it is today. So, we've been focused on literally building out an IT infrastructure and an IT organisation to support a business that's doubling in size every couple of years, in terms of both number of employees and revenue, acquiring companies every few months. So, I would have to say we've been focused on working to stay ahead of the growth curve of the business. Therefore, our IT KPI has been focused on keeping our business running smoothly during these changes and making sure our customers and employees are happy. Our KPIs today measure that business performance and employee engagement. While my primary focus continues to be on business KPIs as an indicator of IT impact, we are now embarking on the formalisation of more IT-specific KPIs using industry standards such as ITIL.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? We have four core values that describe our company culture, which are openness, determination, individuality, and collaboration. By being open and collaborative, we’re sharing what we know with each other and figuring out the best way to solve problems. Individuality means having team members who each bring their own ideas and fresh perspectives to the table, embracing the notion that what makes us different makes us stronger. The final value that defines Precisely is determination, we have intensely smart employees who will always be able to solve someone’s problem, but it’s also about ensuring that we’re focused on doing what’s best, and leaning on those other values of openness and collaboration to work together and figure out how to do it at scale.

One of the key ways I foster our culture is through IT meet-ups. These are bi-monthly sessions where we put the meeting in the hands of individual employees. I love these meet-ups – our IT folks explain what they are working on in their own terms, using demos of their work rather than formal status presentations. It’s a great way to gain appreciation of the depth and breadth of people’s contributions as well as learning a bit about them personally and their approach to their work. As I express at the start of each meet-up session, “this is my favourite meeting ever”.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? While every role in technology is difficult to fill right now because of high global demand, I always look for people with the right attitude and cultural fit, rather than a particular skill. We have a set of wonderful IT people who have been in the industry for a while and are eager to share their knowledge with new joiners. Consequently, many of our most productive employees are very early in their careers and are already making a tremendous impact on our business. As a business, we pride ourselves on our internal mobility programme, which actively supports employees if they want to develop by moving into other roles or teams. Therefore, I'm a little less concerned about finding the right skills in general. We are also fortunate with the talented people who have joined our team through acquisitions. Our eclectic mix of long-term employees, with recent graduates and talented acquirees, has granted us the privilege of a talented and engaged IT workforce.

With regards to specific skillsets, information security is an area where it’s increasingly challenging to find people who have all the necessary skills. This is because the threat environment keeps changing, and so do the solutions needed. However, it definitely seems that there aren’t enough people out there with specific InfoSec experience to fulfil demand, particularly as the threat of cyber security continues to increase. In cases like these, we augment our internal staff with third party firms that bring a level of specialty. This combination of internal employees and third-party specialists ensures we are meeting the needs of our business.

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