CIO Spotlight: Reza Morakabati, Commvault

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? “A key component is kindness. Kindness means recognising each other as the human beings we all are. We all have lives outside our jobs and we should respect boundaries and help each other when we can.”

Headshot of Reza Morakabati, CIO at Commvault

Name: Reza Morakabati

Company: Commvault

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: November 2019

Location: Boston, MA

Reza Morakabati has been Chief Information Officer at Commvault since 2019 where he guides corporate IT strategy and deployment of Commvault’s portfolio of solutions to drive operational excellence for their customers. He was previously VP, Business Technology & Operations at Puppet. In this role, he built a cohesive team that emphasised learning and skill set development to retain talent, resulting in one of the lowest attrition rates within the company. Prior to joining Puppet, Morakabati spent several years working in business operations leadership positions at Pivotal and EMC.

What was your first job? My first job was with Honeywell Information Systems. I was a programmer for their minicomputer based office automation software. Programming was and remains one of the most satisfying experiences — you get to see what you create right away! I loved my programming days.

Did you always want to work in IT? I have always had a love for technology, even from my early days. I suppose I can thank the movie War Games, which got me fascinated with the software programming world. Over time, through many twists and turns, I ended up more on the business side of things. In particular, after the .com market crash, I realised that a good idea is not the only thing needed for success. The ability to execute is even more important. So, I went into business operations and became involved with IT. While becoming an IT leader was not necessarily a career objective, becoming an operational leader was definitely one, and I view IT like any operations role such as Sales Ops or Marketing Ops.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I got my Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Masters in Computer Engineering, with focus on Networking and Communications. Later, after I switched to business, I realised I wasn't very good and didn't have great mentors to learn from. I went for my MBA to get a formal education in business. That opened the doors to many possibilities later in my career.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. As mentioned above, I started out in software as an engineer and loved it. I learned to be an analyst and later decided I wanted to learn about business, in case I ever wanted to build my own startup. I did product management for a few years, but didn't think I was good at it. So, I got my MBA for my formal education in business. I decided that having a good idea wasn't enough — you have to execute and operate on ideas too. After my MBA, I went into business operations and learned about management consulting, program management, sales and professional services operations, and IT operations. That brings us to where I am today, having tried operations roles in large and small companies, helping organisations drive consistency and scalability within operations.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Like many CIOs and technology leaders, Information Security will remain at the top of my list. With hybrid work and the technology landscape, we will continue to invest in furthering our capabilities there. Another one is supporting our company in driving our “Power of AND strategy” — a scalable and robust technology platform to help businesses drive our software and SaaS synergies in the marketplace. Finally, driving a data driven culture to infuse even more analytics and data science into our everyday decisions and processes.  Data will always be one of my top 2-3 priorities, anywhere and anytime.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Keeping our assets and company resources secure is what any CEO expects from their CIOs and tech leaders. Another is scalability —supporting our operations to run smoothly and grow as the business does. This has core elements such as driving consistency in how we do things, simplification of processes and tech stacks, and most importantly automation. Any CEO would ask, "If I grow the company 10 fold, I shouldn't have to grow my employee base the same amount. What are you doing to help me with that?"

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The CIO role as well as IT's has gone under its own transformation in recent years. Gone are the days of IT being a closed organisation with order takers implementing techsolutions. Now is the time for CIOs and technology leaders to be partners to drive business outcomes together. Some still think a tech team should be there just to execute on their choices of technology — something that has become far easier with SaaS and direct sales to business interactions. The IT role has been transformed into a business technology organisation — CIOs should not be left out of business strategy conversations. They and their teams should be involved when business requirements are hashed out so teams can better serve the needs of the business.

When someone asks for a very specific vendor to bring onboard, the first question should be, "what business problem are you trying to solve before we talk about specific vendors?"

On the other hand, sometimes CIOs are put into position to make business decisions in disguise of technology ones — helping a team to drive retirement of a process coming at it from a purely technology angle. While that may not seem too unrelated to a CIO's role, a technology team shouldn't be used to resolve business decisions that are too sticky to handle.

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? Digital transformation feels a bit passé. Digital transformation was about ripping the band aid off and quickly upgrading people, process and technology to modern standards — bringing in data from different corners together quickly. However, the drivers for it are no different. We have several initiatives that address operational efficiencies in our strategy in the marketplace. Most importantly, we also have a few initiatives focused solely on customer experience. In the new SaaS and subscription world of technology, customer journey becomes the number 1 concern for any company in that domain. Our balance is based on governance we have on prioritisation — considering short-term and long-term impact that each initiative has on our operations, company results and most importantly on our employees, customers and partners.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? The value of a technology team is in the business outcomes they help drive. The KPIs that we look at and drive are embedded in business plans behind the initiatives. When we consider the traditional people, process, and technology framework, technology is only a part of the equation. Just as important are the enabling role of technology in supporting people and processes in the new initiative. 

The area I'm most keen on tracking specific to technology initiatives is how we leverage our capacity, what types of initiatives we engage in, how we utilise our key resources, and how we use the data to avert bottlenecks in delivery.  Those are the metrics that we have started looking at to ensure we are focusing on the right things from a capacity perspective.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? I have a few guiding principles for my team, some of which drive culture and behaviour. A key component is kindness. We don't generally have much choice (other than the limited few we get to interview) in choosing who we work with. Our jobs are hard enough and we shouldn't make it even more stressful on each other. Kindness means recognising each other as the human beings we all are. We all have lives outside our jobs and we should respect boundaries and help each other when we can. 

Another is generally being a good consultant and having great listening skills. I want our team to help solve problems. To do so, we need to understand the root cause of the problem and not just address the symptoms. That means, being patient and keep asking questions until you get to the bottom of the problem. It is only then that we can offer the options that make sense, like a true consultant. 

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? ​​Information security is the number one priority for many organisations. There is a lot of competition for these roles, especially as there is more government scrutiny and regulations in the market.

What's the best career advice you ever received? “Being humble and kind” by Paul Maritz. I worked at Pivotal for a short period of time and I was lucky that it coincided a bit with Paul Martiz's tenure leading that organisation. Although he and I didn't work together on any projects, I admired his humble nature, intelligent leadership and remember him as someone who always said hi to anyone in the hallway and never stayed aloof. He always emphasised "be kind" after every corporate meeting as one of his principles — not respectful, but kind — emphasising the human aspects of the word, not just the business one.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Succession planning is important, but not the main objective. Our organisational goal for any role in the team is to recruit talent and build redundancies where we can and develop a deep bench. It means a team of passionate, caring contributors and leaders with aptitude, skill sets, and desire to make things around them better all the time. They set objectives, collaborate and march teams towards those objectives. My advice is to focus on skill sets and attributes you want your leaders to represent and ask them to do so by giving them specific projects or problems to solve, as part of their normal role.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? I've seen a lot of successful operational leaders take jobs in IT and a lot of successful IT leaders becoming very successful operational leaders. Whenever you get a chance, rotate through various organisations in operations roles such as sales operations or HR operations to learn about what business problems they are trying to solve and their challenges, especially in relation with technology and working with technology teams. When you know how your customers think or what they expect, it will give you a very different perspective on leading your IT teams.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I was at Puppet for a few years, working as a DevOps leader based out of Oregon. In my years there, we were able to create a sales ops team from scratch and put together a solid IT team with modern roles such as data operations and information security. However,  my greatest personal accomplishment was the people in the team. We were a very closely knit group of folks with a variety of backgrounds that came together as a unit, with the same beliefs in cultural ideals who supported each other through every hurdle. The proof in the unity and our humble style was in the numbers — we had the lowest turnover rate ever on our team for the few years after I arrived.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I have been lucky to be presented with so many interesting opportunities in my career. The realisation I had late in my career though was to never look at a job as a job. Never think of what you do today as something you are stuck doing for a long time with no choice. I have learned over time, that we all have choices. There are almost always ways to stabilise and sustain yourself until you find another role worth your passion and energy. What I learned is that having that attitude and perspective, understanding that you can be in control of any situation, will help you with dealing with any stressful situation at home. It helps to leave the emotions aside and look at things far more objectively vs. tying success to job security. That perspective of us having control over our fates helps me tremendously in handling emotionally charged situations and becoming more transparent in discussion —addressing real issues vs. avoiding them for fear of job security.

What are you reading now? I usually read 6-8 books at a time. I simply get bored with one thing and need variety. One book that is interesting right now is the Equality Machine by Orly Lobel. With all the sensational news and hype around AI, chat software and use of machine learning in decision making, understanding biases in those algorithms become the responsibility of those that design them. The book discusses ways that such biases can be addressed and fixed.

Most people don't know that I… am an avid game player. Well, when I have the time. Call of Duty, Clash of Clans are the ones I've settled on over time.

In my spare time, I like to…read a lot. I also watch a lot of movies.. It has become quite a process on how I choose movies, watch, and catalogues.

Ask me to do anything but… take a class and record how to present. I've taken a lot of those over time with some required for work. It is one of those things that I absolutely try to avoid — recording myself presenting to a group and watching it later.