CIO Spotlight: Derek Choy, Rainforest QA
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CIO Spotlight: Derek Choy, Rainforest QA

Name: Derek Choy

Company: Rainforest QA

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: October 2017

Location: San Francisco, CA

At Rainforest, Derek Choy is responsible for driving product and technical innovation, and scaling Rainforest's globally distributed engineering, product and professional services teams. Before joining Rainforest, Choy was vice president of engineering for Aria Systems, scaling a similarly distributed engineering team by 10X, which supported revenue growth of more than 20X. Prior to Aria Systems, Choy was director of software development at eBay, where he led product development for its billing platform, and was responsible for streamlining processes across several teams. Choy has also held senior engineering and management positions at Accenture and AT&T.


What was your first job? I joined AT&T (SBC at the time) as a management trainee after graduating from grad school. My first assignment was to be a manager in their Network Operations Center (NOC), managing the systems that support the company's data products like DSL, Frame Relay, ATM. It was an exciting assignment from both a technical and management perspective, I learned a lot from that first job / assignment.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. My dream was to be an aerospace engineer working on the latest generation of space vehicles. Due to various reasons that were outside of my control, I had to pick a different career path and I chose to be in IT / technology.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied Mechanical Engineering with a focus in Computational Fluid Dynamics - using computer simulations to study fluid (like air) flowing over objects (like wing surface). Even though my major was in mechanical engineering, I had extensive training on computing as a result of my research focus.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Being a management trainee at AT&T gave me a broader perspective of how such a business is run because I got to work in different parts of the business. Joining Accenture afterwards gave me experience working in different industries. Equipped with that knowledge and experience, I find IT in tech industry to be more interesting and challenging, hence my focus in IT after working at AT&T and Accenture.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? More and more business leaders understand the importance of data security and the attention they must give the protection process from the very beginning, starting with development. Because of this, business leaders and developers alike will place more weight on incorporating security into their 2019 DevOps processes. Businesses will begin to invest more heavily in developer education and prioritise new developer hires who have security backgrounds.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The priority this year is to drive several key business metrics, mostly around revenue growth and customer satisfaction. To achieve these goals, it is important to build products that add value to our customers' business. I am streamlining our product development process, environments and tooling to enable our teams to innovate and to move faster in bringing products to the market. I am also upgrading our ability to interact with our customers and to get feedback from them so we can better understand what's important to our customers.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The role of the CIO is evolving. In the past, the CIO's role was primarily operational, with a focus on efficiency and cost reduction. Today, the role still requires an element of efficiency, but requires the CIO to have a bigger impact on process, strategy and product leadership. For example, a new software rollout used to happen annually or quarterly, whereas businesses are now continuously putting out new updates. Optimising the development process itself is now the main focus, with the biggest emphasis on saving time while protecting quality. Today's CIOs play a key role in facilitating this by having a deeper understanding of the people, products and tools for building software.

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 have been adopting the latest digital trends and technology to move faster and be more efficient so it's not so much a transformation for us, but more of a continuous effort to stay at the forefront of technologies so we can continue to innovate faster.

It is important to balance between customer experience, revenue growth and operational efficiency, because better operational efficiency enables us to do more and to do them faster. In our case, speed is directly correlated with revenue growth and customer experience so we have to do both.

I first look at any low hanging fruits on the operational efficiency side and address them. Then I focus on revenue growth and customer experience so we can meet or exceed our company goals for the year. Hopefully I still have capacity left to work on the larger operational efficiency projects before the year is over.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We are relatively mature in the way we run our digital business. We fully automate our development and release process, supporting a full CI/CD process with 10-20 releases a day. We have metrics and KPIs that measure progress and efficiency, and the key ones are reviewed with my leadership team on a weekly basis to look for ways to optimise our process more.

What does a good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Our company's values are: 1. No BS, 2. Be Weirdly Passionate and 3. Always be Caring. We look for team members who are aligned with these values because it creates a wonderful environment to work in. We practice these values in everything we do and celebrate team members who are role models. Our team members find it fun to come to work, they enjoy interacting with other members of the team and they are proud of the work they do.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? We have most difficulties in filling roles on our Data Science and DevOps teams. There are no lack of applicants, but finding "A" players in these areas is not easy. Despite that, we continue to look for the best engineers in these spaces because success on those teams is very important to the business.

What's the best career advice you ever received? My director during my first managerial role reminded me that no one has enough time to do everything they want — we all need to prioritise based on the value we bring to the business. The conversation helped me to transition my focus from individual contribution towards leadership, and has helped me through various transitions throughout my career. As an individual contributor, I could only complete the work of a hard-working engineer. As a manager, I can achieve five times as much by making sure everyone on my team gives 100 percent. As the size of the team continues to scale, that multiplier becomes enormous. I've found the principle to be as true today as a CIO as it was during my first managerial role.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff.  I do not have a succession plan at the moment, but this is a key priority for me this year.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? IT leaders who want to grow their skills and responsibilities can take initiative -- and show a lot of value in the process -- by following a few simple steps. The prerequisite is establishing a track record of delivery. Managers need to trust that projects assigned to them are delivered on time and at peak quality. Next, it's important to understand the goals and needs of the business, and identify roles or projects that can support that. Proposing cool projects from a technology perspective can be great, but they need to be aligned with the goals of the business. Research on these suggestions need to be data driven, not just based on a gut-feeling or opinion. Finally, they should put together a project plan that shows the path to success and value. Given a strong delivery record, a package like this will be attractive to IT leaders and position these IT professionals for the next exciting growth opportunity.

What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest career achievement has been building very successful and highly performing engineering teams from scratch at the various places I've worked. These teams went on to build very innovative products for the company. My contribution is to hire the best people, build the process, establish the culture, cultivate the leaders and set these organisations on a high-growth, high-performing trajectory.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? There were a few points in my career where I could have been more aggressive. I could have taken on opportunities to move up, but I chose to spend more time growing the teams I was managing at the time because I really enjoyed working with them and wanted to see some of the leaders I was working with take over the teams before I moved on. This may have delayed my career growth a little, but it is important for me to see that the teams I built are on the right trajectories.

What are you reading now? AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee

Most people don't know that I… I used to be a professional photographer on the side. I used to run a wedding photography business with a few friends and we were quite successful before we got busy with our day jobs and families and decided to not continue that business.

In my spare time, I like to…I like to fly. I am a commercial pilot and I enjoy being in the air. Flying is intellectually challenging to me and I enjoy being alone in the air because I can leave everything behind temporarily (literally and figuratively) and enjoy some private time to myself.

Ask me to do anything but… Eat healthy. I know eating healthy is the trendy thing to do and it's good for my body, but I get so much joy enjoying the food I like that I refuse to stop eating it (and those food are generally not very healthy). I will do other things to compensate for it (like exercise) but eating the food I enjoy is very important to me! :)

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