There's nothing like having to deliver a new product on a tight deadline for a customer that accounts for a quarter of your company's revenues to put your priorities in focus.
That's the situation Anupam Vachaspati faced a few years ago. He was working at a software development company, charged with creating a custom loss mitigation system for one of the country's largest mortgage lenders. Delivering this complex business product, which was critical to his company's financial success, on a tight deadline and even tighter budget was the biggest challenges Vachaspati had faced in his 15 years in application development.
But Vachaspati knew that if he wanted to move up the IT ladder to a CIO role one day, launching a revenue-generating product or service was a necessary notch in his belt. "Technology has to have a business purpose--a direct connection to the top or bottom line--or you don't have the right focus," says Vachaspati, now vice president of application development for mortgage servicer Saxon. "Developing new products puts you very close to the challenges facing the business."
Being close to the business can also lead to ideas for new products and services. John Meister, a nominee for the 2010 CIO Ones to Watch Award, knows that building a stronger and more profitable relationship with merchants has always been a business priority at MasterCard (MA). So when he became senior vice president of authorization and database engineering in 2008, he saw an opportunity in the mountains of customer data the credit card company already collected. Why not package the data for sale to retailers the same way they did with banks?
The trick was convincing merchants he actually had something of value. After all, MasterCard had never provided them with relevant data in the past. But the data analysis Meister showed them--same-store sales, geographic pull, customer loyalty statistics--and the speed with which he could provide it sold them. And with each new customer Meister signed, he got new ideas for the system that could provide further value for existing users.
The experience of introducing a revenue-generating product taught Meister a ton of new tactical and strategic skills, from how to build a better user interface to how to address challenges facing the company's biggest stakeholders. "I think everyone could benefit from the opportunity of having conversations with their customers about specific pain points or opportunity," Meister says.
While it is important to have a depth of expertise in technology, having experience delivering a new business product is practically a pre-requisite for executive IT roles, says Robert Reeg, MasterCard's president of global technology and operations. "It's just as important to be able to approach a task or project from a business perspective. The more someone is able to do this, the more opportunity there is to succeed and achieve higher levels of responsibility within an organization." MasterCard's Business Technologist employee recognition program, a distinction Meister has earned, is one way Reeg encourages his employees to seek out opportunities to use IT to solve business problems to the benefit of the company.
The product development process can be challenging for aspiring IT leaders. For Vachaspati, the loss mitigation system was the most complex he'd built, with more than 100 developers working under him on-site and offshore. The most difficult challenge, however, was satsifying both the system's customer--who wanted the product delivered yesterday--and Vachaspati's employer--who wanted it produced with a healthy profit margin. "It was a high pressure, high visibility, high stress situation," says Vachspati.
Initially, Vachaspati took direction from the customer. But after several months, he realized their demands were burning out his team. He worked to develop more of a partnership with the mortgage company client to get buy-in for a more standard release schedule for the software. There would be a major release every quarter and minor updates once a month, instead of the constant updates they craved. "After a lot of collaboration and convincing them that we would deliver the system on a time frame that worked for them," Vachspati says, "they came around."
He also had to ask his own company for more resources while making the case that he could still maintain profitability. What helps the most in such situations, says Vachaspati, is the kind of CIO support he has at Saxon. "Sometimes when you're developing a product, you get conflicts that require executive sponsorship beyond your level to support your stand," Vachaspati says.
Executive involvement is critical when an up-and-coming IT leader is working on a new business product or service, agrees Mesiter. "If a CIO has business contacts at potential future customers for the product, they can usually take the initiative to set up the conversations with them," Meister says. The CIO is not always the obvious connection, so Meister works intimately with his business cohort so that they include him in customer meetings.
For Vachaspati, leading the loss mitigation product team for three years has been the gift that keeps on giving. Not only did he learn valuable lessons about collaborating with customers on product design and delivery (it's now his first priority when approaching new business products), he also learned the ins and outs of loan delinquencies and related business processes. That has come in handy at Saxon, where he's now developing products and services to help mortgage holders who owe more that their homes are worth as part of the federal government's Home Affordable Modification Program.
Meister's business value-focused product development experience means that sometimes he gets stolen away by the business--and that's a good thing. His participation in netting a major service contract for a Fortune 100 company led to a three-month assignment in sales. "I had a real connection with that particular customer. So when a new business deal came up for an RFP with that customer a year later, it was important to our sales team that I actively participate," says Meister.
"Employees need to leverage opportunities like these to help increase their understanding of business strategy, and use the time to build their expanded networks within the company--with external vendors, with customers," says Reeg. "They need to look for opportunities that are out of their comfort zone--that's when the best learning happens."
The Council's Pathways Program was created by CIOs to build business and IT leadership skills in senior IT leaders through group mentoring with CIOs, 360-degree competencies assessment, targeted seminars and community forums. To learn more, visit council.cio.com/pathways.html.
Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based freelance writer.
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