From CIO To Venture Capitalist: Gary Reiner's Journey From GE To General Atlantic | Straight Talk

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This article is by Featured Blogger Peter High from his Forbes.com column. Republished with the author’s permission.

When Gary Reiner was the chief information officer of General Electric for parts of two decades, ending in 2010, he had an unusual purview in that role even for today. He led mergers & acquisitions, sourcing, IT, operations, and quality teams for the company. Armed with an MBA from Harvard University, and having spent time as a partner at the consultancy, Boston Consulting Group, he brought an unusual degree of business savvy to the role of CIO. 

Since then, Reiner has made the unusual leap from CIO to venture capital, joining the growth equity firm, General Atlantic immediately after his tenure at General Electric. In that role, he has joined the boards of a number high growth companies (Box, Mu Sigma, Appirio, SnapAv), while also joining the boards of mature companies such as Citigroup and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Thus he has a deep well of knowledge of what the buyers of enterprise technology (CIOs) want in the technology they seek, and he also can advise mature companies on how to borrow some of the magic of start-ups while counseling start-ups on how to mature as they grow.

Reiner also sees the CIO role maturing, as well. He believes it will become more strategic as software continues to eat the world, and in fact he believes that the rapid production of software at scale will become increasingly important among CIOs, as well. In this interview, he offers a wealth of recommendations for CIOs, offered from the various experiences he has had in the world of technology.

Peter High: You are an Operating Partner at General Atlantic [GA]and part of their Resources Group. Could you talk about your purview in that role?

Gary Reiner: My responsibility is to look at technology companies where technology is the strategy and to become an advocate internally to partner with them. In many cases, if we do partner with them, I stay involved by joining the board to try to help them grow. We are a growth-oriented private equity firm, that is our mantra, and therefore what I try to do is centered around helping them grow faster than they otherwise would.

High: Are there certain segments of technology that particularly interest you or areas that you focus on in particular?

Reiner: The areas I have focused on have been mostly technology for large enterprises. Having been a buyer of technology for a large enterprise, I believe that it is a strong fit.

High: Your current affiliations include Box, Mu Sigma, Turbonomic, and Seismic. In the past, you have been on the board of large name companies with prominent growth stories such as Genpact, Appirio, and SnapAV. Currently, you serve on the board of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise as well as Citigroup. It goes without saying that your board experiences at HPE or Citigroup are different than your board experiences at a company similar to Turbonomic, as the companies are at different places in their evolutions. Could you compare your board experience across the wide array of organizations that you advise on a regular basis? Specifically, what do you draw from one to serve the other where appropriate?

Reiner: I believe that for each of those aspects, every board member will have a different answer to that question based on what they bring to the party or what the companies need. The companies that we have invested in at GA are growth-oriented companies. Our mission is all about helping them grow faster than they otherwise would. The role I play is ensuring that they are able to meet with all of the relevant people to help get new customers. Additionally, in many cases, what I am focused on is customer success by making sure that when they have obtained a customer, that the customer is as delighted as they can be. This is on the basis that the best salesperson for a company is a satisfied customer, as a reference.

With Citi, the challenge for all the big banks is migrating from being entirely focused on compliance and regulatory adherence, to now focusing on things such as competitive advantage and productivity. I am trying to help move the company to be more focused on that. With HPE, my role is more around having been one of the biggest buyers of HPE’s equipment in the past. My focus is ensuring that the solutions they are coming up with are appropriate for what a large buyer of technology would be looking for. Additionally, I am focused on making sure that we are monitoring what is going on competitively, both on-premise and in public cloud.

High: You mentioned earlier that your focus at GA is on the enterprise space. Are there other ways in which you keep your finger on the pulse of enterprise buying? Specifically, as you look to connect the dots between a company you are about to invest in or already have, what direction they might take as a result of a broader set of perspectives you might gain from the research you are doing on the enterprise side.

Reiner: One way of doing it is by keeping in touch with previous colleagues. I spent nearly twenty years at General Electric, a large company that had a large amount of talent. As a result, much of the talent at GE has morphed and has moved on to other enterprises. We have all stayed friends, and we have spent a great deal of time talking about what is going on in the world of technology. Additionally, when you are on the board of a company that is selling to large enterprises such as HPE, you get great exposure to what is going on in the world of technology. Specifically, with HPE you see it from a supplier's point of view. Similarly, with Citigroup, one of the largest buyers of technology in the world, you see it from the perspective of the decisions that the company is making on technology.

High: As you alluded to, you were once the Chief Information Officer of GE. You served in this position after roles as a partner at Boston Consulting Group after receiving your MBA at Harvard, and you had done business development at GE before rising to the role of CIO.  At the time in which you were a CIO, your purview compared to CIOs today was quite broad and expansive. In many ways, I would assume it was representative of the breadth of experiences you had, both in business school and as a consultant where you engaged with advising a variety of technology businesses. Based on your own experience as CIO, and as you continue to be in touch with CIOs who are or would be your existing buyers of companies that you are affiliated with, how would you say the CIO role has evolved?

Reiner: It has evolved significantly. When I first became CIO at GE, the role was focused around reducing costs. Specifically, it was about figuring out how to get the same amount done with less. As a result, the big migrations then were offshoring to India where GE did upwards of $700 million of business from Indian firms in India in the 2000s. This was done by using our scale to negotiate as hard as possible.

That being said, the world has changed. The famous phrase of software eating the world is becoming increasingly relevant as large companies are now finding that the single most important strategic thing they can do is develop software well. It is rare that you will find a company where building great software is not a core competency of theirs. The CIO can play a huge role in making that happen. It was previously about implementing packaged software and getting it maintained as inexpensively as possible. Similarly, it was about building the software as inexpensively as possible. Now, it is building it as well and as fast as possible. That changes a lot of things as offshoring now makes less sense while on-shoring and having your own captive capability can make a great deal of sense.

Additionally, finding new ways to develop software quickly is going to become one of the core value adds of a CIO going forward. There are many things going on that are going to make that possible. The past layer of public clouds is inviting as a way to accelerate product development for developers that are specifically focused on dev-ops and ways in which they can develop software faster. There are things such as no code and low code that are allowing companies to develop software much faster. There is a lot of migration to machine learning and there are terrific companies out there that allow you to throw their solution at your big data. This is able to generate and figure out the right algorithms, and based on these algorithms, it can build applications for you in real time. Because of this, what would take two years before, now takes a month. Overall, there are all sorts of things out there that were not there twenty years ago that are making the CIO position significantly more interesting than it ever was.

High: One of the challenges that CIOs of companies of older and larger organizations is, in some ways, mirroring the advantages that the startups have. A company that is five to ten years old recently had the blank slate in terms of determining people practices, processes, and technologies that they would use. At these companies, there is no legacy technology or technical debt that needs to be updated or upgraded. While startups are not completely immune to these issues, an organization that is fifty to one hundred years old has to make this transformation to new technology which can be quite a challenge. Being somebody who has a wealth of perspective on this from having a foot in both worlds currently and in the past, what insights do you have in comparing how and what makes some of these smaller, more nimble companies  strong compared to organizations that do need to transform in order to compete with them?

Reiner: The newer companies would never think of owning their own data center as they were born on the public cloud and they were born using software as a service. There is not much legacy because if they decide to change from one SaaS solution to another, they just change. All they have to worry about is making sure that their data can migrate. Because of this, from that point of view, it is much easier as a new company compared to an old company. As an old company, everyone knows that they have to change. At these companies, the question is not whether to do it but instead how to do it economically within the budget.

There are companies out there that can leverage their old software and "refactor it" so that it runs on the public cloud, if that is what they want to do. There are lots of ways in which you can migrate from a capital intensive to an operating intensive expense management by migrating from your existing legacy applications to SaaS. Additionally, there are a significant amount of ways in which companies can quickly develop applications that replace their legacy using the past layer and using local no code. That being said, it is hard to do these things while you are still trying to make your quarterly budgets. Trying to do this is similar to trying to change the tires while the car is running. It takes the skill of a great CIO to be able to do that.

High: As you look to the future, what are some tech trends that are particularly exciting to you? Specifically, what are some areas that you are becoming personally invested in where you are educating yourself or speaking with smart people.

Reiner: There are a couple technologies out there that are making on-premise as economic as the public cloud. This is allowing CIOs who do not want to move to the public cloud to leverage those technologies while at the same time improving performance. There is smart software out there that allows you to do that.

Additionally, as many know, everything in machine learning is getting interesting. What is hard about the machine learning piece is the lack of data scientists out there that are allowing large companies to take advantage of the sort of data that they have. Because of this, any type of software that allows you to take advantage of your large data and take advantage of machine learning algorithms without having to hire all of the data scientists is an extremely compelling capability.

Originally published on Forbes.com