Hard to Soft, Back to Front | Straight Talk


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The evolving responsibilities of a veteran CIO at an iconic 134-year-old company – from back-office to front-office, from hardware products to software- and services-led solutions – is emblematic of the CIO’s changing role. 

By Bill VanCuren, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, NCR Corporation

Like a lot of companies, NCR has been going through a shift from product manufacturer to solutions provider. Since the company’s founding 134 years ago, our primary goal has always been to help companies better connect, interact and transact with customers – and naturally, over the course of that many years, how you do that changes dramatically as a result of technology advancements. In 1879, for example, we did that by introducing the first mechanical cash register – hence our name, which stands for the earlier, and iconic, “National Cash Register.” 

Today, NCR provides hardware, software and services solutions that enable nearly 700 million business transactions daily across the financial, retail, hospitality, telecommunications and technology industries. Reflecting the evolution of our industry, we now go to market with our software solutions and attach the hardware and services, as opposed to leading with hardware and attaching software. This approach yields greater benefits for NCR customers as they transform their consumers’ banking and commerce experiences.

As this shift has occurred, my job has likewise evolved. In the early years of my tenure, I played a traditional back-office role. The work was focused primarily on operations and efficiency – for example, consolidating ERP, creating VOIP networks, and setting up development and services centers for cost efficiency. Today, I provide strategic leadership of the full IT portfolio across NCR, and my role is more of a hybrid of front-office and back-office initiatives.  I still have oversight of the corporation’s internal technology solutions, but I also have a lot more customer-facing technology responsibility. The work that my team does has very direct impact on the overall experience NCR customers have with our company.

Understanding the customer

In almost everything I do, I keep the question “How will this affect the customer experience?” top of mind. I need to think about how they acquire our technology, how they on-board it, how we invoice for the product or solution, and, essentially, its whole life cycle. How we procure, build, ship, and maintain the hardware and software that support the client relationship are all impacted by the work I do as CIO.  Security is also a much more significant part of the job today, which includes the up-time and compliancy of our SaaS data centers. 

One of the things I’ve been most excited to see as our company has evolved – as we have focused on driving ever more value to our customers – is the real-time awareness and visibility we have into our products – millions of endpoints all told. Internet of Things sensors allow us to monitor the up-time and availability of those endpoints. We’re able to push software downloads, so that we can perform ongoing health checks, check the statuses of faults and alerts, and obtain more precise location information – a data point that is extremely useful for our service technicians, who used to spend a lot of time simply trying to locate the client’s machines. IoT can also help the device be self-healing or self-correcting, because the endpoints are actually learning about the customer’s products and services as they operate. 

Preventive maintenance is another area in which we have been leveraging IoT.  We collect large amounts of historical data about our machines’ operations, and that’s all fed into a data lake. We use visualization tools to spot trends and Big Data algorithms that mine the data and predict things like where failures might occur or what parts we will need in our inventory, so we can reduce the time we need to get a part to the customer.  

As we look at our path ahead, we will focus on building out more self-service capabilities for the B2B customer. We know these customers want to see their whole business on a single page and follow this “digital thread” 360 degrees – the status of their orders, shipments, invoices, asset inventories, service incidents, as well as their ability to transact repeat orders. Clients demand an “Amazon-like” experience, so we have to design our websites to have a similar ease of use.  As the lines blur and things become more IoT, or endpoint, related, we expect we’ll see the consumer having even further influence on our product designs.  

My work will continue to become more and more customer-facing. I’m already doing some leading-edge IoT work with external customers. And now that IT is coming out of the back office, our employees are acquiring more consultative skills and building with the end customer in mind.

Internally, the boundaries are blurring as well. For example, we now have two types of funding for business initiatives.  If a services division in-sources a project to my team, they pay 100% and they get 100% of the benefit. The second type is a shared initiative with two or more interested parties – either business units or corporate functions – that have shared use of the system. If the business case shows you will get 80% of the benefit, we’ll give you 80% of the cost allocation.  

My overall IT budget is changing too, as a growing portion of my spend is on transformational programs that cut across multiple functions of the company. And roughly half my budget today is customer or product facing – though I should say that I see all of it ultimately as customer-focused.

This is significant because a transformation project is an investment that creates a capability that simplifies things for the entire company. Taking a process that used to cross five boxes on the org chart and reducing it to a process that sticks to one box can make you more cost efficient and give you a competitive advantage, as well. You’re more consistent and you end up with a simpler technology stack to manage.

Coping with a time shortage

As I’m sure is the case with many of my peers, I am continuously trying to find ways to improve my own productivity to the same extent that I’m improving that of the company. My biggest constraint is still the amount of time I have in the day.

I try to focus on my ten or so strategic partners, in areas like software, SaaS, networks, and cloud. The more tactical vendors, such as staff augmentation providers or other niche products, I delegate. 

To keep up with the trends, I network a lot with other CIOs and read a fair amount. I spend time on one of the local college campuses, because it’s always refreshing to watch what the younger generation is doing and how they’re interacting with technology. We have large internship programs that create an opportunity for us to build meaningful relationships with the next generation of talent. We give them challenging projects to work on, and I enjoy seeing how they go about solving it. We learn a lot from them, and I am certain they learn a lot as well. 

I also try to keep up with various demographics and age groups.  In the current workforce, we have five different generations of employees trying to work together, and it’s important to know how to relate to all of them, and not focus only on the millennials. 

As we keep dealing with all this flux, it’s worth noting that some important things have stayed the same for us. First, our core business as a company has not changed. The NCR cash register was the first business machine that sat between the consumer and the merchant. There have been a lot of technology shifts in the type of device – initially it was point of sale, soft checkout or ATM kiosks, and now it’s mobile and IoT – but the fundamental value equation has not changed. Second, the human change remains the most challenging part of any IT project. Embracing the new way of work while giving up the old process is not easy.

The Takeaways 

IoT is changing and extending the boundaries of the CIO’s focus and contributing to a shift from back office to front office responsibilities.

Reaching out to students and other CIOs is crucial in keeping up with the latest trends.

Helping people adapt to new processes is still the hardest part of IT.