ShopperTrak’s CTO, Adan Pope, talks about the changing responsibilities of CIOs and challenges the retail CIO, specifically, faces today.
Q: To begin, how do you think the role of the CIO has changed in recent years?
A: Until roughly ten years ago, CIOs were often “tech people” who had backgrounds in fields such as IT or engineering. However, in recent years, the CIO’s expertise has required an increasing amount of general business knowledge.
Recently, it’s become common for CIOs to not only have substantial technological backgrounds but also to have obtained advanced degrees in business (e.g., MBAs). This shift is indicative of a greater trend in which CIOs are considered to be business partners (who may or may not have a technical background) who focus on aligning a business’s evolving goals with appropriate information technology.
Q: Many people lack a true understanding of the role of a CIO and a CTO. What’s the difference?
A: Definitions will inevitably vary by company, and there is often overlap between the two roles. To me, the most pronounced difference lies in whether the technology that one is creating or implementing will ultimately be used internally or externally.
A CTO is typically responsible for engineering teams that create and deliver end products for production. In this sense, the role is customer-facing. A CIO’s role, by contrast, is internally-facing. To this end, a CIO often focuses on improving internal processes by implementing technologies that allow an entire business (not just a business’s products) to operate efficiently and effectively. Projects that a CIO might focus on include internal communication, infrastructure, service delivery platforms, and business applications. Further, a CIO often leverages partnerships and pre-existing technology before adapting them to suit a business’s specific needs. In contrast, a CTO will drive the creation of new technological solutions for specific business problems.
Q: Arguably, today’s hottest retail buzzword is “omnichannel.” What should retail CIOs keep in mind, as they strive to create a seamless omnichannel shopping experience?
A: There’s no single recipe for “going omnichannel”. In fact, creating an omnichannel shopping experience often means throwing a bunch of trendy tech “ingredients” – such as big data, cloud infrastructure, and personalization — into an “oven” and seeing what happens when they cook together.
With enumerable data points being collected and aggregated daily throughout the omnichannel shopping experience, it’s more important than ever for retail CIOs to anticipate both traditional and novel attacks on their data. Broadly speaking, one can do this by moating, monitoring, and managing user behavior:
- Moat, or protect, your shoppers from fraud by creating firewalls and safeguards that shield users from data theft by creating and defending the digital perimeter of the enterprise’s systems and networks.
- Monitor user and system behavior continuously to establish baseline tendencies, so that you can easily spot abnormalities. This will prevent you from, at the very least, not noticing data breaches until months after they occur.
- Manage user behavior by instantly firing defenses and terminating offending applications or instances in which abnormal activity occurs. Take a cue from Netflix’s Simian Army by designing a cloud architecture in which components of the system can fail without causing everything to collapse.
Finally, creating great omnichannel experiences demands that we only collect and process the specific data that is required to create meaningful outcomes for consumers and businesses. In doing this, we should be respectful and anonymous in our data collection methodology. It might be said that the best defense is ‘prudence in data collection.’
Q: You mentioned that selecting and working with technology partners is a large part of the CIO’s role. What advice do you have for retailers who are selecting an IT partner?
- Understand and verify perceived value: Know what you’re getting, and know how you’re getting it. Perform cross-functional checks to guarantee that the data or system you’re deploying is worthwhile and that it provides long-term, substantial value across your organization.
- Look for a business partner that complements your business: Seek out a partner that has experience working with businesses that are similar to yours. For example, ShopperTrak is structured like a retailer, and a large portion of our business is focused on understanding and addressing the challenges that retailers face.
- Invest in security and solidarity. No business is immune from attack, but businesses that have stood the test of time, and possess the capital to invest in sound, secure, and scalable infrastructure are often good contenders for partnership. Naturally, business that have resisted or bounced back from a small number of attacks for many years, are proactive about securing their data, which is a positive sign for any retailer.