Tech Player – Larry Bonfante, CIO, USTA Part 1

We recently had the pleasure of having an extended conversation with the United States Tennis Association’s Chief Information Officer, Larry Bonfante. Our discussion covered a range of topics, including the evolving CIO role, how cloud is changing the way businesses function, and cloud migration challenges.

 This is the first of two parts. Part 2 is available here. As always, let us know your thoughts on Twitter @CloudGathering.

Gathering Clouds: How has the CIO role changed in the last 10 years?

Larry Bonfante

Larry Bonfante, CIO USTA

Larry Bonfante: I think if you look at the role of the CIO 10 years ago, the primary function was to run the utility. We were really focused on delivering services, delivering IT support, delivering IT projects, so really more of what we were doing was internally facing, it was more utility services, and operationally focused. If you roll the tape forward 10 years, much of what we are being asked to do today is more strategic,  more outwardly facing — it is more focused on business result, business outcomes, and on technology. It’s leveraging technology — leveraging information — to accomplish those outcomes and results, but it’s less about how you run an operation and more how to transform a business.

GC: With that transition in mind, what are some of the key technologies that have come online in that time that may have guided the shift?

LB: I think a lot of what’s available today allows us the opportunity to not divorce ourselves from, but at least minimize how much effort we have to spend and how much focus we have to spend on keeping a ship afloat. So, cloud computing, software-as-a-service, infrastructure services, etc., are all creating the opportunity to really allow someone else to spend more of their time worrying about the day-to-day care — or feeding — of the utility aspect of IT so we can spend more time on strategic aspect of it. And if you look at things like mobility and social media, that allows us to engage more with the consumers of our product and services so that more of what we can do is outward facing and business backbone.

GC: What are some of the business benefits of cloud that have really changed the way a CIO is able to think about his or her role?

LB: For me, personally, it’s a number of things. First of all, it has lowered my operational cost of providing that service that has allowed me to take those savings and invest them in innovation and other technologies that can make a difference for the business. Second of all, it has allowed us to get out of the data-slash-hosting business, which has opened up human resources to focus on more value-added services. Thirdly, it has lowered some of the capital of investment, allowing us to take more of our capital and invest that into innovation and technology that can drive consumer outcomes. It has also assisted us in terms of business continuity, because instead of having to build multiple instances of the same infrastructure, now you could have a public cloud environment, where if one of your locations goes down, it can be replicated in a matter of minutes in a different location, which helps with disaster recovery business continuity. So, I think it has really supported us in a number of ways to help us to get out of the weeds.

GC: How is cloud driving innovation at the USTA?


Cloud is driving innovation at the USTA.

LB: It has allowed us to free up dollars and human resources to focus on our players as opposed to focus on utility aspect of IT, so every dollar we save is a dollar, now, that we can put into consumer-facing applications. For example, we built a mobility platform, where if you have a Droid or the iPhone you can now access all of our league and tournament applications with a mobile device. You can register for our leagues and tournaments, you can keep track of your schedule of play, your results, and your ratings and rankings. A lot of the money that we invested in that technology was savings that we saw from the benefits of cloud computing.

GC: So it sounds like, for you, cloud was not much of an either-or proposition; rather, it enabled you to repurpose that staff to take on more innovative and more creativeresponsibilities. A lot of times, some of the pushback that we hear around cloud is that it is a human resources killer. Has this been the case for your organization at all?

LB: It is all about how you leverage the limited resources you have. So what I am looking to do is repurpose people and find intelligent people with capabilities. I could retool them for new technologies, or to do things that add greater value. For instance, the person I had doing some of the work on the cloud side now is doing work on rolling out different applications for our community. The person I had doing application development in the past is now doing project management and business analysis. So, to me, if you’ve got intelligent people, you can retool them to go higher up the value chain. If all you can do is one thing, I think the days of people being specialists — like, you know, “I am a Cisco CCIE, and all I do is program Cisco routers” — [are over]. That says something to me about the ability of the person to innovate and to evolve. So I think if you have the right people you can repurpose them. If you are a one-trick pony, then you’d probably be at risk, yes.

GC: Looking out on how the technology landscape has changed, what is your perspective on how cloud has developed, and where would you like to see it grow?

LB: What I would like to see happen is more and more businesses being able to be serviced from the cloud. I know that now they are starting to have offering to deal with things like PCI and inter-compliance. We didn’t move our consumer-facing applications to the cloud because of those issues I saw. Now there is more opportunity for more consumer-facing apps to be in the cloud. I also think — again, if you look at everything as a service over time — it creates an opportunity to get yourself out of the day-to-day aspects of delivering utility services. It opens up more cycles for you to really be a business leader and an executive and focus on how IT be leveraged to drive business value as opposed to again just being in the boiler room. So, I would like to see the continuation and I would like to say I would leverage some of these technologies more effectively. I think there are a ton. I will also see in the future those who recognize the opportunity of leveraging these technologies to offload some of these aspects of IT. For those who are threatened by it, and are holding on to their data centers for dear life because they think their value is tied to how many people and how big a budget you have and how big a data center you are running, those people will be at risk, quite frankly.

GC: So let’s take on those two types of CIOs you’re talking about. Specifically, the one who’s concerned about maintaining control, maintaining his or her data center, properties, etc.:  How realistic is it for a company to continue to outsource? At what point does it not make financial sense? Is there a limit to an outsource cloud?

LB: There might be. That depends on the nature of the company and on the nature of their business. If you are the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration], there are probably limitations on what you can do because of all kinds of compliance and legislation. But I think most companies could probably get better leverage than they are getting. I think the biggest problem is the fear factor of relinquishing control, but I think more and more we have to relinquish control and get out of that game. If you don’t get out of that game, I think we are at risk. Is there a ceiling? There may be, but we are doing business at that ceiling level right now, I think we begin to explore the upside of what we can do.

GC: And then for that first CIO model you were talking about, the one who embraces these new technologies: A major premise of cloud is that it breaks down the traditional lines in terms of responsibility and ownership that the CIO and other line of business executives used to maintain. However, with all these different business units having access to software-as-a-service platforms, or — to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the size of their budgets and their teams — developers, etc., is there a way for the CIO to manage across all these disparate groups while many could potentially have access to different versions of the “cloud”?

LB: Absolutely, it all depends on the relationship you have with your peers in the business. If you are a trusted business partner who has a level of expertise, and the right technology, a company may want to use disparate systems, but they will come to you for guidance and support and consultation on how to leverage them, and you can create a framework that works. If they are making an end run around you to do it, that probably means that you are doing — as a lot of companies do IT — the island of “No” and slow. Which is “We can’t get anything done through these people, so we will go around them.” I think in a lot of companies where that is happening, that is an indictment of the way IT is viewed by their organization. In organizations where IT is viewed as an ally and outfit, the CIO will be the architect of solutions.

GC: Broadly speaking, has the cloud altered the way businesses function at organizational level?

LB: It is beginning to. The Internet and social media are leveling the playing field so that innovative companies who have a great business idea and a great business model can compete against Johnny Behemoth because scale is not the outfit that it used to be. As a matter of fact, scale or size can sometimes be a problem, because if the ship is so big, it is hard to turn on the dime. It is actually a disabling thing, where it takes a company a lot of time to adapt. So I think it has leveled the playing field, which allows innovation to be the driving variable as opposed to size and scope.

GC: Focusing on these larger companies — enterprises, small medium enterprises, etc.: How is cloud really going to make a difference for them? Of course, part of the issue is the legacy application and data center realty that those companies already own. From a business perspective, what is it going to take for an enterprise to be like one of these disruptive startups that is completely on the cloud?

LB: The reality is, if the company’s CIO is not willing to do it, or at least poke his or her foot in the water, then it is going to happen for them. Somebody is going to do it. Either business users are going to do it, or the CIO is going to lead the charge. There is no question the parade is coming through town. The question is: Are you going to lead the parade, or are you going to get trampled by the animals? It is about being on the innovation side of it and testing the waters and finding things out and letting people know what you are trying. You can’t just put your head in the sand and hope it goes away — it is not going to go away. So it is just a matter of you deciding if you are going to take a certain amount of prudent risk and lead that and innovate. But one way or the other it is going to happen, either with you or around you.

GC: What were some of the challenges you faced while your organization was gearing up to make the move to the cloud? And, since you have made that change, what is your perspective on how it’s working, where  it isn’t working, and what sorts of long-term changes do you see unfolding?

LB: Well there are economic realities. We were one of the early adopters in 2009. We moved all our backing systems through cloud and we recognized that the economic climate was such that we were going to have to be more efficient. We were trying to innovate and come up with more customer-facing solutions. Nobody was going to drop a bucket of money in our back yard to do that, so we had to create operational efficiencies to create that investment for innovation, so that’s what drove us toward looking into the cloud. For us, it has worked incredibly well: We’ve lowered the operational cost of hosting by about 70% a year, we’ve lowered the capital investment in storage and service technology by about 25% a year, and we’ve been able to take my limited staff and refocus them on things that are higher on the value chain that are more customer facing. So for us it has worked incredibly well. Now, I am not suggesting every company would have the same experience with it, or every industry would be able to leverage it in the same way, but for us it’s been a tremendous boon.

GC: What’s your perspective on what cloud service providers bring to the table vs. what they should be offering? How do you go about approaching these organizations? How do you vet them? What are some of the things that you look for?

LB: Well, you want an organization that’s got some kind of scale, some kind of credibility. So, three years ago [that] was easy for us. We went to Amazon because, quite frankly, back then they were the only really big thing that was credible. Now you’ve got a lot of other players. You want somebody also who is flexible and has a real spirit about them so they can work with you to kind of tailor solutions that fit your requirements. Those are two of the variables I think are in play. Now everybody’s uncle is a cloud provider. Everybody hangs out in the cloud even if it is just co-location or hosting like people used to do it. I think this becomes a branding exercise more than anything else. I want to get a company that’s got credibility, that’s got size, but also has flexibility and an entrepreneurial spirit, so those are the variables that I would be looking for.

Our conversation with Larry Bonfante continues in Part 2, in which we discuss security in public cloud, technology developments, the rise of everything-as-a-service, and much more. 

By Jake Gardner

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