Former CIBC CIO sounds off

As usual, Mike Woeller has a lot of projects on his plate, but this summer they all involve his family.

“I’ve got a bunch of kids – daughters getting married and having kids and all that kind of stuff,” says the former CIO of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), who has left the financial institution to take on other challenges.

Woeller, who also led IT strategy at TD Bank, has made an initial move by joining the board of directors of CiRBA Inc., a Toronto-based company that specializes in products that manage data centres. 

While he was still between gigs, Woeller spoke with ITBusiness.ca to share his own outlook on data centre management. 

ITBusiness.ca: What led to the relationship with CiRBA?

Mike Woeller: I guess the first thing is I have a natural interest in the area that goes back a long way. The second thing would be that the different chief information officer jobs I’ve had over the years have been about this business of managing the data centre well. All of the sexy stuff is neat, but the big challenge in any of these jobs is that you have to make sure the place runs well every day. Doing the new development stuff is what gets people’s attention, but the real attention comes if you have a major problem with your installation where your installation lets you down. The heat is very intense, especially if you’re in a company that’s sort of high-volume dependent, like banking would be, for example. ATMs being down at noon on a Friday is not good (laughs). It affects your company, it affects your image in a company and all those sorts of things. The problem that CiRBA is tackling is the issue of change in the data centre and managing it effectively. To do that across a complex installation is really challenging. I’m really interested in their solution and its ability to contribute to the management of installations.

ITB: But if enterprises are spending 80 per cent of their resources keeping things running and only 20 per cent on innovation, how are things going to improve?

MW: What I’ve told staff is that the most important thing on everybody’s agenda is to deliver quality of service to the end customer. If you’re in technology, it’s really easy to have your head down on a desk and just think about the technical issue you’re dealing with. The trick is to get that person to realize that every little thing that they do touches an end point. You want to have really good discipline in the way in which you manage the infrastructure to make sure it’s rock solid. The rationale would be that everyone will forget about the latest development you did if the price of it is to put your infrastructure into some sort of a tailspin. The way to get more development and things done is to have done a brilliant job on managing your infrastructure, because that gives you the credibility to go and do new things.

How I would tip that balance of that 80/20 rule that people write about is to make really strong investments in infrastructure management, so that it’s rock solid and your ability to change it is good and safe. Then you might be able to do 30 per cent new things.

ITB: CiBRA’s product is designed to help identify consolidation opportunities, which often leads to service-oriented architectures. Are you seeing much SOA activity among your colleages?

MW: I think it’s alive and well in Canada. I was involved in two in the last couple of years, two massive consolidation projects. It’s interesting because the philosophical positioning for those projects for me was better service, lower costs. That sounds like an oxymoron in some respects, but if you consolidate your environment you make it simpler. If you make it simpler, there’s fewer moving parts to go around, and then your service levels tend to go up, by any measure. The opportunities for large companies, I think, are huge, for those who haven’t started. If you just look at the  usual suspects in banking or whatever, companies who haven’t tackled that problem are looking at multiple tens of millions of dollars in direct savings that could be realized. There’s not many opportunities for technology organizations to contribute to earnings, but that’s a huge one.

ITB: CIOs talk about wanting one throat to choke, but how have all the mergers and acquisitions among vendors affected people in your role?

MW: That’s a tough one. If you’re experienced with the company prior to the acquisition of all these little vendors – by “little” I mean vendors that are adding a real service that get bought by somebody big – if your experience with the purchaser wasn’t so great from a service point of view it can be kind of a negative thing. If you’re a large installation and you have a positive relationship with the major suppliers, whoever they might be, lots of times the acquisition of these firms gives them the wherewithal to be quite a bit better.

ITB: With your background in financial services you would have faced a number of compliance and governance-related projects. How did you handle the pressure around compliance and continue to develop your data centre strategy at the same time?

MW: The good news is because I’m in free-agent mode here now and my comments can only be attributed to me, I would say this compliance thing in technology has added very, very little value and just layered on massive costs. You talk about crowding out development capability by just keeping the place running day to day? This compliance stuff has had the biggest crowding out effect of anything I’ve seen in my whole career. And I would say with minimal value added. 

ITB: But how is it affecting the relationship between the IT function and the rest of the business? In theory, it should bring them closer together, because IT is helping meet the business need. 

MW: I would say that it’s not a particularly well-appreciated contribution. No. 1 I think the subject area itself is just boring. It has nothing to do with running with the business, getting new customers, growth – any of the raison d’etre for companies to be there. You can’t go to customers and say, “Look, our service is going to be so much better, we’ve got this great new product that’s going to meet your needs.” You can’t say any of those things with this stuff. You’ve just spent a lot of money and people’s eyes glaze over when you talk about it. If I thought that it was a necessary piece of the equasion in order to make the place better, I would be supportive of it. But I just don’t see it adding any value. It’s brutal. 

ITB: What about power consumption? That seems to be another major issue in data centre management right now.

MW: I would have said in my experience power consumption was not an area that had a red flag around it. It’s not an area that I’ve actually spent any personal intellectual time engaging in. In the old days, it was on my radar screen a lot  more, when you had water-cooled mainframes, you had massive chillers on your roof and the physical data centre without the computers was probably more interesting than the computers. It was highly complicated and technical. You know, you had to have an independent management company in there operating all the heating and the cooling. Power was a big issue when that was the standard environment, but with all of these changes in microprocessors it’s been less (of an issue). Where it probably comes back in vogue a bit more is that if you have a data centre that’s got a lot of white space, heating isn’t as big an issue as it is if you’ve got real density, where all of your processors are backed into a small space. Certainty large companies, banks in particular, built massive data centres with huge amounts of white space. Heating hasn’t been a big problem.

ITB: A lot of vendors are addressing the issue of compute workloads by creating grid computing products, virtualizing infrastructure or offering utility computing models. How long before these kinds of things mature?

MW: I think the on-demand computing model, it’s hard to tell who that’s targeted to. If you’re a big organization, you generally have the computing power you need if and when you need it. You’re also complex enough that you’re not going to put your processing into a shared environment with some other company. You’re probably going to run it yourself. I just don’t have a good sense of what the future holds for that.

ITB: When you’ve been a CIO for some time, how do you figure out the right career path and decide what the next opportunity would be?

MW: I think it’s as unique as the people in the roles, as opposed to the roles themselves. In my case, I was pretty lucky that I had the opportunity to run businesses in addition to running technology. I always sort of felt I had good general management opportunities. I never felt pigeon-holed as the tech guy. I was always really grateful for the technology experience, because it’s at the core of so many businesses. Unless you grow up in it, it’s the kind of experience that’s hard to get in a couple of years.

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