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Countering Challenges in the Changing Scenario

By Tim Talbot, SVP, CIO, Merkle

Tim Talbot, SVP, CIO, Merkle

Merkle is a leading data-driven, technology-enabled, global performance marketing agency that specializes in the delivery of unique, personalized customer experiences across platforms and devices. As the Global CIO of Merkle, I lead a team that faces many challenges in delivering information technology services to the Merkle enterprise and to our clients. I have been in the technology industry for over 35 years in a variety of roles and industries, with the past eight years being at Merkle.

“Delivering the basic IT services in a highly reliable and secure way is the starting point”

I am often faced with non-technical challenges that are centered around the workforce, engagement with the business, and the velocity of business change and growth. The technical challenges are centered on the velocity of change within technologies and our approach to staying in front of these changes.

Delivering the basic IT services in a highly reliable and secure way is the starting point. If you lose sight of delivering the basics (whether provided internally or by an external service provider), you will lose trust from the organization that you serve. Never take your eye off the ball.

Challenges

Being the CIO of a technology company like Merkle can be daunting as there are so many technologists within the organization. I have found that it is beneficial to identify those “friends of IT” that we can tap into to get input, bounce ideas off, and help champion the introduction of new services and technologies.

One of the biggest technology challenges is staying current with advancements as well as the ability to scale. This is a never-ending battle and is a crucial focus. At Merkle, we strive to stay in the leading—not bleeding edge of the technology curve. We were an early adopter of the Hadoop ecosystem which has provided huge benefits over traditional technologies. Leveraging cloud technologies is another example of where we are looking to stay in front of or in line with the technology curve. 

One of the most difficult challenges when leveraging leading edge technologies is finding talent.  We often struggle to find employees and candidates with experience in technologies that are only a year or two old. My strategy is to find really smart people and then organically grow the talent. Leveraging the experts from the technology vendors is key to this strategy. Pairing those experts with our top talent to achieve knowledge transfer is my recipe for success.

Merkle is a rapidly growing company and as a result is often acquiring new companies. One of the key challenges is integrating these companies without causing too many distractions. The goal is to enable the broader business to integrate by focusing on integrating the communication platforms (email/IM/etc.) early. Building a template for the broader integration and adopting the template to a specific acquisition helps drive consistency and continuity.

The biggest security challenge/risk are the employees that work for our companies and security awareness is one of the key methods to mitigating this risk. I have found that in addition to traditional mandatory security awareness, data loss prevention tools are extremely valuable security awareness tools. These tools flag negative behaviors in real-time, allowing for a relevant discussion about preventative measures.

Advice to CIOs

The concept of bi-modal IT is one you should become familiar with, if you have not already. The concept is based on splitting the IT organization into two. One would be focused on delivering the traditional services in a reliable and secure way, with the traditional processes and controls that most are accustomed to. The second would be focused on leveraging non-traditional/agile methods to deliver new products and services. While we have not fully implemented a mature agile/dev-ops approach across the Merkle enterprise, we have been working with pockets of the organization that are leveraging this approach and looking at how we can leverage this more broadly. 

We have also used this approach to introduce new technologies to the organization. Taking what I call a “skunkworks” approach—where you pull a cross-functional team together and have them figure out the best methods to leverage a technology platform—can often provide benefits quickly and drive technical adoption at the same time. This is a great way to stick your toe in the waters of new technology without incurring huge costs or risks. The trick is to make sure your risks are managed as you begin to adopt and become more reliant on these technologies. Whether the risks are security or reliability, the key is to make sure the risks are mitigated in some way.

Another dynamic that is critical to acknowledge is millennials in the workforce. Being of the baby boomer generation, my relationship with the millennial generation is more parental than anything else (all three of my children are millennials). As a result, I have obtained a millennial mentor to help me understand what expectations millennials have when joining a company. This is mainly focused on the technology we provide them—things like guest wireless, music streaming, choices in laptops, and collaboration platforms are all very important and can be critical to employee satisfaction.

What I have found is that if you and your teams are focused on delivering value to your organization and your clients, you will be successful. As long as you move with the pace of innovation and providing the basic services in a secure and reliable way, you will continue to have a seat at the table.

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