Vivek Kundra has had the kind of career that befits someone approaching retirement. He has been a CIO at the city, county, state, and federal levels. He was already established himself as a technology innovator as the as the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia, a role he took on at the age of 32. Then, at the age of 34, he was appointed by President Obama as the first ever federal chief information officer. He would institute programs that ushered in unprecedented transparency and cost savings in technology. Now, at the ripe old age of 38, Kundra is the executive vice president of Emerging Markets at salesforce.com. As he describes in the interview herein, each stop has built upon the steps prior, and his government service has offered deep insights which he has taken with him to the private sector.
(The “Beyond CIO” series kicked off with this article, and the all past interviews in the series can be found here. If you are interested in future articles in the series with executives from companies like HP, Symantec, Fifth Third Bancorp, Ameristar Casinos, and Aetna, among others, please click the “Follow” link above.)
Peter High: Vivek, you have had quite an interesting career path that has included city, county, state, and federal government IT executive roles. The federal position was as the first ever federal CIO position. You are now in the private sector, holding the title of executive vice president of Emerging Markets for salesforce.com. What did you gain from your experience in government that has prepared you for a role in the private sector?
Vivek Kundra: There are those who may think of government CIO positions are somehow less than equivalent roles in the private sector. I must say that I treasure my time as a government CIO, and I would not trade that experience for anything.
It was an incredible experience as the first ever federal CIO. I came in with a mandate for change, and I was fortunate that the economic malaise that greeted the Obama Administration motivated everyone to tighten their belts. Throughout my career in government, a key driving principle has been to put the citizen first, and to put him or her at the center of all government activities. We hoped to simplify access to government services, and crack down on wasteful spending.
I had an $80 billion budget under my control, but a lot of the thinking and use of technology was decades old. In some ways, my having been a young leader helped in that I was able to ask the classic “ignorant questions”, like “why do we do things that way?”, and “isn’t there a better or more efficient way of doing things?” This led to such initiatives as the Data.gov platform, which provided the public access to the raw data of the executive branch in order to foster public participation and private sector innovation, as well as the Federal IT Dashboard, tracking $80 billion in IT spending, identifying waste, and generating considerable savings.
PH: After you concluded your time with the U.S. government, how did you plot your course from that point forward?
VK: I did not want to rush into a new position. I was given the opportunity to lecture at Harvard for a time, and I was fortunate because it gave me access to many incredible business leaders. One of those leaders was salesforce.com Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff. I had used salesforce.com while in the government, and always admired the company, but my one-on-one with Marc gave me insights into the tremendous things that he had planned for that organization. He offered me my current position as EVP of Emerging Markets.
PH: How have you drawn upon your time as a CIO in your current post?
VK: The new generation of CIOs are natural networkers who are comfortable getting out into the field (however the field is defined) and learning about the plans and needs of the rest of the organization. Moreover, we manage IT as any other business function should be run. Moreover, technology is at the heart of how so many great ideas are brought to life, and it is also how many issues are addressed.
This background has been invaluable in my new post for several reasons. First, those business principles that I learned and employed as a CIO now apply to my current role. Second, salesforce.com is, of course, a technology firm, and having been someone who has been pitched technology from all the usual suspect companies, I know what works and what does not. This has informed my role as I have more of a sales emphasis. Lastly, many of my current clients are CIOs, and having walked a mile in their shoes allows me to speak with a degree of empathy that cannot be faked. I know the issues they face because I have faced them.
PH: Tell me more about the specific s of your current purview. For instance, how do you define “emerging markets”?
VK: We define emerging markets as target countries where foresee major growth opportunities. There are eight core markets for enterprise software:
The cloud strategy that I implemented within the U.S. government is something that has gained momentum with foreign governments. Salesforce.com is clearly a big starting point in any potential effort there. I also focus on the private sector, as well.
PH: Were you tempted to have your first significant role in the private sector be another CIO role?
VK: I certainly did not rule that out, but I was attracted to take on a sales development role. Many private sector CIOs have customer-centric responsibilities, so I don’t mean to suggest that the CIO role cannot be customer facing, but clearly a sales and business development role is directly connected to customers and directly connects to where revenue is made for our company. That certainly attracted me.
PH: You spoke about the evolving role of the CIO. Now that you have exposure to so many more private and public sector CIOs around the world, what conclusions are you drawing about that role?
VK: The CIO role is not going to be the same as it was in past decades. It used to be about building and managing infrastructure, refreshing hardware and software; building first and buying second. Now, there is a Darwinian pressure coming from customers for the CIO to evolve. So many trends that are impacting business today, from mobile and social to big data, have IT at heart. Talented CIOs realize that this offers a great opportunity to develop perspectives and strategies that will help unleash each of these trends to the company’s great advantage. This also makes the CIO more of a potential driver of top and bottom line growth.
Put a different way, CIOs have been focused on the bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They have managed the equivalent of water, food, and air. They need to move up the pyramid to a new level of value.
PH: Are there any other trends that particularly excite you?
VK: There are so many industries that are fundamentally changing with creative companies using remarkable technology. Of course, I would put our company in that category, but I would also mention companies like Nest, that is rethinking how we manage the use of power in our homes, and Uber that is revolutionizing how we think of taxi and limousine transportation. This means that none of us should rest on our laurels that we have our industry figured out, or that today’s value will remain tomorrow. It also suggests to bright entrepreneurs in our country that there are opportunities to be had in creatively re-engineering industries and processes. It is a very exciting time to be in technology.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. To read his previous Technovation series on the “CIO-plus”, click this link.