Open Text’s Eugene Roman opens up

You would think Eugene Roman, who has lead major IT initiatives at some of the country’s biggest technology vendors, would at the very least have a computer science degree.

Not that Roman, recently promoted from CIO to CTO at Open Text Corp. in Waterloo, Ont., isn’t educated. With a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s degree in business administration and as a certified managemement accountant, he sounds very much like the kind of business-savvy executive today’s CIOs are encouraged to become. Yet from his beginnings at Northern Telecom in the early 1980s to his move to Bell Canada, where he became CIO and then VP of Group Technology, he has stayed focused on IT as a business enabler.

We recently welcomed Roman into our offices to look back on his three decades in the industry and where he plans to move next.

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I’ve always been good with computers. It’s my love. I’m a closet geek, if you will, but not so much in the closet, because I’ve built a career out of it.

 

When I was an undergraduate, the only way to learn about interactive computing was to study geographic information systems – ergo the economics degree. All the computing was on punchcards, and I had a problem in that my arm wasn’t big enough to carry the big deck of cards. So I decided to go into GIS, and the only guys who were doing it were the econometric guys and the geographers, so that’s where I learned interactive programming.

Out of school, in the recession of ’81, Nortel said, “Anyone know APL?” And I said, “Yes, sir!” and got the job. My first job was coding a decision support system in the world of DEC writers and mainframes. It went global – it was called Decision Action, and it got me started.

My first boss said that there was no future in computing. And he was right, if you looked at what was available then. People weren’t thinking about interactive computing and the possibilities. I set up a departmental LAN two years after I got started and I got yelled at for it: “Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to bring computers together?” The first computers I bought were technically terminals. They were called HP 150s, yet they also had a microprocessor, a hard drive. All illegal by the way. Nortel had a ban on bringing PCs in the workplace, as did Bell. You know, young guys like myself back then – I was 23 – I wanted to interact with this stuff. And we built it, we made stuff fly. Most of it was steeped on the Apple II, that was the reference, but then came DOS and the rest was history. I’ve had a long history of pushing the envelope, but I’ll tell you, in 29 years I never really broke a rule. I’d just bend a rule, in order to get work done.

 

The service providers are very interesting, because the IT group is really the factor. You can’t issue a bill, you can’t roll a truck, you can’t take a phone call on a massive scale (without IT). We were producing over 100 million bills a year. So the IT is the operations of the company. The interesting thing is most carriers don’t really understand that. They tend to think of themselves as marketing and network companies, but the IT is very seminal to what they do.

In a software company, it’s very, very different. The IT team is actually the glue that allows the activities to happen, but not as much customer-facing. In some ways, we’re thought of as the back office, and at Open Text it was thought of as the back office, but my job – having been CIO for 15 months now, recently promoted to CTO – is to bring that to a front office, to understand the value of IT to the company. I think we’ve done a good job of that. It was always understood, but it was “a software company is a software company,” and what can you teach software guys about IT? Well, I think we’ve taught them a lot. And they’ve asked a lot of us, and ask and you shall receive is the model which I think IT operates. Too often IT people tend to think in infrastructure terms. I always think in terms of revenue growth, helping manage the costs, helping manage the resources and the speed of workflow. If you put those four variables together, that’s what the CIO job is. The No. 1 question is, “How do we grow the company?” The No. 2 question is, “How do we manage the costs?” The No. 3 question is, “How do the people get to be more effective?” And then, obviously, “How does the work flow through the company?” That’s served me well in my 29 years.

 

I’ve never been fired from a job. I’ve had 24 positions in four enterprises. I’m proud of that. I’m just starting a new job, it’s day 16. I’m now the CTO, I’ll also have the IT function, the CIO, report into me. I was kind of hoping it would move off, but it seems to follow me around. And I’m really happy the company has given me another opportunity to do some good work.

I’m really good at managing highly technical people. I’m just a very down to earth person. I learned a lot of this at Bell Northern Research. That was seminal. I was 28. I worked with the best of the best, and it was a long time ago, but it changed me forever. When you’ve danced with the best – even though I wasn’t anywhere on their level – it sure taught me about what it takes.

 

It was a very interesting transition at Bell, because I was CIO of a large IT team. The budget was $1.7 billion. Now we got it down to $1.2 billion over time, and we were very happy to have done that. And we delivered a lot more, so there’s the commercial. But the CTO function came because the company recognized that IT became the network. And I think we were, as IT guys, saying, “The network is a large server. Think of it that way.” The company then allowed me to go and exercise that. And I think if you look at the benefit to Bell, it’s quite considerable, not because of myself, but by putting the people in the right configuration, we were able to actually deliver a software-based network. If you looked at the services a company like Bell provides to Canada, that was huge. The same is happening at Open Text. What we’re after is software as a service, delivering applications on tap. That’s one of my key assignments at the company. Also mobilizing all of our applications. This is where I live.

A lot of my friends said, “Hang on – you went from a 5,500-person team at Bell to running a 200-person team at Open Text. Have you lost your mind?” My simple response was, to quote Sean Connery, it’s a great movie. Every one of us wants to play in a great movie, in whatever capacity we can. What happened to me was what I call the Tom and John effect. Companies are built around leaders and Tom (Jenkins, Open Text’s chairman) and John (Shackleton, Open Text’s president) are quite a balanced team. Tom is very visionary. Every time I hear him talk I get really jazzed and excited. John then brings me back down to earth and says, “All right, we need to work on this today.” That balance is rare in companies. I’ve worked for visionaries. It’s great. But then you try and bring their visions to life, and sometimes it’s tough. I tend to be both.

 

I’m a farm boy. I grew up in the country. You know, you can look around and say it’s hailing, or you can get your truck out of the hail and prevent the damage. Action matters, but you also have to have a long view. I think being a good Ontario farm boy has helped me. I’m proud of that. I know when I was in my twenties some girls wouldn’t go out with me – “I’m not dating a farmer” – but that’s okay. The love of my life found me, and I found her and we lived happily ever after. There is such a thing as the high-tech farm boy. In fact, employee No. 10 at RIM is my ex-next-door neighbour at the farm. We’re still good friends to this day. There’s something to be said for being practical but also being able to look ahead at what’s coming. That’s one of the things that’s kept me going.

 

I just came back from an overseas trip to Germany with a new lab. The guys presented a case to me and it’s what I’d call a no-brainer. And I said, “Well, let’s get started.” And they said, “We can’t, because we need to get this approval, and this approval, the business people don’t understand,” and so on. I said, “Well, you’re just not really communicating.” We have a problem we’re using called ACE: acceleration, communication and empowerment. It’s come out of work I’ve done both as a CIO and different other things. It’s about doing things better, and doing the right things, communicating what needs to be done and the approvals. And also empowering people to feel comfortable taking the risks. Risk management has a lot to do with this.

I often see people say, “I’d like to take this project on,” and I’ll ask them if they’ve ever delivered anything like this before. They’ll say no, so I’ll ask who’s their coach or mentor. Then you get this reaction where, “I’m a smart person, I’m ambitious, I want to do this.” And I’ll say, “Hold on: jumping off a building on a project is not something I’m going to sign off on.”

This is something I’ve played with for 20 years. It’s not the management of information systems. It’s the marketing of information systems. At Queen’s University I’ve taught a module on this to highly technical MBAs and the marketing of information means, how does an IT person present the business case? A good business case gets an idea sold. Most IT people are good at Java programming, .Net, but they’re not trained to do a business case. My MBA taught me a long time ago that you could either lie with the business case or get the job done. Also you can actually make the wrong decision with the wrong business case. One of my areas of expertise is actually around business cases, because my second job at Nortel was actually to design the business case methods that Nortel used for the next 20 years out. It’s very sad what’s happened to the company but I put it to you that they had some really good business case analysis. Not because I did it, but they actually understood the art and science of business cases. I call it the one page proposal. A lot of IT people don’t know what that means, and I’ve struggled all throughout my career – and I mean struggled – to help people get it. Once they do, good things happen.

I like to always think if I put my mind to something, I’ll get it done. My mother always taught me, “Always finish the job.” And I was the type of farmer where if it was 10 o’clock at night and the job needed to be done, I was there. I’ve applied that to work – not everybody does. I think if I look at the Open Text culture, people work very hard. I’ll say to them, “Try easier, and be more effective,” and they’re not sure at first what I mean by that, but a smart group thinks carefully and plans effectively. We’re getting there. I’ve got to tell you, I came to Open Text 16 months ago and they let me do what needs to be done. Very few companies would do that.

God, I love the software business. The hardware business at Nortel was hard, really hard. You ship something out there and it needs to be upgraded, it’s costing people. Building networks? Great business, but you’ve got to think five, 10 years of what a customer wants and go through a tremendous amount of business case rigour. The software business is a very fluid, dynamic business where you can actually come up with an idea, port it in and the customers are waiting for it.

CIO work is hard. You’ve almost got to go in like it’s surgery on a company that you support. And CIOs I know – they’re all good people – the thing I’d give them advice on is to try being a little less hard. I always won by picking up the phone and calling the IT guys and asking “What would you advise me to do?” And you get into all this RFP stuff – that’s just price politics. Deal with it.

 

The future of IT is all network-centricity – it all depends on how you choose to do it. You can either own it or share it, but what we’re after, I think, as an industry is heading towards a more network-centric world. And I think the computing era is over. A while back I coined a term, “netputing.” The network is more important than the computing. We’re deep into that now. If you look at it, the networks have been built out across the digital civilized world. Wireless smart phones are a foregone conclusion. The question is what’s next? I think it’s going to be called the content world – the era of influential content. I want useful content on my BlackBerry. I want useful content at my Webtop. I want useful content in my car – ergo my GPS, which turned me to the wrong street heading here! It was close, but not close enough. It’ll get better, but you see where you have to go.

I’m going to end my career as a content artisan-scientist.



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