Q&A: Computer Associates CEO John Swainson

Shortly after all hell broke loose at CA Inc. four years ago, the company turned to a Canadian to help clean up the mess.

John Swainson joined CA (also known as Computer Associates) following an investigation by U.S. authorities into the software vendor’s accounting practices, which ultimately led to the imprisonment of former chief Sanjay Kumar. Since then, Swainson has focused on beefing up CA’s major product areas, including IT management, security and storage, while rebuilding relationships with IT departments. The latter job, he says, is largely finished.

“I think we’ve done a good job of stabilizing the business and restoring our credibility with customers,” he says. “I think we have the same challenges now that any other company has in our space – not unique and different ones, but those challenges are being relevant in a rapidly evolving marketplace and making sure we can add value at a time when people place a premium on a fast payback. We have all the same issues that everyone else has, but the good news is we don’t’ have any unique issues of our own.”

Swainson recently sat down with CIO Canada to discuss trends in the enterprise IT management space during a visit to the company’s Canadian offices.

CIO Canada: With more enterprises moving to virtualization and data centre automation, what’s the impact on IT management from a systems and process perspective?

John Swainson: Well, look, I don’t’ think it really changes the environment. The IT manager environment has been evolving for the last decade or so from the reactive managed systems to a more proactive management of the IT environment. The tools have been changing, the approach has been changing, the implementation of processes like ITIL, which by their nature think across data centre domains of expertise and methodology – all of those things have been shifting IT management to managing across the whole environment, all the system towers that live in that environment, be they mainframe, Unix, Linux, Windows, or whatever the heck they are. As that shift has happened, there’s been a broadening desire to add more automation into the process. And not simply automating reactive type of tasks but automating responsive, proactive type of tasks. For example, part of our belief is that by taking technologies like Wylie, which does application performance management, is able to sit and look from the perspective of the user at how well applications are performing, how well they’re delivering on their service level, to link that with something like a Spectrum Automation Manager which is able to provision new instances of servers, whether virtual or real. What you get is what I call a “dynamically dynamic environment.” Virtualization gives you potential for a dynamic environment, but without tools to help you get a closed loop process in place, you don’t have the necessary feedback loop. Our philosophy is to provide that view of the control, the performance, the service level, and to feed that back into an automation platform that allows you to make policy-based decisions on what to provision, who to provision to, what service levels you need to have, and the costs associated with those things.

CIO Canada: The biggest area of consolidation in the last few years has been in business intelligence. Do you see more analytics entering the data centre automation space?

JS: Yes, although I think I would distinguish what Business Objects or Hyperion or Cognos does, in terms of mining operational data for business intelligence, and what we do, which is leveraging IT operational data to make IT decisions. We deal with a much narrower domain of the problem. We do use, as you may know, Business Objects, in some of our products when we need that extra piece, but by and large what we are dealing with is more fixed patterns of data. Important with this is the data model associated with the configuration management database (CMDB), where you capture the metadata about the configurations, the applications, the users, all those sorts of things, and then you make informed decisions about what actions to take, what policy to adopt. The complexity that we deal with is not necessarily the complexity of the data model. It’s the highly dynamic nature of IT environments. Those environments need to be more responsive, want to be more responsive, and that responsiveness has to happen in real time, or near real-time. Whereas in conventional business intelligence, you’re typically looking after the fact, you’re doing data mining. You’re looking into data that is weeks old, or months old, whereas the data we are looking at is hours and seconds old.

CIO Canada: There’s a sense that with more software being offered as a service and infrastructure being delivered through the cloud, there may not be a long-term need for distinct IT departments. What’s your outlook on that?

JS: I think that’s a very naïve notion. I frankly see the delivery models change, but I don’t see the need for someone to help the business optimize its use of technology is ever going to go away, ever. Not even soon, but never. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you get IT out of a plug in the wall or over the Internet or wherever you get it from. The questions of IT management are how well do you run it for the good of your business, and that’s indifferent to where it actually runs. In fact, in many ways running IT as a utility puts additional challenges on CIOs. Now they have to figure out how to take something and best use it in the context of their organization, something that is perhaps optimized not necessarily for their organizations in the beginning. So they have to figure out how to optimize the service levels, how to deal with security, all of these challenges which are frankly more pronounced in the utility computing world than they are in an internal IT world. The other reason I think the job doesn’t go anytime soon is I don’t see many large enterprises, which are the ones we deal with, giving up their core systems, maybe ever. I can see some services delivered through a utility model. Some are being done today: Salesforce.com is one example. ADP has been delivering payroll services for 25 years. When I started in this business, every company had their own payroll program. They cut their own cheques. No one does that anymore. ADP and others do it far better than individual companies do. People have outsourced that task to a specialist provider with the right business processes and the right business systems. None of that absolves the company from making sure payroll gets done on time. So the job of the CIO may not be running the servers but it is certainly in charge of service delivery, and more importantly, being in charge of optimizing the way technology helps their business and delivers business value.

CIO Canada: How are CIOs responding to the global recession?

JS: In every crisis there’s opportunity. It’s about how prepared you are to deal with it. If you’re fighting fires yourself, you tend to not be able to concentrate on them, but for those that are, they are seeing opportunities to consolidate their market positions. Or they can do things that, quite frankly, they could not do when things were a bit more robust in terms of cleaning up their infrastructure, standardizing, putting in place unified networks, all those sorts of things. They are able to focus on putting in place an IT infrastructure that will prepare them for the next round of growth. Many of them that I talk to are looking for opportunities to do M&A. They see the ability to buy market share or take market share at reduced prices, and all of that has implications on IT. And look, despite the fact that there’s been a slowdown on IT in general, I think that is temporary. They will have to invest more on technology in the future. Some of what they’ve done is put on hold a lot of projects. I think the most aggressive companies have not lost a beat in this. 

CIO Canada: How do you see the CIO role in the enterprise evolving?

JS: I think it is changing. I think the credentials of the chief information officer job is changing. I’m seeing more senior business leaders in these jobs, or more technologists with a strong business skill set. And I think that’s important, because at the end of the day, IT is fundamental to what most companies do, it’s fundamental to their success. If they don’t have a senior executive at the table who can help the rest of the business to translate the capabilities of IT, they aren’t really going to take advantage of it. And, that, I think, is the foremost job a CIO has: to tell your business colleagues what you can do with this stuff, what’s practical, what’s not practical, and help make the tradeoffs between what is expensive with scarce resources, and the business things they want to do. Companies to some extent still don’t know what they spend by process and how many resources are devoted to it. So when it comes to making tough decisions about allocating resources, they don’t know what they’re trading off, if it’s something unimportant or unimportant. And that’s part of the role of the CIO too.

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