The Grill: Newly minted CIO Tammy Bilitzky focuses on scalability and automation

This newly minted CIO plans to focus on scalability and automation.

When Tammy Bilitzky became CIO at New York-based Data Conversion Laboratory last March, it was her first time in a CIO role, and it was DCL's first time filling that post. Bilitzky, who had worked in senior-level technology jobs at other companies, says the move offered her a lot of new opportunities. "What's really great about that is you don't fall into old habits. You're really coming in fresh, objective and able to make the right assessments for the company," she says. "It's an opportunity you don't get in many firms." Here she shares more of her views on IT management.

What was your biggest fear upon becoming a CIO? My fear was not maximizing the unique opportunity to define and execute the right technology strategy. Technology is what makes and breaks this company, and running the technology in a company like this is really business-critical. If you make a mistake in a nontechnology company, you have time to rectify it. But that's not the case here. Because technology is not a cost center, it's a profit center.

What's the biggest lesson that you've learned during your first year? That being CIO isn't as much about technology as it is being an expert in your business. To be truly effective, you have to know your business inside and out. You have to be a trusted adviser, a partner in defining and agreeing on your business strategy and leveraging technology to achieve that strategy. Everyone thinks that as long as you know technology you'll be fine. The key is knowing your business, and that's essential to ensuring that your recommendations are tailored to your firm, that they'll meet and exceed your business needs, that you can deliver solutions that will make the difference.

What's your strategy for year two? My two primary focus areas that have widespread impact on the firm are scalability and automation. Scalability: Making sure the infrastructure and our resources are positioned to scale effectively, to support our growing business and the growing volumes of data. And then increased automation: We want to continue to differentiate ourselves by not just having the best people but by having the best and most creative software and approaches to problems.

How are you approaching these two areas? For scalability, we're in the process of purchasing a large storage array. We have terabytes and terabytes of data. The company started small and kept growing, so this is also an opportunity to take a step back and look at our needs and data retention policies. We're purchasing a step-up in storage capabilities, and we're looking at our server topology. We've done some virtualization but we're looking at really scaling up and implementing a more sophisticated server architecture so we can provision quickly. We need to get things up and running quickly. The emphasis now is time to market. That's what we're scaling to do on the infrastructure side. On the automation side, we're looking at our system because some of the pieces were developed with older technology. We have a plan to migrate to newer technology [such as] .Net so we can do things in a much more dynamic fashion.

You're a Project Management Professional, a Certified ScrumMaster and a Six Sigma Green Belt. Which certification has been the most useful to you as a CIO? They've all been so immensely helpful, but in this role I'd go with my ScrumMaster, and layering it on my PMP. If you think about data conversion, by nature, it lends itself to agile methodology. But at the same time, Six Sigma I've used a lot on our deep dives into existing workflow.

What's the biggest challenge facing your team as a result of your company's growth? Maintaining its focus on business-critical initiatives. There's so much movement. There are so many areas where technology is a differentiator. And we find that our priorities change as we acquire new clients and delve into new industries. There's always a risk of finishing a task just because you've started it and not because it's still essential. We do constant checkpoints on active projects to make sure they're still as valuable today as when we started them. And if they're not, we reprioritize. I think that's a trap a lot of people fall into -- not just in technology but in business.

How do you handle those checkpoints? I have meetings with each of my teams weekly, and I have full team meetings every two weeks. The projects have status meetings every two weeks. We have a structure where we're constantly stepping back and re-evaluating everything we're working on and making sure we don't get distracted by tasks that aren't as important to our clients and business strategy.

Doesn't that slow things down too much in a growing company? Time spent on the wrong project is not valuable. So there is a risk of shifting gears, but as long as you do it intelligently and manage it, I don't think so. And a lot of work is interconnected, so what we've done for one project, you can reuse. In my nine months here, I can't think of anything we've had to throw away. It's why I'm such a fan of agile. When you start the new sprint, you ask if this is still where we want to go. So we're not scrapping entire projects, you're shifting what you're going to be delivering. Because as you delve deeper in the project, you realize things you didn't know before.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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