How CIOs can survive, and thrive, at hypergrowth businesses

All IT leaders need to balance business growth, current needs and future demands when creating an IT strategy, but at companies in hypergrowth mode CIOs need to shift into overdrive.

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Kumud Kalia, CIO of Akamai, which has grown from about 2,000 employees in 2011 to just over 6,000 in 2015, says he contends with many of the same challenges that CIOs at other companies across have: how to implement technologies that will scale, how to update systems that aren’t meeting all the business needs, creating technology strategies that will drive business objectives.

But because the Akamai’s growth has been and is projected to be so fast, he has to plan for quicker lifecycles and faster evolutions than counterparts in more moderate-growth firms. He says his technology strategies also have to factor in more unknowns, more flexibility because the growth can quickly bring new requirements.

“And as a company grows, it takes different infrastructure and business processes to get to the next level. Most companies get there over a longer period of time. They have more time to evolve and grow,” he says. But at a quick-growing company like his, “it’s not that predicable evolution. You throw away more frequently what you have to get you another five years’ growth or 10 years’ growth, and then you’re throwing that away.”

Rapid growth creates opportunities and presents challenges

Cardinal, Peterson and CIOs at other fast-growing companies acknowledge that these challenges and opportunities – as well as the strategies they use to handle them – aren’t limited to organizations growing by leaps and bounds. But, they say, the rapid growth does indeed accentuate the situations as well as criticality of successfully handling them.

“Being growth-oriented pushes these forward for sure,” Cardinal says. “If we were growing at 2 or 3 percent, you’d still focus on growth initiatives for technology, you just couldn’t focus on them as much.”

These CIOs also acknowledge that they have to balance growing enough to keep up against growing too much, too fast.

“Growth is creating opportunities for us, and we want to take advantage of that,” Cardinal says. “But we need to control the dials. We need to grow but at a pace that’s consistent with where the firm will be in the next 6, 12, 18 months.”

To help do that, Cardinal in May started an IT Operating Committee, a group of IT executives, his HR liaison and other business leaders that meets monthly to develop KPIs, review active projects, discuss risks and discuss performance. It’s a boon to communications and collaboration and helps get everyone on the same page, he says.

Cardinal says he doubts the company would need to do this if it wasn’t growing so fast; the project portfolio would be smaller, the rate of new hires would be moderate, and it would be easier for him as CIO to make the rounds with his direct reports.

Similarly, Ginna Raahauge, senior vice president and CIO at Informatica, says her IT project portfolio and IT investments are driven by the company’s growth.

“A lot of transformation is going on because of the growth,” she says, noting that she plans to bump up her IT headcount by 10 to 20 percent next year.

But Raahauge says there’s danger in building a strategy that’s too focused on keeping up with growth.

“When companies are growing fast, sometimes efficiencies go out the window,” she says. “What happens in a hypergrowth cycle, companies will be moving so fast that they won’t take the time to rationalize things along the way. That’s where you see companies flip into suboptimization where silos occur. You’ll see point solutions put in place. They’ll go in and solve a point problem instead of stepping back and say we need to optimize.”

She adds: “So we want to be very smart about managing growth and keep those efficiencies and move up the maturity inflection points.”       

Raahauge says her strategic vision balances the needs for efficiencies and optimization with the speed and agility required to keep up with the rapid pace of growth on the business side. To do that, she says she works hard to keep open lines of communication through all levels of her IT staff and even in her own schedule. She has retained lunch meetings and team-building activities for staff, and she keeps 10 to 15 percent of her calendar open every week so she can walk around and make connections.     

The strategic IT vision in a company going through hypergrowth must also keep an eye on innovation, Raahauge says. It might seem that in a company growing fast and asking for more from IT that innovation would naturally occur, but that’s not so.

[ Related: Steal this Idea: Toyota’s secret to innovation ]

You have to have a little bit of a process and a metric, what are you innovating, how does it show up in your organization,” she says.

This all goes to making sure the IT strategy matches current needs, upcoming demands and future growth projections, Raahauge says. It’s something all CIOs should balance, but in a company like hers, with so much growth happening, there’s not any wriggle room.

“We have to be very disciplined in how we’re allocating our resource time,” she says. “You have to keep the right balls in the air.”

This story, "How CIOs can survive, and thrive, at hypergrowth businesses" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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