Hands-on attention from higher-ups key to IT project success, says CIO for natural nutrition company Shaklee.

Ellis Booker, Technology Journalist

February 4, 2013

5 Min Read

Career Track

Ken Harris, CIO, Shaklee Corporation

Ken Harris, CIO, Shaklee Corporation

Ken Harris
CIO, Shaklee

How long at Shaklee: 8 years.

Career accomplishment I'm most proud of: At last count, I had more than 15 individuals who worked for me and went on to become CIOs at other companies.

Decision I wish I could do over: I made a proposal to the board of directors when I was the CIO at the Gap that I wish I had handled differently. I wasn't sufficiently prepared. We were making a proposal to change out a significant part of the infrastructure … and I was peppered with what, in hindsight, were completely rational questions. I didn't have my answers all buttoned up.

Most important career influencer: My mentor [the CFO who hired me] at PepsiCo. He gave me my first opportunity, stuck by me through some tough times, gave a lot of advice and counsel. It wasn't a particularly close personal relationship; it was just a very good mentoring relationship.

On The Job

Top initiatives:

  • A project to develop a totally new way to go to market for our current company.

  • A project to open up a couple of countries -- bring in technology and whatnot and start doing business there.

  • A project to change out some critical pieces of [our] infrastructure, core applications.


Most disruptive force in my industry: I can point to a lot of things, like mobile and whatnot. But I actually think it's the speed at which change is happening and accelerating. I've been a CIO now for 25-plus years, and changes are happening faster now than at any time over those 25 years.

One thing I'm looking to do better: I'll give you two. One is communicate in nontechnical language. Two is get involved more in the business, rather than the technology. They're kind of related. And I would say these have been the top two on my list for the past 10 to 15 years. [Speed of change] makes it even more important to be directly connected to the business than it was 25, 20 or 15 years ago.

What I've learned about getting the most out of a team: Acknowledge them, acknowledge their good work. Say "thank you."

What I look for in an employee: When we bring a candidate in, their first interview will basically go through two rounds. In the first interview, they will be interviewing with three or four people, and it will be totally focused on the technical competencies we're looking to hire. So, if you're looking for a programmer, that first interview will literally have them solve problems on a blackboard or an iPad, writing code. The second interview will be another group interview, and it will be focused on what makes up the mindset of the individual, and how they'll fit in with the group. We'll ask, "Is this the kind of person we want on our staff? Are they a driver? Are they positive? Can they call out a problem and get creative about finding a solution?" Once they have the technical competency required for the job, the second most important thing is can they play well in groups?

Why IT projects go wrong: Ultimately, they go wrong for two reasons -- one internal, one external. The internal reason is that you don't have somebody high up in IT who's literally monitoring the details of the project on a daily basis, getting their hands really, really dirty. The second is you don't have someone on the business side doing the exact same thing. This becomes much more important as the size of the project grows. I've never seen a project fail when we've had that setup.

A promising technology: The elephant in the room is mobile. I don't think we're at the end of the mobile cycle and all that it'll bring. Another one may be payment mechanisms. I think we're going to see a complete revolution there.

The most overrated IT movement: I'm not convinced that big data for most companies is a promising investment right now. We haven't learned how to handle small data well, let alone throw big data on there. That isn't to say there aren't some companies for whom big data could be a game changer, but most companies don't even effectively handle small data.

What I want from tech vendors: An understanding that we, the users of the technology, have to deliver 7/24. My users expect my Web system to be up 7/24, they expect my mobile system to be up 7/24. A lot of my Web vendors think they're selling me in effect a service or a product that, once I've bought it, is mine to deal with. I need a vendor who understands that, while that is true, I need them to help me make sure that service or product works effectively 7/24.


Degrees: Undergraduate degree in management and economics from State University of New York; graduate degree in accounting from State University of New York; working on a master's in management information systems at Colorado State University; CPA from the State of Colorado.

Person I'd most like to have lunch with: The singer Jackson Browne.

First job: Newspaper route.

If I weren't a CIO? I'd write fiction and poetry.

About the Author(s)

Ellis Booker

Technology Journalist

Ellis Booker has held senior editorial posts at a number of A-list IT publications, including UBM's InternetWeek, Mecklermedia's Web Week, and IDG's Computerworld. At Computerworld, he led Internet and electronic commerce coverage in the early days of the web and was responsible for creating its weekly Internet Page. Most recently, he was editor-in-chief of Crain Communication Inc.’s BtoB, the only magazine devoted to covering the intersection of business strategy and business marketing. He ran BtoB, as well as its sister title Media Business, for a decade. He is based in Evanston, Ill.

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