What Happens When a Customer of IT Becomes an IT Leader

When an executive shifts from being supported by IT to leading IT, one opportunity is to become a more customer-centric IT organization.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

January 24, 2017

6 Min Read
Atticus Tysen, Intuit

I spent most of my career as a customer of IT – running product engineering teams and often wondering why it was taking IT so long to respond to my team’s need. Now that I’m on the other side, I’ve brought that customer empathy to my approach in transforming the IT function as the CIO at Intuit.

When I started at Intuit, our enterprise infrastructure had a lot of tech debt, redundant systems and complexity. IT spent much of its time maintaining existing systems, so it took a long time do anything.  As a company shifting from desktop products to the cloud, for example, getting a new product into our back-office systems and being able to bill, entitle and track could take months to implement necessary functionality. As we evolved our business strategy from having a set of great products to having a great ecosystem, those siloed back-office systems struggled to support the bundling and combining of products in ways that best served our customers.

As head of engineering, I didn’t understand why it was so hard to resolve those challenges. I was focused on the latest requests to serve my own product needs. Now that I’ve been CIO for three years, I understand why it’s so hard, and I am working with my team and across the company to change it.

Your own company is likely going through something similar, balancing support of legacy systems while driving the next wave of IT. Here’s how I adjusted my own approach as a former outsider now on the inside of IT.

Tips for Business-Outcome Focused IT

An IT leader must think about the business outcome of technology investments, keeping in mind that conflicts can surface in employees’ mindsets, corporate operating rhythms, team reporting structures and more. One approach I’ve developed is to speak in the language of business executives and highlight the business outcomes they want to achieve.

For example, Intuit has no less than nine billing systems that IT must try to bridge across. Our objective is to retire them in favor of one global system. But when we talked about "retiring" systems familiar to them, it caused some business leaders to think about how it might be risky to do so. When we flipped it to talk about the new capabilities the initiative would deliver – from wholesale bundling to quick pricing adjustments – they were willing to take on much more risk in parallel with us to move to these new systems. While the first objective was still true, I rarely mentioned it: It was important for me, but not for them.

Having come from a product team, I had a good sense of what is important to certain customer segments. But being ingrained in a company’s overall business isn’t easy. I found that I needed to fully understand, inside and out, the business priorities and customer needs that influenced our technology investments before I determined the right IT strategy for the entire company. Here are several tips for transforming IT that I’ve learned along the way:

Practice Empathy.  Meet others where they are, and truly understand their part of the business. Taking a cue from our roots around customer-driven innovation and a practice that we call "Follow Me Homes." For instance, my team shadowed customer service agents before they ever created a strategy or plan for them. We also have IT staff who watch people across our campuses use our collaboration technology to bring insights into how we need to improve that experience. 

Meet Them Halfway. You must have a willing partner to engage. If they’re not ready, be willing to disengage and wait. An example close to home for me was a project in which we partnered with marketing teams across the company to select an automation platform. It was a true partnership, with clearly defined metrics and outcome for the company. In another instance, when a project involved a web-marketing platform, we had to be willing to disengage in the short term while both sides continued to figure out the best approach.

Be a Part of Their Team. Instead of thinking of your role as inviting business partners into the conversation, bring the conversation to them. Go to their meetings, and bring a solution to their business problems. Don’t keep them on the sidelines and let them know afterward that a project is complete. Engaging breaks down organizational boundaries and creates an extended team to have a more informed dialogue about IT decisions and budgets. We’ve done it with HR and finance, by way of two examples, where IT partners with department leaders in an ongoing "council" to assess needs and discuss approaches.

Transparent Communication is Key. Communicate broadly and often with leaders and employees. We reframed the IT conversation altogether by sharing the business tradeoffs and risks that are part of any decision. I choose to lead with "radical transparency" whenever possible. For example, my IT budget can be viewed by the entire company and any employee can give feedback on any part of it, down to how much we’re spending on email. With the billing system project, for example, employees could see how much it costs to run nine systems, as well as the transformation that would be gained through consolidation. It’s helpful to remember: IT should be a fully transparent investment that everyone is jointly making. The CIO is just the steward.

Change Management Takes Patience. Understand that change management within IT takes longer than expected and requires repetition. One of the things I learned by joining IT is the complexity within it. An IT system of engagement that supports a marketing function is different from a system of record that supports financial reporting. With the first, you can experiment and test more rapidly. With the latter, you want to proceed with more caution, because there is no room to get it wrong. You must work with your business partners on an approach based on the type of the risk tolerance that’s appropriate for the system.

Thinking Like a Customer Reshapes IT

Rooting ourselves in the business has caused a complete re-imagination of our IT function to be focused on external customers (for us that means small businesses, consumers, accountants and developers) and internal customers (everyone from executives to front-line employees). IT teams are now structured to serve our customer segments, which encourages them to think more like product leaders as opposed to "order takers." Engaging with leadership in HR, for example, has helped us streamline from around 400 different applications around talent acquisition and management down to a roadmap to get us to a dozen well-curated and well-managed apps, which will result in a much better experience for everyone.

Such a structure also allows our IT VPs to work with business partners to understand how they should adjust their strategy and decisions to better accommodate the larger business objectives.

There’s no doubt that the line between the types of work engineers do for products and IT is blurring. IT’s success relies on closing that gap even more. How your team chooses to integrate with the business, engage with partners and align to internal and external customers will determine how well it can lead the company by delivering awesome technology not only for today, but also for the future.


Atticus Tysen is an Intuit senior vice president and chief information officer, responsible for Intuit’s enterprise technology, including applications supporting the company's human resources, finance, marketing and sales and support organizations, in addition to networking and communications.


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