CIO Q&A

By  Pat Brans — January 04, 2013

To take a deeper dive into the IT headaches facing CIOs these days, we sat down with Joe Held, Senior Vice President and Global CIO of Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

ME Mobile Enterprise: What are some of the biggest technical challenges resulting from changes in smartphones and the emergence of tablets?

JH Joe Held: In many ways, the challenges are similar to what we had in the early days of computing. We have to think about power sensitivities, memory limitations, unreliable networks and latency for global applications. It’s a throwback to the early days. We have several choices of operating systems and different types of devices. Not everybody has a crystal ball on the next cool device, so the CIO has a real challenge in picking the winners.

We also have challenges around data replication. The demand is for real time, but because of the device constraints, you have to come up with creative data sharing strategies — you have to understand how the user will use the app. Apps are where some of the differences are. It’s a completely different world from what people are used to when building Web applications.

And, some companies look at the mobile environment as an extension of the Web, but it’s really a lot more than that. Mobility brings the virtual, physical and business computing worlds together to bring new capabilities to market — and obtain new customers. Retailers are beginning to use RFID and photo recognition with merchandising applications and mobile payments and couponing are exploding.

Other companies are starting to integrate GPS and social media into mobility as well, and, like I said, all this has to be delivered in real time. We are really in the very early stages of getting the most out of mobile.

ME What security challenges result from the dramatic shifts in the way people expect technology to be offered at work?

JH Continuing the discussion on mobile apps, for example, a lot of corporations are going to need to beef up their security capabilities, because the cost of a successful intrusion is high and apps are accessing data through the corporate firewall continuously.

Virtual desktops solve a lot of problems, and we’re going to look at that. But there’s also some urgency in developing a really well thought out security architecture with comprehensive administrative capabilities. Without these it will become more difficult and expensive to secure the mobile enterprise.

ME The cloud promises an attractive cost model, but many IT directors fear loss of control over data protection or quality of service. From a cost perspective, how do you justify, cloud based versus on premises?

JH Cloud is here and should be embraced by CIOs. The cloud is great for experimenting with new digital products, which is what we’ve been doing here at Reader’s Digest. Then you can quickly scale them to the market.

It’s good for businesses that have modern and standard architectures, because when you have an architecture the cloud provider knows, it’s easier for them to let you migrate back and forth between on-cloud to on-premises. And when you can do that, you can test your ideas on the cloud, in a relatively risk-free environment that can be scaled as required.

If you have a modern architecture it’s relatively easy to migrate existing systems and capacities, and even decommission systems, without a great deal of residual expense. The real hold ups are with highly-customized legacy applications and infrastructure. The costs of migrating them are very high, so the economies of scale are limited in going to the cloud. Many of these old systems aren’t documented as well as they should be and the original developers are long gone. Software maintenance and repair costs remain high  and many cloud providers won’t even support some old systems.

Building a business case for migrating a large legacy system to the cloud is really difficult for a CIO unless it’s part of an overall modernization strategy tied to a business outcome. A big problem is that we’re in a faltering economy since the crash, and that’s really impacted the modernization budgets for CIOs. So legacy refresh cycles have become longer.

ME Due to the fast pace of technology and the many options for deployment, it’s hard to keep staff up to speed. What challenges do you see in this area?

JH  With mobile applications, you have to develop for a device with resource constraints and operating with limited network access. This requires software engineering skills from the older generation — times when early desktop computing and client/server architectures imposed similar constraints that developers had to deal with. So the old foundation skills of how to develop and run applications with limitations in memory, bandwidth and processing speed are coming back.

Kids coming out of college since the 2000’s haven’t had to develop code for systems with so many constraints; they’ve been coming into the workforce having learned to work with virtually unlimited computing resources to deliver rich user interfaces for web apps.

Oddly enough, some of the old client-server skills are becoming valuable again. It’s not the architecture that’s the same; it’s the ability to write high-performance code operating under network interruptions and reacting to all sorts of error conditions they didn’t have to worry about on a desktop environment in the 2000’s, such as memory full conditions or server not available. This new generation of mobile developers has to pick up some of those old skills.

It’s really hard to find people who understand the next generation development tools, and who also have all the old foundation disciplines that allow them to solve problems for resource-constrained mobile devices.

Too many people underestimate the skills required to design, develop  and support sophisticated mobile applications.

We need to combine the old foundation skills with the rich media and agile process skills of the new generation of developers. We need to bring the different generations of developers together to solve today’s problems.



Pat Brans is a mobile technology and productivity consultant and author of the book Master The Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach You the Secrets of Time Management.

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