CIO Perspective on the Impact of COVID-19 with Declan Morris, Former CIO, Splunk

By Pat Calhoun • April 7, 2020

The shelter in place order was announced on March 16 in Santa Clara County California, where Espressive has our headquarters. That is just three weeks ago, but it seems like an incredibly long time for most of us. Last week I interviewed Declan Morris during a webinar to understand his view on how CIOs are responding to COVID-19.

To give some background, Declan is Executive in Residence for Costanoa Ventures where he advises infrastructure companies on product market fit. Prior to that, Declan served as Chief Information Officer for Splunk where he led the IT organization through an intensive hyper-growth period that saw revenues soar tenfold. Declan has also served in various IT leadership positions at Adobe, eBay, PayPal, Goldman Sachs, and Charles Schwab & Co.

Here are the highlights of my interview with Declan.

Pat: You’ve been talking to a lot of your peers, CIOs and IT leaders, about their response to the pandemic. What are they experiencing in this very uncertain environment?

Declan: I’m connected to a lot of the CIOs in the Bay Area. One of the ways I stay connected is by participating in a monthly CIO forum. Not surprisingly, the most recent one was over Zoom.

Here’s what’s top of mind:

  • When the shelter in place was initiated, there was a massive uptick in the need to have connectivity back to the data centers. While many of us love the idea that we’re running so much in the cloud, the reality is that, by and large, we’re hybrid. We still have data centers and we are still moving more workloads into the cloud. How that’s translated in the current crisis is the need for greater connectivity for remote employees. Many enterprises have been scrambling to address that need for additional connectivity back to corporate assets.
  • Once you have connectivity, the focus shifts to enabling employees to be productive while working from home. In the case of one Bay Area enterprise, they had a workforce of 1,500 people at headquarters with only 200 enabled to work from home, resulting in a shortage of 1,300 laptops. The CIO quickly dispatched her team to hit every local Costco and Best Buy to purchase as many laptops as they could. Typically, most IT organizations have a golden image for their standard-issue laptops. Now the IT team was faced with non-standard equipment being rushed out the door with non-standard images. And those laptops are going to people that may never have utilized laptops to work from home.
  • One interesting metric is it typically takes about 30-days for an organization to adopt a new set of technologies. Since much of this change happened overnight, the IT help desk saw a spike in a demand for VPN access. As a consequence, the IT help desk was then required to install the VPN client on non-standard laptops along with a provisioned VPN account, assuming you had sufficient VPN licenses. These are the kind of challenges that teams are struggling to deal with. Which ultimately leads to, how do you enable your business to effectively survive in certain situations when you are constantly being bombarded with questions?
  • Other feedback from the CIO community is that while many of the IT folks are digital natives, many of the business units are neither trained nor familiar with working from home, which in turn places even greater demand on the IT help desk for added support.

Pat: What type of options do these companies have? Everything that you mentioned is challenging and there has to be a way out. What are you hearing?

Declan: The harsh reality is, unless you’ve got some degree of automation or the ability to leverage solutions, such as Espressive Barista, your IT help desk is just getting buried in tickets.

Let me give you a specific example of the kind of challenges that they’re dealing with:

  • One company in the healthcare space has engineers working from home, and guess what? They’re trying to push a terabyte of data over a shared VPN connection that impacts everyone. I’m sure many of the folks here on the webinar are aware that when it comes to things such as VPN split tunneling, there’s another level of education required to determine what kind of network traffic does and does not traverse VPN. Many of these companies can’t educate employees on VPN usage while making systematic changes within the network because they are drowning in help desk tickets. For those IT teams that can’t leverage automated solutions, they are forced to revert to time-consuming manual intervention. The ones that are actually starting to get ahead of this are the ones that are applying automated solutions in the front line for increased productivity. It’s about being able to automate answering questions (tickets) for as many as you can—the low hanging fruit— to free up critical staff to tackle the more gnarly issues.
  • Another example is that when organizations have to stand up additional VPN gateways, they may leverage Route 53 from AWS for DNS resolution. And if the team is tied up provisioning and configuring laptops, they are not going to find the cycles to resolve major capacity issues such as VPN gateways that impact business productivity.

Pat: Regarding provisioning automation, give me your thoughts on what you’ve been hearing in terms of the complexity of AI.

Declan: Those IT organizations that have attempted to apply AI within their IT help desks by building something from scratch, have found out the hard way such an approach is unbelievably complex. And when you consider time-to-value, it’s not simply about building something, it’s more about having something available in a timely fashion that meets the needs of the organization. Many IT leaders that have attempted to build from open source have given up because it’s too complex to solve in-house. There is a dire lack of talent that understands how to build these types of solutions. What you end up with is not AI, but what mimics a poorly designed telephony decision tree, similar to those implemented by airlines, banks, and insurance companies. The end result is an unbelievably painful and horrible customer experience.

That’s not what your product, Barista, is. Barista absolutely accelerates the way by which you can increase the productivity of your IT help desk while improving the customer experience. And that’s why you see many IT leaders are abandoning the build approach. With Barista, you have 750 million phrases out of the box with your Employee Language Cloud. You just don’t get that when you’re building from scratch. Instead, you just basically get an empty content repository that will take an exceptional amount of time to populate through usage.

Pat: One of the biggest challenges to automating the IT help desk is employee adoption of self-help tools. Tell me what you have been hearing from your peers as they have tried building their own employee self-help chatbot from an overall adoption standpoint.

Declan: We talked a little bit about the challenge of building, but there’s another reason IT leaders do not want to build. And the reason is that it’s all down to first impressions. If you roll something out to the broader corporate community and it does not deliver on its promise, you don’t get a second chance. If it’s not—in any way, shape or form—beneficial from day one, your employees are going to slam you for rolling out something that hinders instead of helps. It’s critical when deploying something, such as Barista, that it’s already primed to hit the ground running. Should you decide to revert to the build approach, most likely you are going to fail.

Pat: In light of the Coronavirus, how do you think IT leaders are reprioritizing their portfolios and how will this impact IT budgets?

Declan: The harsh reality is that the majority of us have seen a reduction in budgets and headcount. So, we have to reprioritize the project portfolio. My message to all of you is as follows: there’s a greater degree of forgiveness right now because of the heroics demonstrated by so many IT teams. In other words, your internal customers understand the tremendous pressure all of you are under. Since we anticipate 12 to 18 months before an effective coronavirus vaccine can be brought to market, we should assume the virus will return with the next flu season later this year.

Therefore, my prediction is that you will find yourself in a difficult situation trying to explain why employees are not better equipped to work from home this fall. During the summer months, you will be expected to do a better job of enabling employees to work from home with things such as automated employee self-help. Compounding the problem will be employees working from home now on questionable home network setups, on questionable laptop configurations, etc. That will not be acceptable by fall. Now is the time where CIOs should prioritize serving the needs of the organization through the next work from home wave to minimize adversely impacting employee productivity. For now, we have been given a hall pass, but we have to be ready for the next wave.

Pat: How do you think this recession is different from the financial recession of 2008 from an IT perspective? How does the future look?

Declan: For many of us who went through the 2008 recession, it was a very painful time. We had to make some drastic cuts while moving a lot of work offshore. Today’s crisis is very different as we cannot push the work offshore to absorb the impact of the pandemic. An important difference is that the technical capabilities we have today are far superior to what we had in 2008. For example, we never had something such as Barista to lean on. Similarly, we never had solutions such as Zoom, Slack, Teams, SSO, etc. Could you imagine trying to enable people to work remote back in 2008? What a frightening prospect. But today we have so many more options at our disposal.

Freeing up critical talent by automating the IT help desk with Barista is not a threat to your workforce. It’s actually freeing up your workforce to focus on the higher value add while still providing a great customer experience. And when we look further out, there’s no question in my mind that as AI continues to improve, those companies that adopt AI will emerge as the winners.

I also believe that we’re going to see a massive investment at the federal level in the national infrastructure, especially around networking and so forth. I noticed today that the FCC is looking to boost Wi-Fi speeds. That’s going to be decided April 23. This is, in many ways, an accelerator to so many innovative solutions we want to implement as technologists. Now is the time to seize such solutions such as Barista, to ensure that your business remains viable and competitive.

Pat: It’s hard, especially now, to get the attention of the IT leadership team. How can an internal champion be heard?

Declan: That’s a good question because, for many of you on the call, if you go to the IT leadership team or even back to the exec team—we’re all trying to carve out additional dollars. Or to put it another way, what percentage of the dollar goes where?

The Rapid Assistance Program that Espressive just announced is the way to effectively gain the attention and support of the exec team. Imagine you can have Barista up and running in a very short time to increase employee engagement without it being at the expense of the team. And again, quite frankly, the area that alarms me the most is security, because we know the bad actors are capitalizing on this period of turbulence, which is putting more and more pressure back on the IT team. Seize the opportunity to leverage Barista so you can focus on the next set of challenges. For example, I can imagine there are going to be a lot of employees that will try to file expenses because they’ve gone out and purchased equipment themselves. Have Barista front-end these types of requests without burdening your team.

Pat: What about the budget to afford new technology during this time period?

Declan: I’m sure this is top of mind for everyone. It’s great that we can get the 90-day Rapid Assistance Program going here with the Espressive team. But what I would like to mention to all of you on the call, I truly believe that that’s the wrong question you’re being asked. It’s not about how you’re going to pay for this. The question should be about how your technology stack is going to evolve. We all know as leaders that technology is never static. We’re constantly evolving our technology stack, and what you’re basically seeing is the beginning of the next wave. It’s not about replacement but evolution. While it still comes out of the same budget, we have to shift the mindset for those that are tethered to doing things the way they have always done things. I’m not here to denigrate legacy solutions such as Remedy, etc. for those who might be using them. We just have to be able to tap into what’s out there and evolve. It’s all about evolution. Technologies like Barista need to become a part of business continuity plans.


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