Despite the traditionally quirky, problem-solving orientation
of engineers, Yodle CIO Eric Raab believes that IT and engineering teams can
broaden their vision and communication with other departments to support an
organization’s goals. Understanding and promoting your organizational culture and
its values is key to that success.

In his Oct. 21, 2013 guest blog titled A CIO’s First Task: Understanding the Culture for the Wall
Street Journal, Mr. Raab writes that if “you understand your company’s work
culture, you can empower it by tailoring new work processes to fit within the
established structure of your teams.”

TechRepublic had a conversation with Eric Raab about his
tech industry and start-up experience, effective communication and successful
team dynamics, the role an individual plays in start-up success, and also the
differing roles of a CTO and a CIO. Yodle, which he joined in April 2013 as its first CIO, is an online marketing
service for local businesses headquartered in New York City.

Key takeaways:

  • His
    biggest challenge has been managing the cultures of various engineering
    teams
  • You
    have to understand personalities, how people, teams, departments interact
  • A CIO
    needs: broad knowledge across technologies, ability to articulate problems
    to engineering teams, and communication skills with the executive level
  • As CEO
    at AIG Telecom, he observed organizational behavior on “different levels
    of scale” and saw how people pursued the telecoms opportunity during
    1998-2001
  • In a
    tech start up, every single person matters. An individual can have a major
    impact
  • He
    believes our current national culture is highly supportive of
    entrepreneurial success
  • CTOs
    tend to be more visionary, technical gurus; CIOs tend to be a “roll out
    the servers, network” type of executive
  • Optimal
    team dynamics: every individual voice is heard, people are empowered, and
    the organization fully communicates
  • Raab’s
    90/10 Rule: 10 percent is optimal team dynamics, the other 90 is hiring
    great people
  • Any
    sort of “political” behavior creates anti-patterns in a company
  • Cultures
    can transform themselves, and this is the job of leadership

TechRepublic: In your career, which experiences have taught
you about the importance of culture and team dynamics? In other words, what is
the backstory to your Oct. 21 article in the Wall Street Journal?

Eric Raab: For better for worse, my career has been somewhat
lengthy, but over time I’ve worked as a CTO and a CIO for a number of companies
along the way. The technical part, the transition from one company to another
was fairly easy to manage. Sometimes there are slight differences, sometimes
there are large differences, but it’s fairly straightforward to capture the
change from one technology to the next because it’s well-documented, designed
and planned out.

The biggest challenge, as I discovered, was in managing the
cultures of the various engineering teams that I’ve worked with. And engineers
in particular are a quirky bunch of characters. We tend to be very logical and
very fact-oriented, which tends to put you at odds sometimes with other parts
of the company which deal more in nuance, in emotion and customer interaction.

So it’s a different sort of mentality, and you have to find
a way to have it mesh with the rest of the company, in order for the company to
be successful. I’ve had different opportunities at different companies, and
I’ve found that what poses the biggest challenge is finding a way for
engineering, and products, marketing and sales and so on to communicate
effectively. And those have been my biggest challenges.

So coming into Yodle, I was well prepared for this. One of
the things I like best about Yodle when I was interviewing here was that it
seemed to have a terrific culture with very smart and hard-working people, and
a culture that wasn’t very political. Which means that people are more focused
on results and less focused on what other people’s thoughts might be, in
getting to those results. It’s more of a data-driven environment here.

But there were still a few challenges as I learned once I
dove into it. You have to understand the personalities, and it really comes
down to a personal matter, as to how people interact with one another, how
teams interact with one another, how executives interact with each other and
with teams, respectively. And you do have to make efforts to get things to work
better and smoothly.

TechRepublic: What advice would you give to a company that
is planning to create a CIO role for the first time?

Eric Raab: The most important thing is to find somebody who
is technically adept, far beyond the average engineer. And by that I mean the
person should have a wide breadth of knowledge across many disciplines. One
thing you often find is that engineers tend to silo themselves in the
technologies that they know, and a good CIO will allow them to level up and
consider other technologies and other tools that are different from what
they’ve experienced in the past, and help them enhance their solution and
arrive at a better solution.

Another important quality is you want a CIO who can
articulate problems really well. Engineers like to work on problems, and need
to be given problems they can solve on their own. No one likes being told what
to do, that’s generally true—not just for engineers. Especially technical
people, they like to go away and then solve it. So you need an engineer who
understands what the problems are, who can communicate and articulate the
challenges to the engineering team, so that they can go ahead and solve them.

Another challenge is that you also have to articulate the
problems to the executive team, because technical problems are rarely given the
attention that they need at the early stages. People only care about them when
things stop working. You really want to get ahead of that curve and make sure
that every potential pitfall is communicated clearly in advance. You want a CIO
who can really get into the trenches, and have a prophetic vision as to what
can happen in the future, and then go ahead and make that clear to the
executives and to others so that you can address it earlier, or address strategies
to account for things that you might be able to do.

For example, you might be envisioning a marketing campaign,
and you’re going to sign up 100,000 users overnight. And you better have the
database, and the network, and the web servers in place to support that, or
you’ll be wasting your marketing dollars. So that sort of balance has to be
struck and it’s the CIO’s job to make sure that it works correctly.

TechRepublic: What were the most important things that you
learned while serving as CEO at AIG Telecom?

Eric Raab: That was an unusual time at AIG Telecom, because
the telecom market was booming, and there were several hundred medium-sized
phone companies in the United States alone. And that particular company was an
effort to bridge the gap between the entrepreneurial and the substantial. So on
the one hand, we were aiming to trade telephone minutes as a commodity, and
that was an innovative tactic that had never been tried before. And it was
something that the market was clearly needing.

At the same time they wanted a substantial balance sheet
behind us, and AIG provided that. And trying to bring those two universes
together created a cataclysmic effect where it was almost impossible—you
couldn’t move fast enough for the entrepreneurial, and you couldn’t provide
enough backing to ensure the phone companies that you were going to be behind
them for the long haul.

So it was an interesting time, and an interesting way to
observe organizational behavior on different levels of scale. But what was
really cool about it was we were able to create an entire industry around
something that had never existed before. And it was more than just a technology
or a business concept, but a whole ecosystem of reporters and magazines, and
conferences, and PR organizations that sprung up and persisted pretty much
until the telecom boom went bust. It was fascinating to see how people sort of
recognized the opportunity as theirs and try to address it in their own way and
take advantage of the economy as it is growing.

TechRepublic: How has working at a tech start-up influenced
and benefited your career?

Eric Raab: My career started at the exact opposite of a
start up—I was at AT&T. And after seven years there I decided to take
advantage of an opportunity to work at a start-up, and almost immediately
realized how much better it was, working at a start up as opposed to working at
a big company.

What it really did—it ruined any chance that I had of
working at a big company later on. The people who gravitate towards
entrepreneurial-type things—what you care about is that your work matters. And
in a company, even one as big as Yodle, we have over 1,100 employees, what I do
and what everyone who works for us do, makes a difference to the success or
failure of the company. One guy can roll out a product, can have an idea, can
speak to a customer, can launch an application, can craft a marketing campaign,
which can have a significant effect on the success of Yodle. And to me that’s
the greatest thrill.

So it’s really kind of corrupted me. I’ve been lucky that
I’ve able to find companies like that to work with. And it’s only gotten easier
because the culture in the United States has been to support start ups, not
just the whole financial, venture capital system that’s around it, but also the
promotion of the start-up culture, with the personality cults around Sergey and
Larry (I don’t have to tell you their last names, you know who they are), and
Zuckerberg.

The country loves a success story, and it loves a successful
entrepreneurship story more than any other. And that’s the most exciting place
to be, and it’s a great career for anyone who’s contemplating it.

TechRepublic: How would you describe the difference between
a CTO and a CIO to an IT professional with serious ambitions?

Eric Raab: It really depends on the organization. In some
organizations, a CIO reports to the CFO, and the job is to manage software
licenses, Windows rollouts, and vendor contracts. And in some companies, like
Yodle, it’s much more technical and it’s more like a CTO. I’ve also been a VP
of Engineering, and they can be similar or they can be somewhat different
depending on the company.

Additionally, a CTO is more of a visionary, a technical
guru, a guy who is known in the industry, who can promote technology ideas, and
who, if you really want to make an interview candidate sweat, you bring him in
to see the CTO, and he rakes him over the coals, and he ends up feeling
exhausted and perhaps enlightened.

A CIO tends to be more of a “roll out the servers,” “roll
out the network” and “negotiate the Windows contract” type of guy, but it can
cut across both of those things.

TechRepublic: How would you describe the elements of
“optimal” IT team dynamics?

Eric Raab: Optimal dynamics, first of all, happen where
every individual feels his voice is heard. People have to feel like they’re
empowered, and they have the ability to do great things on their own. And I
think that’s the most important aspect of that, that people have to recognize
that no one in the company got voted in. They were hired because they are
terrific and they can deliver terrificness to a company’s
customers and internal stakeholders. So motivating people to deliver and have
them feel important is, I think, job number one.

Job number two is to help people communicate, and make sure
that engineering, and products, marketing, executives, support and sales all
talk to each other. And we take great pains at Yodle to make sure that happens,
as I’ve done in my other companies also. And if you can solve those two things
then you’re 90 percent of the way there.

But let me take that back! You’re 10 percent of the way
there. The other 90 percent is just hiring great people. That makes everything
else easier.

TechRepublic: On the negative side, what are the main
factors that create conflict and diminish IT operations and projects?

Eric Raab: Any sort of political behavior—if you don’t feel
accountable for what you’ve done, and if you look to blame someone else for
something. That’s what we call an anti-pattern. Any time where you’re not
delivering quality work is an anti-pattern for success. And any time where you
create a silo for yourself, or you’re territorial, or you exhibit NIH syndrome,
“Not Invented Here” syndrome. Those are anti-patterns for a successful
organization.

We look for those very carefully, we try to root them out.
Everyone in Yodle, even down to the individual salespeople, has weekly
one-on-ones with their managers. We provide that type of feedback very quickly,
clearly and sometimes forcefully, if need be, to make sure that those
anti-patterns don’t do anything to harm the organization.

TechRepublic: Regarding culture, do you think it is possible
for a company to “transform” itself, or does organizational culture not lend
itself to longer-term, conscientious change?

Eric Raab: A culture can absolutely transform itself, and
that’s really the job of leadership. Only leadership can start it , and
leadership has to be 100 percent consistent in the messaging and the practice
around the culture. And sometimes you have to make personnel adjustments to
ensure that that happens.

It’s not easy, but certainly you’ve seen it happen in a
negative way in some companies today. Hewlett Packard under Carly Fiorina’s
reign, for example. There are plenty of business case studies around that. But
it could also happen in a positive way.

It’s certainly possible, and people prefer to work in a
place with a great culture. But they have to see just what a great culture is,
and they have to be led by example in such an environment. They realize that
they will be held accountable, that there is an expectation of performance, but
there’s also a reward for being open and candid, and being unafraid to fail
quickly and to fix problems and move on.

So for example, here at Yodle no one really gets punished
for making a mistake. What they get punished for is if they bury the mistake. I
always plead and implore with people to tell me what the problems are, because
those are things that can be fixed. It’s when you don’t hear about the
problems, and everyone tells you that things are perfect—that’s when you really
got to start to worry because there are always these things going on that need
some attention.

Those are the starting points, and beyond that it’s just
being responsible, being a good person and delivering on your commitments, and
enforcing those things when they occur.

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