Yodle CIO Eric Raab: Create positive dynamics, and hire great people

In this CIO profile, Yodle's Eric Raab talks about CIOs and company culture, and his passion for working at start-ups.

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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By Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor is a contributing writer for TechRepublic. He covers the tech trends, solutions, risks, and research that IT leaders need to know about, from startups to the enterprise. Technology is creating a new world, and he loves to report on it.