When Clifton (Clif) Triplett confronts a complex IT challenge, he often reflects on his 10-year career as a U.S. Army officer. “Saying ‘no’ was not an option,” says Clif. “We were expected to build systems that could survive being blown up or infiltrated.”
Today Clif is VP and CIO at Baker Hughes, a global provider of advanced technology and consulting services to the oil and gas industry. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Clif still finds his Army experience beneficial, especially when the challenges seem daunting or insurmountable. Here are some of the unique insights that Clif shared with me, in his own words:
In the military, you operate under the assumption that some resources might be lost or compromised. You have to assume that your assets will come and go, and that you won’t always have full control over the operational environment.
That’s why you have to make the best use of all of the available resources. Let’s say you’re in the field artillery. You have four guns and the enemy is approaching. Are you only going to use one gun? How many do you want to hold in reserve? Three are probably too many.
When I think of cloud computing, I see it from a similar perspective. You have to assume the potential for compromise or failure and design your systems so they’ll still work, even if something goes wrong. That’s life; you just have to take life as it is dealt and take the challenges head on.
Cloud computing is at our door step. Even though a cloud service could cause problems or because the provider won’t guarantee 100 percent availability, I will figure out how to make the best use of the asset as it exists and see what I can do to improve on it.
Security is another issue that often slows the adoption of available cloud resources. I asked Clif how he would reply if someone on his team expressed doubts about security. Here’s what he said:
Our cloud security strategy is fairly robust, so I don’t think my security leader would say we cannot use cloud services because we do not know how to leverage it safely. But it would not surprise me to hear him say he’s discovered a new threat vector that has arisen and concerns him.
In that case, I’d probably ask, ‘Which dimension of our defenses bother you?’, ‘Is the problem preventing, detecting, containing or eradicating the threat?’
Very quickly and very methodically, we would get into a very specific conversation about the problem and the solution. And of course, it’s important to have a common taxonomy so we can all understand each other.
I am deeply impressed by the combination of common sense, leadership skill and executive ability that Clif brings to the table. He embodies the “can-do” purposeful spirit that we often strive to achieve in ourselves. Here’s some great advice he offered during our conversation:
Essentially, we have to stop asking, ‘Can it be done?’ and start asking, ‘How can it be done?’ Our team and our suppliers have accomplished some remarkable things because I’ve asked them to aim higher. If you play the victim, then maybe all you can get is 98.5 percent availability guaranteed. But if you partner with people and provide leadership, you can get 100 percent.
Leadership is the key, says Clif. The problem, he says, is that many people still cling to the past. They find it difficult to accept that the world around them is continuously changing and transforming. As a result, they tend to look backward for answers, instead of forward. Here is Clif’s take on the dichotomy:
In IT, we used to sit around waiting for orders. We can’t do that anymore. We need to be out there pushing what’s possible. Yes, the business needs to tell us what it needs to do and where it wants to go. But we really have to make sure that the conversation is about capabilities and outcomes, and not about technical gobbledygook.
I’m constantly pushing my team to go faster than the speed of business. In the past, IT was always a barrier. Now IT is an enabler. We enable the business to innovate. We want the business to have the capabilities it needs to innovate – sometimes before the business even knows that it needs those capabilities!
To me, being the CIO is about continuous improvement. We never want to move backward. That means pushing people to move forward, which is a skill in itself. In fact, it’s the secret sauce – moving people forward. You have to know how hard to push and that means you have to talk to people, get to know them and discover their passion. Passion is the most important thing. Passion is contagious, and it’s the key to success.
Clif’s ability to motivate people – and to form meaningful partnerships with them – has led to some incredible successes with suppliers such as IBM and Microsoft. “I try to create win-win situations, where we all focus on the mission,” he says. “We play as a team and we all share our ideas. We know we have to achieve results because the team has to establish a track record of delivering value consistently.”
Clif sometimes refers to the “3Cs” of successful leadership as: communications, candy and cadence.
Communications — Be engaged, reflect priorities, demonstrate understanding, discuss priorities, offer choices, review trade-offs, and communicate status updates, issues and wins.
Candy — Do not underestimate the value perceived from unexpected, easy, low-cost activities.
Cadence — Establish a reputation for predictable and reliable delivery of value.
He also has a great acronym from his Army career: BLUF, which stands for Bottom Line Up Front. Basically, it means deliver your message simply and clearly. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t make people guess what’s important, and don’t make them wait for the punch line. Lay out the intent and then build on it. “Always remember,” says Clif, “once you’ve sold it – move on.”
When you talk about the cloud with the CEO or the board, don’t get lost in the technical details – talk about the result and the value you plan to deliver. Don’t talk about the technology itself – talk instead about how the technology will help the organization overcome specific business challenges or achieve stated objectives.
“Bring the conversation home and talk to people about the specific problem you’re solving,” says Clif. “Stay focused on the outcome.”