Box CIO Ben Haines on cloud vendor selection, talent, next-gen IT

Box's first CIO has hit the one-year anniversary. Here's a look at what Ben Haines learned and why data integration and foundation technology matter if you're trying to operate at the speed of business.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Ben Haines has been chief information officer of Box for a year and is on the front lines of figuring out multiple business technology trends such as cloud computing, recruiting the next-generation of IT talent and operating at the speed of business.

haines mug

It's also worth noting that Haines is responsible for corporate applications at Box so he doesn't touch datacenters and building out the technical operations required to support the company's products and services. "And that's fine with me," says Haines.

We caught up with Haines to talk talent, slowing development down to go faster and building an IT foundation so Box can be a larger enterprise. Here's a look at the highlights of the conversation and key takeaways from Haines' first year.

What Haines found at Box. Haines says Box is a different level of crazy and more akin to what he experienced at Red Bull, where he was CIO before going to Pabst. At Pabst, it was tougher to innovate, but at Box innovation has to come fast. "At Pabst the deal was cleaning up and handling the low-hanging fruit (with SaaS)," explained Haines. "At Box, it (the cloud systems) was all there, but there was extreme speed and extreme silos."

Haines is the first CIO at Box and the company got this far without an IT department. "It shows how fast you can move with the cloud, but it starts to get complicated when you double employees the last two years, operate globally in different time zones and have different levels of reporting," said Haines. Haines' remit was to retrofit IT foundations and provide discipline. The number one thing for Haines was what he calls "filling in gaps." For instance, sales, marketing and finance all had their own IT groups. Ultimately, Haines' plan was to "let them run and not slow things down."

However, the number one gap for Box was integration. Box needed an architecture around identity management that could span its various cloud systems. Workday needed to integrate into Salesforce into Zuora into NetSuite. If the data between those systems and employees don't integrate, Box has to slow down to get the correct reporting and numbers. "And if that integration is not system-driven, you're throwing people at it to make changes," said Haines. One example would be if Box made a quota or compensation change in Salesforce that didn't get back to Workday. Workday is how that salesperson would get paid. The goal is speed without the IT headcount, said Haines.

Finding an integration platform. To connect the cloud system dots at Box, Haines needed an integration platform. Fortunately, he'd already done a lot of due diligence at Pabst and chose MuleSoft for data integration. End to end, implementing MuleSoft took six weeks. Now Workday, Okta, ServiceNow and other systems work off one data repository that uses an employee ID.

Cloud APIs. Haines said the application programming interfaces (APIs) make integrating SaaS systems easier, but you still need engineers to code against it. "In SaaS, APIs do make everything better, but you need mature cloud companies that have good APIs and 'get it.' Immature cloud companies don't have the APIs," said Haines. I asked Haines if there was ever a time where a suite approach would work for Box. The short answer: No. "The best-of-breed approach may take a little more work, but it's not as hard as it's made out to be," said Haines. Internal IT at Box will also deliver its own APIs to engineers, and managers can utilize data for other applications inside the company.

Anything on-premise? Haines said there's a clear mandate on the corporate side to be cloud only. "Some have tried to push on-premise, but we don't want resources devoted to looking after stuff. We're not going to be racking and stacking," said Haines. Box does have Active Directory, but Haines said that he's trying to push it down as far as possible in the architecture so the master data resides with Workday and Okta.

Business intelligence. Another on-premise system at Box is MicroStrategy, but Haines is admittedly jaded about BI. "It's really hard to implement and maintain," he said. I asked Haines about the concept that application intelligence will serve more of a business role. Haines said the developments were interesting, but you have to make sure that analytics tools are more than just dashboarding.

Working with the line of business execs. Haines said he's been well received at Box even though he's the first CIO. "Everyone here is smarter than me and a technology company gets how tech is," said Haines. "When you explain the benefit, you can't pull the wool over their eyes and you have to go deep. Once they see the benefits, they want it quickly. There's huge pressure to execute quickly." The balance is that Haines' group has to make sure the foundational work is in place. "The concept of let's go slow to go fast isn't as accepted, but you have to build a foundation," he said.

Talent. Haines said he's been completing a lot of projects with consultants because it's hard to find the right talent for the corporate systems. "We need a blend. The hard core engineer type that builds our products isn't the right space for us. There are Salesforce developers but I need them to move up," said Haines, who is mostly looking for engineers with data integration experience.

The Box hiring process includes a panel of engineers that lob questions at candidates. Box is receiving a lot of interest from engineers at big companies as well as extreme startups. The sweet spot for Haines' purposes is probably someone from a company with 2,000 to 5,000 employees. Engineers from large companies can hide in the structure and can have trouble being a sole engineer on a project. Developers from startups may not have the people skills. "We want people that are part of a small team, but not part of a large team for so long they're lazy," said Haines. Large companies have massive frameworks and support so engineers can often just focus on the code. "We're building a ship while flying," said Haines.

The CIO role. Haines said 40 percent of his time is spent talking to customers. "A lot of what we talk about isn't Box the product as much as it is cloud and the enterprise," said Haines. "We're part of the 1 percent that is in the cloud solely. And now that we're getting to a large enterprise size we can speak to real enterprise problems. Some of the best conversations I've had have nothing to do with Box."

In addition, Haines is forming relationships with the chief marketing officer about the next steps and how to work best together. HR and finance were first on Haines' list for collaboration because the systems are so foundational. As for sales, which has a lot of IT people, workers are consolidating under Haines. "You have to keep it about helping the company. I don't care where the budget sits. I'm happy to spend sales and marketing's budget because they have more than IT," said Haines.

Picking cloud vendors. Haines said that you have to put a lot of focus on whether cloud vendors can scale before selecting one. Rule of thumb: systems of record are hard to change, but systems of engagement can be swapped. "You don't want to IPO and then have to change accounting systems," said Haines. There is no question that Workday and Salesforce know how to scale. NetSuite can also scale. Security is also a key issue and at the top of Box's checklist for vendors, some of which have to have external pen testing. Box requires all vendors to fill out a 300+ question form. "Some just aren't up to scratch and many startups aren't built to service the enterprise yet," said Haines.

User interface. Haines said that user experience is increasingly driving vendor selection as well as cloud software bets. That reality, driven by business line users, means its very important for the CIO to evaluate the technology behind the product. "We were reviewing a system in the last month and the business wanted to throw it out because the UI was ugly. But it had a strong engine that we could grow with for at least two years. The competing tool had a UI that was pretty but we'd exhaust that system in less than 12 months," explained Haines. "The risk you generally find is there is a UI with nothing under the hood."

Haines added that enterprise software vendors — cloud and otherwise — are struggling to deliver a good user experience. Workday, which uses a process called design thinking for its software development, gets UI. Other vendors aren't quite there, said Haines, who doesn't consider Salesforce's UI to be all that friendly either.

The UI conversation is a tough one to have. Box's choice with the vendor that has a good engine but ugly interface would be to develop a front end. Or go with a better UI and plan to swap to another vendor later. A few of the variables for the vendor selection where it's UI vs. technical engine boil down to the following:

  • The opportunity cost of building a front end for a vendor with a good engine, but no interface.
  • The complexity and business rules touched by the system. For instance, a long-term decision and architecture would skew more toward the decision being dictated by the technology. If it's a front-end system of engagement that's easily swapped out, then UI can win. 
  • The business' needs and wants. "I need to focus on the right decisions in the long term," said Haines. although a system with a short shelf life might be worth it if the business wants it and can justify it. 

Big data. For Box's corporate data — which is totally separated from customer information — the company is investigating how to use big data. Most of the big data work is on the product development and engineering side of Box. Not surprisingly, Haines is looking at Redshift from Amazon Web Services and potentially Tableau.

Biggest challenge. "The biggest challenge is learning how to apply the new world of IT," said Haines. "We have to move at the speed of business, but still have to lay foundations. We have to play a little bit of a traditional role, but ultimately look to business people who have a technology bent." Talent will also be Box's challenge on the IT front. Haines' team will ultimately need the soft skills to apply technology and know how the business works. Product management skills will be critical. Box will need small agile teams — or "little SWAT teams" — comprised of engineers, product people, business managers and career managers. "We'll need a blend of people with battle scars that felt the pain when something went wrong. We'll also need people with rose-colored glasses," said Haines, who added that females will also be a necessity since mixed gender teams can collaborate better. "We need balance."

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