The CIO as technologist, strategist, business executive — and diplomat

Rex Carter, CIO of Hitachi Data Systems, talks about the challenges and changes in the CIO's role and working inside an international company.
Written by Will Kelly, Contributor

Rex Carter, CIO of Hitachi Data Systems

Image: HDS

Rex Carter is a veteran IT executive and current Chief Information Officer of Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), a global provider of virtualization and information storage solutions.

Prior to joining HDS, Carter served as senior vice president, Operations and Systems at Tennant Company, a global sales and manufacturing company. His duties included information technology, supply chain, quality, customer service and China sales and operations.

He was also senior vice president, Systems and Development, at HomeGrocer.com/Webvan and senior VP and CIO at Carlson Companies, the global travel, hospitality and marketing services company. Before that, Carter worked for EDS and was an information technology executive with Continental Airlines Holdings. He began his professional career as a management consultant with Booz, Allen and Hamilton.

Carter holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from Purdue University and did post-graduate work at Xavier University in Ohio.

I recently had a chance to speak with Carter about his career as CIO and some of the challenges he faces as in his current role.

CIO challenges

Carter emphasizes that CIOs need to become key influencers and drive the right kinds of behavior across their organizations — not only in the IT department, but also to the constituents they serve.

"Well, I think it really starts with ensuring you have a dynamic for success, which means that you have good engagement with the business operations and process owners," says Carter. "I think it's all about the business and how you drive success in the business. IT is a team sport. It starts with collaboration and working hand in hand with the business owners that you are serving."

This engagement is probably the single biggest challenge that determines success or failure and achieving the right kind of valued outcomes from your IT efforts, according to Carter.

When CIOs approach challenges, a practical approach is advisable, he adds: "It starts with some humility, some under-promising and over-delivery. It starts with some consistency in that regard. It also starts with developing a vision, strategy and roadmap that you follow and execute over a period of time."

"IT is a team sport. It starts with collaboration and working hand in hand with the business owners that you are serving."

— Rex Carter, CIO of Hitachi Data Systems

Strategy counts for a lot, says Carter, and not only in IT but in the business you serve.

"You have to have an approach that is understandable in layman's language about what you are going to do to drive value," says Carter. "You know at HDS, over the past seven years, that strategy and roadmap has been that we had to simplify and consolidate, which meant reducing data centers, reducing applications where you can. Reducing interfaces between applications and reducing the number of things you try to manage in terms of databases, BI tools, and things like that."

So how do you drive value over a period of time?

"You have to measure it, and put a compelling message together with a roadmap saying what the metrics are going to be when you're finished," advises Carter. "Generally, that means you are going to try to manage fewer things — like single global instances of applications not regional applications."

The great business outcome from this, according to Carter, is having consistent and more manageable global practices that achieve predictable outcomes.

On becoming a CIO

Carter has the following advice for aspiring CIOs:

"Take advantage of every opportunity as a learning opportunity. Keep very hungry, and humble as we like to say at HDS. It's in every situation that you learn more than you give."

He reiterates that it's all about the business. "It's not about running IT science projects: it's about knowing the business outcomes and giving up any agenda you might have in order to support those business outcomes."

Changes to the CIO position

Carter sees the CIO's role changing. People often assume the CIO must be the best coder or the best technical person who can make things work, with a focus on the components of IT and the technician's view on how things work.

"Over a period of time, the role has become more and more abstracted from pieces of technology that you use, and has become very much like the industry itself," says Carter. "We're getting so abstracted from where the work is done that the role has sort of followed that."

Accordiing to Carter, the CIO's role is now about immersing yourself in the business processes and making yourself a broker for getting the right kind of outcomes in the right places, — be they internal systems, private cloud, external cloud, or even open-source apps.

"It's going to continue to evolve that way as more and more abstraction from the hardware occurs and there continues to be more and more consolidation in the industry as well."

There is also a shift in how IT deals with services providers, according to Carter.

"A large part of the discussion has to do with aligning yourself to the right kind of service providers because in the future there will be fewer of them," he says.

This is another lesson CIOs have learned over a period: "It used to be cobbling together the small independent startups and best-of-breed solutions that caused complexity and made it harder for us to manage," says Carter.

Carter stresses the importance of making the right decisions with the right set of vendors, who are going to be in place for a long period of time, and trying to ride their investment cycles as well as your own to get the desired outcomes.

Cross-cultural challenges and the CIO

Because Carter is the CIO of an international company, he faces some additional challenges in his role:

"With us [HDS], it's the highest order of complexity we have. Trying to drive consistent and predictable outcomes in what we do, ensuring that the same things happen in Paris that happen in Singapore, and trying to follow the same set of changes is probably the biggest challenge we have."

He stresses the importance of getting buy-in and ownership to support a global enterprise versus a local approach, noting that global versus local approaches can be a balancing act.

"Driving it across cultures, with the language differences, is the real challenge and I don't think you're ever done with it," says Carter. "That's probably where I spend a third of my time."

That time is spent engaging, communicating, and painting the picture of why a particular decision or initiative is important for people on a local level in the 100 countries where HDS does business.

"Why they need to change may not be directly obvious to them, so it becomes a communications challenge to ensure you get the process consistency and the buy-in," advises Carter. "Of course, every culture is different. Each situation is different."


Rex Carter exemplifies the best of the CIO's role as a technologist, strategist, business executive — and even diplomat — as he leads internal IT operations at HDS, serving a community of internal customers spread out in diverse international business units. In Carter's world, IT supports the business strategy, and that's prudent guidance for current and aspiring CIOs alike.

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