Driving Change Ep 1 – CIO Marc Kermisch – Extended

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Technology can’t solve everything and certainly not in isolation. The best technology is built with your users.Marc Kermisch, CIO

Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a drive with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences.

Today we take a ride with Marc Kermisch CIO of Redwing Shoes.

In this Episode:

1:24 Intrapreneurship in corporate technology

2:29 Managing vs. leading in corporate technology

3:20 Corporate technology today vs. years past

4:23 Personal change of view of corporate technology

5:23 Merging business and technology

8:50 The changing role of the CIO

10:56 Using the right technologies and methodologies

12:40 Recruiting and keeping the right technology talent

14:44 Personal advice to 25 year old self

16:50 Failures creating success through persistence

18.28 Finding inspiration

19:43 Passion for biking

20:38 Influence and Books – The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim

22:54 Balancing work, personal, and family

23:48 Morning Rituals and plugging in globally

24:57 On being a corporate athlete

For more episodes and extended versions visit www.leadbychange.com

Produced by Collective Genius (www.collective-genius.com)

Hosted by Jeff Martin

Media Sponsor Tech.mn

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The Interview:

Jeff Martin: Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a drive with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences. Today we take a ride with Marc Kermisch, CIO of Redwing Shoes.

Marc Kermisch: Hey, Jeff! How’s it going?

Jeff Martin: Good! How is it going?

Marc Kermisch: Pretty good.

Jeff Martin: Good to see you!

Marc Kermisch: Good to see you!

Jeff Martin: Are you ready to go for a drive?

Marc Kermisch: I am ready to go for a drive. I’ll give you a tour of Redwing.

Jeff Martin: That’s awesome. We met each other was that mid ‘90s at Techies.com?

Marc Kermisch: I believe so. It would have been ’96, ’97.

Jeff Martin: It sounds about right. It sounds about right.

Marc Kermisch: When we were much younger and probably had less gray hair.

Jeff Martin: Come on! One of the reasons why I wanted to take a ride with you today is there’s a lot of technology leaders out there, but for you I always know that you were really kind of entrepreneurial.

Marc Kermisch: Absolutely. I think in my younger days, I always thought I was an entrepreneur.

Jeff Martin: This way?

Marc Kermisch: That way. One of the stop sign, take a right, and left.

Jeff Martin: Okay.

Marc Kermisch: And I think I realized in my career I don’t have the risk profile to go out on my own and start a company. What I found as I joined other companies I had an aptitude for finding white space to create and just probably before the word entrepreneur even was in the vocabulary of everybody, I constantly found myself starting up, fixing, you got it, fixing things, rebuilding things, breaking things down, and being a little bit counterculture at the same time.

Jeff Martin: Which typically in IT, I find a lot of people are managing. They’re not really leading. They’re kind of managing what they have.

Marc Kermisch: Uh-huh.

Jeff Martin: And there is less on the visibility of why trying to do new things.
Marc Kermisch: If I think about traditional IT of making new servers and infrastructure and telecom and networking, driving to 100 percent all the time with a [unintelligible 0:02:53] this people describe, this one gets me out of bed at night. What gets me out of bed every morning is really how to solve our goal business issues, be it at revenue challenges that we have, expense challenges that we have, talent issues, customer issues, new market segments. Every single one of those in this day and age requires some sort of technology. Sometimes technology is an enabler; sometimes it’s the actual product you’re selling. That excites me about technology.

Jeff Martin: Do you think that’s changed since 10, 20 years back the way IT is looked at?

Marc Kermisch: Absolutely. I think 10, 20 years ago, IT was looked at as the guys who provide you your computers, and your telephone, and your printer. There wasn’t a focus on productivity within the workplace like there is today. If I had to kind of pick an area what really drove technology forward was the need to reduce expense and drive productivity up and the need to provide better analysis of how your business is doing on the reporting end, you know which led to the big enterprise resource planning software packages like SAP and PSR, all those fun things. Back in the day, it was [unintelligible 0:04:10] manual tasks, and I think that’s what helped drive from pure desktop support and telecommunications and then true computing.

Jeff Martin: Is there something that you would have believed 20 years ago to be the absolute truth that is different than your opinion right now?

Marc Kermisch: I think 20 years ago, I thought technology could solve every problem, and I could do it from behind the keyboard. I didn’t have [unintelligible 0:04:42] customers I didn’t have to engage in my business and I kind of knew best. I think today I would say technology can’t solve everything and certainly not in isolation. The best technology is built with your users and more users and that early engagement is imperative. I think if you look at modernized approaches to software development around Agile practices, paired programming, the role of product owner, which is truly a business role kind of reinforces that concept.

Jeff Martin: How do you take the technology side and get them closer to the business side or blend the two together?

Marc Kermisch: I think there’s a couple of things that I do personally. When I get my team together, I talk in terms of our business and every discussions that we have is how a specific aspect of our technology is enabling or disabling our business and how we drive revenue or customer engagement or satisfaction.
The second thing I view is I force my team, especially my IT leaders, to get out and know their business, and it’s not sitting in the office in the IT floor. It’s actually going out to our stores, spending a day, running transactions from point of sale, sitting down with our leaders to understand their pain points, going to our customer service team, sitting on calls, taking calls, going and see what our product development guys and learning how they creates shoes because ultimately if they don’t understand the craft they’re supporting, they can’t be good technologists so.

Jeff Martin: So I’m going to switch gears a little bit. Has there been a point in your career as you kind of worked as you kind of worked your way up through management that something that you are challenged with took you a while to figure it out and kind of had that aha moment and a lesson [unintelligible 0:06:47] for you today?

Marc Kermisch: Which scenario to pick from is the biggest challenge. There is actually – we’ll take a left.

Jeff Martin: Left.

Marc Kermisch: There is one, and actually it has very little to do with technology but again it has to do with I think an aspect of technology that’s dramatically lacking, and that’s the art of communication, which actually back in our days at Techies, and I’ve a role outside of technology – we’ll take a right.

Jeff Martin: Okay.

Marc Kermisch: Taking a role outside of technology and we’re spending the time doing business development with a friend of ours that you and I both know well, which is a guy named Peter [unintelligible 0:07:27]. It was a very subtle thing for me is we’re sitting in my first real sales meeting. We were out I think it was in [unintelligible 0:07:35] Marina or something like that at Baltimore. We’re in this big meeting. I am 25 years old and I feel like I have got to contribute, kind of show that I’m an important guy. You got to engage in the discussion. I’m feeling pretty good about myself.
We leave the meeting. Peter and I are walking through the airport in Baltimore on our way back to Minneapolis, he pulls me aside and he says, “You know, Marc, you’re no longer [unintelligible 0:07:58] meetings that you can stop saying the word, “um.” If you’re stuttering in your discussions, then it just lowers your credibility and stops some flow. You have to learn how to become a good communicator.”
From that point forward, I really focused on how I choose my words and how I describe my concepts. One of the hardest things about technology is to totally understand the core concepts and why it’s so complex and why it’s so expensive and so hard to get something done and that art of communication has been an invaluable tool for me to be able to be successful in my career. I would say if I had to pick one thing that has allowed me to climb the ladder of corporate technology, it’s been my ability to communicate the concepts of IT to our business.

Jeff Martin: As we talked about earlier, the role of the CIO or tech leader has kind of changed. How would you define the role of the CIO from your perspective?

Marc Kermisch: I think there are two critical aspects to the role of the CIO. One is you have to be a student of your business that you support. It’s not just understanding the basic mechanics of how your company creates revenue and services its customers, but I truly think you have to get down on the detailed process of understanding. You have to be to be able to tie those processes to how the system support them because your business knows it and there are expectations that you know it, and you will be able to hang everything together and drive transformation for your company. You have to have intimate knowledge there.
The second thing, and I think this one is actually even harder is you have to be a technologist. You can’t just be an infrastructure guy. You can’t just be an application development guy, or a PMO guy, or a business analyst person because you truly have to know all of it and be able to piece it together. Because it’s changing so rapidly and it’s converging so quickly that if you get out of touch or out of step with that, you are going to quickly find yourself supporting a legacy architecture, legacy systems.

The last thing that I think every CIO needs, and this isn’t just pertinent to CIOs, or probably any key leader is you have to take care of your team. You have to understand how to motivate, retain, and track and grow your talent, and it’s not just within IT, but it’s really within the broader sense of the team within your organization. Probably one of the biggest things I do every day is to educate Red Wing on technology and how to drive technical transformation for our business, and that’s exhausting and exciting at the same time because you’re carrying the weight of the business on your shoulders.

Jeff Martin: With technology moving so fast and changing so fast, how do you know you’re using the right technologies? How do you know it’s time for an upgrade or a change?

Marc Kermisch: I think every technology in kind of the three aspects. I think you got your application layer. You got your middleware layer that moves data around like you got your actual data, and I think there has been trends within the technology space where they were kind of your three tiers that bring it all together like an SAP that allows you to have one large integrative platform across all your pieces.
Then I think you’ve got other aspects that are changing business so fast that are counterintuitive or counterproductive to SAP. To me, you have to really focus on the data and the ability to have access to that data. Then the rest of it should matter if I custom build an application, if I buy an application, if it’s software as a service, or some mobile application, if they can access that, then I can freely move it across, I think you actually end up in a situation that you can retool your organization’s technology portfolio very quickly.
I think the challenge is most organizations are saddled with legacy applications that are very tightly coupled, that have point-to-point integrations, and it’s very difficult to piece them apart. And so, you end up with these very long projects and programs that are very expensive in trying to remedy that legacy because you haven’t figured out a way to free the data, so to speak.

Jeff Martin: Yeah.
You’re talking a little bit about talent, attracting talent, retaining talent, how do you attract good technologists?

Marc Kermisch: It’s going to sound pretty silly, maybe a bit of a simplistic answer, but at the end of the day, it’s fun projects, right?

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Marc Kermisch: Nobody wants to come in and meet the guy that’s to maintain the mainframe or board up a bunch of COBOL code. What they all want to do is they want to work on mobile platform. They want to work in developing APIs. They want to understand continuous integration. They want to drive highly virtualized compute system. They want to be able to create massive data links of unstructured data that can be analyzed by the business, and that’s what they want to do.
I also think that a lot of – I call them maybe the modern technologist or maybe you would call them the younger technologists – they want to build to self-organize and self-manage. It’s not just the developer that wants that. It’s truly the spectrum of individuals that have to come together and produce a piece of technology, be it the project manager, the business, etc. And so being able to point them in the direction and find how they motivate individuals, I can organize a team to what they need to get something done I think is important versus me [unintelligible 0:14:03] coming in and kind of taps down, saying, “This is how you do it. You’re going to track 40 hours a week. You’re going to fill out these forms. You got to build these process flows, etc.” You got these very long lengthy projects that can be exhausting. I think a lot of our web companies even going back to Techies.com operate in similar fashion where you could have carried it out there. You point everybody in the right direction and they knew where they were going and they’re on a shared mission and they can execute against it, and management can worry about other things.
Jeff Martin: For people that are trying to move forward in their career, they want to get more management roles or technology leadership roles, thinking of that from that perspective, if you could have given yourself advice 20 years back or in your early 20s, what advice would you give yourself?

Marc Kermisch: I think if 20 years ago if I could sit down with my 20-year-old self and give young Marc advice, I think I’ll give him two pieces that I probably think about quite a lot. Take more risks. Even though I wanted to start up a company, I felt like I was taking a ton of risks. I really did. Not only take risks but have the perseverance to see it all the way through. Yeah, so another way to think about that is be willing to fail big and I don’t think I ever quite took enough risks where I put myself in a position to fail me.
I think the other thing is you know the time to move around the country or around the world to really experience different cultures, different companies, put yourself in the hotbed of the industry is when you’re in your 20s. There’s no commitments needed to worry about.

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Marc Kermisch: Being a technologist, you know the Mecca for technologists is always going to go be Silicon Valley or to a smaller extent Seattle. I wish I would have actually taken some of the opportunities presented to me to actually go out and experience living at the very leading edge of technology. I certainly wasn’t the kind of guy that was the Ph.D. engineer, so I’m never going to be building the next Google or self-driving car, but I certainly could have been a part of companies that were doing that and that experience I think would have been incredible to live through.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. I know a lot of people get a lot of experiences by putting themselves on the line like that they’re trying to do [unintelligible 0:16:52].

Marc Kermisch: Yeah, and I look back API, you think about Doug Byrd, the founder of Techies, and I don’t know how many big failures he did and Techies was as big as him. But without him taking those risks, he wouldn’t not have had the success later in his career where he built a ton of value. He was able to [unintelligible 0:17:07] out of that value, set him and generations of his family up for quite some time.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. He has the perseverance, right?

Marc Kermisch: Yeah, yeah.

Jeff Martin: Techies, HotGigs, there’s prior things before that, I would assume.

Marc Kermisch: [unintelligible 0:17:29] JobKeys, if you remember that, it was the predecessor of Techies.

Jeff Martin: Really?

Marc Kermisch: And Independent Recruiter before that. But yeah I think the other thing that was unique about Doug and probably another piece of advice you’d inserted into this retrospective is be an optimist, right, almost to the extent that people get sick of you being such an optimist. I think if you think about entrepreneurs, they’re facing so many challenges in just getting their business up and running that if they’re not optimistic and they’re not going to have that perseverance for success, it’s just too easy to say, “I’m done.”

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Marc Kermisch: When the going gets tough, oftentimes people fold their hand and move on. I think today constantly being an optimist is good.

Jeff Martin: Where do you get your inspiration?

Marc Kermisch: Sure. So you know I’d say my inspiration ultimately comes from two places: one is incessant curiosity about life, and the second is a hyper-competitiveness that I’ve got. That second one I think feeds the first one in many ways, and it really comes through be it in my outside work activity, which is cycling as I’m an incessantly curious person who wants to get more and more competitive as I age in the sports of cycling. It’s also where I get a lot of my inspiration because it’s my one place that I can’t look at my email, I can’t answer my phone, and it’s uninterrupted me time.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. How long have you been cycling competitively?

Marc Kermisch: Twenty years.

Jeff Martin: Wow!

Marc Kermisch: The irony is I got more competitive as I got older, so the last 10 years, I’ve been higher competitive, spending 15 to 20 hours a week on the bike, racing 30 to 40 times a year, and only in this last year has I been forced to slow down just due to too many competing priorities.
Jeff Martin: Yeah. So you’re on the bike and you’re riding it. Is that a time that you are thinking of nothing, thinking of work?

Marc Kermisch: Yes.

Jeff Martin: Cycling is a pretty quiet sport, right? I mean you’re with yourself.

Marc Kermisch: It is a quiet sport, and you know I think I go through both. There are times where I’m just pushing hard and it’s the one time that I can clearly don’t have the energy to thing – we go straight.

Jeff Martin: Okay.

Marc Kermisch: And it’s when you’re done because you have that mental break, you recharge, you can then go tackle a problem. There’s other times when maybe I’m not training as hard. I’m just going out, taking some miles in the legs, and I find myself using that time to rationalize all the information that’s going through my head at any given day and start to apply that to problems that might be nagging at me.

Jeff Martin: Any books that you’ve been heavily influenced by or others?

Marc Kermisch: Yes. I would say and I would say for many others, I didn’t read a lot of business books, but I certainly read in the beginning. One of the ones that I’ve been most influenced by is by author by the name of Gene Kim, and he wrote a book called The Phoenix Project.

Jeff Martin: How do you spell his name?

Marc Kermisch: G-E-N-E and his last name is Kim, K-I-M. In The Phoenix Project, if you’re in IT and you’ve never read a business book, it’s the one book I would recommend an IT professional read. When you pick it up, you literally feel like you’re reading your life especially if you’re in corporate IT. You pick it up. The first paragraph is CIO Got Fired and Nothing Works, right? Any CIO can go, “Yes, I think about getting fired everyday and yes, it always feels like everything is broken.” It’s a journey. It’s a journey of exploration and it’s anchored around lean manufacturing principles.”
The concept is how do you apply lean manufacturing to IT. I really think about the business of IT, and I think many CIOs and many companies don’t really think about the fact that IT is a business in and of itself, and The Phoenix Project really opened my eyes to that and for the last two years, I’d say I’d given that book out to almost every manager that’s worked for me. I really try to embrace the concepts that it plays out, which is all around tightly coupled teams that collaborate and break down barriers between infrastructure and application and testing and operations, and the concept of breaking your applications and projects up into small manageable chunks and doing continuous frequent delivery to your business and ultimately driving value while removing work in progress and managing unplanned work into your IT manufacturing line.

Jeff Martin: I have never heard of that book before.

Marc Kermisch: It’s a great book

Jeff Martin: How do you balance life, work, and personal?

Marc Kermisch: So I think when I was younger, I would that I tried really hard to have a work-life balance, and I think as I’ve gotten older, I realize that there’s really no such thing. It’s really just life and what I’ve done is I’ve integrated everything, and so I don’t worry about if I have to leave work early to go to my kids’ school activity or after work leave, because I’m trying to break out presentation or work with the project team. I no longer think about workweek as a five-day workweek. I say I’ve got seven days to get something done, and if I have to work on a Saturday, I work on a Saturday but that might mean I take off on a Wednesday.

Jeff Martin: So you’re really just [unintelligible 0:23:36].

Marc Kermisch: I do [unintelligible 0:23:40]

Jeff Martin: You’re not stressing yourself about when you’re working and when you’re not working.

Marc Kermisch: I don’t. I try to talk to my team about it, “I’m always concerned about your outcomes, not your attendance.”

Jeff Martin: Yeah. Do you have any morning rituals that you do?

Marc Kermisch: I do. I’m usually up at 5:00 AM every day, seven days a week and I take that usually first couple of hours to really think time for me. I’ve got a 70-mile commute one way into my office, and usually get up, get showered, get my cup of coffee, scan my email and address anything that is important to address. I’m going to take time and I do a scan of the Wall Street Journal. I just understand what’s going on in the world especially the tech headlines, and then we have an RSS newsfeed that I use to aggregate information for me. I usually do a scan through that and pick any tidbits I may want to see even briefly later. Then I hop in my car and because I’m on the road usually at 6:00 in the morning on weekdays, that initially time is usually spent think time or listening to an audio book or something like that, and then I’m off and running for the day.

Jeff Martin: I think a lot of people don’t think of work like they think of training for sport and when you’re at work, a lot of times I think people just perform but in any sport that you’re in, you typically train a lot of times. Then you go and you perform. What’s your perception on that? How do you look at training within the job and performance in the job?

Marc Kermisch: You know I actually really liked the analogy that you bring to the table. It’s not something I’ve actually thought about, but this thing that I question, I’m sitting there thinking about the energy that I put into how I train for cycling it’s a 24×7 ritual, and with work, it really is the same way. All the articles I read, the time I spend networking and talking to my peer group, the time I invest running my business and spending time with my business partners in some respects it’s all training for me to take back to my team, so we can execute on our big game day, which is delivering a project. That’s actually a mind shift I might have to think more about.

Jeff Martin: All right, hey thanks a lot. I appreciate it.

Marc Kermisch: Thank you, sir! It’s great. Enjoy your day. Have a safe drive home.

Jeff Martin: Sounds good.

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