The five-minute CIO: Mark Goldin, Cornerstone OnDemand

31 Mar 2017

Cornerstone OnDemand CTO Mark Goldin. Image: Cornerstone OnDemand

‘Building a budget and then managing that involves much more than obtaining best possible pricing,’ said Mark Goldin of Cornerstone OnDemand.

Mark Goldin is the CTO of Cornerstone OnDemand, and is responsible for building and directing the company’s global technology strategy, which will allow the organisation to scale in the midst of rapid growth.

Goldin oversees a variety of technological operations, leading a team of engineers to assure Cornerstone’s capabilities in providing innovative talent management software.

Prior to joining Cornerstone, Mark was the chief operations and technology officer at Green Dot Corporation, where he oversaw application development, IT infrastructure, supply chain and logistics, and call centre operations with a team that helped to grow valuation by a factor of more than 10 in just three years.

Goldin has also held CTO positions at Thomson Elite – where he conceived, founded and ran SaaS pioneer – and DestinationRx.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

On a macro level, my team is responsible for creating a reliable, scalable infrastructure to power our business and, in turn, empower our clients. The team consists of experts who manage and support application architecture, product development, quality assurance and team operations.

One area we’ve been focusing on more recently is managing and making the most of the big data we house for our clients. As a cloud-based learning and human capital management company, we have nearly 3,000 clients who need to leverage the immense amount of talent data they have, to gain deeper insights to solve increasingly important HR challenges.

Some of the biggest challenges they face today are how to retain top talent, how to develop future leaders and how to improve employee engagement. These HR initiatives are proven to not only increase employee performance, but also team performance and, ultimately, a company’s overall business performance. The technology that my team is rolling out to support big data is centred on developing and improving the front-end and back-end systems that help our clients better manage their most important asset: their human capital.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

When it comes to big data, our strategy is focused on helping HR professionals and business leaders make more intelligent and informed decisions about their talent. With cloud-based data at the heart of our business strategy, our priorities are:

  • Refining our machine learning platform: Getting this right involves many components, from data aggregation to visualisation, algorithms and more.
  • Data security: Security is obviously a top-of-mind concern for any business that wants to migrate data and processes to the cloud, especially when it comes to talent management. We try to demonstrate to customers exactly what we are doing to ensure security.
  • Data privacy: With changing regulations for storing data within global companies, data privacy and data residency are the main priority.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We have nearly 3,000 clients worldwide, spanning nearly 30m users across 191 countries. We store several petabytes of data in two primary data centres, one in the US and one in the UK. We also recently announced that we’ll be opening two new data centres in France and Germany early next year.

Regarding our database infrastructure, we use Hadoop clusters for our underlying database. On top of that, we use Kafka, Spark, and a whole host of proprietary and open source technologies to manage our machine learning platform. We’ve also built a very sophisticated anonymisation engine. This makes sure that all of the data in the big data cluster is completely stripped of any identifying information.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

In our case, we work hand in glove with our procurement team to ensure we are receiving fair pricing and payment terms for all major technology spend, both capital expenditure and ongoing operational expenses. Procurement does not tell us what to buy, but it plays a valuable role in helping to identify possible vendors, run an effective RFP process (where appropriate) and, once a vendor is selected, ensure everything runs smoothly.

Building a budget and then managing that involves much more than obtaining best possible pricing. We work hard to understand the needs of all business stakeholders so we can accommodate those in the budget. We need to start the budget process with a solid understanding of the overall revenue and expense goals that top management has for the coming fiscal year.

In the end, it’s a highly iterative process that takes months of work to get right. The final step, for us, is an executive overview of the budget so that top management understands our thought processes and the categorisation of the spend for the coming year.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Since 1999, Cornerstone has been an innovator in cloud technology. We were one of the first companies to take a bet on software-as-a-service; it’s the only way we’ve delivered our products to our clients and we’re proud of that. We are focused now on innovating and improving our infrastructure to make it best in class, and future-proof it for years to come.

For example, we recently deployed a new optimised data warehouse solution for Cornerstone reporting tools for client HR data: a Real-Time Data Warehouse (RTDW). Transforming data into a reportable format in real time is a very expensive and complex operation. While many companies do this for their own internal data, our RTDW implements it platform-wide, empowering all of our customers to see their data in real time, putting it in a completely different class of engineering complexity. We utilised new hardware and software solutions as well as synchronous replication to ensure that the RTDW is updated within minutes instead of once a day. The result is that data time-to-availability was cut down from 24 hours to 10 minutes, giving users access to more than 1bn records.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a strong in-house team that primarily consists of three categories of people: data scientists, engineers and product managers. The data scientists spend a lot of time analysing data before we write any code and help to refine the machine learning algorithms. The engineers build our offerings, and also have big data skills. The product managers design the experiences so that we can deliver offerings that meet and often exceed our clients’ needs.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

My work as CTO requires me to think big picture; to manage and guide our people to achieve our goals. It involves a mix of technical and management activities. While I oversee application architecture, development, quality assurance and technology operations, I’m also responsible for leading a world-class team of engineers to assure Cornerstone’s continued excellence in providing innovative and feature-rich talent management software.

Throughout my long CTO career, I have obviously faced many immense work challenges and found that I was able to navigate my teams through to success by being optimistic, remaining calm under pressure and keeping sight of the goals.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

The human capital management industry is transforming. The ‘future of work’ is today’s reality, especially if you consider the following: there are four or five generations in the workforce; job roles are changing; the workplace is a global, virtual space; and employees now use multiple devices and social media to engage at work.

There are opportunities to use machine learning and predictive analytics across the different facets of talent management, to foresee what may happen in the future and take actions now to improve the outcome. That’s why the work we’re putting in to our machine learning platform is so important. It will give clients a rich set of tools to answer questions such as:

  • How can I predict who will stay longer at the company?
  • What factors lead to more engaged, high-performing employees?
  • Which pay structures improve performance?

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We measure uptime, the number of incidents (both client impacting and non-impacting), internal client satisfaction using NPS, security incidents, global internet coverage and responsiveness, and much more. This year, we are focused on breaking down uptime and reliability even further into segmented reliability by slice of application, so we can track the end-user experience more closely.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

With regards to big data, we’re really only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what clients can do with talent data. I think there’s much more that we can do with benchmarking, particularly against similar-sized organisations in the same industries. Typically, that is a very manual process – through surveys, spreadsheets or manual collation of information. We see a big opportunity to automate the whole benchmarking process to make it more useful, accurate, timely and cost-effective, while keeping identifying information anonymous.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

We have several new IT projects that are going to contribute to our cloud offerings. One of them is what we call a ‘living data centre’. As a major cloud player, our success, to some extent, is predicated on the ability to handle demand; things such as load demand, capacity, customer volume and so on. The vision for the living data centre is to automate these processes; from provisioning a server for applications to provisioning storage and, ultimately, autoscaling to meet the needs of the business.

We’re also introducing new tools in our cloud delivery model that allow our clients to further limit the access that our employees have to the customer’s sensitive data. One question we hear time and time again is: ‘Can our company limit the access that your employees have to our sensitive data?’. As a cloud company, Cornerstone has done a lot of thinking about this question. We want our customers to feel as confident as possible about their data security and, therefore, more comfortable overall about embracing the cloud. That’s why we’re giving them more control of their data.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years