The five minute CIO: Rick Parkinson, ShoreTel

21 Aug 2015

Rick Parkinson, CIO, ShoreTel

“IT budgets should be closely aligned with business objectives for the fiscal year and beyond,” says Rick Parkinson, CIO of global unified communications giant ShoreTel.

California-headquartered ShoreTel brings in annual revenues in excess of US$300m a year. The company was co-founded in 1996 as Shoreline Communications by Ed Basart and Mike Harrigan.

The company went public in 2007, raising US$75m, and by 2012 was in a position to buy M5 Networks for US$146m. As of last year, the company had US$56.1m in cash and equivalents.

ShoreTel is one of the prime players in the unified communications space, using flash memory instead of spinning media or hard drives to run entire comms architectures for companies.

System administration is done through the ShoreTel Director, a web-based app that enables businesses to provide workers with access to IP telephony, conferencing, instant messaging, softphone and other services.

ShoreTel’s CIO Rick Parkinson began his career with NCR Corporation and spent more than 15 years as group IT engineer for Lockheed Missiles and Space. After this, he held senior IT director roles with Intuit before holding vice president roles with Cymerc Exchange and Agentrics.

He has been CIO of ShoreTel since May 2005.

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

I have responsibility for all internal and external business applications and the IT technology infrastructure across the organisation, as it relates to running the business.

Any changes and improvements in our technology and business applications are closely linked and aligned with our business objectives, strategies, and budgets, both for the fiscal year and for the longer term. We have a very well-defined applications platform strategy and architecture and we look to innovate by leveraging new technology where it makes sense.

We strive to ensure our internal IT infrastructure and business applications are highly available and perform at a level that enables our employees to work efficiently. It is also a key focus to make things easier for our partners who seek actionable information from our systems. To this end, we have recently made improvements with a consolidated service portal and we’ll continue to make improvements in this area. While our partners currently use our portals for many purposes, our goal is to provide increased personalisation on our portals and allow partners to focus on specific areas of interest, all intended to help them grow their businesses and better support their customers.

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

Our main strategy is to continue to consolidate our business processes and systems while reducing complexity, to make things easier and more efficient for our partners, customers and employees. For example, following the acquisition of another company, we have been working to fully consolidate our separate cloud and premises product delivery systems onto a common platform, with a common set of business processes.

We have already merged our systems and service portals. This means our employees now use a single system and set of business processes to support our solutions, as well as a single service portal and knowledge base for our partners and customers. We are also working on further enhancements to our service portal to improve the user experience, including the capability for our partners and customers to collaborate through common communities of interest, while also supporting partners who have specific areas of interest. Our aim is to have a community in which our partners and customers can work together, with and without ShoreTel’s direct involvement.

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

We have 14 locations worldwide, across the US, APAC and EMEA. We use an MPLS-based network and cloud and premises-based business applications to operate as one across all locations. We also have multiple data centres and leverage our own ShoreTel unified communications products extensively throughout the company to improve employee productivity.

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

IT budgets should be closely aligned with business objectives for the fiscal year and beyond. For a number of years at ShoreTel, our IT budgets were lean and we operated and delivered new applications and enhancements very efficiently, while we invested in other areas of our business. This required the IT organisation to be innovative relative to delivering internal and external business applications at minimal cost. To do this, we were early adopters of cloud-based applications, beginning over 10 years ago. Of late, we have increased our IT investments, with a focus on consolidating technology systems and business processes, as well as increasing our focus on security.

While we look at IT spend as a percentage of revenue for reference purposes, our IT spending is really dictated by company strategy and the stage the company is in from a growth perspective. It’s also important to ensure our employees have the tools and systems that they need to be effective, to enable them to meet their goals and objectives.

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

The complexity we experience comes from acquisitions and rapid growth, as well as what naturally occurs when bringing systems together. For the past few years, we’ve been focused on reducing complexity by consolidating on a few key application platforms, leveraging both cloud and premise-based solutions, with an emphasis on cloud solutions. Through this consolidation, we have increased native back-end data integration and reduced complexity. This effort has already resulted in the consolidation of our sales and services systems onto a single Salesforce system and we’re now working to further leverage native integration with our other Salesforce-aware applications.

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

We have about 40 members on the team supporting all IT worldwide infrastructure and internal/external facing business applications. While our IT team historically has been on the small side, it has been growing to support the execution of our business strategy, integration of acquisitions and our global expansion. In the past year or two, we’ve invested significantly more on internal and external expert resources to consolidate and improve our business applications. Like most organisations, we have some skill-set gaps and resource constraints. Thus, we use external resources as required to be nimble on short-term projects that require additional resources or unique skill sets.

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 role is about 80/20 on business versus technical. I work to keep IT aligned with business objectives. I meet with the CEO once a month, and the CFO once a week, to ensure that happens. I meet with other senior business leaders in the company as well. The emphasis is always on furthering our strategy, innovating where appropriate and executing against the plan. Fortunately, I am able to leverage our strong operations and technical teams to ensure that we have reliable and highly available systems, leaving me free to focus on business applications and to ensure IT stays aligned with the overall objectives of the company.

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

While we’re not currently building mobile applications within the IT team for use within the company, we do continue to work to improve our business applications and systems to be more mobile-friendly. Security is another growing focus of ours and we continue to expand our capabilities, both in terms of what we can do to prevent issues, but also to prepare for what will inevitably occur. We also continue to leverage technology and increased system integration to improve the timeliness, accuracy and completeness of business reporting, with increased actionable information for our business leaders.

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

We use a mixture of metrics to measure our IT performance and to figure out where we can improve. Our service desk carries out surveys as work requests are completed. We also get direct feedback from our key business owners and partners relative to tactical operations and project-based performance, so it’s a continual combination of surveys and direct feedback.

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

We can always do better!

Overall, our IT team will continue to strive for tighter business alignment, improving our ability to react to changes and deliver projects at a faster pace. We’ll continue to evolve our internal and external business applications for improved functionality, security and ease of use for our employees, partners and customers. We want to give our partners opportunities for more self-help. Better opportunities are always on our radar.

While we have been successful in the onboarding of new employees with systems and access, and our HR team runs a nice survey process to validate this, we take all feedback seriously to determine opportunities to improve, and continously make adjustments as needed to improve our services.

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

We will continue to consolidate our systems, bringing our premises and cloud business processes together. As an example, we are currently working to consolidate our quoting systems so partners can use one system to quickly create and compare premises versus cloud solution quotes, when proposing solutions to prospective customers.

We’ll also continue to improve our portals to better equip our partners to be successful. While they already have access to view and support many aspects of their business, there are other enhancements we want to make in this area.

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