Workday’s Diana McKenzie: ‘Happy employees make for happy customers’

6 Jul 2018

Workday CIO Diana McKenzie. Image: Workday

SaaS and cloud are freeing up companies to focus on rewarding employees and customers in a better way, says Workday CIO Diana McKenzie.

Diana McKenzie is chief information officer (CIO) at Workday.

She oversees the company’s security and global information technology (IT) organisation, with responsibility for the internal deployment of Workday products as well as other innovative technologies and programmes that create a competitive advantage for the company and serve as best practices to IT organisations globally.

Prior to joining Workday, she was senior vice-president and CIO at Amgen, where she spent 12 years applying leading-edge analytics and technologies to further the company’s innovation and market position. Preceding Amgen, McKenzie served in a variety of IT leadership roles at Eli Lilly and Company.

‘In taking advantage of SaaS to run the functions of their companies, it frees up their organisation, their technology, their people, their digital agenda, to focus on building new capabilities in areas that are truly needle-moving for their companies’

During her nearly three decades of experience, McKenzie has been an active leader in various trade, technology and government organisations. In 2015, she was recognised as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology by the National Diversity Council. She holds a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems from Purdue University.

Founded in 2005, Workday offers financial management, human capital management and analytics applications designed for large-scale institutions, including multinational companies, educational institutions and government agencies.

The company employs several hundred people at its European headquarters in Dublin. In 2008, Workday acquired Irish software company Cape Clear, the tech company established by Iona co-founder Annrai O’Toole, for an undisclosed sum.

Tell me about your role and Workday’s mission.

I’ll start with our mission for the technology. The big idea for when the company was originally founded was: enterprise software was designed more for the back office and the transaction as opposed to the interaction that employees, managers and leaders would have with the software.

When Workday was born, creating a software platform that put people at the centre was really what it was all about. The company has continued to stay true to that from the very beginning and to do that in a way that puts employees first. Happy employees make for happy customers and that’s why we’ve seen 98pc customer satisfaction for the last two years.

I was the first CIO that Workday ever had. I started two years ago and my responsibilities here at the company are threefold.

The first of those is to focus on the product itself and ensure that Workday, as we grow in scale, is the first and best user of our own products. I have a team that is all about working very closely with the product organisation, taking all the new features and enhancements and putting them in place at Workday first before we roll them out to our customers. This puts us in an ideal position to give our product teams feedback.

The second area is delivering all of the technology services that are needed to run the rest of the company. Think about that from the go-to-market platforms, ensuring that all the other needs that exist are met from a technology perspective.

The third piece of that is the information security function within the company around specifically our security operations centre, incident management, penetration testing, risk management, security awareness and reporting to the board.

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

We set an expectation around availability, uptime and service-level quality, and we are relentlessly focused on meeting that, if not beating that wherever possible. As an enterprise-grade company, you have to have that as a basic pillar.

Another pillar is the fact that we manage very important information for our customers and therefore, protecting their customer data is foundational and bedrock to us. We recognise that continuing to earn their trust, to keep their data with us and our platform, is really job number one.

When we think about the other tenets of the platform, the security points I just raised, there is this element of the power of one, if you will. One security model, one source of truth around the data, one user experience.

Our goal is to continuously delight our end-users with a consumer-like experience and to make sure that it is also modern. Then also, the sense of bringing our community together so they can share best practices and learn from each other in a way that we don’t have to be in the middle but are more a convener to bring customers together.

We have a component called Brainstorm, for example, where our community of customers can vote on new features they would like to see in the product before we issue a release. Then, we try to absorb as many of those as we possibly can based on what they prioritise in every release.

The last point is keeping everyone current on the same version. When we do deploy a release two times a year, everybody goes at the same time to the same release, and the downtime we experience is increasingly decreasing. We are at a point where we can take all of our customers to the next release around the world in a period of four hours or less.

How complex is the infrastructure underpinning that?

I don’t manage the actual infrastructure team that supports our product, I manage the infrastructure team that supports the business of Workday specifically.

The team that is in the product organisation is about 5,000 people and it is very complex but when we present a product to our customer, the architecture allow us to make a considerable number of changes and stay modern and innovate with the platform without our customers needing to feel the impact of those changes.

It is not as complex for a team like mine as it might be for any CIO dealing with legacy infrastructure.

Being a relatively new company built in the cloud means that the software solutions that we use to run our business are pretty much all software as a service (SaaS) or platform as a service (PaaS). The complexity associated with my infrastructure today is very different from when I was CIO in a life sciences company.

How big a differentiator is the cloud for organisations?

I think it is a huge differentiator for companies, and for many companies it is creating a recognition that to remain competitive, they have to think very differently about the technologies that they choose to run their companies.

In taking advantage of SaaS to run the functions of their companies, it frees up their organisation, their technology, their people, their digital agenda, to focus on building new capabilities in areas that are truly needle-moving for their companies in support of wherever their strategy is.

Products such as Workday, Salesforce, Slack etc make it possible for organisations like the one I used to run to focus their energies on the core elements of the company that are so important to being successful in today’s marketplace.

The other benefit that comes from taking advantage of cloud is that all of the cloud vendors, software platform or infrastructure as a service (IaaS) players are building these native capabilities into their platforms with machine learning and artificial intelligence, which frees the CIO up to take advantage of those capabilities. This allows them to then build up their own capabilities to be strategically targeted to those areas that are a source of competitive advantage to their company.

I think it is very powerful to give them a leg up when they can take advantage of cloud-based platforms to deliver that capability.

What is your approach to running cloud infrastructure?

Right now, we are a mix of running on our own Workday private cloud and we also signed an agreement with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2016 to move our product to AWS for customers who would be open to having us run their particular tenet in Amazon.

So, we’ve been on a journey over the course of the past year and a half to make it possible for us to be able to offer that service via Amazon. And Amazon also became a customer of ours at that time.

What are your thoughts on the current enterprise software revolution where new tools such as Workday, Slack, Trello, Asana and others are gradually introduced by employees rather than prescribed by CIOs?

I think it does depend on the nature of the business and the software solution itself.

I would say that Slack is the perfect example where it made its way into our organisation first through the development environment and, because the IT organisation played an admin role, of course we within IT started to use it and then our security team started to use it and, before you knew it, we had quite a few people here using it.

I finally came to the recognition that this is the platform our company should be on and signed an agreement last October, and we are now running Slack as our primary collaboration platform. We subsequently signed a partnership agreement where our product will now integrate with Slack so that you can now, from Slack, call certain functions from Workday without having to leave the application.

Is the whole nature of work changing through SaaS?

These are game-changing technologies and we recognise the way people want to work is more in their natural work space. You can say that’s about millennials but I don’t think it is just about millennials, I think it is a new technology generation and we are exposed to work in a way where there is minimal friction and we can stay within one workspace and get more done and be more engaged and productive.

The more companies that can embrace this evolution and bring that into their environment, the more CIOs can get behind that and be focused on what experiences they are creating for the workforce within their company, and the more successful those companies will be.

We clearly see that as a path forward for Workday in terms of becoming a system of engagement that is able to work with many of the different products that are out there and allow employees to work in a space that they are most comfortable.

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