Workday CIO: ‘Covid-19 changed the way we work overnight’

28 Aug 2020

Sheri Rhodes. Image: Workday

Workday CIO Sheri Rhodes talks about what companies need to focus on from an IT perspective in the newly reimagined future of work.

Click here to view the Future of Work Week series.

Sheri Rhodes is chief information officer at Workday, which provides enterprise cloud applications for finance and human resources.

Prior to joining Workday in March 2019, Rhodes served as executive vice-president and chief technology officer at Western Union, where she was responsible for engineering, security and corporate technology. She has also previously held leadership roles at Symantec, Visa, Washington Mutual and KPMG.

‘With a distributed workforce it is essential that people have access to the data they need when they need it’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

Fundamentally, I am responsible for the deployment of our products internally. I joined Workday almost 18 months ago and it has been a fascinating experience for me, becoming chief information officer in a young, fifteen-year-old company that has been built from the ‘cloud up’.

Because Workday was born in the cloud, we can quickly iterate and innovate – there are no bulky legacy systems to work around. This has been critical in the current crisis. Operating in a cloud-native environment is a true advantage for us and has enabled us to maintain business continuity and collaborate effectively as conditions continue to evolve. Having the right infrastructure and backup in place enabled us to switch over to remote work in a matter of hours, and we, along with our customers, continued to manage strategic HR matters and close our financials, all while remote.

Of course, technology is not just about hardware and coding, it’s as much about talented people. We live in a rapidly changing world, where tech leaders must help paint a picture of the future, one of close collaboration across disparate disciplines. That’s where culture comes into play. Building a strong culture is as important as building products in order to be successful.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

In March 2020 we launched the Digital Customer Engagement programme at Workday to address how we mature and scale the digital customer and Workday employee experience. This multi-year, cross-functional initiative with our customer experience organisation is focused on delivering a unified digital experience outside of the Workday product.

But ultimately, our employees play a central role in communicating our vision to our customers and as a result, one of my favourite initiatives is our Demo Days programme. We run regular Demo Days to ensure employees can really see and understand our products, give direct feedback and foster conversations about what we are doing and what we can do even better.

How big is your team? Do you outsource where possible?

My team consists of 250 employees across the globe. In addition, we work with contractors to outsource work strategically when niche, technical skillsets can significantly expedite our time to value, or for more commoditised work such as a helpdesk function. This is assessed on a case-by-case basis and we have also been focused on building technical talent within the organisation and deliver many of our programmes internally.

In this vein, I have been looking at how we create capacity and continuity as we accelerate delivery. As an example, we now fund teams rather than just specific projects. This gives us the agility to focus resources where they are most needed and maintain high levels of velocity and innovation. It also allows teams to plan longer term, avoid downtime between projects and to dynamically adjust priorities.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how it will change the future of work?

There is a very strong correlation between companies that adopt an enterprise-wide data strategy, including highly effective data quality and governance, and those with successful digital initiatives.

A steady, continuous and reliable stream of data can provide IT and business teams with the relevant insights required to make critical business decisions, to fail fast and pivot as needed and to directly correlate investments with success metrics that provide customer satisfaction.

It also allows companies to continuously evaluate the right tools to power their employee productivity, automating routine tasks and enabling their employees to focus where they can add the most value.

From the CIO perspective, understanding where data sits within an enterprise is key; specifically, how it’s used, who is using it and when it’s used. The IT team must be able to continuously map, track and keep safe every data element that provides context to a user, an interaction or a series of events.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the future of work from an IT perspective?

The pandemic has accelerated many of the big tech trends that we were seeing in the IT industry. Historically we have seen some businesses slow to adapt and embrace the cloud and big data trends.

Covid-19, however, changed the way we work overnight. In a virtual work environment, those businesses that had a cloud infrastructure in place could adapt quickly and achieve greater agility, and this is changing perceptions of the cloud. While transformative, this has also placed a great deal of pressure on IT teams worldwide.

In this new world, user experience, for employees and for customers, has never been more important and it has become increasingly clear that technology choices made in advance can pay dividends in crisis scenarios.

As an IT function, we are focused on ensuring seamless business continuity to underpin successful business change. Undoubtedly, the cloud has a huge role to play here in enabling remote working across a distributed workforce, allowing safe and secure access to data, even across multiple devices.

With a distributed workforce it is essential that people have access to the data they need when they need it, and this has to be the focus of the CIO and the IT team.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how the workforce can better protect data?

I really believe that data literacy is important, regardless of what team you are on. In the past, data was often seen as the territory of just IT. But as you can see, especially with the advent of GDPR, understanding how data is used, accessed and safeguarded needs to be understood by every single employee in any organisation.

Overarching that, as chief information officers, we should seek to understand how employees best work and what hardware and software requirements will help them to be most productive, all while keeping data secure and safe.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.