Ryan Fay is responsible for leading ACI Enterprises, Inc. global business, technology, and security strategy. As Global CIO, Ryan leads a global team of multidisciplinary technology staff (comprising both ACI and acquisitions) spanning 170 countries and communicating in over 180 languages. Ryan’s team has been able to radically disrupt the corporate benefits experience by delivering industry-leading 24/7/365 access, and a seamless, intuitive user experience for customers worldwide.
What superpower do you want most?
The superpower I think would be most incredible would be time travel. I am fascinated by history and science and would love to witness the great empires of the past and listen to the major thinkers and doers who were far ahead of their time. And for my own benefit, it would be great to see into the future, learn what changes are coming and bring back some knowledge.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was a kid, I really wanted to either build rockets or fly rockets. My parents actually met at General Dynamics. They both worked there designing and building rockets. There’s a park in Irvine that has a big rocket in the center, and we’d go there for their company parties, and I thought it’d be so cool to be able to build my own rocket. Luckily, I’m able to live vicariously through Elon Musk.
How did you get into technology?
My dad was the president of Avnet, and I would see him working and talking about technology 24/7 and traveling internationally to different suppliers to make some of the coolest products. And both my parents encouraged me to think about how things work, which is how I became interested in pursuing the networking side of IT.
I was always curious about how a storage array is able to ‘talk’ to a mainframe? How does that then connect to the Internet? That’s kind of where I started. While the networking side can be fun, I quickly realized I didn’t want to be on call 24/7 to fix FUBAR systems. After being on that side of the technology stack for years, I knew I loved technology, but what surprised me was that I was actually pretty good at using technology to solve complex business challenges. With that, I decided to dive into management and executive leadership.
How have you managed employee transitions during this growth?
I have been an IT leader at ACI Specialty Benefits for almost eight years, during a time when ACI has acquired four companies and experienced unprecedented growth. In response, ACI has had to quickly build strong core team across technology, analytics, big data, IoT, and of course security. And I would argue that technology is an increasingly important component across all other departments and functions, including marketing, HR, customer relations, and finance. There is a growing amount of crossover and workflows that have allowed some of our marketing folks, for example, to now move into an analytics role. So now enterprise-wide, ACI is rapidly shifting from a traditional benefits company to a technology company. I’d argue that every business today is a technology company and if not, they are probably not paying close enough attention to the paradigm shift that is happening worldwide.
What platform(s) do you use?
ACI is a big VMware customer, leveraging both private and public cloud services. For public cloud, ACI utilizes AWS and GCP. The easiest way to leverage cloud services is to spin up a development environment on a government cloud AWS server. I like to leverage cloud services in a different use than most.
Instead of only using public cloud technology for rapid scalability and elasticity, I like to see what each workload is going to require via cloud services and then have my team start to build that infrastructure at our own data center proactively.
I also have to take into account the specific technology needs of ACI Specialty Benefits as a leading global employee assistance program (EAP) provider. In this capacity, ACI fields daily suicide calls, serving as a first responder in times of crisis, thus reliable technology is an absolute-must for service and performance guarantees. In addition to providing these 24/7 EAP clinical support services, ACI is also a provider of life management benefits, corporate concierge, and errand running. With major Silicon Valley clients, multi-geographic hospitals, national law firms and Fortune 500 clients, ACI partners with businesses who are looking to support employees at work, home and everywhere in between. These companies are investing in employee well-being because it’s good for business. Maybe a father or mother or spouse is going back to school; they used to be the one that was cooking in the house. They no longer have time to do that, so ACI will bring on an on-site chef or provide errand running to deliver groceries.
On top of that, ACI is also a global provider of student assistance. If someone’s looking to go back to school and get their Ph.D., ACI’s specialists help facilitate not only the back-to-school transition outside of work hours, but also babysitting, child care, even finding low-cost laptops and affordable housing.
What area of focus are you concentrated on?
To start with, I use something called a four quadrant. I break down all my different urgent projects into a four-quadrant matrix. Quadrant one is the absolute most important item of the day. These are the fires, those items that must get addressed immediately.
Anything that’s not generating business value, I put into a waste quadrant. For me, it’s really about solving the pressing issues that need my attention in the moment. Those are all my first quadrant items. From there, I then break that quadrant into smaller priorities that can be delegated out to my team. It’s much easier for me to then focus on the high priority items that need my attention. I also set aside time to focus on the technology development and business strategy.
As Global CIO, my number one priority is always recruiting, developing, and creating a culture of excellence. The last one is everyone’s job in the organization, but I have made it my personal goal to create a culture of excellence. Motivating and retaining highly-skilled, talented staff is always a fun challenge for me. When talking with other CIOs I often hear that security and digital transformation are top goals, but I personally think nothing can be accomplished without a strong team of competent, resilient and passionate individuals. The role of the CIO is moving so rapidly that every CIO should be working to surround themselves with the best talent and then getting out of the way to let them do what you hired them to do. The role of the CIO is going to change even more drastically by 2020.
What is your take on public, private and hybrid Cloud?
I think to be really successful a hybrid cloud strategy is key. If we were to utilize just a public cloud offering or only support a private cloud infrastructure, we’d really be losing a lot of our speed and agility, but at the same time, we’d be giving up a lot of our security and guaranteed SLAs. With a well-thought-out roadmap and strategic plan a hybrid cloud strategy gives an enterprise the best of both technologies. I think in order to be agile, yet highly-secure, a hybrid infrastructure is a must. If you’re a start up with only two employees, then running everything on AWS might not be a problem based on your industry and vertical. However, as an enterprise begins to scale, having full control over your environment and SLAs becomes more and more critical to both you and your customers.
Cloud strategy cannot be explained in one, or even five hours. It takes experience and took ACI about six months to learn the nuances. ACI transitioned approximately 15 million users from AWS proper to VMware’s Cloud (VMC) AWS product. We did all of this with zero downtime. To accomplish this, it took six months of just planning. On top of that, my team transitioned to multiple AWS infrastructures and different hypervisors internally to quality check each step of the way. A project of this magnitude required not only a ton of planning and testing but also custom API connection/ integrations. To accomplish this, we worked very closely with AWS, as they helped in creating the necessary protocols. As soon as you get down to nuts and bolts, AWS really won’t tell you, or Google for that matter, what their real compliance levels are in a granular enough fashion to satisfy some of our internal requirements. When we get audited, I would not want to be in the position of providing just AWS/GCPs pre-vetted environment audit. It’s important to me that we can show an auditor that we are thinking about how we can best secure our/customers data while still being pragmatic about our triple digit growth demands.
If I’m not going to put my own technology on there, why should I risk putting our client’s technology and everything else on public cloud environment? If one of our clients get audited, and they’re a public company, then that audit gets pushed down to ACI to satisfy and showcase our best practices and internal documentation. Even though we’re private, we are running our companies’ environment as if we were a publically traded company to satisfy these types of situations. The difference is now I am explaining our environment to not just one auditor but likely multiple auditors who are scrutinizing every decision that we’ve made. To successfully pull this off, my strategy really revolves around partnering with large cloud providers while still maintain our own compliant environment to ensure we have the correct combination of both breadth and depth.
What would be the greatest mistake that you’ve made that you’ve learned from?
I think every mistake is actually a lesson learned, and the biggest lesson I learned is that cooperation is more important than competition. I am much more focused now on partnership opportunities than ever before. I think transitioning from competing to partnering helps everyone achieve more than whatever they can accomplish individually. That’s the whole secret of one plus one equals three. I’m not going to be able to do everything so why should I pretend like I can?
If you could give guidance to any VP, manager, director about how they position their careers in IT, what would you tell them?
If you’re a VP or director or head engineering or whatever it’s going to be, I don’t think your job is going to be there for the next ten years, really. I’m trying to train all my VPs and IT directors to understand that it’s not the technology portion that makes you relevant. It’s your ability to translate that into business value. You have to literally think of yourself as a translator.
You have all this noise coming in, and your job should be to take that noise and translate it very simply into business value. If you can’t tweet the answer, it’s way too long. We’re all busy; if you can’t take a complex issue and explain it to me in 130 characters or less, then I’d argue you don’t truly understand the resolution. Of course, some problems require much more communication than that, but your abstract of the issue should be high-level and concise. If it’s not, then keep working at it until it is. Every leader is going to have to be a master communicator for the modern world. That’s one of the leading advantages we currently have differentiating us from the machines of the future.