On the 14th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, hosts Evan Reiser (Abnormal Security) and Saam Motamedi (Greylock Partners) talk with Alvina Antar, Chief Information Officer at Okta. Okta is a leading workforce identity provider and helps some of the world’s largest companies connect people and technology in a secure environment. Today, Alvina shares her perspective on the importance of data decentralization and her insights on best practices for product-led technology organizations.
Quick hits from Alvina:
On the importance of data availability: “Data and insights at the speed of the business is huge for us. [With Okta] being a high-growth organization, we’re positioning ourselves to accelerate our self-service capabilities and democratize data for every employee. That means not just having the enterprise data capabilities within business technology, but being able to make that data accessible to everyone [in the organization].”
On Okta’s IT organizational structure: “A lot of times as a business technology or IT function we get challenged with dates..the business says ‘you know, I need this at the beginning of the fiscal year, it's required.’ And the dates are already given to us before we've even assessed the scope, let alone understand what's gonna take to actually deliver…We operate as a product and engineering organization for the company that's running our business. And so just as product and engineering isn't pressured [since] they're the experts of the technology that they're delivering to sell, we should have that same mindset and that is why myself and many of my peers are embracing this new product operating model, [because] it's not just a name change. You don't just move people and move their titles. It's a mind-shift in thinking of operating as a product organization.”
On how startups can best pitch themselves: “The startups I spend the most time with are those that take the time to understand my strategies and how their product can help me be successful. And so they're not just pitching their product in their generic way but they actually understand the challenges that I'm facing and share stories - not at the surface level but at a level that would relate to me and to my team.”
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Evan Reiser: Hi there, and welcome to Enterprise Software Innovators, a show where top technology executives share how they innovate and scale. In each episode, enterprise leaders share how they're driving digital transformation and what they've learned along the way. I'm Evan Reiser, the CEO and founder of Abnormal Security.
Saam Motamedi: I'm Saam Motamedi a general partner at Greylock Partners.
Evan: Today on the show, we're bringing you a conversation with Alvina Antar, Chief Information Officer in Okta. Okta helps enterprises understand the identity of their customers to create optimized digital experiences, and simultaneously helps them understand the identity of their workforce to protect software applications. In this conversation, Alvina shares her perspective on data decentralization and the best practices for product led technology organizations.
Well, cool, Alvina, thank you so much for taking time to chat with us. Super excited for you to join us for a bunch of reasons, which we'll go into, but yes, thank you so much.
Alvina Antar: Thank you.
Evan: Maybe just to start, can you give our listeners a brief overview of your role at Okta?
Alvina: Yes. I'm CIO at Okta, I've been at Okta for just over two years now, and I lead a business technology organization, which is, really truly positioned to drive and enable people, process, technology and data for the enterprise. Being a high growth company like Okta, there's a ton of process technology and data with people at the center, and that's what we're focused on.
Evan: We are a happy Okta customer and one of the reasons why, usually important for us is because usually we have more and more employees using more SaaS applications and we're trying to digitize. We're going through our own digital transformation, trying to get all these business processes encoded into software. There's probably some version for that for you guys as well, and you can share about, like, how you help elevate and accelerate the business to make sure, again, people aren't stuck in the status quo.
Alvina: Data and insights at the speed of the business is huge for us, especially being a high growth organization, there's not enough data, and really being able to be in a position to accelerate our self-service capabilities and democratize data for every employee, not just having the enterprise data capabilities within business technology, but being able to make that data accessible to everyone.
We've had a huge, huge focus on product telemetry and usage, especially being a subscription business, being able to have deep insights in at the feature level of usage of your products to ensure, one of our top values is loving our customers. Well, if we don't know how our customers are using our products and features to be able to have meaningful relationships and really make sure that they're wildly successful using our capabilities, then we're not doing our job, so the data is key to that.
Evan: We've recorded dozens of these episodes, probably like the most used phrase is digital transformation, probably the second one is probably democratization of data, right? I was curious, like, are there any specific anecdotes you can share about how you guys have done that and like the impact that was able to create or maybe how you enabled Okta to do something that couldn't naturally have happened with kind of like the default path.
Alvina: It is the new buzz phrase, but it's so necessary, right? Without data, how can we truly make decisions without trusted data? We have too much data, we don't even know what to do with the data.
Evan: That's right, yes.
Alvina: Let alone, making that data transparent and available to everyone and making sure that you actually understand what the definitions are and that you're consistent when you're in go to market versus finance.
Alvina: Making sure that there's consistency in what these definitions are, and so there's been a lot of effort being placed on building a data catalog and really driving governance of data definitions, through a centralized application that we've built, which we call Compass, which maintains this catalog of data that's available to everyone in the organization.
Evan: I mean when we talk about data, it’s called cross-functional data, where you're looking at CRM, ERP, everything coming together and that's the luxurious problem that probably this generation of companies have that maybe didn't exist 20 years ago where a lot of the data was siloed into different functions and each team did their own thing.
It sounds like what you're saying, which I totally agree with, is now there's opportunity to bring all this stuff together and that can yield insights and opportunities to the business. To help us, be smarter and ultimately more effective that maybe didn't exist in the past. Is that how you see, one of the opportunities for IT leaders is to take leadership in this kind of cross-functional, both arrogation and the distribution of the data and insights?
Alvina: 100%. We talk about product data. It's ingesting product data and then making that product data along with the enterprise business data readily accessible. What good is the product data if it doesn't tie to the accounts and all the business data in the enterprise, and so that is a huge, huge opportunity.
Evan: Are there any, like, tactical best practices that you would recommend to help drive innovation and help people challenge the status quo, like how you think about designing the cadence or how you themes and your one on ones, like anything tactical like, put in my CIO playbook?
Alvina: Well, what I would say, okay, and I have to remind myself of this every day and my entire team is that, a lot of the times as a business technology or IT function, we get challenged with dates, the business is like, I need this and I need it.
Alvina: In Q1, I need this at the beginning of the fiscal year, it's required, and the dates are already given to us before we've even assessed the scope, let alone understand what it's going to take to actually deliver. We need to have inner confidence, that we are the technology experts within the organization and that is our job.
We shouldn't feel pressured to commit to unrealistic timelines that we're either not going to meet and fail miserably and lose credibility immediately because we've committed out of pressure and didn't deliver, or we deliver a half-assed solution with poor design and poor implementation that ultimately creates so much debt that you're needing to have to create another program after you deliver because you felt pressured to commit to the original timeline that wasn't even your date to begin with.
That is honestly one of the biggest challenges is like if we're truly a strategic partner, you tell us what your vision is and what your strategies are, we will as the engineering and that's why we've adopted this product operating model. We operate as a product organization, we are a product and engineering organization as the internal product and engineering organization for the company that's running our business.
Evan: I like that.
Alvina: Just as product and engineering isn't pressured, R&D isn't pressured. They're the experts of the technology that they're delivering to sell to your customers. We should have that same mindset and that is why myself and many of our peers are embracing this new product operating. It's not just a name change. You don't just move people, move their titles. It's a mind shift in thinking of operating as product organizations with end to end business capabilities. A product is an opportunity to order, that's considered a product order to cash. That's a product and delivering those products are serving your business.
Evan: Yes, that's a really cool mindset. Like I've heard different versions of this, but thinking about, like, technical optimization of business processes, like we're delivering a product. Those products are increasingly, more consumerized, that's going to be the experience that people expect in this digital world.
You're right, it's more than just like the name and the mindset. Is also probably some practical operating things that you do in terms of how you intake business needs or communicate your product launches. I'm building my CIO playbook here, right? Like any advice for me if I wanted to go create that product organization. How does that work? Or any best practices you'd share about specific things I could be doing to help go enable the business, I guess?
Alvina: Yes, so I would say, first off, define the products that you're serving. Define every product and then define those things within your product operating model that span the products. Like, so data, spans, architecture, spans all products. The overall architecture for your operating model to find those products and then the hardest part is defining product owners and business owners.
A single person. Not 50 people, but one business owner that represents the business that can partner with your product owner to ultimately support the overall priorities for that product area. The product areas have interdependencies, and so does RND. You can't necessarily, for instance, you can't deliver an overall CPQ reimplementation, for instance, which many of us work on.
Evan: Been there.
Alvina: Without thinking about multiple products that span the product area. As long as you've identified the product owner and the business owner across each of those individual product areas, you then bring in all product owners that span the program that have interdependencies that can then deliver against those priorities.
Evan: And imagining it really clear then about, who's the customer? What's the problem we're trying to solve? How can we help? Somebody you said, that puts almost onus on your organization to do the innovation. Rather than people saying, "Hey, here's exactly what I need." Where you could risk evolving to a service organization, so I really like this product-centric mindset in the organization philosophy.
Alvina: Yes, and then the way that you deliver is through these strong teams that are ultimately able to be autonomous, and to be able have iterative delivery to the business. It ultimately increases the velocity of your organization and helps improve just quality of delivery, helps improve-- One of the biggest challenges also is transparency. A lot of people know that we're busy. We've got a lot to do, but there is a lack of clarity around what we're doing.
This operating model allows for transparency because you have a one snapshot dashboard view of what that product area is focused on, and holding that product team accountable for delivering against those commitments. Just as an engineering organization would be accountable. That level of transparency and accountability is huge, and why this operating model is so critical is that one of the biggest challenges for IT organizations is velocity of delivery. Being able to increase the velocity is a huge area of focus for all of us.
Evan: When you said doctors didn’t like the product road map, right?
Evan: Do you find that when your internal customers have more visibility into that, maybe some benefits around accountability. I do find it also drives more empathy where it's like, wow, these things are super happy working on those, not like priority 20, CBQ optimization.
Alvina: 100%. Not only does it help with empathy, although we do have thick skin. Every technologist does, which I think is important because we actually want the feedback.
Alvina: We want the feedback to get better and stronger, and so we want to build trust to where our business isn't just thinking, "What the hell are these people doing?" They're also able to have a strong partnership to where the feedback is provided to allow us to collectively get stronger, and that there's joint accountability of getting stronger. It's not pointing fingers. This is a product operating model where the business has joint accountability within that function. The level of collaboration and joint accountability is huge.
We've committed to delivery within that quarter. We've committed to our scope, but then project X shows up, and is now the most urgent thing. How do you determine what's going to win? Is it because the most senior person shared that this is a top priority, and now everyone's jumping to figure out how to consume without really being able to determine how to manage the existing capacity? That view allows you to say, "Okay. I don't care who it is. Who's asking? This is my scope. This is what I've committed to. If this program is a higher priority, tell me what's going to give."
Evan: Exactly. Yes.
Alvina: Obviously we have expert skills within certain areas. We have financial expertise, we have go to market expertise, we have people expertise, people tech expertise, we have integration expertise, so we know the expertise within the product area. When the new project comes in and flies in, disrupts and creates all chaos, we know what product area and the stack rank of the scope within that product area, and can have a really clear conversation around tell me what's going to give so that we don't disrupt the team.
Evan: Yes. I love that because that actually creates a really productive dynamic. If you're talking to an internal customer, here's why this new thing is really important. It's like, I was talking about the trade-offs, what swaps and how do we best go deliver to help you as a customer. I really like that. One thing I like to do is do a bit of lighting rounds. Maybe do like five or six of these lightning round questions so you can give us some quick takes.
First question, I'm going to turn it over to you like, how do you think companies should measure success of the CIO?
Alvina: The success of a CIO is whether that CIO is delivering against the top most company strategies. Is their team truly enabling the business strategies? The top most business strategies. That's the measurement of success for this organization.
Evan: I love that. That's nice and short and sweet.
Saam: What's the most common mistake you see new CIO's or IT organizations make?
Alvina: The biggest mistake is that many leaders who have been around for a long time continue to operate as a service organization. We say we're strategic, but you end up going to the norm because your corporate IT function is operating as a service function and measured on the success of employee success which is a huge, huge aspect to our role not going back to this service operating model. That's just not going to fly. It's a recipe for failure.
Evan: Yes, I like that.
Saam: Alvina, we have a number of start-up founders who listen to the show and I'm curious, what advice would you have for new start-ups who are looking to partner with a company like Okta?
Alvina: Those start-ups that I spend the most time with are those that understand my strategies. That takes the time to understand my strategies and how they and their product can help me be successful. They're not just pitching their product in their generic way, but they actually understand the challenges that I'm facing and share stories. It's the most beautiful thing. It's sharing a story that is so compelling. Not at the surface level again, but at a level that would relate to me and to my team that would allow us to want to partner, and want to make the time, and want to invest.
I feel as though, especially in our role, we should be helping push these start-up's products. Not just our own product as the voice of the customer, but a lot of the start-ups that we partner with, we like to give them our own input into the product strategy. Not just for ourselves, but for their customers. As we're a voice to many of the CIO's that they look to sell to, and so it's definitely a win-win for us.
Saam: That's such powerful advice. I really appreciate you sharing that.
Evan: Any recent book you've read that's had an impact on you personally or your work?
Alvina: I have to say Freddie's book. I don't know if you've read Freddie's book.
Evan: It's sitting right here. I'm getting started.
Alvina: Zero to IPO. You got to get a copy of that. Then the other is actually Shellye who's on our board wrote a book, Unapologetically Ambitious, that is so inspiring and so powerful. Those vulnerable stories are those that inspire us all to know that we can achieve anything that we put our mind to, and those are two that I would recommend.
Evan: Those are great.
Saam: Yes. Alvina, this has been such an awesome conversation. Maybe one last question. More personally speaking, what's a new or emerging technology that you're personally super excited about?
Alvina: We haven't spent enough time focusing on machine learning. That is an area that is a huge opportunity. We talked a lot about data and the overall data strategy, but we have so much data. I feel as though there's just a huge, huge opportunity for us to build intelligence. A lot of the products that we deliver actually have intelligence in terms of thread insights, for instance. More opportunities for us to have intelligence to be able to predict threats, especially being an identity company. I feel as though there's just a huge opportunity for us to further invest, and as an organization, we haven't invested enough.
Evan: That's great, and I feel the exact same way. I just feel like we're just really just getting started in the world with AI, and it's going to have a profound impact in the world. I'm excited to see what would happen. We'll do, like, a reunion call in five years, and we'll see how the world's changed.
Saam: Alvina, that was an awesome conversation. I'm excited for our listeners to hear it, and thank you for joining us.
Alvina: Thanks for having me, Saam. I loved every minute. Thank you, Evan.
Evan: Thank you. That was Alvina Antar, Chief Information Officer at Okta.
Saam: Thanks for listening to the Enterprise Software Innovators Podcast. I'm Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners.
Evan: I'm Evan Reiser, the CEO and founder of Abnormal Security. Please be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. You can find more great lessons from technology leaders and other enterprise software experts at enterprisesoftware.blog.
Saam: This show is produced by Luke Reiser and Josh Meer. See you next time.