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.
Like many enterprise CIOs we’ve interviewed, Alvina shared the importance of data decentralization, especially at a high-growth organization like Okta: "data and insights at the speed of the business is huge for us.” Having the data is one thing; knowing what to do with the data and having it accessible to teams across the company is another endeavor entirely, and much of her focus since joining the company has been around ensuring the business can do more with its data. Alvina and her team are helping position Okta accordingly: “[we are] accelerating our self-service capabilities and democratizing data for every employee…And we've had a huge focus on product telemetry and usage.” Because Okta is a subscription business, the data and insights from its customers are incredibly valuable, enabling them to ensure every customer is getting the most from their product offerings.
The traditional structure of IT teams has been that of a service organization serving the technology needs of the broader company. Alvina describes a new operating model she’s enacted where her team now operates as a product organization. Rather than being pressured with out-of-context dates and deadlines from elsewhere at the company, Alvina describes the mindset required by her team: “We need to have [an] 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 won’t meet and lose credibility, or we deliver a half-assed solution with poor design and poor implementation that ultimately creates so much debt that you have to create another program after you deliver because you felt pressured to commit to the original timeline that it wasn't even your date to begin with.” With a product-led operating model, Alvina and her team are strategic partners to the rest of the business, with end-to-end business capabilities, more transparency, and better velocity for delivery. The result is enhanced clarity on how her team can best serve Okta’s internal customers.
To transform an IT team into a product org, one of the most important elements is clearly defining which products the team is serving along with the connective tissue between those products and other areas of the business. Additionally, product owners must be defined as well, as it enables a more streamlined approach to support business outcomes. Because so many product areas have multiple interdependencies, a single product owner helps drive more autonomy and ultimately a more iterative delivery process. Alvina also describes a product operating model as providing a more effective approach to feedback from external stakeholders: “...we want the feedback to get better and stronger. We also want to build trust so our business isn't thinking, ‘what are these people doing?’ [We want] a partnership where feedback is provided to collectively get stronger and there's joint accountability of getting stronger. It's not about pointing fingers; this is a product operating model where the business has joint accountability within that function and the level of collaboration and joint accountability is huge.”
Zoomed out, the product operating model Alvina has put in place at Okta has enabled the team to be a higher-impact partner to the rest of the business, while increasing transparency and clarity. She notes that while velocity for delivery is one of the biggest challenges for IT teams, transparency is also a priority. The product operating model provides a better framework for providing insight into how her team functions: “One of the biggest challenges is transparency. People know that we're busy, but there is a lack of clarity about 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 team accountable for delivering against those commitments.”
Alvina’s insights are an important reminder that CIOs today must be as attuned to the operating frameworks of their teams as much as the technology initiatives they lead. While there can be growing pains, the results come in the form of better deliverables and increased trust within the organization.