On the eighth episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Gary Reiner, the former Chief Information Officer at General Electric joins the show to discuss why the implementation of technology must always work hand in hand with a strong business process, his perspective on packaged solutions, and the value of “lean before digitize.” During his time at GE, Gary was an early advocate for modernizing business processes by implementing SaaS applications. Today, Gary is an operating partner at General Atlantic, a leading global growth equity firm with more than 79 billion dollars of assets under management. He also sits on the boards of GA portfolio companies Atera, Devo, Evisort, JumpCloud, Pymetrics, ThreatLocker, Vast Data, and Zoomin.
Gary’s time at GE spanned several transformational periods in the history of technology. When he started in 1991, the modern internet and personal computing was still years away from being a part of most people’s everyday lives. In 1999, Gary and his team were attempting to solve a problem that all large businesses face: how to have teams collaborate and share information easily. Since this was years before Box, Dropbox, or Google Drive were around, Gary’s team had to build a tool in-house. What started out as a nascent technology initiative turned into SupportCentral, where as Gary puts it: “people could post, save files into folders that they could create and then allow permissioning in terms of what people could do with it [like] reading and editing it. We thought it'd be a fun thing for a few people to use; it ended up getting 10 million hits a day in terms of people using that technology and became totally embedded in the way in which GE employees worked and collaborated.”
While it might sound like Gary advocates that large enterprises build their own technology in-house whenever possible, his perspective is actually different. Coincidentally, after leaving GE and becoming a partner at General Atlantic, one of his first jobs was selling Box to GE which ended up supplanting SupportCentral. The broader message is even more important; packaged software solutions are easier for large enterprises to get up and running instead of using something developed in-house. “The economics of a packaged solution, assuming it meets the bulk of your needs, is going to be dramatically better than having built something just for yourself, where you have to maintain it. And all of the cost of it has to be incurred by the company.” To that end, Gary is a big believer in packaged software from both the vendor and customer perspectives, as a neatly symbiotic relationship exists: “The needs of so many different companies are common. And because they're common, you can have a very horizontal approach to delivering software as a vendor. And as a customer, you can get the value of those economics, because you're basically sharing the cost of having developed those economics with a whole bunch of other customers that have common needs to you.”
As an example, when Gary recalls implementing Salesforce, a packaged CRM solution, the impetus was specifically because it was not built in-house, and therefore could not be customized. Prior CRM tools were being tinkered with, driving up costs, and ultimately not serving the business interests of GE. Oftentimes, technology can get in the way when the technology itself is the center of gravity rather than having the technology helping achieve business outcomes.
With Gary’s career now spanning both sides of the boardroom, he’s found the winning strategy to be when technology deployments are helping to support business frameworks. He goes back to a maxim from his GE days, “lean before digitize,” that he’s carried with him ever since. Ironing out business processes is absolutely essential before delving into the technology side of things. As IT leaders, it can be tempting to jump at every opportunity to engage with cutting edge tech. The problem arises when the business goals are not aligned to the technology. As he recalls, “We had tried to just take the technology that was there and support an unimproved process and an unstreamlined process, it was a failure all the time. It was over budget, it was beyond schedule and it was a disaster.” It’s a refrain we’ve heard from past ESI guests as well, that technology is there to support a business outcome; it has no value in the abstract. Gary doesn’t mince words when he says that “the best companies in the world are the ones that have figured out ways to have the best processes, spending the least amount on technology, because the purpose of technology is to have great business processes.”