Fletcher Previn: “Technology is on the front lines of this crisis”
In the fourth of a series of interviews with chief technology officers of the world’s leading technology companies, Robert Scammell hears from IBM CIO Fletcher Previn about learning from the pandemic, the promise of quantum computing and robotic lawn mowers
As chief information officer at IBM, Fletcher Previn is responsible for spearheading the tech giant’s sprawling IT objectives. While IBM has chief technology officers for its various divisions, such as financial services, it does not have a global CTO. Instead the role of global CIO and CTO have been combined into the position filled by Previn.
In that role, Previn leads a team of over 12,000 employees. That team – essentially a centralised IT department – is tasked with improving user experience and providing a secure global IT network for 350,000 IBM employees spread around the world.
Previn, son of Hollywood actor Mia Farrow, has been at IBM for 14 years and in the role of CIO for three years. During that time, he has introduced a number of initiatives, including a drive to embed design into operations – also known as DesOps.
In this Q&A Previn discusses the pandemic’s impact on the future of work, the importance of cloud and being an intern on the David Letterman Show.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
As long as I can remember I have loved working with technology. When I was 12 I remember buying the parts to assemble my first PC and spending weeks tinkering with the operating system. After graduating from college, I moved out to the west coast and worked as a systems administrator, then an engineer, and eventually moved into a leadership position.
After joining IBM, I had the good fortune to serve as chief of staff to the then CIO. That experience really gave me a broader view across all of IBM and a better understanding of how the business operates, and, in hindsight, helped prepare me for my current role.
Prior to being named CIO, I served as the vice president of workplace as a service, where my focus was on modernising the IBM employee experience and focusing on user experience/design-led IT. Among other projects, I made it possible for IBM employees to have choice between Apple macOS, Windows PC or Linux, and focused on simplifying all aspects of an IBM employee’s digital life.
“While this pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, technology is on the front lines of this crisis.”
What's the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
While this pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, technology is on the front lines of this crisis, and as technology leaders we have a huge responsibility to help navigate our respective companies through this crisis.
It will be some time before we have the full benefit of hindsight and can realise all the learnings from the Covid-19 pandemic. What we can say with certainty is that we are learning a lot and that this experience will have lasting effects on how we work.
“It’s unlikely we’ll just return to the way things were. With a better appreciation of unique job roles in different environments, we’ll know which technologies will deliver the benefits of working alongside bright people who aren’t in the same building.”
We are learning in real time how to optimise workflows, technology, and ways of working to support remote work. As we do that, we are learning what types of roles are enhanced or diminished by working remotely.
After the pandemic ends, we will have a better understanding of which work will benefit from being in the office and which jobs can be effectively performed remotely. It’s unlikely we’ll just return to the way things were. With a better appreciation of unique job roles in different environments, we’ll know which technologies will deliver the benefits of working alongside bright people who aren’t in the same building.
In terms of technology:
Cloud provides scalability, redundancy, and resiliency that is critical in shifting to support new ways of working. This is especially true when applications are properly architected to leverage the full advantage of cloud. Hybrid cloud allows to take advantage of the control plane of public cloud while maintaining agency over our data.
The ability for us to leverage AI to reason over large data sets and assist humans in making better decisions is going to completely change every aspect of our work lives and our personal lives in a positive way.
We’re using IBM’s Watson to help us leverage large data sets such as helping our help desk agents quickly find resolutions to common IT problems, improving search effectiveness of our employee Internet as well as more intelligently managing our employee device refresh programme – replacing hardware based on performance rather than age of machine, and being able to accurately predict hardware failures before they occur.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
We have standardised on Red Hat OpenShift as our modern data centre operating system. That allows us to fully leverage the benefits of containerised, scalable cloud platforms, whether public, private, or hybrid. As well, AI is solving problems that were previously unsolvable, and is unlocking new insights for better decision making. It’s also enhancing our defensive cyber capabilities, and virtually all areas of the IT portfolio.
Longer term, quantum computing will augment traditional computing to make it possible to discover new drug therapies, optimise logistics and supply chains, and dramatically change the security landscape.
How do you separate hype from disruptor?
Ultimately it’s not about technology for technology’s sake – you’re solving a business problem. Having good discipline around ensuring that a given business case can withstand pressure testing is very helpful in making sure the technology is real and ready for business.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?
Figure out what you love to do, then find someone to pay you to do it. If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
My family’s background is in entertainment and growing up I thought I very well might also go into the entertainment business. I worked as an intern at the David Letterman show as well as the Conan O’Brien Show, and also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on movie sets growing up.
“Eventually I had to accept that what I love to do isn’t entertainment, it’s working in tech.”
I recall being more interested in the IT systems than who the guest was going to be that day. Eventually I had to accept that what I love to do isn’t entertainment, it’s working in tech. So, when I graduated from college, I moved out to the west coast in California and got my first job in Silicon Valley.
What does a typical day look like for you?
One of the best parts of my job is that there isn’t really any such thing as a typical day. Every day brings new challenges, new excitement, new technological advances. That’s one of the best aspects of working in technology – it’s constantly changing.
“I’m embarrassed to say that my hobby is also my profession.”
What do you do to relax?
I’m embarrassed to say that my hobby is also my profession. Other than spending time with my family, you can find me at home tinkering with some piece of technology, reading a technical manual, or fixing the boundary wire on my robotic lawn mower.
Who is your tech hero?
It’s difficult to select any one person – I’d have to say it’s a tie between Alan Turing for his patriotic work in WWII to break the “unbreakable” code of the Enigma machine and Robert Metcalfe for laying the groundwork for modern networking that today powers the Internet and so much of our modern world.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
The greatest challenge ahead is ensuring that technology is used ethically and responsibly. Our technological capabilities have advanced more rapidly than anyone anticipated, and in many cases ahead of governments’ ability to fully understand the ramifications.
“Our technological capabilities have advanced more rapidly than anyone anticipated”
Making sure that our democracy, freedoms, and privacy is protected by technology rather than enslaved by it, and ensuring that AI is inclusive and fair is critically important.
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