Inside track: Chris Bedi on his evolving CIO role at ServiceNow

What’s in a name? For Chris Bedi, who joined ServiceNow as CIO in September 2015, a lot: the company recently gave him a new title, chief digital information officer, and rebranded his IT team as “digital technology.”

“The rebranding is an acknowledgement of how the role has changed,” he says, but is also intended to reinforce various mindsets that he wants the whole team to adopt.

When Bedi joined the company, his primary mission was to enable “scale-for-growth.” Back then, he says, the company had around 2,800 employees, a quarter of the headcount today, and was still seen as an IT solutions company as its other workflow management products hadn’t yet taken off.

His role included the familiar responsibilities for IT infrastructure, network connectivity, cybersecurity, delivering collaboration and communication tools for existing staff, and provisioning them for new employees so they have what they need to be productive from day one.

Another big component of the job back then, he says, was keeping the information needed to run the business “at our fingertips.” These analytics tools were basic apps, but not trivial, he says.

AI and machine learning were only just beginning to creep into discussion of analytics in 2015, and the ServiceNow team devoted to the technology was tiny.

“At the time, we had a team of three people focused on AI and ML who were largely — this is 2015, you have to remember — just running experiments on AI and ML,” Bedi says. “Nobody knew what the heck to do with it; nobody had really bought into it. But these were data scientists tinkering with data, producing some insights.”

That’s changed in the intervening years, of course.

Digital brain

One milestone for the analytics organization came in late 2018, with a shift in focus away from dashboards and KPIs and toward becoming a digital brain. “We toyed around with the name: digital brain, central nervous system — for the organization,” he says. “We said our mission should become making sure anything that has a rating, recommendation or forecast in our organization is enabled by an AI and ML recommendation.”

That mission soon evolved again, into helping every persona make more effective decisions, and now results in over 3 million recommendations per day, he says. “Surfacing AI and ML recommendations is great, but unless we’re also prescriptive in terms of the actions we want people to take, and give them a closed loop, a human in the loop, to tell us whether those suggestions were useful, we’re missing the mark.”

The way the analytics team analyses its own performance has also evolved, from a count of monthly active users of the analytics products to a focus on their satisfaction with the recommendations they are receiving. “It has to be, ‘What’s the percentage of actions recommended versus actions taken?’ That was a big shift,” he says.

Bedi’s responsibilities have grown in other ways too. While his team isn’t responsible for the Now Platform infrastructure on which the company’s SaaS offering runs, it does maintain the Now Learning training platform and  ServiceNow Impact, a customer success app for helping clients track their digital transformations.

Cybersecurity is no longer just about protecting corporate IT infrastructure, but also the company’s revenue-generating cloud, and even ensuring that customers are using the company’s services securely to mitigate reputational risk.

And scaling the company has moved from simply supporting more employees to getting the most from existing staff. “The purpose of this is to drive an incredible employee experience that helps our employees be more engaged and productive,” he says. “If I zoom out, the role has evolved from largely internal, scale and risk mitigation, to very externally focused, critical to driving our strategy, critical to driving growth, and looked at as a lot more strategic than in 2015.”

Embracing citizen developers

Bedi says he’s a voracious reader, but also has a strong bias for action when it comes to picking up new skills. “Let’s go do it and figure it out as we go,” he says. “People use the term ‘fail fast’ but I like the term ‘learn fast’ better.”

That was his approach when it came to the adoption of low-code development tools internally at ServiceNow.

“We were having one of those debates with no finish line around citizen development,” he says. Those in favor wanted to see the benefits right away; those against feared an accumulation of technology debt in the organization.

In situations like these, he says, there are three choices as CIOs. “You can try to block it — but you’re never going to win that battle,” he says. “You can ignore it. That’s what you’re doing today, whether you know it or not, because people are out there already with point solutions. The only logical choice left, and this is a conversation I had with my team, is to embrace it. So, we embraced it.”

ServiceNow’s employees have embraced it too, with over 400 of them active as citizen developers, 100 applications in service, and another 100 applications due to go live in the next couple of months, Bedi says.

As progress gains momentum, he has some advice for other CIOs getting ready to embrace citizen development in their enterprise. First, he says, keep governance lightweight yet sufficient. One way to do this is to provide trusted data sets for things citizen developers are sure to want, which must be done properly to avoid things breaking — something like an organization hierarchy and an employee directory for apps involving approvals, for example, or a cost-center hierarchy for anything involving spending.

Second, he says, avoid discouraging new developers by limiting the reasons for refusal of a project: no duplicate apps (although replacing an app with a better one is allowed); no getting in over your head (so if an interesting idea looks likely to be too complex for the citizen developer, his team members may step in to help); and no handling of overly sensitive data (but if the idea is good, his team may take on the project).

His third recommendation is to make it easy for people to get started. His team did this by providing an introductory class — “It was short enough where people wouldn’t be discouraged,” he says — and holding office hours where citizen developers can call in for help.

Finally, he advises, amplify success by celebrating the citizen developers’ applications. “I have a selfish interest in this program taking off,” he says, “because they’re helping with one of my core missions: digitize the enterprise.”

If citizen development is handled correctly, and if CIOs, CDIOs, and CTOs can embrace all these people, Bedi says, then we can do away with the term shadow IT and its negative connotations.

And perhaps this will help with another problem he and CIOs like him face: the shortage of skilled software developers. “I can never get enough of them,” Bedi says.

Analytics, Application Management, Artificial Intelligence, CIO, Digital Transformation, IT Skills, Machine Learning