Modernizing Infrastructure at the American Cancer Society
A Q&A with Jay Ferro
Jay Ferro is CIO for the American Cancer Society, a role he’s held since 2012. Ferro was named a Premier 100 IT leader by Computerworld in 2015. In 2007 he founded the nonprofit group Priscilla’s Promise in honor of his late wife, who died from cancer. Priscilla’s Promise, for which Ferro serves as the executive director, raises funds for cervical cancer education and research.
Tell us about the key business initiatives you are leading at the American Cancer Society right now.
Ferro: When I joined the organization three years ago it was a time of big change. The company was made up of 12 independent divisions, but they had voted to become one global organization. ACS had 13 different ways to do things, if you include headquarters, which meant 13 sets of tools and processes. The first 18 to 24 months were spent stabilizing the architecture and rationalizing the technologies. We moved from 600 applications to less than 200, and have modernized dozens of legacy applications. Now that we’re unified, using one set of technologies and processes, we can be more agile and responsive to market opportunities. That’s making a real difference in our ability to execute fundraising and research. Moving forward, our focus is to continue to take advantage of the “newer” forces of technology—social, mobile, analytics (big data) and cloud. I am especially excited about mobile-enabled technology. If CIOs aren’t taking a “mobile first” approach, then they’re already way behind. We must engage with our constituents on their terms, not ours.
From an internal operations perspective, a majority of our staff is not here in Atlanta. They’re in our communities meeting with constituents, partners, health systems, and donors. The last thing I need to do is to saddle them with old technology that is tough to deal with, so we’re doing our best to provide them with mobile enabled, platform agnostic, and data driven tools. BYOD has been a huge success, but there’s much more to come.
How has infrastructure adapted to support those goals and projects?
Ferro: The overall simplification, standardization and optimization of our infrastructure environments is a huge push for us. Virtualization and cloud technology have both been a big part of that strategy. We used to be in the low teens for virtualization and now we’re around 77 percent. That’s giving us a great deal more flexibility, performance and cost savings. Also, with connectivity being as fast and inexpensive as it is in 2015, I don’t need server infrastructure in hundreds of small locations, just a robust Internet connection. When I joined ACS we had data centers and small closets of equipment across hundreds of sites. Within the next year, we’ll have just three primary data centers. The savings recognized from reducing our infrastructure footprint is better spent elsewhere.
We’ve taken big steps to leverage cloud technology as well. We started years ago where most organizations do: HR and payroll. Since then we’ve moved entirely to Office 365 for e-mail, collaboration, chat and enterprise social technologies. Our research organization is expanding its capabilities with Microsoft Azure, which gives us much greater flexibility and scale. The goal is to make commodity technologies truly commodity, which means we can spend more time moving the needle on what’s really important: battling cancer.
What has helped you make this change so fast?
Ferro: I’m fortunate to have consistent support at the top. My CEO is a big advocate of building a progressive IT organization, and in spending less time on keeping the lights on and more time on value-added technology. When it came to making the tough decisions, he was right by my side. I also have a level of peer support that is really unprecedented. Prior to the changes, people weren’t satisfied with the level of service IT was providing, so we did have that as a lever. But it hasn’t been all sunshine. Certainly, there have been conflicts around which application or version to use and some complaints about the aggressive nature of the timeline. But once we laid out the economics, there really was little argument. We always take a factual, business-focused approach to the decisions. We’ve also been very honest and transparent about where we’ve screwed up and, more importantly, what we’re actively doing to correct it. I believe that transparency fosters trust.
What is your organization’s view on IT transformation and modern infrastructure management?
Ferro: Generally we are very open to exploring trends such as converged infrastructure, software defined data centers and public cloud. We think there are huge plays in cloud-based apps and infrastructure, which is reflected in our investment decisions. My barometer has been that if someone else can do it faster, better, and more securely than I can, I want to have a conversation. If I can spend less time managing the commodity and more time on our mission, that’s valuable. We are not an IT company. We are also mindful of costs as a nonprofit. Though we’re moving very quickly, I would say we are a fast follower rather than bleeding edge. For our culture and environment, it’s the best approach.
What are the most important strategies or tools that you have today to be more efficient in IT ops and infrastructure?
Ferro: We are dipping our toes into the self-correcting tools, although we are still more manual than we need to be. The reality is that CIOs are no longer measured by the number of “blinking lights” in the data center. All CIOs want a seat at the table, but it’s got to be around business outcomes, not by technology. I never go into a senior executive meeting and start up the discussion with technology. For CIOs, it’s critical to automate as much as possible, so you can move up to a higher class of problem. If you are wrestling with manual QA, manual coding for every change and manual provisioning, you’re leaving money on the table. CIOs are business leaders first, technology leader second. Like other companies, our organization is trying to create value, and my job is to enable that.
How do you work with leadership at the American Cancer Society to set and direct initiatives?
Ferro: I do this in a few ways. First, we have formal meetings with senior executives which are very important. The repetition of those meetings helps manage expectations and communicate that IT is moving forward. We also do surveys where we have terrific participation from across the organization that helps us map out where we can improve. I ask my colleagues to not hold back in the critique. More informally, I’m often picking up the phone. I have close collaboration with many peers such as our CMO. We share goals and we share resources. If I am always accessible and respond quickly and I’m inclusive, it builds trust. It’s also about maintaining a continual improvement mindset. We have set the bar quite high and that is how we delight our customers, whether they are internal staff, volunteers and donors, or the general public.
Lastly, the IT organization is truly involved with the mission of the organization. In terms of contributing to the effort to raise money and awareness, the IT Relay for Life team was 20th among 150,000 teams at the American Cancer Society. We had 90 percent participation and other than the benefit of the dollars raised, we learned a ton about one of our largest fundraising programs.