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Balancing Growth with Sustainability and Security in AI

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Khushbu Raval
Khushbu Raval
Khushbu is a Senior Correspondent and a content strategist with a special foray into DataTech and MarTech. She has been a keen researcher in the tech domain and is responsible for strategizing the social media scripts to optimize the collateral creation process.

Explore insights from Sharon Mandell, CIO at Juniper Networks, on the vital balance between technical expertise and soft skills in IT leadership, aligning IT initiatives with business goals and key priorities for technology leaders.

Sharon Mandell, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Juniper Networks, is a tech leader renowned for emphasizing communication and empathy in IT roles. In this insightful interview, Mandell shares her strategies for balancing technical proficiency with soft skills, which is crucial for effective leadership in today’s IT landscape. 

She discusses aligning IT initiatives with business objectives, fostering innovation, and maximizing technology investments to drive Juniper Networks’ success. Additionally, Mandell offers valuable advice on leadership principles, collaboration, and key priorities for technology leaders in 2024, emphasizing the operationalization of generative AI and addressing evolving security concerns. 

Excerpts from the interview;

You’ve emphasized the importance of communication and empathy in IT roles. How do you balance technical competency with these soft skills?

To balance technical competency with soft skills like communication and empathy in IT roles, IT leaders must adopt a holistic approach to training and development. One of the biggest mistakes I often see IT leaders make is putting too much focus on the technical competencies because that’s what they believe they need to get today’s job done, and forgetting about the softer but equally important skills such as communicating effectively or understanding the needs of the business.

Focusing solely on technical skills neglects the crucial aspect of interpersonal relationships and understanding stakeholders’ requirements. If you can’t communicate with and influence both the people on your team and the stakeholders you work with, you’re not likely to produce solutions that work for everybody. A better approach is ensuring you’re doing some of both, developing technical and complementary core skills (soft skills). The practice of these skills is often more important than the explicit training.

The tech skills will almost always be practiced through some project or day-to-day operations. Still, as a leader, you often have to create opportunities to practice with others, perhaps through presentations to leadership and peers. When you build strong teams in both areas, you’re not just solving problems for today; you’re setting up your organization for success. It’s all about finding that balance and not letting the urgent stuff overshadow your long-term strategy.

Also Read: Beyond Net Neutrality: Why a Free Market Approach Benefits Consumers

As a CIO, you’re responsible for optimizing IT resources. How do you balance infrastructure, people, and processes to ensure efficiency and innovation within Juniper Networks?

The primary challenge lies in steadfastly focusing on the most critical and strategic initiatives, refraining from pursuing every enticing opportunity. Each proposal undergoes meticulous scrutiny, considering supply and cost dynamics to ensure alignment with organizational strategic objectives and drive essential efficiencies. The key in this rapidly evolving technological landscape is to balance innovation and cost-conscious decisions. Juniper’s unwavering dedication to prudent spending enables us to navigate challenges effectively, fostering sustained organizational growth and success. 

First, you must see what you are spending and where it’s going. We use the Technology Business Management (TBM) framework to get that visibility. From there, we can understand relevant ratios of spend, infra to apps, across what functions and processes, etc., and then make deliberate allocations of resources, directing investments toward paramount priorities rather than every enticing novelty. One must always remember that managing the level of tech debt will ultimately weigh you down if left unattended. While fostering a culture of innovation and ideation, IT leaders must maintain a strategic focus and effectively communicate these objectives throughout their teams and the organization. 

How do you align IT initiatives with Juniper Networks’ overall business objectives? What strategies do you employ to ensure that technology investments directly contribute to the company’s success?

Aligning IT initiatives with Juniper Networks’ overall business objectives requires strategic decision-making and close collaboration between IT and the other functions in the company. Here are the strategies employed to ensure technology investments directly contribute to the company’s success:

  • Strategic Alignment: At Juniper, we use OKRs to articulate where we’re headed strategically and what’s most important to the company’s future. We look at every initiative first with an eye toward those. Then, we understand what’s most important to various functions to see what they hope to achieve. Within the funding envelope, we work with them to help achieve those goals. We push back when they bring something that doesn’t have an articulated business value. 
  • Partnerships for Innovation: At Juniper, IT collaborates closely with product and engineering teams to drive innovation and bring offerings to market. For instance, we worked with the Juniper Mist™ team to incorporate application label data into their models while enhancing customer network performance insights. We also help recreate customer challenges in our network so the engineers can discover how to fix them more quickly. 
  • Cost Management and Efficiency: IT implements processes like the software approval process to prevent duplicate purchases and ensure alignment with planned initiatives. These efforts result in cost savings, demonstrating IT’s commitment to maximizing value for the company.

What leadership principles guide your interactions with your IT team? How do you foster a collaborative and innovative work environment?

‘Hire people who are better and smarter than you are.’ That’s the first tenet of my leadership philosophy. I continue to assemble the best that I’ve encountered throughout my career.

Communicate, communicate, communicate—and listen, too. I make it a point to hold regular all-hands meetings and set up deliberately informal gatherings—monthly IT socials and ‘Schmoozing with Sharon’ sessions—where my team can comfortably ask questions of me and other leaders.

Lastly, take visible, meaningful action to address concerns. When we saw the IT employees didn’t feel they understood the company strategy, we made all of the IT leaders attend our sales kickoff, so we knew they could then better pass down the strategy to the lower levels of the organization. When we saw a lack of career growth and diversity in management, we helped individuals move across the organization into new positions with programs like Spark!, which offers more technical managers with soft skills, such as communication and leadership, to push culture change. 

What should technology leaders prioritize in 2024 to help their businesses grow?

One of the key areas of focus for technology leaders committed to helping their organizations grow should be how to operationalize generative AI (GenAI), even if we haven’t solved the cost management challenge yet. As we move beyond the proof-of-concept (POC) phases, the productivity gains and potential savings will become increasingly clear, especially in coding, test creation, legal, and marketing content creation or validation. IT will also be pressured to convert these gains into real benefits or cost reductions.

At the same time, sustainability will remain on the agenda, partially because customers are asking about it – not only for AI but across the board. For example, 60% of Juniper’s top customers have carbon reduction goals for vendors. That said, generative AI’s compute requirements (not all AI) can be high. Thus, as we work on concept proofs, we’ll have to evaluate these costs in our value equation for the use case in addition to the usual metrics. Moreover, CIOs will be required to manage and provide data for ESG reporting while also baking ESG and energy efficiency into technology decision-making.

We also anticipate that security concerns will evolve, demanding greater attention and investment. This includes safeguarding GenAI systems. In response to emerging threats, we expect a growing percentage of IT budgets to be spent on prevention, mitigation, and recovery efforts. Furthermore, ensuring compliance with new regulatory requirements in the UAE and the wider Middle Eastern region will be a big focus.

Also Read: Why Identity Security Should Be the Foundation of Modern Cybersecurity

One piece of advice to get the most out of your tech stack.

A simplistic approach would concentrate on capacity management and project prioritization to ensure that resources are fully utilized. However, in the modern operating environment, the concept of getting the most out of a resource has evolved due to the integration of automation tools and AI, necessitating a more nuanced approach. 

Maximizing output or labor hours is no longer the exclusive metric to describe a resource being used to its full potential. Instead, it’s also a matter of leveraging people’s unique strengths and capabilities and supplementing them with systems that do the things that are either mundane or things that we as humans struggle to cope with. Consider quickly synthesizing huge volumes of seemingly unrelated data in very constrained periods, for example. It is ultimately essential for leaders in IT to go further into truly understanding their resources. They need to ensure that all of their human and technical capital are engaged and working on projects that make the greatest use of their unique skills and capabilities.

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