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Inside the mind of a top CIO

This story originally appeared on GE Reports, Australia, New Zealand & PNG

 

Mark Sheppard formed his first software company with a mate back in the ’80s. The two 14-year-olds growing up outside the city of Oxford in England, had programmed an adventure game and sold 15 copies—they were pretty happy!

Click through to 2016 and Sheppard has been announced as one of CIO magazine’s inaugural CIO50, the list of Australia’s most innovative and effective chief information officers—he’s “honoured”!

Software is now the biggest game in town, and it could be said that Sheppard has returned, with typical enthusiasm, to his teenage passion. Now chief commercial officer for GE Digital Asia Pacific, Sheppard is working to help transform GE to a digital-focussed business; to vastly improve outcomes for GE’s industrial customers and to digitally connect and optimise new infrastructure in developing countries in the region.

Talking to GE Reports on the morning train to work, Sheppard says making the CIO50 list is “a great recognition, and I feel quite humbled. There are some great CIOs on the list and I think the Australian landscape has produced some amazing talent.”

He adds that progressive attitudes towards IT in Australia have “pushed the envelope” in many industries, including banking and mining. “Our adoption of opportunities like cloud mobility are some of the best in the world.”

 

“Certainly, it is a pivotal time in the life and times of a CIO.” CIO Australia

 

Sheppard is characteristically humble, and eloquent even though he’s been up until 2am, on calls to his 19 direct reports throughout the region and to head office in the US. Over the rock and rattle of the carriage as it rumbles from Sydney’s Central Station along the North Shore Line, he says he’s revelling in his new role at GE.

In March 2016, Sheppard was promoted from CIO for GE Australia and New Zealand—a position he’d held since late 2012—to CCO for GE Digital across APAC, a region that encompasses India, the ASEAN nations, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand.

He says the promotion “logically reflects the next step for IT … and is what a lot of CIOs are interested in doing”, adding that the former duties of CIOs are increasingly being outsourced to companies that provide IT as a service.

At the same time, he says “GE was going through its own transition … taking our core technology skills, our core IT skills and building on our digital business,” he says. “Now IT is not just something that facilitates our business, but a value proposition that we offer our customers as well.”

 

“The successful CIOs will be business leaders who enable their organisations to meet the needs of their customers or communities through technology.” CIO50 criterion

 

GE has 13,000 software engineers globally, and the deep expertise the company has in the industrial world puts it in a unique category. “The pedigree that we have for making equipment for the past 100 years …” says Sheppard, “we’re not like any other software company, but we’re also morphing into something which sets us aside from all the other industrial companies.”

Sheppard’s biggest challenge is to help the customers in his region transition their businesses, assets and infrastructure into a digital framework. In a world where transactional businesses measure and analyse every metric, he says companies that run large fleets of “dumb”, unconnected equipment are in many cases “flying blind”.

He draws an analogy between industrial equipment and everyday passenger vehicles: “You drive your car. The manufacturer recommends changing the oil at 12,000km. That’s what you do. But your car is not the same as my car, even if it’s the same model and came off the same production line—we’ve driven them differently, they’ve been serviced differently. So, your car’s unique characteristics are something you need to tap into to make it work properly.” That might mean changing the oil at 11,000km, or realising that your car runs well until about 15,000km—a saving!

“Once companies can understand the equipment they have with that level of granularity, and maintain it, control it, monitor it and work it at a highly functioning level—then they’ll get so much more out of their assets and operations,” says Sheppard.

 

“Unmistakably, CIOs are transforming to become business strategists, cleverly adopting innovation and continually shifting towards an ICT visionary role.” CIO Australia

 

Sheppard helped lead his IT crew to transition from being GE’s internal-services backbone into a vital customer-facing team of a digital-industrial company, and he’s a natural evangelist. At events and customer meetings, he eagerly explains the capabilities of Predix, GE’s operating system and platform for building applications that connect to industrial assets, collect and analyse data, enabling better decision making.

During the GE-CSIRO Digital Industrial Series, he explained to rookie reporters and IT wonks alike the spectacularly functional dashboard of a Predix-based flight-analysis app that ingests the data flow from every airline worldwide and compares individual aircraft performance to the collective.

He must have been a wonderful university lecturer. After gaining his Bachelor of Science in Information Technology at the University of Teesside, Sheppard funded his PhD in Artificial Intelligence by lecturing and says he’s often drawn on that experience to help him engage an audience and clearly explain concepts.

“When I sit down with customers I see their eyes light up when they realise the potential,” he says of explaining the journey of GE’s transformation from a manufacturer operating dumb machines to a company running Brilliant Factories. “What we have at GE is not only a solution in Predix, but also the expertise that comes of living it ourselves—of eating our own dog food, drinking our own champagne, walking in our own shoes. Not a lot of software companies can go to a manufacturer and say, we know this works, because we do it ourselves.”

In transitioning from CIO to CCO, Sheppard says it’s been important for him to learn to think in terms of outcomes. The way GE is positioning its software is not as selling a product, but selling an outcome that has inevitably been formed through collaborating with the customer.

“If you’re a mining company and you’re buying a locomotive,” he explains, “you don’t really want a locomotive, you want to move coal or iron ore—that’s the outcome. You want to do it profitably and reliably. Software is an integral part of that value sale that we do. It’s the fabric that weaves those physical technologies together and helps them operate better.”

Since joining GE Lighting in the UK in 1995, Sheppard has ridden the wave of tumultuous change, observed the morphing of his first business “from a supply-chain-based operation when I was there, into an incredibly sophisticated business asCurrent”; survived the jettisoning of the next, Plastics, when its dependence on oil prices became too risky, and also the divestiture of GE Capital as the GE turned itself towards digital horizons.

“Change leads to ambiguity but it also leads to opportunity,” he says. “The challenge for leaders is to help our teams see opportunities rather than the risk and issues in change.”

The changing GE landscape has enabled Sheppard’s own career leaps. “I love that GE will take a risk on people,” he says. “I love going into a new role, figuring out what are the skills in me, the structure and disciplines I’ve learned before that I can reapply, and what are the new things I need to learn.”

Known for his generosity with his time and mentoring, Sheppard points out that he was inducted into GE by one of its greatest managers, Harpal Mangat, at GE Lighting in Europe. Mangat, he says, “laid down the foundations for me of how to work with your staff—the importance of respect, teamwork, trust and loyalty”.

Today, whether working with his far-flung reports and their teams, with or with software engineers at GE Hackathons or primary-school kids immersed in a GE Coding for Kids session, Sheppard believes in “empowering the next generation to continue to grow the company”.

 

“It is now more important than ever to recognise and applaud the ICT leaders shaping the future of industry and government.” CIO Australia

 

Sheppard alights from the urban loco and walks and talks his way to the office. He muses on bringing younger generations into positions of control over the digital world. “When I was a child, it was feasible for two 14-year-olds to write a computer came in their bedroom and sell it,” he says.

“For a long time that has been less possible because the technology became too sophisticated—the investment required was just too great. What we’re seeing now with the startup community is perhaps a resurgence of that—the make-it-in-your garage mentality. GE’s Coding for Kids is one way of bringing back that kind of thinking.” And that’s a neat, circular track.

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