David Roberts originally set out to be a pharmacist. But it was that one organic chemistry course that made him realize he wasn’t where he belonged. He quickly pivoted to earning his degree in Management Information Systems because his school, the University of Oklahoma, had a strong business program. This change in major led him to a lifelong career in technology—and, ultimately, to becoming Chief Information Officer of Cicis with 450 locations nationwide and growing.
In this interview, David shares with us his career journey to CIO, how his team scrambled to save a dine-in restaurant concept during the pandemic, and the importance of humility and holding oneself accountable.
Walk us through your CIO path. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and how did you progress to your current organization?
Shortly before graduating, I accepted a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a financial company, which was my first foray into technology. I was a Visual Basic developer, and I didn’t really know what to expect. But it was exciting, nonetheless.
After a few years there, I traversed my way down to Dallas and had an opportunity to work for TGI Fridays, which had a strong technology department and a lot of in-house talent. At that time, you didn’t do much outsourcing. I thought it was a really good opportunity for me to learn from smart people and build my craft. I spent about 17 years at TGI Fridays as a software developer working on mainframe conversions and Oracle ERP to then get into the solution architecture space, working with APIs, and building out SharePoint when it first came out. All of those fun things you did as a developer.
About 13 years in, TGI Fridays got purchased and a new CIO came in to do a digital transformation and rightsized the company. Half the jobs were eliminated. And as he did his assessment of who to eliminate, he gave me the opportunity to sit down with him. He said, ‘Well, listen, I want you to be here for the long haul. But I want you to be able to do what you want to do. Which path do you want to go?’ And he’s very blunt and straightforward. I said, ‘Well, all things being equal, I’d rather just take your seat.’ And that is what he wanted to hear. He was one of the guys who really crafted me and helped me build out my career.
That was exciting because I had to leave the comfort of the coding space to go over to the other side of the aisle to IT operations and leadership and manage some large projects and teams. We worked on major initiatives with our tablet rollout upgrade to 450 restaurants, working on disruptive technologies, and collaborating with partners such as Foursquare. Fridays really molded me.
After 16 years, I had an opportunity to go to a smaller company and put my stamp on it. I went to RAVE Restaurant Group, which owns two pizza concepts in just over 250 stores now. Not a big concept, but I had an opportunity to run its IT department as VP and that gave me a lot of experience from a leadership standpoint. There is a lot to be said for when you get into these leadership roles, including how important those relationships are with your teams, how you shape your technology for them, and what you can achieve together. Almost three years later, Cicis gave me an opportunity to come on board and build a bigger team, reach some greater goals, and face bigger challenges. I knew I could make a big mark. My deal is to always leave a company better than you found it.
Can you tell us about some of the initiatives you have overseen within your current organization and some of the major things you have been able to accomplish as a CIO?
When I first got to Cicis, they had a lot of things that they wanted to accomplish, just like anybody else. A lot of times, when you come into an organization, they have some immediate things they need to address, including cost efficiencies. They needed to understand why their costs were so high—whether it was from an infrastructure standpoint or a network connectivity standpoint—and secondly, they needed to understand why they couldn’t get accurate data insights for their executive team.
One of the first things we did was implement a cloud-based enterprise integration and reporting solution. It was something that could be accessed anywhere, and we were able to quickly integrate this solution with our third-party partners. When you have a company like Cicis versus a bigger company, you work with a lot more vendors. We built out a custom enterprise integration and reporting tool that allowed us to create executive dashboards, operational dashboards, and marketing tools to drive the business and create true KPI scorecards to track how we are doing.
At the same time, we were addressing our deficiencies at the store level and had some challenges because they were just starting to roll out a point of sale (POS) system for 200 restaurants. At the time, Cicis was not an off-premise restaurant but a buffet concept. Traditionally 95 percent dine-in, and we needed to change that and create some additional revenue streams. We needed to be competitive, and we needed to move forward with some type of digital transformation.
Did rolling out an online ordering system help save your company during the pandemic?
In March of last year, we quickly got together as an executive team and said, “How do we respond? What are our options? What can we do to help with our business being 95 percent dine-in and all of our stores are closed?” We worked with our partners to develop and quickly implement an online ordering solution for our 200 stores that did not yet have it. Cicis also overhauled its offerings and pushed out product categories that we had not been known for and so we changed the menus on our mobile app and third-party sites. These efforts saved close to 35% of our stores that otherwise would have closed without this additional revenue stream.
What new or disruptive technology or emerging trend do you think will impact your industry in the future?
The technology is not new, but it is definitely evolving. The first is payments and how payments are done. There are solutions coming out that are being built by the different processors, similar to tokenization, where you click twice, and your payments are processed. We are working with one of our processor partners and they are integrating a new solution with our online ordering partner. Secondly are the edge technologies—the technologies within the restaurant—such as the IoT devices including smart ovens, with some devices giving restaurants the ability to gain insights about the customers in real-time, which can help them remain competitive.
Let’s talk about the availability of talent today to help you accomplish the milestones you were able to reach. What do you think about the current state of IT talent that’s available, and what strategies did you employ to recruit and develop that talent?
Whether you’re using a service such as LinkedIn or one of the third-party search services or a recruiting firm, finding talent is never consistent. This is always a challenge because you don’t know if you’re going to have a placement in four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, or 12 weeks for some roles. But the thing we can control is that, when we do find the talent, we have a good process in place. We have changed our way of thinking by allowing the talent to take ownership of their functions and roles versus being task-driven or being limited to their job title. They are decision-makers. Even at the lowest level, if you allow people to become decision-makers, they learn a lot about themselves and this, in turn, benefits the organization with what they can output.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a CIO?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to somebody who has been there and done that. Try to get some of their time. People are a lot more open to giving you feedback than you might think. I was in that seat before. The other thing I’d say is to maintain a level of humility within your role. No matter how good you are, you can always challenge yourself to be better. There will always be new challenges and you’ve got to be able to step up to that. As I started to become a leader in technology, that drive never left me.
Secondly, there are a lot more networking opportunities due to LinkedIn, SEO professionals, and partner networks like the CIO Professional Network. These groups are now more prevalent and mainstream versus how they may have just met at a coffee shop 10 years ago. These things are so important to the overall growth of the technology sector, especially because things change so rapidly. I’m having the chance to tell my story here and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I had not become a part of the CIO Professional Network.
How do you decompress from the challenges of being a CIO and what do you like to do for fun? What are some of your hobbies?
The drive home always helps, especially when you’re living in a metroplex. But for me to maintain a strong mental state, it’s getting lots of exercise and spending time at home. That’s what recharges my batteries. I get up every morning and go swimming. Exercise is very important to my mental state and how I function each day. It gives me the time and energy to prepare mentally for my day. In the fall, it’s by football games, watching my Oklahoma Sooners. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s hanging out with my wife, my two kids, and our two dogs. I also play golf and travel a bit.
Who would you say have been your biggest influences in your career path, and why?
When I went to TGI Fridays back in 1999 as a web developer, there was a man named Samuel Langley who was the go-to architect guy. He’s quirky and very smart and always pushed the envelope on technology, encouraging us to learn new things. He’s probably the biggest reason I made it as far as I did from a technology standpoint because he would constantly challenge us; there was a level of accountability to see things through to the end and always deliver on our due dates. And that was something I took with me.
The other person who was probably the most influential was Tripp Sessions—the CIO and CTO of TGI Fridays that I mentioned earlier. The advice he still gives me today has been critical to my success and the path I’ve taken. Those two people have probably been the most influential—the biggest reason is because they’ve both challenged me beyond what I really believed I could accomplish. Then you look back and think, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”
Are there any books that you recommend, maybe these are books that you give to others or that have shaped you as a CIO?
You know, that’s a good question. There are lots of books and this one is more of a leadership book than a technology book. The book is called The Challenge Culture by Nigel Travis, who I believe was the chairman at Dunkin Brands. The book really teaches you about the need to be challenged and have this culture challenge across all levels of your organization. I tell my teams to use that because it doesn’t matter if it’s at the bottom of an organization, in the middle, or at the top, you should have the opportunity to challenge people because then you get challenged back. I believe everybody should have the capability to be a voice and to challenge the status quo because that is the only way to get better. In this book, the author brought up some good points that even at the board levels, if you’re not challenging each other, you’re probably not getting better.
Do you have any final words you’d like to share?
One of the things I always tell my teams, and that I’ve always lived by, is that no matter what you do, be accountable for your actions. Have humility with what you accomplish. Share your successes with those who helped you create them. No one person creates that success. And lastly, regardless of title, I think the important thing is to make sure you have a purpose and that you can affect change within an organization.