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Deep Dive: Deepak Kaul, Chief Information Officer – Zebra Technologies

H. Michael Burgett
Contributing Writer

For Deepak Kaul, Chief Information Officer for Zebra Technologies, the company’s constant growth and evolution allowed him to adapt, take on various roles, and rise through the ranks to his current position.

In this issue, we talked with Deepak about the initiatives that he has overseen while CIO, from completing a complex M&A carve-out project, to building out a cyber and physical security organization, to launching a Digital Automation Center.

Deepak also shared with us the ways in which a former boss positively influenced his professional life and how three women have shaped his personal life, along with his advice for aspiring CIOs on the importance of being results-oriented, team culture and business savvy.

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?

In college, I pursued both sciences and engineering. Technology has always been a natural interest for me. When I graduated in 1992, I started looking for a job in the technology sector. Software was red hot with plenty of open positions. I started work at Interleaf and landed at Oracle after a year. I spent eleven years at Oracle. This was the most formative period of my career.

My role at Oracle was in consulting services. It was an amazing training ground. Not only did I learn about technology, but also about complex cross-functional business processes. I had the privilege of managing very large ERP implementations for Fortune 500 customers. I was able to gain hands on experience with business process re-engineering as well as all aspects of software development and implementation lifecycles.

I finished my MBA on weekends at the University of Chicago. This undertaking was very impactful for me. I was finally able to make   sense of what they meant in The Wall Street Journal. I learned to appreciate how finance and economics drive management decisions.

My hands-on experience, coupled with the business education, inspired me to take a role in the industry where I own my own decisions rather than being a hired gun for projects at multiple customers. So, when the opportunity at Zebra became available after a two-year stint at Brunswick, I made the career move. I joined Zebra when it was at $800 million in revenue. Today, we are almost at $5 billion.  There was never an opportunity to get bored at Zebra. The quest for change and growth created all sorts of challenging and diverse opportunities. I was fortunate to work with an immensely talented team. We developed a solid reputation for successfully completing complex global transformation projects.

Eight years later, when my boss left the company for another opportunity, I applied for his job and was selected as his successor for the CIO role.

Would you consider yourself a CIO, a CTO, or a hybrid? Why? What are the essential differences?

I consider myself as a CIO. I view a CTO being more focused on setting strategy and vision for commercial products. I see a CIO as an enterprise leader. A CTO drives the product vision externally. We have a CTO who is very, very good at that.

I am engaged in working with our business leaders for running our business. This involves developing a technology strategy which enables the vision for corporate as well as various business units and shared services.

What initiatives have you overseen to date in your time with your organization? What’s on the horizon?

Shortly after becoming CIO at Zebra, my first initiative was to finish an inflight complex M&A program. This was not an ordinary project because it involved a complex carve-out from a large company, integration of a business with two times our revenue, and with three times as many people. This was one of the most challenging assignments in my entire career. The whole company was impacted and stood behind this program. Ultimately, we were extremely successful and able to realize our “One Zebra” vision.

We built out our security department from a two-person team to a full-fledged, mature security organization. We now have a Chief Security Officer, and we are responsible not only for cybersecurity, but also for product security and physical security.

Last year, IT completed 129 projects successfully. We have earned a reputation of being a “highly disciplined execution machine”. Our team is extremely proud of all this and is earning respect and credibility among our business partners.

We are running IT as a business. By defining key metrics and measuring them quarterly, we are able to make better decisions regarding value delivery, costs, and new service offerings. We have made significant improvements in our SLA’s and customer satisfaction metrics.

Right now, I’m in process of launching a Digital Automation Center. This will be able to scale our successful innovation pilots and drive efficiencies in various business units. Modern digital technologies like robotic process automation, chatbots, machine learning, optical character recognition, and API microservices services will be leveraged in this initiative.

How do you foresee your organization being different in two years, and how do you see yourself shaping that change?

The first thing that comes to mind is being more agile than ever before. Our company is growing, and our leadership has very aggressive growth targets, both organic as well as inorganic. Our business units are expecting more at a faster rate.

Second, our cloud journey is accelerating both voluntarily as well as through external pressures. There is a huge appetite in the business to get more capabilities faster. Cloud is an enabler for this aspiration. We’re already in process of moving more workloads to cloud.

Third, the boundaries between our engineering and IT functions are getting blurry. The future of our engineering will be in software solutions and IOT, and they will require tremendous amounts of IT support. We’re being invited to the party more and more often.

Fourth, security and privacy are emerging on the top of our agenda. Our products are becoming data-rich, which increases the need for best in class security. Zebra is already taking a leadership position in this area, but I expect this conversation to be even more amplified.

Lastly, I think there will be a lot of emphasis on collaboration technologies to connect employees across geographies and making day-to-day interactions seamless. New technology will be deployed to enable communications, content sharing and work management.

Share your thoughts on the availability of IT talent. What strategies do you employ, and what’s different in your organization?

Finding the right talent is a very big challenge and priority number one. We are employing strategies to focus both on existing as well as new talent.

We want to keep developing our existing talent and invest in their leadership development. We do this is by encouraging rotations. This helps us build bench strength as well as develop well rounded leaders. We rotated our IT supply chain applications leader through three positions. Today, he is running our IT cybersecurity. This has become a great example of how diverse experiences and mobility can multiply one’s value to take on new career trajectories.

For new talent acquisition, we’re actively recruiting on college campuses in the Chicago and New York areas. We have an intern program which lets us see our next generation in action. Last year, we selected 10 interns in IT, and we plan on another 10 this year. We want to continue getting college graduates excited about our company by demonstrating that this is a great place to work. I’m hoping to make at least four to five permanent offers next year.

We’re also actively working on building an inclusive and diverse work environment. We are a technology company, and we want the best talent regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. I am member of our inclusion and diversity council. We spend a significant amount of time on developing plans to make this ambition a reality.

What new or disruptive technology issues or emerging trends do you think will impact your industry in the future?

We have been very successful as a hardware company. We are in transition of providing greater differentiation to our products using software, solutions and data services. 5G, IoT, machine learning, analytics and machine vision are some of the technologies that are disrupting our industry.

What personal traits and attributes are essential for today’s CIO versus 10 to 20 years ago?

It is my strong belief that a CIO needs to be results-oriented. At the end of the day, your credibility will be based on successful business outcomes.

How you produce these results is equally important. A CIO needs to be situationally adaptable. You must watch for signs and keep adapting your demeanor. Emotional intelligence, flexibility and people skills are critical. It is very important to master the art of remaining calm under pressure.

The modern CIO needs to be an influencer. People can do a lot more things without involving IT. Consumerization of software has made it easier to download and use software. The CIO’s ability to influence in an authentic and positive way is essential to engage business users. You might not be able to solve all problems, but a genuine desire to listen, understand and offer possibilities can go a long way.

Lastly, it’s about lifelong learning. We are in an industry which depends on knowledge. Our skills have a limited shelf life. The CIO of the future will have to keep an eye on the future, be open to rejecting old proven methods and learn to adopt newer technology and methods in an agile manner.

What advice would you give for someone who aspires to be a CIO?

I would tell them that this role is not just limited to technology. It’s about your ability to stand up a smart and diverse team. It is about creating a great work culture that provides professional development, personal fulfillment and generates results.

The aspiring CIO should also expect to champion innovation and continually strive to optimize processes and technology. This role touches everybody in a company in some fashion. You need to be business savvy and facilitate cross-functional alignment.

As a general manager of your function, you will have to be accountable for balancing the value delivered against the costs incurred.

How do you decompress from the challenges of being a CIO? What do you do for fun?

I like to spend a lot of time with my family. When possible, we take long trips. These force us to talk and focus on each other away from work, school or home.

I’m also an avid reader and enjoy getting ahold of the latest bestsellers. There’s this saying from Dr. Seuss, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” I feel that is so true because they do open new doors for me, and I find great relaxation by doing so.

Who have been your biggest influences, and why?

On a personal front, there are three women who shaped me into the person I am. As a little boy, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who was a great storyteller. The lessons from these stories developed my value system. My mother taught me reading, writing, and arithmetic. She was the force that inspired me to go seek the best education and to be successful. My wife gave me a great family and stability. She taught me how to have fun and live a good life.

Professionally, I give a lot of credit to my last boss, Dean Crutchfield, because he took interest in me, coached me, and invested me in my leadership development. He helped me to see our business through a different lens.

Which books have you gifted the most over your career?

The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power by Kaleel Jamison is the one that I have gifted to team members. It’s about personal development, respect, and accepting others. I think it is a phenomenal book.

There’s also the trilogy written by Yuval Noah Harari. The three books are: The Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The first book is mainly about how human beings came to be what we are today, through evolution, and what differentiated us from other animals. Homo Deus is about the future – what happens in the future when technologies like artificial intelligence and algorithms are going to be more pervasive. And the last one is about trends that are going to be important for the next century.

If you weren’t doing the job that you have today, what would be your dream job?

If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I would have loved to be a writer. I would write on topics about human evolution and how technology will change our future.

What would you want our readers to know about you that we haven’t asked?

I’ve never thought about what I do, as a job or work. I went through the exercise of finding my purpose. Once I reconciled what I am doing with why I am doing it, things started flowing naturally. I enjoy being part of a fast-growing global company, developing our talent and solving business challenges. When I go home and reflect at night, I feel great that I am helping make a difference.

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