“When I grow up, I want to be a CIO”, said no child...ever! Firefighter, police officer, doctor, just about anything...but not CIO! Steve Ginsberg’s Path to CIO included stops in Hollywood, the recording studio, and most recently the streaming music business. Ginsberg, the former CIO of Pandora Internet Radio, has had a fascinating journey along the Path.
Steve and I were introduced by Stephane Bourles, a CIO profiled earlier in this series. When I discovered he had spent time with Pandora, I knew I had to interview him! Little did I know we shared more than a love for music and technology.
Jeff: Steve, thank you so much for jumping on the phone with me today. I know you just ended a 10-year stint with Pandora, so let me start by saying that Justin Bieber Radio playlist on my account was for my granddaughter, Charity! Honest, I’m more of a Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton kind of guy!
Steve: (laughing) Sure, Jeff, sure. We’ll just go with that!
Jeff: OK, I see how this is going to go! (chuckle) Let’s get to it. You know the premise, no kid ever sits around and dreams of becoming a CIO, yet, we all ended up there. How did we get there? Steve, when you were a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
Steve: Early on, I wanted to be in the movies. You know, being up on that big screen. To me that would be the ultimate! As I got older, I decided being a rock star would suit me pretty well. But, I have to tell you, Jeff, I’ve been pretty lucky. Although, my path was predominantly focused on IT work, I was still able to work on two Oscar winning films, “What Dreams May Come” and “The Matrix”, albeit behind the camera, and, I have completed my first album with my band The Funkery, “Brew the Funk!”.
Jeff: Forget “The Matrix”, you worked on “What Dreams May Come”?!!? That was a terrific film! I loved Robin Williams as the dead husband and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as his guide in the afterlife. GREAT movie! THAT had to be amazing.
How did you go from dreams of being a movie star to being interested in computers and technology? That seems like a pretty big jump…
Steve: For me, given my love of movies, probably seeing the original “Westworld” film planted a seed. The technology, not only depicted in the movie, but used in making the movie was really cool! Watching it now, I am surprised by how much of the “futuristic” technology actually exists today.
In high school, we started using a DEC PDP-8. At home, we were part of the early wave of home computers. My dad had a Commodore 64 which he used in our family’s bicycle business.
Growing up between the Route 128 and 495 Belts in Massachusetts, it was easy to be aware of the behemoths of technology, like Digital, Data General, Prime Computers and others. Eventually I had a professor at Babson who helped crystalize that fact that computers were a central thread of the future and that there would be great opportunities there.
Jeff: After Babson, you embarked on your career in IT. It seems there is an ever increasing tension as a person progresses in their career in IT; the tension between staying technical or tracking the management track. How did you balance that tension?
Steve: I was a Corporate Systems Engineer for a number of years. It was a technical role with an emphasis on requirements, architecture and communications so it was not a difficult transition to move into management. I did spend a good while as a hands on manager while finding the balance of stepping back from the command line without losing all relevant knowledge!
Jeff: Love the command line reference! I can tell you came up through the systems ranks. I was in app dev, closest we would come to that would be a Panvalet reference or maybe vi if we were brave!
As you developed as a manager, what were the major influences on your management style?
Steve: Thanks for asking. As most people, I know in management, I’ve been influenced by a variety of sources. The ones that really stand out for me are “The Double Win”, by Dennis Waitly. I use that as a guide for both external and internal relationships. From Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, I took to the idea of managing by the highest priority. I’ve also drawn a lot from “Zen and the Art Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Persig. Specifically, I try to keep what is best in mind; rather than simply what sounds correct.
When I came to Pandora, I was very pleased to see these values reflected in the leadership of the company.
I’ve also tried to learn and pursue ‘best practices’ at each turn. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many highly intelligent, Systems Administrators, Network Engineers, Software Engineers, Project Managers, Creatives, and Business people in a myriad of situations, and I’ve tried to learn from each of them.
As a mentor of newer managers and experienced leaders, I remind them that a good manager is always considering the balance between providing direction, and letting his or her direct reports succeed and fail on their own. I also believe in being transparent wherever possible.
Jeff: Was there a specific moment in your career when you knew you wanted to become a CIO? Was there a person that influenced you in that direction?
Steve: I don’t think there was a specific moment. As a long time systems and operations leader it seemed the natural evolution. Of course I watched Jobs and Woz, Gates and Balmer, Zuckerberg, Musk and other tech leaders, but I think for me my direct experiences had more impact on me. Tippett Studio had a fine operations leader in Jeff Stringer who went on to Digital Domain. DHAP Digital’s President/CEO Philip Dzilvelis has great strengths in intellectual curiosity and putting all the pieces together. Tom Conrad, who was Pandora’s long term CTO, combined those qualities with a very strong trust in his direct reports.
Jeff: Looking back now over your career, what key discoveries about yourself did you uncover, and, as a follow up, how did you use those learnings to propel yourself into a leadership role?
Steve: Given my many experiences in different business contexts, I realized that I could understand and define the business needs and bring them to life with a strong technical team. I learned how to hire great technical leads, which is essential. Then we worked together to amplify the effect of our knowledge and work. Since I’ve also worked on the vendor side of things, I’ve been able to negotiate double-win deals that have saved millions of dollars which contributes to the bottom line and funds growth.
Jeff: It’s time now for my favorite part of the interview. What advice would you have for someone considering a career goal of CIO? What new skills should they hone to be a CIO in 2020 and beyond.
Steve: I think the most important thing is to keep abreast of a wide variety of topics and go deep where you think you should. Talk to peers and to technical leaders and find out what’s working for them so you can leverage their experiences. Learn how to structure a team to amplify the strengths of its individuals. It’s been fantastic to see more women taking key roles in technical and business leadership. Your teams will benefit greatly from diversity.
Be careful how you spend time with vendors. They can be a great asset or take you down the wrong path. Learn everything about cloud, but consider the ‘Land and Expand’ business plans many vendors have which may benefit their strategy more than yours. More of our peers are seeing the popularity of the consumer-based IT environments provided by cloud vendors and are coming the realization they may have to have teams create integrations between those disparate platforms to facilitate communications and business process. Unless the industry provides better methods, this will only be amplified as we move deeper into IoT.
I like to think of the IT program as an ecosystem supporting the business. As such, it needs to be flexible, scalable and able to evolve.
On the tech side, the important trends for most companies are obviously analytics including the move toward predictive and prescriptive as well as AI or machine learning and robotics. The application of these technologies will, of course, be very different depending on which industry you’re in.
Don’t underestimate the value of communications tech (video conferencing, chat, learning systems…). I think Voice Recognition will yield more interesting fruits in the coming years, but I’ve thought that since 1993!
Information Security and the Internet as a whole are still evolving at an incredible rate and CIOs should be increasingly aware of their impact.
Jeff: Steve, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve enjoyed our conversation and I know our readers will gain a lot from your insights. Now, I’m going to go crank up some “Brew the Funk” and get to editing!
My take-away from the conversation with Steve is: “don’t give up on your dreams”. You can combine your love of movies and music, with your love of technology and end up on a pretty great path! I encourage to reach out to Steve on social media. He has much more to share.
Read more of the series, “The Path CIO: Profiles in Leadership”. The series explores the careers of CIOs from around the globe in a variety of industries. Each month we will feature the story of their journeys and answer the question, “How DID you become a CIO?” (If you have held the role of CIO and are interested in telling your story, please reach out to me via the links in my profile!)