CIO interview: Dave Benson, ex-CIO of News Corp

Dave Benson has been in IT for the past 30 years, where he has seen every revolution from the PC to the iPhone. Now CIO at Progress Software, he talks to Cliff Saran about the evolution of IT.

Dave Benson has been in IT for the past 30 years, where he has seen every revolution from the PC to the iPhone. In this interview, he talks to Cliff Saran about the evolution of IT.

Two years ago, after almost 30 years in end user IT, Dave Benson jumped ship to work within IT at Progress Software, where he is now the software tools company's executive vice-president and chief information officer.

Benson's previous role was as global CIO at News Corp from 1999 to 2007. He began his IT career at GE in 1981, the year the IBM PC came out. While the consumerisation of the PC is a hot topic now, it all began in 1981 when IBM's secret project - called Project Chess - gave users the desktop computer that would ultimately revolutionise computing.

"Three years into the job at GE, one of my earliest roles was to evangelise the PC," says Benson. Using one of the early fourth-generation tools, Benson developed a rough and ready financial analysis application, which took just two weeks to build.

IT's role in business

During the 1980s, IT had a tough time proving itself to the business - some things never change. According to Benson, "no one viewed IT as a credible service provider to make business changes", but he was fortunate enough to work at GE with a CIO who believed IT could play a role in driving the business.

But to drive business change, IT needs credibility and the right tools. Benson says there is little point in ripping out an old system for the sake of modernisation. "How often do you see companies spending millions on replacing working systems with new ones that fail?" he asks.

He recalls how one CIO at DirectTV, which was owned at the time by News Corp, worked with a huge number of suppliers and outsourcers. "The CIO understood why making changes to the business was important," Benson said, but given the environment, making these changes would be extremely difficult.

For Benson, building on what already exists is a safer approach. "In one of the GE groups, we took an old legacy application and wrote a wrapper to provide services to the business. As a result, we were the first business within GE to offer a web user interface," he said.

Legacy systems on mainframes are still fundamental to many larger businesses. People did not replace their mainframes to beat the millennium (Y2K) bug. "Y2K was the most over-blown potential fiasco of all time. It did, however, create a boom in Indian software companies," he said.

Simplifying the technology

While Benson joined GE at the start of the PC revolution which ultimately led to user empowerment, when he went over to News Corp in 1999 there was a definite separation between IT and broadcast technology.

"Ten years ago, if you worked in the broadcast centre, the technology was highly specialised and very different to IT," he said. "Today they have Cisco routers and use the same datacentres."

News Corp, like other larger businesses, has focused on simplifying IT and enhancing the customer experience. Previously, a broadcaster may have provided 10 different forms of interactive TV guide, each controlled by a different part of the business. "It makes more sense to have just one," said Benson.

"As in retail banking, News Corp's customers wanted to order services via multiple channels, such as by phone, via the television or at a shop." Again, he says, it makes sense to put all these applications together.

Enterprise software

In Benson's experience, the IT department spends a lot of money on redundant applications. As an example he points to the Sky subscription system, which cost $150m and resulted in a £318m legal settlement with EDS. "By the time the application was delivered it was already legacy," he said.

The key issue for IT is that big IT systems may not offer the flexibility businesses need. "How much money has been spent on ERP systems? They are not good at doing new business processes. They are not built for change," Benson pointed out.

Benson believes traditional ERP, which claims to encapsulate best practices for certain business processes, is no longer a good fit for business because change involves a series of business flows to and from services and how these are orchestrated.

So future ERP, or its replacement, would need to be good at orchestration. The question is whether a CIO would want to go to their ERP supplier, such as Oracle or SAP, for this orchestration, or use a third-party specialist, such as Progress Software, which specialises in business process management.

Internet reality check

Benson's tenure at News Corp coincided with the dotcom boom and bust. "During the first round of the net, the business models did not work. The internet has changed a lot since then, but you still need a [sound] business model," he said.

News Corp originally tried to bring all its brands together under a single website, which Benson says didn't work because people wanted to deal with the brands directly. As a result, the company decided to reorganise its website around brands.

News Corp also dabbled in social media when it acquired MySpace, the one-time rival to Facebook. "Unlike Facebook, which opened up its APIs, our biggest mistake was that we were competing using a closed environment," Benson said.

Openness is key to the success of internet business models. Benson's current employer, Progress, is a user. He argues that in spite of its success, is not strictly open. "The cloud is supposed to make it easier to develop applications, but charges 50% of the cost of a new application to run sandboxes for software development."

Open source software is clearly joined at the hip to open internet developments. Benson is on the technology advisory council at venture capital firm NEA. He says many of the companies he has seen had an active open source software component to their products. "The CIOs said the quality of open source software is significantly higher than proprietary code because people check each other's contributions," he said.

On the consumerisation of IT, Benson says it is important to make people feel good about IT. During his first week as global CIO at Progress, he was often asked whether the company would support the iPhone. So, at his first company meeting, he announced iPhone support.

But while the feel-good about IT factor is important, Benson says first and foremost CIOs must deliver value and drive the company forward.

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