The road to becoming a CIO is not always a straight line. Brian Hoyt, CIO of Unity Technologies, the leading Real-Time 3D development company, says his trajectory to becoming a CIO involved a path he thought he’d never take again and stresses how other aspiring CIOs should be willing to take advantage of opportunities instead of waiting for things to happen. With a career in Systems at the dawn of the SaaS explosion and seeing the potential that lied ahead, Hoyt gained valuable insight while climbing the ranks. At Unity, the Heads of Systems, IT, and Integrations all roll up to Hoyt, who helps strategize how to scale company growth, increase developer productivity, and ensure an efficient environment. 

In the second installment of our How to Become a CIO series, Hoyt explains how he made the most out of situations, what the mindset of a successful and flexible CIO should be, the power of relationships, and advice and best practices other budding CIOs should follow. 

The Evolution of a CIO

What sort of roles did you take before becoming a CIO? Tell us a little about your career prior to now.

My last role before becoming a CIO was as Head of Enterprise Systems. I came up through the CRM world, which started in CRM support and moved on to CRM implementation. This was around the time when Salesforce was really becoming a critical application. My background was in [Oracle] Siebel before that. 

It really seemed like the cloud flexibility offered [at the time] was going to be the future, so I doubled down on my half towards that and that bet paid off. And I did a lot of Salesforce design and implementation work in sort of a hybrid business-technical role, from a more consulting perspective.

And then it became clear while I was doing the work that, oftentimes, sales ops people were hiring consultants to do it because their IT teams either didn’t have time or the know-how to implement these kinds of technologies. I never thought I would move back into IT because, to be honest, I sort of relished the thought of going through the side door on some of these projects and implementations.

But as cloud computing became more mainstream and everybody started using Salesforce, I became interested in looking at what kind of internal opportunities were there. So, I started running a Business Systems team for a company that was scaling, pre IPO growth called AppDynamics [eventually acquired by Cisco]. When I started to help scale, there were around 200 employees and when I left, there were 1,300-1,400. So, we scaled the company pretty quickly including building all the company systems that you need from HR to finance to CRM, to all the integrations, to the data infrastructure that exists.

You’ve been a CIO at Unity for 2.5 years, and were a CIO at AppDynamics a few months prior to that. How do you think the role of a CIO and the roles of those who report to them have changed over time? Is it mostly job duties that have changed? Have team dynamics changed? What’s your take on that?

I think you have to be pretty open-minded with your team and make sure you have open-minded leaders on your team that are willing to be flexible with that [dynamic and landscape] because in some cases, it’s just uncharted territory. I think with the sprawl of tools out there, there’s going to be enough work for everybody to go around and there’s a lot of interesting things to do, no matter where you sit. You can take a process approach and leverage your people and your talent to see what’s the best fit. When we want someone to join our Business Systems team, we’re hiring someone to understand the business processes and the business as it exists and instrument it using technology.  

Prepping for a CIO Role

You said you have a background in the CRM world. When you think about entering the role, are there certain things people should look out for, or areas of expertise they should have prior?

I think the Enterprise Systems leaders will generate the newest batch of CIOs in the next 5-10 years because there are some really strategic implementations out there and I only see that trend continuing – and Systems leaders are specifically equipped to handle that. When you’re hiring for an Enterprise Systems person, you’re hiring for the person that’s really going to help execute the company’s operational strategy, so they have to be operationally-minded and understand the whole landscape of systems. That being said, you’re not going to find a job until you’re the Head of Enterprise Systems where you need to worry about everything, so you’ve got to start somewhere. You can come from being an ERP expert or a CRM expert or an HRIS/HRMS expert or any of these things, or possibly even data and analytics experts that might roll into that type of team in any of those areas and build a career from there.

But I think the critical thing when you’re working as an Enterprise Systems leader, when you’re ready to take the next step, is letting go of day-to-day technology operations. So, if you are managing your Salesforce implementation, I’d say you’re spending a good percentage of your time still making some technical decisions or at least some strategic decisions within the platform. And when you’ve built your career around that specific technology, I think it can probably feel pretty uncomfortable to let go of that and step into more of a generalist role. I can tell you from my own experience I felt pretty nervous about that, having made a living devoted to one technology and built a skills-based portfolio. Letting go of that and stepping into a more general management or an executive leadership role felt just slightly scary.

If you’re on the CRM side and you get the chance to work, for instance, on a billing implementation that may overlap from Salesforce into an ERP, that creates a chance for you to move horizontally. You get a chance to get better visibility. You should definitely take those chances to understand what that is. You’ve got to deeply understand these systems. 

When you’re on the CRM side on the front-end of the business coming in and you don’t really understand revenue recognition, for example – I mean, not as much as someone in accounting would, let’s say – but you’ve got to have at least a baseline understanding of it to be fluent in those types of implementations.

Thank you for that in-depth answer. Adding to that, what’s the most memorable thing you can recall about transitioning from a non-CIO role to your first CIO job? 

I think that learning to communicate with executives and board members and establishing credibility was a very memorable and important lesson to learn when you are coming into your first CIO role. Communicating your long-term vision for your stack and the risks of the vision as well as the risks of complacency is a very critical aspect.

I also think quick wins are really critical for anyone in IT. You’ve got to find something that you can take off of the chart quickly and establish your credibility. That’s how you build trust and designate your value.

Breaking Down the Roles of a CIO 

How much would you say project management factors into the role of a CIO? 

I think with project management specifically, there’s always a need for drivers for large cross-functional initiatives. I think it’s critical to understand how to get people to prioritize [project management] because [being a CIO] is usually a matrix job that you have to use influence rather than authority, which is pretty much 99% of my life. I can’t run around the company ordering people to do things – you have to use influence. 

I try to always emphasize function over form in what I’m doing. I don’t want to try to legislate it or anything like that. I really want to give people the freedom to implement things and watch them flourish. That’s my preferred management style. 

How much does real-world experience in IT governance and risk management play a factor? Is there a certain amount of experience one should have prior to the role?

IT governance is critical and this is something that’s also highly dependent on your organization. When I think of the word governance, I think of ‘what work do we do and when.’ That’s a big part of my job. You have to be really driving the message that order matters in a lot of these projects and that you need to address critical steps before moving forward. 

So, for example, if you don’t have a clean list of your customers, leads and what you’ve sold or are trying to sell them, then your sales forecasting is not going to be very good. And if you try to fix the sales forecasting before you fix the list of your customers and what you’ve sold them, the process is just not going to work. So, you have to drive really consistent messaging that order matters in a lot of these projects and that you need to address things. And to your stakeholders, it may look like you’re not doing much because they can’t see the massive list of things that are going on behind the scenes. 

So, governance is really important. I think there are multiple ways to do it depending on your organization and how engaged the decision-makers are for the business units you’re interacting with, but drumming up that interest is a key part of the role.

What is the most important skill for a CIO to have that’s not technical? How do you suggest someone hone it?

Relationship management and reliability are important skills to have. They’re absolutely critical for what you’re doing. You have to let people know who you are and have them know that they can come to you with issues. And you have to illustrate that you’re there to understand their business and their problems and try to solve it, not to try to regulate them or slow them down. You’re there to help move the needle, not stand in their way. It really comes down to doing what you say you’re going to do and that they can trust you’re going to do it, and are therefore motivated to do the work based on the dependability of your word.

CIO Best Practices to Follow

Did you find any particular resources useful as you were going up the ladder? 

I’ve always enjoyed joining an interesting team of people and learning by doing and getting that in-person experience. I didn’t know anything about implementing finance systems before I suddenly found myself in charge of them, so just jumping in and listening to others was helpful for me. One thing that really surprised me as I started to take more and more responsibility was how many people from other organizations are willing to help you and tell you what mistakes they made. I think that’s incredible.

 I’ve also found that communities, whether hosted by user groups or the industry leaders themselves are helpful. Workday and Salesforce, for example, have done a great job of building a community of technical people that work closely together. They’re all very excited and passionate about their technologies. But also one of the great opportunities of having all this tooling and all these different companies, is that you can ask to talk to the vendor’s IT team and get to know them and ask them, ‘How are you using your tool and what do you think are best practices for using your technologies? How do you recommend I do it?’ And then you can meet a whole bunch of people that are trying to actually solve the same problem(s) but maybe doing it in a different way. 

So, talk to other companies or companies that you buy software from or are partnered with and get to know their IT folks and how they’re solving problems. That’s been incredibly valuable for me.

A Note to Future CIOs 

Is there any final advice you’d give to someone hoping to become a CIO one day, whether they come from a Systems background or just overall?

You’re really best served to think of yourself as somebody that’s an expert in the operations of the company and using technology to instrument those operations. It’s important to have technical skills. It’s definitely important to be conversational in technology. But being an expert in how companies work and how your business gets a lead from whatever lead source – a demo request, content download, event attendance, etc. – and then brings it into the world and gets money out of it and ships the product or delivers the service, that’s critical. You’ve got to be interested in that. So, be interested in how the company operates and know that your role in influencing technology helps facilitate that.

Connect with Brian on LinkedIn to learn more about his evolving career in Systems and expertise.

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Pamela Seaton
About Pamela Seaton

Pamela is a journalist and technology enthusiast writing for the growing business systems community.