HBO CIO: Stay Focused on the Future

From the Road

When HBO launched in 1972, paying for TV was a novel idea. The concept seems quaint today in a world of three—or is that four?—always-on screens: computer, television, smart phone and tablet. The pioneering movie channel now originates top-shelf content including Boardwalk Empire, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Deadwood (a personal favorite) that is consumed on demand by viewers around the world on virtually any device. CIO Michael Gabriel, helped to drive development of HBO GO, which gives subscribers access to programming everywhere. I talked with him about about why it’s vital for CIOs to foresee how their businesses and customers are changing, and why professional development is critical to IT success.

Accept Change as Normal

“When I got to HBO, the business was a different business than it is today—much more static in terms of what we needed to do and more incremental than revolutionary,” Gabriel said. That’s not true anymore. “It’s a very dynamic world out there.” For example, IT has to accommodate a wide variety of technical requirements from content distributors. “The standards around all of the metadata and video still haven’t been established cross-vendor, cross platform and internationally,” he said. “It just makes our job much more challenging because we need flexible resources, we need to be able to scale quickly, and we also have to be able to change things more frequently than I’d like.”

A commitment to preparing for the future is critical. When Gabriel joined HBO, there wasn’t much video online; the technology couldn’t yet support mass distribution. But the music industry had been decimated by its failure to embrace the Internet. HBO leaders didn’t want to suffer a similar fate. They gave Gabriel a small budget to experiment with encoding videos, creating a player and distributing the videos online “That was really the start of HBO GO, about eight years ago,” Gabriel said.

The project was important for the IT organization, too. “We didn’t want to just be order takers, waiting for clients to ask us for things. And the group, even before I got here, was pretty progressive in terms of looking at what the future needs would be,” Gabriel said. “But this was an opportunity that was going to be groundbreaking. We needed to really be part of that evolution early enough so that we didn’t have to rush and so that we could do it at a pace that made sense for the business.”

Focus On Key Positions

Gabriel established a professional development program to help IT staff work more effectively, enable new employees come up to speed more quickly and create consistency in how individuals were promoted. The effort has improved performance across the board.

It also showed Gabriel which jobs have the most impact on the success of any project: the project leader, the business analyst and the technical leader. Projects are unlikely to run off the rails if the business analyst understands what the client and the business require, if the technical leader understands how to meet those needs and the project leader is good at managing progress and resources. Gabriel is focused on on improving these “triangle” jobs.

Have a Context for Your Decisions

HBO didn’t rush headlong into new distribution models, because it understood its market. “Looking at companies like AOL and what they were doing with respect to video, or trying to do, was important,” Gabriel said. At the time, before YouTube, there was Movielink, an online movie distribution service “that wasn’t profitable, but was successful in creating a product.” In other words, the sky wasn’t falling, and IT would have lost credibility if Gabriel had claimed it was.

“Others saw where the industry was going too, they knew we needed to do some things to get there, but no one knew exactly when we’d need to be there,” he said. “So why spend a lot of money and a lot of resources rushing to go somewhere earlier than you needed to? Having the patience to work with the business, trying to help figure out what it would mean to us, and not creating a false urgency gave us credibility.”

Today, Gabriel has a VP of IT strategy who focuses on long-term planning and partners with other IT executives to make sure they make technology decisions—about prioritizing and sequencing projects or evaluating the results from R&D—using a consistent framework. “We needed someone to put a program together that was more formalized—one that would allow us to look at how we could resource projects for the long term and plan better so that we could get better resources at better costs,” he said.

Cut Through the Technology Hype

Today, everyone is talking about big data. Gabriel knows why it’s important to HBO. “We really weren’t gathering a tremendous amount of data previously,” he said. “But with social networking, with electronic sell-through, which has increased the number of transactions that are occurring, and even more specifically, with HBO GO, where there is a lot of usage data we’re getting, we went from getting about 2,500 rows of data a day—which isn’t a lot for most companies—to 2-1/2 million rows of data a day.”

And the data is increasing exponentially, as HBO adds to the devices it supports around the world. “We have to be able to make sense out of that data in a way that drives the business, not just from the perspective of capturing the data and just getting bigger and bigger closets to put it in.” IT business intelligence experts, in turn, must understand the business well enough to help managers figure out how to use the data most effectively.

Insiders, read the complete interview with Michael Gabriel. Not an Insider? Register here.

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