Zuora’s CIO Alvina Antar on IT for success at scaleLast edited: Aug 2, 2019
Whatever you might have heard about tech’s tenure problem doesn’t apply here: Alvina Antar spent seventeen years at Dell, starting out as an engineer and eventually heading up IT’s Mergers & Acquisitions department. There, she built global technology teams from the ground up, delivered transformational solutions and developed a playbook for acquisition integration highlighting best practices from 20+ acquisitions.
Alvina loves people and technology. Three years ago, she brought this love and tenacity with her to become CIO at Zuora, the subscription services SaaS company. Alvina’s enterprise experience gave her the expertise to predict what Zuora would need from its information technology as it grew from 300 employees to 1,000. In this interview, she explains how to build out an IT department that can help teams improve and target products, share expertise, access reliable data, and succeed at scale.
How IT builds systems of growth
Alvina joined Zuora to head an Information Technology organization that didn’t exist yet. Like many start-ups, Zuora had placed internal operations in the care of a hard-working systems engineer and a help desk and then hoped for the best. When headcount hit 300, hope was not enough. Enter Alvina.
Alvina recognized the need to develop clear strategy, business alignment, and trusted partnerships with leadership across organizations. “Chief Information Officers and their teams run the risk of being labeled ‘The Department of No.’” Resisting that perception requires foresight and an eagerness to learn.
“From the very beginning, I worked closely with the C-Suite so I could understand the goals of their organizations and proactively provide the right technology to everyone – marketing, sales, services, engineering, product, finance, and legal.”
By predicting each team’s needs, Alvina prevented IT from devolving into an order-taker. “Focus on enabling strategy. CIOs who give people the right technology – the tools that will help them succeed – will spend less time saying no to requests for the wrong technology – the tools that won’t.”
Alvina’s roadmap has served the IT team and delivered incredible value to Zuora, keeping the company limber in a rapidly evolving digital world. “Three years ago, each organization had their own business systems and none had been integrated. Now every system flows end-to-end, from the bottom to the top of the funnel – from collections to cash.”
Why it’s important to “Drink your own champagne” – IT’s contribution to product and sales development
At Zuora, Alvina has proven that IT can have business impact that extends beyond the realm of systems management. Alvina’s team quickly developed an expertise in the product after implementing proprietary technology internally. “Some people call it ‘eating your own dog food’ or ‘drinking your own champagne.’ We call it Zuora on Zuora.”
Using Zuora in-house has proven extremely beneficial, particularly because of Zuora’s positioning within its customer base. “As a company, we’re representative of a key customer segment: a SaaS subscription business that evolves at a rapid pace.”
Zuora’s IT team has served as a test bed for product so that customers don’t have to. In the process, Zuora on Zuora has turned the full-time business systems team into part-time product strategy advisors. “We test new capabilities pre-beta, provide feedback, and make recommendations on changes we’d like to see in the product – particularly new functionalities that would benefit our team and teams like us.”
Alvina meets with other technical leads daily to share updates on the initiative. “Building Zuora out in our own sandbox has provided a readily available use case for the product and engineering teams as well as a prime reference account for our customers.”
Recently, IT’s expertise informed the implementation of a new feature called the orders object. The feature enables subscription business to handle complex orders that have multiple products tied to licenses, services, and support.
The orders object has also proven useful for subscription businesses looking to comply with new ASC606 and IFRS 15 standards for revenue recognition. “Every company is required to recognize revenue as part of their financial obligation. The orders object and automated revenue management are required to keep up with keep up with ongoing contract modifications and ensure compliance with the new revenue recognition standards.”
How sharing IT best practices served Zuora and its customers
The need that drove the development of the orders object also led to the creation of a valuable product marketing asset. “We wrote a white paper that outlined in detail the steps we took to adopt the functionality. So not only did we provide input to product and engineering, but we also positioned Zuora as a thought leader on best practices for implementation.”
Alvina held her second subscription CIO exchange event during Zuora’s annual Subscribed conference with a similar goal in mind. “I really wanted to build community among my CIO peers. We face a unique set of challenges and with that comes the possibility for incredible innovation.”
The 50 or so CIOs that attended approached the exchange as an opportunity to share and compare. “The discussion covered three topics: the best reference architectures for subscription businesses, the benefits of using your own technology in-house, and the results of a survey on CIOs’ experiences working for subscription-based businesses.”
After the panelists presented, the CIOs participated in an informal, open dialogue. Most people wanted to know how enterprise companies in the room had gone about adopting the new subscription recurring revenue models. “Customers and prospects – even ones who had already implemented Zuora – still wanted more information about complexities across the entirety of the quote-to-cash process.”
Alvina started the conversation by talking about how her team used Zuora on Zuora to help sales automate its critical business processes. “The status-quo had worked for sales in the short-term, but we knew that manually creating quotes and orders would not remain sustainable as the company scaled. Running Zuora on the Zuora platform helped the sales team move from a physical price sheet to a product catalog within the company’s billing system. That quote-to-cash automation helped expedite the overall sales process. Plus, now that we’ve defined and documented the process, sales doesn’t have to rely on historical knowledge.”
Another VP of IT also shared his experience implementing proprietary technology in-house. “He had recently joined to focus on an initiative to use proprietary technology in-house. He was very transparent: to its own detriment, his company hadn’t invested in building expertise by embracing their own technology early on.” They’ve since ramped up efforts to develop not just base functionality, but the latest capability. “His story was important for two reasons: First, it demonstrated the urgency of strategically using your product in-house; and second, it told our audience that it wasn’t too late.”
Why analytics and technology systems integration is a must (for scaling and achieving single source of truth)
In recent years, the CIO role has evolved dramatically. According to Alvina, that evolution will continue – and even accelerate – so long as digital technology remains critical to enabling competitive business strategy.
“The manual processes that reigned for decades can no longer keep large organizations up to speed.” For that reason, the primary role of the new CIO is to innovate. “CIOs really have to question and re-think any process whose justification is ‘because it’s always been done this way.’ They have to push past resistance to change and present better options.
Growth often triggers the move beyond the status quo, but rapid expansion and reorganization often make it difficult to transition to new technology. “Companies who want to go public shouldn’t wait to invest in a CIO because it will be too little, too late.”
But using the right technologies in-house can only really benefit an organization if all those systems are integrated. As Alvina makes clear, “Internal architecture must be end-to-end.” Otherwise, organizations will lack a single source of data truth. “In order to develop an accurate perspective on business metrics, companies need to have integrated systems that present a clear and complete story. If every team is collecting and measuring data separately, it’s likely unreliable.”
At Zuora, every organization defines its KPIs and then feeds metrics into one source so that everyone gets the same answer to the same question, regardless of who runs the report. Had Zuora waited to integrate, things would have gotten messy.
“When we acquired Leeyo we had to return to our KPIs and make sure that the KPIs of Zuora teams and the KPIs of Leeyo aligned and that the data we measured them against lived in one place. Then, we gave each organization real time access to the data so that everyone stays on the same page.”
At the point of customer acquisition, a single source truth (SSOT) gives everyone at Zuora visibility into customer usage, customer revenue, and subscriber growth. “Without visibility into data, companies invest solely in acquiring new customers, missing out on the opportunity to upsell, retain, and understand their existing customer base, and extend their adoption as the product evolves.”
Those insights help customer success teams predict churn and allows sales to recognize opportunities with existing customers in real time through Salesforce. On top of that, a SSOT gives product the ability to identify new features that have traction with users and understand the issues impeding the usability of ones that don’t. “Unlike an advisory board of a few customers, a SSOT provides our product team with accurate data about the entire customer base.”
According to Alvina, a single source of data truth hasn’t just impacted the way individual teams work – it’s also impacted the way they collaborate with one another, too. Together, Zuora’s SSOT and the Zuora on Zuora initiative produced yet another innovation: a systemized way to give product recommendations. “The IT team recently built a ‘product feature request dashboard’ that allows the entire company to offer product input and gives the product team a set of suggestions to weigh against the existing priorities in the roadmap.”
Centralized and systematized, the forum speaks to Alvina’s beliefs about what properly equipped IT teams do for business: “We should always look to re-shape, streamline, and innovate. That’s how companies grow.”