The mantra of CA Technologies' Donald Ferguson: Simplify

Each week we are asking chief technology officers and other high-profile tech decision-makers three questions.

Dr Donald Ferguson, CTO of CA Technologies Dr Donald Ferguson, CTO of CA Technologies: "The biggest problem is the complexity of IT"

Answering today is Dr Donald Ferguson, chief technology officer of business software firm CA Technologies, which specialises in IT management software that helps companies to stay in control of their IT systems.

CA Technologies, once known as Computer Associates, is based in the United States, with headquarters in Islandia, New York, and employs 13,200 people. During the past financial year the company had a turnover of $4.3bn (£2.7bn) that generated a net profit of $771m.

What's your biggest technology problem right now?

There are many people that think I'm the biggest problem right now [chuckles].

But the biggest problem is the complexity of IT. If you look at any IT in business, it is so complex it hinders the ability to be agile and efficient. Throughout the history of IT we all have said that we will make it simpler by adding more things to it, but that makes it more and more complex.

IT departments spend 75% to 85% of their budgets just to keep existing IT environments running; that leaves little capacity for innovation.

So we have to simplify IT, but that's really hard. I have actually brought in people who have experience designing user interfaces for consumer software, to get this knowledge into the design of our new products.

Cloud computing can help with reducing complexity, but we have to make that move to the cloud really simple. We have to create product insight that allows us to look at an existing IT environment and see what are the dependencies, what can be moved to the cloud. Then we have to compare cloud services, see which are best for which applications.

Managing cloud services is like managing a supply chain, or an outsourcing deal. You can't control what the cloud provider is doing, but we have software to do the IT control management and bring it together with contract management.

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What's the next big tech thing in your industry?

The next big thing is the optimisation of managing data centres and networks. If you monitor a situation and want to automate the decision how to correct a problem, if this automation makes a mistake then you repeat the mistake over and over again. Optimisation of this process will avoid that.

Secondly, there is the democratisation of IT. Once there was a small caste of people that managed software. You would have to petition them to write an application you need. Then you had to petition the IT team to host the app. Now we have a new generation of workers with fairly sophisticated IT skills who can create these apps themselves.

I call it end-user programming.

Once there were a few hundred apps running on a company's servers, each used by thousands of people, and the IT team hoped for slow change of these apps. In the future, there will be tens of thousands of apps, each used by a small group. Companies like Salesforce.com with its force.com platform allow everybody to write apps.

End users will provide the applications, and we will provide just the feed, the data, the callable APIs [that power the apps].

Cloud computing will be a platform for these services.

What's the biggest technology mistake you ever made - either at work or in your own life?

When I was at IBM, I started a product called Websphere [which helps companies to operate and integrate business applications across multiple computing platforms].

Because I had come from working on big mission-critical systems, I thought it needs to be scalable, reliable, have a single point of control ... I tried to build something like a mainframe, a system that was capable of doing anything, that would be able to do what might be needed in five years.

I call it the endgame fallacy. It was too complex for people to master. I overdesigned it.

Because we were IBM, we survived it, but if we'd been a start-up, we'd have gone to the wall.

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