The I.T. Factor
We asked a panel of local technology experts to talk about IT, including trends in their respective industries, the projects they are working on, what’s on their wish lists, Westchester’s IT environment, and what’s keeping them up at night.
Photography by Stefan Radtke, Shot on location at Quorum Federal Credit Union, Purchase
914INC.: What are the biggest trends in your industry’s IT space right now?
George Cacchiani: First is advances in electronic payments, which have made payments more instantaneous. Person-to-person payment platforms like Venmo are disruptors, changing how people move money around. Another trend is big data and analytics. We are focusing on analyzing consumer behavior to drive predictive marketing campaigns, improve the consumer experience and boost cross-sell/up-sell opportunities. We want to understand the consumer experience in order to provide value-added services. As more and more data is gathered, the question becomes, how do you crunch that data to optimize business value?
Norman Jacknis, PhD: I’d list three things: The first one I call “clean up.” There are still lots of areas [of business] that have not been automated. The second thing is increased mobility, as workers and customers need access to things on iPads and smartphones. The third thing is a mix — a combination of big data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning; all of that comes together.
Robert Lanni: In the CPG industry, we are using technology to aid in consumer engagement on social media, with loyalty programs, direct selling, and building online communities. Also, cybersecurity is a trend that all industries are dealing with. The challenge is to provide convenient, flexible technology tools to employees and consumers without compromising the security of our systems.
Jean F. Coppola, PhD: Cyberse-curity has been an issue for a while, and it is not going to go away. My students are interested in the computer forensics side of that. They are also interested in machine learning — self-driving cars and the like.
John Moustakakis: Healthcare is expanding, and hospital networks are getting bigger, so interoperability is becoming more complex. We grew to 10 hospitals in two and a half years, and I have five different information-system platforms, so balancing interoperability — the costs of putting everybody on a single platform — is a major piece for me and the whole industry. Also security. In 2015–2016, one-quarter of all network breaches were in healthcare, so we are all obviously concerned with that.
“The CIO’s job is to consistently strive to market and sell its services and add value to the organization.... IT needs to understand where the business wants to go and help the business get there, in an optimized and secure fashion.”
—George Cacchiani, VP, Information Technology, Quorum Federal Credit Union
914INC.: What IT projects or initiatives in your institution are on your front burner right now and why? Is cloud technology part of your strategy?
Lanni: [We are focusing on] cybersecurity. Because of the recent boom in ransomware ransoms being paid, hackers have dramatically ramped up their attacks. Direct-to-consumer selling is also key, because our organization believes we can leverage this channel to learn more about our consumers. We have several cloud-based applications currently in place, supporting HR and payroll, consumer data, backups, and email.
Coppola: Our projects are in virtual reality [VR]. These days, you can go to the corner drugstore and pay $14.99 for a VR headset. Even my freshmen are designing VR apps, because my research shows that designing apps helps older adults improve quality of life — helping Alzheimer’s caregivers or helping seniors to remember their security passwords and things like that. The most exciting apps are to help rehabilitation. VR is becoming immersive, a part of medical rehab, and the focus is on helping spinal-cord and post-stroke rehab. It is very cool.
Moustakakis: We are replacing our electronic medical records system. With five different systems, trying to get one common system is a challenge. And we are making major investments in information security. As for the cloud, I can tell you that view is changing. With all the new threats coming constantly, organizations like ours, and especially smaller than ours, are not able to keep up with it. I am seeing a shift going to cloud because larger [providers], like Microsoft, can provide a safer, more secure [cloud-based] environment easier than you can, at least for healthcare.
Cacchiani: My two big things are projects on data harmonization and business intelligence, to support marketing and cross-selling. These are foundational projects, meant to answer the question: How do I exploit the data I have, to support key business initiatives? Regarding security, Quorum is planning an overall assessment to understand what our security gaps are against industry best practices in order to improve security.
There is no common industry definition of the cloud that applies across the board. Drive to the cloud is all about how IT can add value/do more, drive innovation and do it in a flexible, scalable, and cost-effective manner. I want the flexibility to free up my resources to [spend on] things that are more important. We outsourced our data center a couple years back, and we also went to a cloud-based phone- and call-center solution. That allowed us to work offsite during the big snowstorm [in March]. We are not tied to a specific piece of infrastructure that I need to own and control.
Jacknis: Everyone uses the cloud. All it means is using some remote computer that goes through the Internet. There are significant cost benefits to that, particularly on the startup side. I see startup projects using something like Amazon Web services because it is so easy to use, and they can scale easily. The issue is safety and privacy. The reality is, most CIOs realize that cloud providers have better security than people have in their own companies.
914INC.: Is the volatile state of the government/business climate affecting your IT decision-making, and if so, how?
Jacknis: It depends on the company. Multinational companies are used to moving [data] around [to different centers], but if there is more nationalism around the world, companies may set up data centers where we didn’t expect. But right now, at the corporate level, I think it’s “Let’s wait and see how it settles.” The immigration issue is a big one in IT. A lot of employees are foreign born, and there is concern and anxiety among foreign-born workers. They are not visiting families back home because they are afraid they can’t return.
Cacchiani: Regulatory change is an ongoing thing, especially in banking and finance. We deal with regulations all the time. We evaluate changes as they occur from a risk standpoint and treat them on a case-by-case basis.
Coppola: To a small degree. My earlier research was in telehealth. The question is whether [telehealth] is reimbursed by the healthcare system. The sooner it is approved, the more research we can do. Also, if anything affects NSF [National Science Foundation] funding, that affects the universities greatly.
“There is a great deal of change coming, and providers like us have to transform. It is very important to have the data and work with the data to plan for change, rather than to try to control change.”
—John Moustakakis, CIO & SVP, Information Systems, Westchester Medical Center
914INC.: Is Westchester County’s business environment forward-thinking in terms of IT, behind the curve, or somewhere in the middle?
Jacknis: We are not as forward as some of us would like. We are not Silicon Valley. I thought when IBM went through its troubles, we would see more spin-off companies, and I am still not sure why we didn’t. So we are somewhere in the middle. There are some efforts to help entrepreneurs, and more support would be helpful. That includes maybe a local angel-investment network — there is certainly enough money in Westchester for that. [Innovation] is happening, but the people who create the innovative “foam” are really on their own, without a lot of support.
Cacchiani: Probably in the middle. We need to look more closely at building a tech hub somewhere in Westchester, to bring in high-tech companies and skill sets. We should be aware of what the competition is doing, like around Stamford.
Coppola: I feel very fortunate to have [Westchester County Executive] Rob Astorino, who understands that IT is the name of the game. To work with his team on the [#WestchesterSmart Mobile App Development Bowl] as a true partner, I feel very fortunate to have a team like that. Also, the Westchester County Association got it right with the [upcoming project to bring] broadband Internet connections to Yonkers [New Rochelle, White Plains, and Mount Vernon]. I live in Queens, so I come as an outsider telling you that. I am impressed.
914INC.: When is the right time for business owners or IT managers to outsource IT functions? How do you decide what to outsource versus what to keep in-house?
Jacknis: I think [outsourcing] is no longer an issue. Businesses of all sizes are outsourcing, particularly because of the cloud. How do you decide? I am probably in the minority: Most people look at the particular financial decision, but my attitude is, if IT is not a strategic part of your company’s success, fine, outsource it. If it is, you need to keep that in-house.
Lanni: For startup companies, outsourcing to cloud-based service providers, like Office365 and Azure, makes a lot of sense because you don’t have a legacy investment in systems and IT infrastructure. However, for established businesses, a periodic cost-benefit analysis should be done to determine if it makes sense. You ultimately need to compare things like cost, control, regulatory requirements, and flexibility, to make the right decision.
Moustakakis: I am for hosting hardware elsewhere. That requires a large investment on infrastructure and data centers, staff, and a high level of expertise. On the managed-services side, some bring in a [partner like] Dell to provide those services, but I am not for that. The main reason is, having internal staff gives you more flexibility. In healthcare, I need the flexibility to open a new unit when we are busy, and I can’t work with a contract that says they need three days’ notice.
“Cybersecurity is a current trend that all industries are dealing with. The challenge is to provide convenient, flexible technology tools to employees and consumers without compromising the security of our systems.”
—Robert Lanni, CIO & SVP, Combe Inc.
914INC.: If your IT budget were limitless, what would be on your wish list and why?
Coppola: I’d put more into securing systems. You don’t want to be the next Yahoo, the next company that gets hit. You don’t want to be on the front page of the papers [because of something like that].
Cacchiani: With all the money in the world, I would spend more on the planning side, to be sure we can build what we need to execute.
Jacknis: One issue with budgets is the push and pull between maintaining what you have and investing in new technology. As a CIO, I was aggressive in throwing old things out, but a lot of CIOs don’t have the power to do that. Many of them would like to do new things because 70 percent of their budget is just maintaining old things.
Lanni: I would invest in IT R&D to expand the use of artificial intelligence, robotics, and home automation — the Internet of Things. All of these technologies will have an increased impact on how we work, play, shop, socialize, and live. Plus, I think they are cool.
914INC.: What are the most common mistakes made by business owners or managers, regarding IT needs?
Jacknis: Fear. From fear, you don’t ask tough questions because you are afraid of looking stupid. Fear doesn’t let you figure out how to use IT as a business tool, to better satisfy customers.
Lanni: One, non-IT people think that if they can set up a home router and use a smartphone, then they understand IT. IT is way more complicated than that. Two, overreacting to what they read in the media about the latest technology buzzword and rushing to implement it.
Coppola: Not listening to the people running the help desk. That’s where your problems are. If the people [higher up in the firm] did more listening, they could plan ahead properly.
Moustakakis: Finding the balance between the perceived need and cost, and the actual value. Say we spend $450 million so that a small hospital we acquire has the same system we do. Then you peel the onion and learn that only a small percentage of patients flow between the two hospitals. So, is this investment worth it? The value may sometimes not warrant that cost.
Cacchiani: The biggest mistake or challenge is treating IT as a cost center, like a necessary evil. The CIO’s job is to consistently strive to market and sell its services and add value to the organization. IT is a critical part of business continuity. IT needs to understand where the business wants to go and help the business get there, in an optimized and secure fashion.
“In 10 years, we can’t be afraid to embrace technology and use it in the right ways.”
—Jean F. Coppola, PhD, Associate Professor, Information Technology, Pace University
914INC.: Is there enough IT talent in Westchester to fill your needs, or is there a talent gap?
Cacchiani: The tech talent seems sufficient, but it is hard to find candidates who have business-consulting skills along with that. I hire people with tech skills and the soft skills or the potential to learn those soft skills. That means they can assess a problem and make a recommendation to solve it. If you want to be at the table with high-level business people, you need those consulting skills.
Jacknis: There is not enough talent. Demand is great at all levels, and there is a great gap to be filled in a variety of ways. A lot of people need training. I ask librarians to be prepared, so that if someone asks, “How do I learn programing?” they can point them to the right places online. We haven’t jumped [on training opportunities] as much as other places.
Coppola: We put students out there, and they get amazing [IT] jobs. There are always more jobs than students.
Moustakakis: We are in a good spot. We have people who live in Westchester and have acquired [IT] skills in New York City, and they would love to work close to home. We just got a security architect from Wall Street — just amazing — and he lives in Armonk.
914INC.: What are the biggest challenges in your industry’s IT space? What is keeping you up at night?
Cacchiani: Information security is number one. There are an enormous amount of scenarios every day, with phishing, DDoS attacks, etc. We are not CitiBank, but who is to say we’re not next or that our controls and policies are sufficient to prevent an attack? The other thing is my department’s ability to meet expectations for business initiatives when things move so quickly. How can I be agile enough to help some new initiative that is on the drawing board? To what degree am I meeting those expectations?
Jacknis: Hacking and cyberthreats keep a lot of people up at night. If you are the CIO, and your company is hacked, that’s an issue. Also, major outages. These systems are so complex. Catastrophic things keep us all up at night.
Lanni: “Data sprawl” is a growing problem. Most employees have at least three devices — a smartphone, a tablet, and a laptop — and add in thumb drives and cloud-based data repositories, like Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud, and Google Drive, and soon your corporate data is everywhere. A partnership between IT and business users needs to be established to protect corporate data.
Moustakakis: Whenever you make a [technology] change, you risk that patient care is impacted or finances are impacted. Cybersecurity and its focus on healthcare, specifically, does actually keep me up at night.
“The reality is, most CIOs realize that cloud providers have better security than people have in their own companies.”
—Norman Jacknis, PhD, Senior Fellow, Intelligent Community Forum
914INC.: If you could go back in time 10 years, what would you do differently to get your organization to a better place today?
Jacknis: When I was with Westchester County [Jacknis served more than 10 years as CIO and commissioner of the county], we were early with analytics and big data. Also speech recognition. We were ahead of the time. But we didn’t carry it through and apply it across the board. We should have made a bigger push there.
Cacchiani: I would have outsourced key systems and solutions to the cloud earlier, and put more emphasis on an information-security roadmap. Taking a more holistic view across our entire security infrastructure would have resulted in a more comprehensive, enterprise-wide solution that is more flexible, less costly, and would provide for better overall security.
Moustakakis: I would have built an analytics function earlier, to be able to do predictive analytics and business intelligence. There is a great deal of change coming, and providers like us have to transform. It is very important to have the data and work with the data to plan for change, rather than to try to control change.
Lanni: A real investment in applications for digital-asset management, artwork approval, and product-lifecycle management would have helped us as an organization.
914INC.: Where do you see your industry’s IT 10 years from now?
Cacchiani: From a banking perspective, I see more blurring of the lines between banking services. I foresee consumers going à la carte between deposit products and lending products, based on convenience, experience, then pricing. This is with the expectation that the consumer will be easily able to process transfers and payments easily and in real-time across institutions. Other non-banking companies [e.g., PayPal and Venmo] may draw consumers for certain products, because of ease of use or convenience. They can be more nimble, and as they become more trusted, people may not stick to a traditional bank. Also, I hope we’ll see a lot of advances in security.
Jacknis: I think we will see lot more AI and robotics — situations in which work is being augmented by software and hardware. Also, we haven’t yet seen casual visual-based conversation technology, where a virtual conversation is almost like a real one. I tell people our use of Internet communications today is like the phone company in 1920. We will get to the point where it is a lot more casual.
Coppola: We will have to worry about privacy [because of invasive technologies]. There will be the self-driving car, which I welcome. I think it will be especially helpful for the elderly, who make up 20 percent of the population, especially in Westchester. In fact, younger people will have to understand older people’s tech needs. I teach my students to feel 72 years old, to program for people generations above them. In 10 years, we can’t be afraid to embrace technology and use it in the right ways.
Moustakakis: We are seeing a blossoming in the treatment and diagnostic areas. I see a great deal of change in our service lines and the technology that will support our service lines. For example, a radiologist used to get 60 images per study; now it’s 3,000. I need the technology to store all those images.