[Techie Tuesday] NTT Data CTO Kris Fitzgerald believes being open to change is what keeps him going

In this week’s Techie Tuesday, we feature Kris Fitzgerald, CTO of Tokyo-based NTT Data. Starting at a time when technology was still not mainstream, Kris believes it is ever-changing, and there is a tech solution for every problem.

For Kris Fitzgerald, who started his career in the 1970s, technology was something new and not embedded in everyday life. Since then, the world today has shifted 180 degrees, and so has his interaction with technology. Today, Kris calls himself a complete geek at heart with a deep love for sci-fi and technology. 

The CTO of Tokyo-based global IT services giant NTT Data, Kris started his career in tech sales for IBM in Nebraska, USA, in 1977

With a finance and MBA background, he says his interest in technology started much later in his professional life. It was client engagements that got Kris interested in IT, and also his interest to help people solve their problems.

Kris Fitzgerald, CTO, NTT Data

Today, being the CTO of a company, Kris, however, doesn’t build things from scratch. He provides the thought leadership, funding, and supports clients for the teams to acquire, build, and deploy solutions that change what is offered to the clients.  

“In the past three years, as the CTO, there has been a significant increase in the area of innovation and R&D use. Again, I am very passionate about helping our clients solve problems through information technology, and if there isn’t a solution yet, let’s invent one. This is why our Open Innovation Contest is so important,” says Kris. 

In an interaction with YourStory, Kris charts his journey from working for sales at IBM to working on various tech platforms and solutions and then starting up in the tech space. He says the best part of technology is that it is always growing

The first computer that Kris developed his product in middle school

Building tech in a different era

Born in Denver, Colorado, Kris’ father was a banker and his mother was a school teacher.

According to Kris, he was in middle school when he saw a computer for the first time. “When I was in middle school, my math classes were taught using computers, teaching us basic development, and it sparked my interest,” says Kris. 

While at school, the first thing he built was a product to solve an algebra problem. Using a mainframe time-sharing system, with a paper tape teletype, Kris developed an application that helped solve the problem using a mainframe time-sharing system, with a paper tape teletype. 

But unlike now, technology in the 70’s was different.

Kris says, “We used a limited set of technologies, and personalisation happened only because the person serving you, knew you. Now, every aspect of our lives, both business and IT, are enabled by IT/technology. You have more power in your phone than the “systems” we used in the 70’s. We are now connected at all times, not just in the office. But, in some ways, we understand less of how IT/Technology works, than we did before. Also, IT/technology has flattened the world. We shop globally, we learn virtually, everyone has access. As such, everyone has a chance to grow and succeed.”

Starting with sales 

Interestingly, his work in technology began much later in his career. Kris says, it didn’t happen until he joined IBM. In fact, he completed his bachelor's in Finance from the University of Nebraska, and then went on to do an MBA at Emory University, Goizueta Business School.

“It was during the training and subsequent client engagements that my interest in IT really came to be. I also realised that I loved helping people solve their problems – I had a skill for being able to hear the challenge and break down for people – using IT – how to solve it. If there wasn’t a way to solve it then I would come up with an idea that we could create together – that’s what makes me so passionate about the work I do today,” says Kris. 

The computer Kris used in college

With his keen interest in IT, in 1981, Kris moved out of sales to be the manager of a shared ATM network in Texas. Here, he was a part of the core team that was responsible for the formation of the PULSE ATM Network, including the initial design and implementation of the network.

A man who has donned many hats, Kris believes it is important to keep experimenting and trying different things - especially in technology. And that, he says, is what keeps him going. 

“I would work on different software and try different things. Because that is what you need to do as a techie,” says Kris. 

He says, the best part is that technology is also always growing. Kris believes, as an engineer along with domain expertise and the ability to understand and solve a problem, you need to have multiple experiences, and work well in a team. 

Working on different systems 

In his nearly four-decade career, Kris has worked on building and working with different hardware platforms like IBM Mainframe, Sun and IBM Unix, Windows and Linux x86, and Tandem (POS). He has also worked and built various software platforms and solutions - for Oracle (DB PeopleSoft and Integration), SAP, Salesforce, MSFT (Azure, .Net and Dynamics), and IBM (WebSphere). 

Kris also comes with expertise in technology and business in telecommunications (voice mail systems, front and back office), financial services (ATM, POS), retail (POS, Catalog, Store Systems, back office, HR, eCommerce), staffing (staffing management, back office, ecommerce, payroll and integration), and IT Services (workforce management, collaboration).  

However, despite his long career, Kris’ first startup experience was in 1983 with Buypass, a Point of Sale (PoS) company. It was here that he got over a decade’s experience in building systems, creating processes and tech that helped the company grow. 

At Buypass, he directed a company-wide product and process re-engineering to improve financial performance by about 20-25 percent over five years. According to him, he also managed the product and system consolidation at three companies - Buypass, CoreStates PoS, and Amherst Group Inc. 

Kris with his classmates at his MBA batch

Keen to learn more

Kris says, what helped him was: “the desire for new knowledge – as a leader in IT/technology, you can never stop learning. The world is moving too fast. You must not only learn but be open to having what you have learned be changed dramatically.”

By 1994, Kris had made his mark in the tech space, and went on to become the CIO for Octel Network Services, where he developed an information systems plan, which called for the total replacement of all major systems and functions.  

“While systems growth and workload increased 400 percent, I kept the IS team growth to only 200 percent. Soon, I joined OfficeMax as Chief Development Officer. OfficeMax had a large number of small or homegrown systems, which were loosely connected. This included merchandising, advertising, store, ecommerce, back office, and catalogue systems. I went ahead to develop an overall systems architecture, systems discipline, and reduced turnover of the IS team. This included the acquisition of the first retail implementation of SAP,” says Kris. 

And in 1998, Kris got his first exposure in the world of ecommerce and IT. He worked on the launch of a Canadian-wide ecommerce platform for the AirMiles loyalty programme at Alliance Data.

And after nine years, in 2007, Kris joined Dell Services, which is now a part of NTT Data services, where he went on to build and lead the first IT Strategy Consulting offer for Dell Services. He was also responsible for the development of Dell Services Cloud and the Cyber Security Programme. 

Kris says: “I also led an IT strategy practice and delivered full, end-to-end IT strategy for Dell services clients. This included manufacturing, banking, supply chain, and healthcare.”

Leveraging tech to solve a larger problem

As the CTO at NTT Data, Kris believes that being able to relate to a broad range of industries increases one’s value. He says, it is important to recognise patterns and associate them across industries. 

At present, he is working to see if technology can impact a large section of the society, where the focus is on providing healthcare to the underprivileged. 

And this, Kris believes, is a global problem. There is a large part of the global population that doesn’t have access to medical care or doctors. “How can technology change that? Is it an app? Is it ensuring better connectivity? The idea is to work on the problem and find an impactful solution,” says Kris. 

Currently, NTT Data is working in six key areas (AI, Intelligent Automation, Customer Experience, IoT, Optimise IT (cloud, DevSecOps, Apps, IT) and Cybersecurity. For example, they are using artificial intelligence for medical cost management, AI for operations technology management via IoT, IT operations automation, virtual health, and many more.

Being open to change 

As a techie, Kris believes one should be open to change. “Based on the rapidly changing landscape, it is important to understand, internalise, and then share or lead the adoption of new technologies, while enabling your team,” says Kris. He adds that another important quality is to be good a communicator. Kris says, 

“Perhaps, one of the most important factors is the ability to put thoughts/messages into presentations/documents and to share it with team members and clients. You must be able to relate the impact of what you are seeing, what it means for the receiver, and why they should participate.” 

Advising techies, he says, he looks for people who are open for new cultures. “This isn’t a job for someone who doesn’t want to see or experience new people, places, or things.”

He adds, “Find an area of interest, acquire knowledge, deliver work that helps your employer, their clients, and also helps others. Do not limit the jobs/industries you look at. Be open to change. Make a positive impact on the world.” 

(Edited by Megha Reddy)