Startup lessons for traditional IT shops

Fast-growing companies like Square and MongoDB are driving IT innovation with leaner staffs, cloud-first computing, self-service everything and CTOs rather than CIOs.

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Idea No. 4: Fail fast, stay agile

At jewelry maker Alex and Ani, the internal IT group, at just under 40 people, is more akin to a traditional organisation, but there are still real differences in its approach to technology. The 300-plus-employee company, founded in 2005, hired its first-ever CTO about a year ago to oversee both internal IT, including a recent on-premises ERP implementation, as well as customer-facing initiatives, such as a new mobile point-of-sale system.

"It's fun to have the blended role, and it creates a much better and more cohesive technology stack for the company," says CTO Joseph Lezon. For instance, Alex and Ani has a sizable digital team focused on e-commerce and social media, which benefits from some of the initiatives undertaken internally, Lezon says. "When you have the CTO and CIO role blended, it gives you a cross-functional view of external and internal initiatives," he explains.

When you have the CTO and CIO role blended, it gives you a cross-functional view of external and internal initiatives. Joseph Lezon, Alex and Ani

Another stark difference between traditional IT shops and Alex and Ani's is that the team frequently test-drives technology and doesn't hesitate to pull the plug if something doesn't meet expectations. The company has that kind of flexibility, Lezon says, because with few enterprise systems in place, there are no integration points to create challenges.

"We have the ability to be nimble and do trial-and-error pilots," he explains. "If something works, great, if not, we move on to something else." It took multiple iterations, for example, to get the mobile point-of-sale system working to satisfaction, Lezon says. And an initiative to put video displays in stores, to help promote the brand, products and events, changed midstream to a different product when the initial implementation didn't work as expected, he says.

Without the legacy baggage and red tape that are the hallmarks of old-school enterprise IT, companies in startup mode have a lot more flexibility, allowing them to push the envelope and be far more innovative with IT.

"Corporate America is risk averse and is not encouraged to fail," Lezon says. "We, on the other hand, are moving at battle speed and are going to make mistakes. We just have to learn from them, pick up the casualties and move forward. We have a lot more leeway in what we can try in terms of innovation."

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