Mark Tonnesen’s Function-First Approach

Neustar‘s Mark Tonnesen leads by instructing the what, not the how.

Neustar Inc. is a global information services provider and a leader in connection science, but it faces the same challenges as any other organization. For Mark Tonnesen, the chief information officer, chief strategy officer, and vice president of operations, the focus remains on the end consumer, and how to deliver a product better, faster, and cheaper.

“We may be selling our products and services through a B2B model, but we still have to consider the end consumer as we think about design, packaging, and delivering those products and services,” Tonnesen says. “To me, the new challenge is how we can package those in a way that we can deliver them faster, continuously meeting or exceeding their expectations, so we have the immediacy of new features and functions, or pricing and discounting and packaging together as one.”

Customers want new features continuously, incremental improvements that arrive as quickly as possible to make a difference today. Tonnesen notes that many large software organizations still rely on major, massive releases that take ages to come to market, and in many cases, the customer simply won’t tolerate the wait. The paradigm has changed.

As a result, Tonnesen has taken a functions-first approach to his work with NeuStar. He believes in clearly identifying standards and requirements, planning ahead when it comes to privacy and security, and reducing complexity in workflow. For him, providing security and privacy across any product, service, or application is what he calls “Security 101,” a necessity to be viable as a vendor. “That to me is job one,” he says. “If I can’t do that, there will be a new person in the seat. I’d be replaced if I couldn’t do that job, and it would be the right thing to do.”

But Tonnesen also considers time and cost when it comes to security, and he laments that when it comes to many legacy applications, layering in firewalls, intrusion detection, protection services, and other basics “become massively confusing.” Building and incorporating the right requirements from the start, he explains, is the only way to be competitive at the lowest price point.

“If I can design in security up front, design the right levels of control around the data, the right levels of control around the access, the right levels of control around reporting and action, then you have already probably solved 60—70 percent of the security challenge up front rather than having to go back and build security layers after the fact,” Tonnesen says.

One of the complexities Tonnesen has worked diligently to solve in his nearly two years with Neustar is dealing with multiple methodologies when it comes to internal development process. One model is a DevOps continuous development and integration model for developing software, while the other was “more of a waterfall.”

“Those two actually work at odds with each other,” he explains. “Within each of those development methodologies, we had common security requirements embedded, but also common design checkpoints, so think about quality control standards that you might assume in building out an automobile. Software isn’t really different. You still have to perform peer reviews on the software that you’ve written. You don’t just trust yourself as the tester of your own software, you look to the person to the left and right.”

For Neustar to remain competitive, the key was changing how they delivered that product or service via the infrastructure, not simply how they built software, a notion of  independence-versus-separation  that many companies have had to grapple with. “That to me was the big light bulb that had to go off in my group and across our engineering teams,” he says.

Prior to joining Neustar, Tonnesen faced a similar internal challenge as CIO with the gaming company Electronic Arts (EA) . Whether developing Tiger Woods PGA Tour or Bejeweled,  EA  was spread across numerous studios. Not only would each group develop their own, very different games, they each developed their own 3-D graphics engine. Tonnesen pushed the whole conglomerate to leverage the same graphical engine across every studio.

“It’s a very simple model to bring people together on a common goal, aligning on the common services, what components are going to actually fit together, and how we are going to deploy it and support it,” Tonnesen says. “I’m there to check in, ask questions, and make sure that we have covered all the bases, and I get tremendous results that way.”

This mindset is reflected in Tonnesen’s leadership style. On his staff, everyone needs an opinion and has the freedom to express how they wish to solve a problem, but everyone needs to be unified under the same mission.

“What my team and I need to understand is what we need to do or build, or the problem we’re trying to solve. What we don’t want to be told is how to do it,” Tonnesen says. “If we’re being told the what and the how, then it’s really more of a robotic process, and it’s not all that interesting, not that creative, not that motivating. I had my share of those kinds of leaders, and I’ve decided not to be one of those.”

He uses the analogy of rowing a boat: it doesn’t matter how fast you’re rowing or in what fashion, as long as you’re all rowing in the same direction. “I believe in involving people in the process and giving them enough freedom to figure that out, to help, to coach, and to mentor them,” he says. “You can go back to talk to any of the folks I’ve hired or who have worked for me, and I think you’ll get a very positive viewpoint that that’s the style they like to be led by. It’s worked really well. I get great results, and it really has never failed me.”