Robert Hart, Head of Canadian Cloud Council

Robert Hart knows the power of cloud computing to disrupt the enterprise and the entire IT infrastructure industry. The founder & CEO of Politik and former head of the Canadian Cloud Council discusses what the ubiquity of the wired world means for the industry and his plans for Interzone, a three-day conference featuring some of North America’s top tech leaders.

Sync: You described the Canadian Cloud Council as “the planet’s most disruptive vendor-neutral cloud revolutionists.” Why?

We started the organization because, at the time, I was CEO for a cloud-computing company that was attempting to go to market with something that was quite revolutionary at the time, at least in Canada. We created an infrastructure-as-a-service platform built on open-source technology that allowed customers to self-provision elastic cloud-computing resources. We were having challenges convincing anyone that this is way the world was going, so I decided to create a vendor-neutral, not-for-profit organization focused on advancing the cloud conversation, and the industry in general, in North America.

Sync: What does that conversation look like?

In 2011, we were having a lot of tactical conversations with CIOs about cloud computing, and many people we talked to were missing the point about what cloud computing can accomplish outside of a data center. Cloud computing can function in a way that allows many interesting things to happen within an enterprise. It can create massive societal changes, enormous wealth, and help solve big, big issues. You look at what Elon Musk is doing right now, open sourcing all of his technologies and patents to the open market—this is really cool stuff. You can imagine how this has the potential to completely transform how we live, in a very positive way. This is why I love the concept of cloud computing and how it has very little to do with technology but rather the massive outcomes it supports.

Sync: Cloud computing means many things to many people. How do you define it for yourself?

It’s supposed to be a democratized, shared, and open-source platform. I always go back to NIST’s [Nation Institute of Standards and Technology] definition: information technology resources that are open source, on demand, built using multitenant infrastructure, and elastic. By that definition, Amazon is a cloud-computing company. Google and HP are cloud-computing companies. VMware or other virtualization-centric companies, maybe not. These companies offer something called private or on-premises cloud, which is not easily always elastic or available on demand. Companies that market virtualization as cloud computing have caused a tremendous amount of confusion in the market.

“Cloud computing can function in a way that allows many interesting things to happen within an enterprise. It can create massive societal changes, enormous wealth, and help solve big, big issues.”

Sync: What was the Canadian Cloud Council’s role in clearing up that confusion?

The cCc fought against a big, evil group of companies I refer to as the IT cartel, because they’re out there pitching their solutions as cloud-computing solutions, when, in fact, they’re not. They’re the exact opposite. Cloud computing is powering all of the big Internet companies, of course—the Googles, the Facebooks, the Yahoos of the world—and allowing them to grow their user bases and reach out to them quickly, at a low cost. A company like Facebook could not profitably exist without access to true cloud infrastructure.

Sync: What does that infrastructure look like in Canada?

Canada is a small country and doesn’t have access to the same kind of cloud-computing infrastructure that the US does. There’s been a lot of controversial dialogue around whether it makes economic sense to build and create more data-safe ecosystems, to persuade some of these big US Internet companies to establish operations here and move some of their data centers out of the US ecosystem that seems to be heavily monitored and almost monetized through the US government and the NSA. I know that’s controversial, but this is a topic I read about a lot these days.

Sync: Is Interzone going to address that?

I think we’ll touch on the big debate—is the Internet a global economic platform? Should there be global legislation to completely remove barriers of data privacy and remove legislation that gives more or less data access to some countries than others? Or should things be closed off a little, and countries create separate and specific data legislation around privacy that would create more economic opportunities for countries like Canada? It’s an interesting conversation and, quite frankly, a very divisive one right now. This is the biggest economic opportunity since the Industrial Revolution, and in some ways, the NSA and others have created it. But don’t call me a conspiracy theorist.

Sync: Has this evolution caused tension?

Absolutely. One of the panels we’re putting on at Interzone asks whether enterprise organizations even require a dedicated IT department when it is so easy for any other business unit within an organization to gain access to the IT infrastructure that dedicated IT functions used to grant access to, such as data. In large enterprises, many CIOs we talk to are still, let’s say, older people who have substantial backgrounds in IT infrastructure and maybe not in business or marketing. I think what today’s CEO expects is for the IT department to provide strategic outcomes related to value differentiation, revenue development, customer engagement—things that a CEO cares about because they no longer see the value of devoting a large budget to IT infrastructure, because you just don’t need it anymore. You can find this infrastructure everywhere.

Sync: So why the change from the cCc to Politik?

Cloud computing was becoming an irrelevant discussion. It was apparent that there was no longer any other type of viable computing and no other type of viable business model. Our dialogue needed to shift to the discussion of how we create open, societal changing, value differentiating, and monetizable technology. As this is a global issue, not just a Canadian one, a restructuring was needed.

Sync: That mind-set is causing friction?

One of the things we’re going to tackle at Interzone with some very smart people, including the chief technology officer of Warner, is whether the management of IT
infrastructure should be outsourced to service providers. Then the CIO could run a smaller department that is more intrinsically tied to marketing and revenue objectives, and the company would bring a person into that role who has a background in business and can create strategic outcomes rather than just run operations. That causes friction. A guy who used to manage, in a big company, thousands of people to run IT, doesn’t want to give up that empire and is fighting the cloud tooth and nail. It’s happening very quickly, and it’s interesting and kind of fun to watch.

Sync: It sounds like the role of a CIO could change quite a bit.

There are many CIOs fighting the change who want to control their empire and convince the CEO that they’re the smartest guys in the company, the only guys with the skill set to run this stuff effectively. It’s simply no longer the case. The role of the CIO will change substantially even over the next twelve months, to the point where it is entirely possible that very few organizations continue to run dedicated IT departments in the next five years.

Sync: What does that mean for professionals entering the industry?

If I were coming out of university right now with a computer science degree, I would work for a company that’s actually providing these functions to enterprises. I would rather work for Salesforce or Facebook than for an oil and gas company that is trying to run a protected, dedicated IT shop. What a boring job. Who would you rather work for—Facebook or Suncor?

Sync: A hip, new tech magazine?

[Laughs.] Learning to code is always a great idea. If I were a coder coming out of school right now, I’d try to become an entrepreneur, building apps on a phone. Just look at the companies that Zuckerberg has acquired. Some of these ideas—it’s not that they’re amazing or original, yet people are making billions of dollars when they’re acquired by Facebook. It’s an amazing time to be a tech entrepreneur. We are the rock stars of the modern era.