Gina Harris Brings Sparkle Back to Technology at Talking Rain

When Gina Harris joined beverage company Talking Rain, her mission was clear: help elevate the business’ IT department from an order-taking utility to a collaborative business partner.

Harris is the director of IT for Talking Rain Beverage Company, the maker of Sparkling Ice flavored water, one of the fastest-growing nonalcoholic beverage brands in the United States. When Harris got to Talking Rain in 2014, there was a small IT team that worked hard to provide great customer service and manage business operations and infrastructure. But the 2010 launch of Sparkling Ice made it tough for the IT department and other business units at Talking Rain to sustain and scale operations with the company’s rapid growth.

She wasted no time developing relationships with her new IT colleagues to build trust and get a feel for their backgrounds, skills, experiences, concerns, interests, and career aspirations. She also spoke with the heads of other business units within the company to gauge their expectations of IT going forward.

“It’s a lost opportunity when companies consider IT a utility,” Harris says. “In nearly every industry, businesses rely on IT to deliver innovative products and services differentiated from competitors and to achieve operational excellence. I don’t want to lead a team of order takers. My goal is to foster a team of IT professionals who can work closely with their counterparts in every business function to improve processes and then automate where we can.”

“It’s a lost opportunity when companies consider IT a utility. . . . I don’t want to lead a team of order takers. My goal is to foster a team of IT professionals who can work closely with their counterparts in every business function to improve processes and then automate where we can.”

Her research resulted in a long list of needs and unmet demands. Fortunately, she inherited a team that was open to her business-first approach to delivering technology services and solutions.

“Coaching and mentoring a team eager to learn helped us achieve remarkable outcomes,” Harris says. “We huddled together to develop a list of IT-related enterprise risks and then brainstormed and researched options for mitigating them. Our initial goal was to enhance technology resilience to prevent business disruption.”

Although Harris’s team was enthusiastic about making an impact on the company, it was skeptical, too. Some of the more seasoned IT employees warned Harris that she wouldn’t get the funding needed to make significant improvements.

Harris refused to believe that the task would be impossible. Instead, she told her team that often great ideas aren’t adopted because they aren’t communicated well.

“I stressed the importance of simplifying our messaging to highlight business risk and to share good, better, and best options for technology investments to mitigate those risks,” Harris says. “The objective is to educate the leadership team about the business implications of the current state of its IT and to provide priced options to expedite decision making.”

From the Rainy Pacific Northwest to Talking Rain

Gina Harris holds a high-profile IT position now, but her career path could have taken a much different turn. She earned a BA in English composition at the University of Washington and planned to move to New York to work in the publishing industry. When she met her husband, she opted to stay in Seattle and kept working at the bank that employed her throughout college. It was there she got her first taste of the IT industry; she had the opportunity to be trained as an IT auditor, and the rest is history. She went on to earn her MBA from the University of Washington, which has proven beneficial to connecting with the business to deliver IT value.

Harris’s first attempt to test her clear-messaging theory was to propose migrating Talking Rain’s on-premise ERP system to the cloud. When she started at the company, it was running on servers housed in a drywall closet under a sprinkler.

Harris asked her team if Talking Rain’s executives knew that was where the servers were. Her team said yes, but they also said executives would never pay for anything different. That wasn’t good enough for Harris, so she challenged her team to come up with better options and to present them with her five-slide approach. She conveyed that the IT team is entrusted to safeguard the company’s computing environment and ensure minimal disruptions to business operations. Harris’s goal was to educate company leadership about the opportunity to significantly enhance the security and scalability by moving computing to Microsoft Azure. Even if company management decided not to act on their recommendation and instead invest in competing, higher-priority projects, at least they’d be aware of the risks.

“We worked on vetting options and then put a pitch deck together to clearly articulate the current state and proposed future state of IT at the company,” Harris explains. “It was interesting to work with the team and show them how to construct their message for a business audience and to create a reusable, five-slide pitch deck to provide good, better, and best options for mitigating business risk.”

The presentation went so well that the company not only approved moving the system from the closet, but it also approved the best recommended option: migrating to the Microsoft Azure cloud. The IT department rode the momentum of that approval to get approval to replace the company’s twenty-year-old phone system, too, and to improve the company’s Internet connectivity in order to expand Talking Rain’s bandwidth and implement load-balancing and automated failover.

“After we shored up infrastructure technology resilience, we moved on to address unmet needs in the value chain,” Harris says. In a little more than two years, she and her team implemented systems for research-and-development, quality, sales, marketing, legal, and human resources. “It has been rewarding to so swiftly move the business forward with technology enablement,” Harris explains. “We’ve researched favored solutions of other companies in the food and beverage industry, and we’ve moved from one business unit to the next to achieve operational efficiencies. It’s been a really fun ride.”