John Thielens is the CTO of Cleo, a B2B integration company headquartered in Rockford, Illinois.
The company, founded in 1976, provides its 4,000 customers with access to an ecosystem integration software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, empowering them with smoother movement and integration of B2B enterprise data.
In June, it picked up an undisclosed funding round from alternative investment firm H.I.G Capital.
Cleo’s solution is another example of the growing importance of the cloud for businesses.
“Cloud computing’s importance has grown significantly in recent years,” as a recent GlobalData research report noted. “It has enabled the use of shared IT infrastructure and services to create a flexible, scalable, and on-demand IT environment.”
In this interview, the latest in our series of CTO Talks, Thielens tells us about how his mother nurtured his interest in technology, why people don’t trust Facebook and why CTOs and CFOs are not interchangeable.
Eric Johansson: Where did your interest in tech come from?
John Thielens: Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, my mother was an early software programmer, which was a rare profession for women at that time. Due to my mother working in that industry, I was exposed to the field and is what initially sparked my interest in technology and software development.
We used to make art projects out of her old punch cards and even factored quadratic equations at the dinner table together. In high school, I went to a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts that had a computer that I could tinker with. It was there that I started teaching myself how to program. To me, playing around with coding and computers was the equivalent to playing with Legos.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
I started my career as a developer and was at my first job at Burroughs for nine years before moving into the professional services field. Later on, I became a product manager at Tumbleweed and worked my way up until I became CTO there. Then, Tumbleweed was acquired by Axway, an integration company that began its shift to cloud during the time I was there. After Axway, I joined Cleo seven and a half years ago as the VP of technology to help build out its B2B integration platform and became the CTO two years later.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
Once we develop better and more usable AI, it has the most promise of emerging technologies. AI capabilities don’t amount to much until we efficiently process the massive amounts of data collected by it. That is an area where there is still great progress to be made. One of the main challenges we have with technology today is trust. Technology platforms are under immense pressure to perform flawlessly but if people do not trust the technology, it can’t benefit the population. In these cases, entrepreneurs and technology companies can end up retreating from some of the possible innovations they can offer the world because they are too afraid of failing due to lack of consumer trust.
How do you separate hype from genuine innovation?
If I can’t see first-hand how a technology works, I am less likely to believe that it works. When you’ve worked in the technology industry for as many years as I have, you develop a “Spidey sense” and can pick apart the technology to understand how it works on the back end. Plus, a large amount of code today is open source, so you can study and read up on these open-source projects that are advancing the tech industry to understand the how, not just the what. By getting my hands dirty I hope I can keep the hype at bay.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?
There are many tasks that roll up under the title of CTO. There are typically three kinds of CTOs: the technology founder CTO, the CTO of a technology product company, and the CTO of a non-technology company who acts more on the technical operations side – similar to a CIO’s role. For all CTOs, the position requires a lot of communication with internal teams and other executives.
This can be challenging for the CTOs that are more introverted than extroverted. You’re not the CFO or CEO, but you’re still helping to steer the ship toward a goldmine or away from a dangerous iceberg. To do this, you need be able to effectively communicate with others, translate tech jargon into metrics-driven business language, and ensure that the rest of the C-suite trusts the direction that you recommend for the company’s technology. This is done by explaining the how to get the team comfortable with what you’re saying.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
I mentioned this above, but managing humanity’s trust in technology is a major challenge today. How can we use technology to build trust in society in an era of mistrust and “fake news”? This trust can be built through companies, policies and people. This is why a lot of consumers don’t trust Facebook. They have a history with not being transparent about how they are collecting and managing user data. Data privacy goes hand in hand with trust. More recently, government regulations such as GDPR, CCPA and CPRA have passed to put the power of consent for data-sharing back into the users’ hands instead of Big Tech.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
About 10 years ago, my family was looking for a new dog and funny enough we found our dog on a reality TV show called It’s Me or the Dog. In the show, they train difficult, misbehaving dogs to adopt better behaviour, but in many cases, the dog’s poor behaviour patterns stem from its owner. My family’s video application was accepted by the producers, so we were invited to go on the TV show. It was a fun experience for my wife and me as well as the kids, and it gave us interesting insight into the behind-the-scenes reality TV production process. I believe the episode we’re on is still available on Amazon Prime.
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment and why?
In the post-Covid world and with Biden’s executive order, consumers have become much more aware of the back-end supply chain processes that are needed in order to make their daily lives happen. For example, when the giant ship was blocking the Suez Canal, even on the other side of the world, we can see the ripple effect, the impact on those supply chains all the way down to what we see missing on our grocery store shelves.
Cleo helps supply chain solution-providers become nimble when adjusting and overcoming hurdles in the supply chain. This is particularly urgent because the world is much less static than it used to be due to the political climate, security threats, climate change, and other factors. The phrase “no man is an is island” has never been truer than it is today. There is such interdependence amongst businesses in the supply chain ecosystem, who share the responsibility of moving essential goods across the world.
In another life you’d be?
In another life I would be a teacher. I think that would be a rewarding and fun career path. Teaching is also part of what I do as a CTO, when it comes to giving my teams advice and direction. Cleo in particular has a learning culture, which benefits both the company and our staff. It’s important to note also that good teachers are also continuous learners. Building relationships with your direct reports and teams and listening to them is an important part of being a leader.