Shutterstock CIO on Leadership: Reduce the Cycle of Fear- Valutrics

Shutterstock grew so fast it needed to move into the cloud quickly to avoid becoming preoccupied with operations of its 56 data centers.

For a CIO who believes that “people spend more time figuring out how not to do something, rather than doing it,” David Giambruno at Shutterstock has been a remarkably successful. If you heard him speak May 19 at Interop ITX, you might even say he’s an inspirational leader.

He is doubtful that being in a position of authority and having the best interests of the company at heart is enough. He is a disbeliever that things will turn out all right. Something more is needed — a dash of showmanship, and cynicism, as well. In June 2016, he was brought in as CIO at Shutterstock to help bring the right technologies to bear on the business.

Giambruno, also a senior VP of Shutterstock, found a company that was trying to rapidly adapt to Web-scale operations. It originated in 2003 with founder Jon Oringer adding dozens of photos a day – most of them taken by himself – to They were images that could be downloaded for a small fee and used in advertising or in connection with other commercial publications, displacing the $500 images that companies used to acquire from Getty Images. Within a year, had 30,000 images, taken mostly by Oringer.

Then the company hired a photo director in 2004-2005 and $100-a-day models for everything from pictures of Central Park picnics to fine dining and enthusiastic coffee consumption. Shutterstock sold more images, now at a low monthly subscriptions of $49. In 2012, the company went public.  In March 2016, instead of Oringer taking the pictures, ShutterStock had 100,000 image contributors uploading pictures at the rate of three a second, and 1.4 million customers downloading images as needed. It had also added a broad video collection to its offerings.

Growth and its challenges

In mid-2016, Gianbruno understood both the challenges and the pitfalls at a company having made it that far. Much of what the IT staff had learned in the previous phase might now stand in the way of the next thing it needed to do.

In a session at Interop ITX, Building a Next Generation, API-driven Infrastructure for Scaling Growth, Giambruno described some of the tactics he employed to get Shutterstock where it needed to go. He isn’t one to stand on ceremony or the respected way of doing things. It’s not IT’s job to look smart and act professional. It’s IT’s job “to enable the business to turn around and move forward,” he said. As for the much vaunted Information Technology Infrastructure Library way of doing things, “ITIL is for idiots,” he said.

Want to learn more about flexible IT management? See Under Pressure, IT May Need to Fail Fast With Some Projects.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the problem of change is that the path forward isn’t clear. That induces fear in part of a staff and outright resistance among an estimated 10%. One of the IT manager’s challenges is “to take the fear out of the cycle…Show the people what can be done.”

Shutterstock needed to be able to keep up with young competitors, like VideoBlock, which were bypassing Shutterstock’s build-out of its own infrastructure in favor of starting out in Amazon Web Services. He knew Shutterstock needed to use the expandable storage, networking and easy access of the cloud and reduce its reliance on its own data centers.

One of his operational principles was to avoid distractions and “time-suckers,” where they might occur. “Focus on the outcomes,” he coached his staff.

To do that, the staff had to stop fixing internal data center problems and start making the cloud infrastructure work for them. Shutterstock spent 12 months transforming its applications, with all but five moving into the cloud. Then over a period of four months, Shutterstock closed 54 data centers, leaving two still in operation, and moved into AWS.

The result: Its operations have experienced .999999% (six nines) uptime and it’s avoided $70 million in additional costs it would have encountered if it continued to run its own data centers, he said at the Interop session.

“You need time to innovate and transform the company. There’s no time to fix things. Getting to software-defined everything means massive efficiency,” he said. The cloud offers that efficiency if the IT staff can migrate its applications there and learn the ropes of operating its infrastructure. Staff developers need to learn to build their next generation applications using API-based services in the cloud.

Enable greatness

“Creating the environment for innovation takes a lot of energy” on the part of IT leadership, he continued. “As a leader, it is my job to make people great, not just do great things. Doing something great is way easier than being great,” he said.

The environment for innovation is also the environment in which the company will transform itself into a player in the digital economy, said Giambruno, but it requires changes in traditional IT thinking. The staff has to be willing to try to do things and sometimes fail. “Make people feel safe” as they do that, is one of his rules of transformation.

Try to allow business teams the chance to “see and think about what can be done,” now that there are technologies that can reach people and deliver services in new ways. Show examples of what can be done “to start the discussion,” then encourage one step after another to drive continuous improvement.

To illustrate the change he used an irreverent quote he once heard: “How did God create the universe in seven days? No legacy infrastructure.”

Operations in the cloud flip the previous ratio between maintenance and innovation/new applications. Now Shutterstock IT spends 25% of its time on legacy infrastructure, 75% of its time on moving forward, he said. To emphasize innovation, he installed sliding doors at the entrance of the headquarters data center which made a sound that mimicked those on Star Trek. The stunt cost $40,000 but they became a hit, an overt symbol of the new Shutterstock and its ability to innovate. Giambruno was congratulated on the move, although he had harbored suspicions that he could be fired for the expenditure.