Sign up

By submitting this form, I agree to these terms and conditions.

Brian Lillie

Become – High Profiles
December 4, 2014

A splitting image of Stone Cold Steve Austin appeared before me, but without the entrance theatrics of American wrestling. He didn’t sound as gruff as the wrestler; neither was he 6’2”. But Brian Lillie stands tall at the crossroads of this global deluge of data, and our desire to understand and glean useful insights from it. As Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Equinix, he and his team build the infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Brian is a new breed of technology leaders who have assumed a role at the forefront of business. He is also part of the force chipping away at the heels of monopolistic and legacy IT enterprise stacks as they become replaced by cloud-based applications.

I was ushered into a meeting room, those with a typically large oblong table in a shade of Light Brown. Despite the cold interiors characteristic of high-rise office buildings, Brian immediately exuded the warmth of a seasoned salesperson, as well as the technical depth of an engineer. He was excitable and intense, but without losing his audience. He was in Singapore to oversee what he called a “big business transformation” as the NASDAQ-listed company pushes its international frontiers, which involves “internal process and systems redesign”. Throughout the session, Brian drew diagrams to express the ideas driving Equinix.

Conversations with Brian Lillie

Chief Information Officer, Equinix
Text by Yong Hui Yow
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

YONG HUI YOW: Can you throw some light on the ‘Big Data’ buzzword?

BRIAN LILLIE: To me, what it means is, we now have both structured and unstructured data, and almost unlimited processing power. In addition to that, the Cloud is giving us capabilities we never had before. If you put these factors together, plus the fact that I can now use data I own, and data I don’t own – weave everything together and make sense of it, we can start to do pretty cool things.

YONG HUI: Why is data the most important asset for any company now?

BRIAN: That has always has been the case. It’s just that now, we have a lot more tools to take advantage of it. You know I saw this picture that I love, which I find a tiny bit sad. It was a picture of the Pope twenty years ago speaking and people were standing there, listening. It was juxtaposed with a recent picture which showed everyone with their phones out taking pictures and videos. Everybody is creating data, whether it’s via these devices or devices creating data – we are awash in it.

YONG HUI: And also the decline in the cost of sensors.

BRIAN: That is a big reason, the decline in costs has put sensors in the hands of almost everyone, democratising it. Now you can put them in almost every device. The acquisition side has become pennies.

YONG HUI: Can we have too much data?

BRIAN: Data for data’s sake isn’t helpful. It’s more like – okay, now that I have this data, how do I turn it into information. That requires the human element – to ask the right questions – what insights am I expecting to get from this data, how do I query it. In business school, they like to give you case-study problems, such as why one store is more productive than another. With data, you’re actually querying it, coming up with the regressions so that it’s logical, so that it’s not guesswork.

YONG HUI: Do you think businesses should share more of their data?

BRIAN: Well, data can be a competitive advantage to be protected. But enriching data is something companies can do. I have my data, but I’m going to take that data, enrich it with Bloomberg’s data or Dun & Bradstreet’s or Salesforce’s and so on. Now, I have a truly unique dataset on which I can perform analytics on. I was reading this book by the Chief Strategy Officer of Cognizant, where he talks about this thing called ‘Cloud Halos’. They are basically the digital footprints you leave on the internet and cloud, and using these ‘Cloud Halos’, we can predict who you will vote for based on the music you listen to.

I hope we will be in a position to make wise, ethical decisions around the use of big data.

YONG HUI: And the happiest guys will be the advertisers and marketers.

BRIAN: Maybe. But if you can understand your buyer, that is the holy grail of marketing. Imagine you’re trying to figure out what people’s preferences are, whether they are consumers or enterprises – there is real power in this information (Cloud Halos), but of course, this raises privacy issues, so I hope we will be in a position to make wise, ethical decisions around the use of big data.

YONG HUI: What do you think of banner ads?

BRIAN: You know what – some people may view them as nuisances, but I actually don’t mind them. I have a Gmail account, and I’m also a baseball coach. All of a sudden, I’m seeing ads about baseball bats on sale. Personally, I feel it’s value-added. I go, ‘Oh yeah, I need that’. Other people may feel that’s invasive. But I get this wonderful service called Gmail, so I’m okay with a few ads.


YONG HUI: How has the role of the CIO evolved?

BRIAN: The CIO role has changed quite a bit. The CIO colleagues I have – we like to think of ourselves as having both a technology bent, as well as the business-savvy. CEOs are relying more on us to spot technology trends, or ways we can re-think business models because the business and technology are now one.

YONG HUI: What makes a good CIO?

BRIAN: In the past, it was about managing risks, and managing out of fear. Now it’s about capturing opportunities, and not precluding the company from achieving something because of fear – fear of change, fear of trying new things. So the good ones take a few more risks – whether it’s calculated risks, or innovation, and typically, through innovation, you can limit your risks, fail fast, learn, and repeat.

YONG HUI: So the CIO is a combination of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) plus business plus innovation.

BRIAN: That’s a good way to look at it. You need to be a business executive, and also understand the internal classical systems and processes you need to run a company. Then there’s the innovation arm; that’s more the CTO’s role. Now, more CTOs are reporting to CIOs.


YONG HUI: Do you think CIOs are in good positions to become CEOs now?

BRIAN: I think for companies where technology is central, this is a likely possibility. The COO position is also a probable path because you’d be responsible for running all of the operations. The thing about a CIO is that they are strategic, but they also know how to get things done. For a technology company, they are the operators. You have to make sure your whole technology infrastructure feels like a utility. This execution-orientation lends a CIO to a COO, and then CEO. And I know people who have gone that path – CIO, COO, and then CEO – especially for technology companies.

YONG HUI: What about board opportunities for CIOs?

BRIAN: Yes, I’m getting board opportunities, and not just advisory boards, but actual Board of Directors, because every company needs technology advisors now. In fact, companies I speak to need help not just with their technology vision, but they also want a mentor for their young CTOs.

YONG HUI: Tell us about Cloud Exchange.

BRIAN: What we are trying to do is to aggregate Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Salesforce and so on, and optimise access to them for big enterprises. And we are teaching enterprises how to do this with Cloud Exchange. This makes sense because CSPs want access to the enterprises, and vice versa. Plus, many are already sitting in our datacentres.

YONG HUI: Is it usual for an enterprise to use multiple CSPs?

BRIAN: Oh yeah, we ourselves use over 50.

YONG HUI: Why is that though; why not just stick to one or two over time?

BRIAN: That’s a good question. It’s because of comparative advantages. Enterprises may say, ‘I want to go to Workday for HR, Salesforce for CRM, Oracle for Financials, and so on.’ What this allows is best-of-breed architecture.

YONG HUI: So the number of CSPs really depends on the software then, not the enterprise buyer.

BRIAN: Yes and this (Cloud Exchange) gives enterprises a couple of things. One, it gives them very high-bandwidth throughput to move data; two, it gives them security because it never goes over the internet. And for enterprises, this is extremely important.

YONG HUI: It seems that developers would want this.

BRIAN: Great point. So what’s coming out this month is a developer platform, where we will make available APIs for them to access our services.


YONG HUI: And are the CSPs happy about this? Because it seems now they have to go through you over time.

BRIAN: No, because they will always have the big internet – we are not taking that away; Cloud Exchange is in the private cloud. But they have incentives to do this because they are already in our datacentres.

YONG HUI: How many CSPs are already on Cloud Exchange?

BRIAN: We are constantly increasing the number. We have a mission to attract all the CSPs – we have about 450 in our datacentres – and we want all of them on Cloud Exchange. For a start, we say, who are my top 50, then the next 50 – we are very pragmatic.

YONG HUI: This really reduces switching costs for enterprises.

BRIAN: Absolutely. The enterprise’s CIO may have software they run on premise to do HR stuff, and now they have decided to go to Workday. What do they have to do? They would need a whole project around migrating everything to Workday. And to do that, it needs a commercial arrangement with Workday, to have say, 1000 users for a 3-year deal for whatever price. Now, if they want to switch again, the whole deal has to be re-negotiated with the new guy. This is inefficient.

YONG HUI: Do you think the CSPs will consolidate?

BRIAN: There are some really big players, and there is a whole set of small players who do one or two things really well. For the former, I don’t think there will be a large consolidation, but on the start-up side, where many have launched features, but they have built a company around it – for example, some allow you to call an API to get back a credit score – there will be large companies that may acquire these start-ups for that one thing. I sit on the advisory boards of about five Silicon Valley start-ups, and there are some really interesting start-ups, and they do one particular thing very, very well.

If you ask me what our vision is – it is to be the marketplace where enterprises and clouds meet each other.

YONG HUI: So with Cloud Exchange, you foresee a ‘supermarket’ for enterprises to shop for services.

BRIAN: Yes. If you ask me what our vision is – it is to be the marketplace where enterprises and clouds meet each other.

YONG HUI: Last question. Are you a real estate company?

BRIAN: That’s an interesting one. Certainly, real estate is a key part of who we are. So is technology, so we are both. We are a combination – we are an enigma.