The evolution of CIOs in the age of AI: A conversation with SAS CIO Jay Upchurch

In today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape, the role of a chief information officer is anything but static.

From ensuring operational efficiency to embracing new technologies such as artificial Intelligence, the modern CIO has a multifaceted role that spans both strategic and operational aspects of a business.

“The role of the CIO today has changed so much from what it’s been over the last five or 10 years,” said Jay Upchurch (pictured), chief information officer of SAS Institute Inc. “Boards are looking for digital dividends now from the investments that CIOs are taking. I think that there’s a lot out there about, obviously AI, the investment of AI, how to use that to best scale up human productivity and the decision-making process. And then a lot of companies are turning towards, how do we become more resilient and how do you use data and AI to achieve that?”

Upchurch spoke with theCUBE industry analysts Dave Vellante and John Furrier at SAS Explore, during an exclusive broadcast on theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio. They discussed the evolving role of CIOs, the gap between the perception and reality of business resiliency, and the challenge of “shadow AI” within companies. (* Disclosure below.)

The dual role of a modern CIO

Interestingly, Upchurch carries dual responsibilities at SAS — as an internal service provider to SAS employees and as an operator of the SAS cloud.

“The CIO role is very different than it was in days of old,” he said. “Everywhere we choose to distribute our intellectual property to our customers via the cloud is my domain. I get to embrace how they’re using our technology; we get to innovate together and then I also get to bring that voice of the operator back to our R&D organization.”

The message is clear: The role of CIO has transformed from a behind-the-scenes operator to a frontline strategist. Gone are the days when the CIO was solely responsible for managing IT infrastructure and ensuring system uptime. In the modern enterprise, CIOs are expected to be both technologists and business leaders, according to Upchurch.

The business resilience gap and the future of AI

One of the most intriguing revelations came when Upchurch spoke about business resilience in the post-COVID era. The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in existing business models, leading many organizations to rethink their resiliency plans.

“SAS is very curious by nature. It’s in our DNA. So, we kicked off a study … that asked CIOs — so executive leaders from large companies around the world and all major industries — ‘What does it mean [to be resilient]?’” he said. “Ninety-seven percent of those surveyed said, ‘Yes, absolutely. I’ve got to have my business resilient, and it’s a CIO responsibility.’ But only 47% said, ‘Yeah, I’m actually resilient.’ So, there’s this massive gap between perception and reality when it comes to being resilient.”

Upchurch also revealed SAS’ five rules to ensure resiliency. These rules revolve around fostering a culture of curiosity, adopting a data-first mindset, maintaining speed and agility, driving innovation and promoting responsible innovation.

When asked about the emergence of shadow IT in the era of AI, Upchurch was candid: “There’s shadow AI everywhere.” However, he also emphasized the importance of enabling internal teams to innovate while maintaining “border patrol” to ensure responsible usage.

“My philosophy has always been, look, I’m a service provider. I’m going to enable my partners internally to do what they need to do to run their business,” he stated.

Upchurch is bullish on the potential of generative AI.

“We want to continue to encourage those experiments. We need to do it with safety in mind. [SAS] is really, really poised to take advantage of this incredible excitement that is the adoption curve of generative AI,” he added.

Final thoughts

The role of a CIO in today’s business ecosystem is ever-changing and complex. According to Upchurch, the most pressing responsibilities include security, cost containment — especially with large language models running on public clouds — and cultivating a data-first mindset.

With AI continuing to reshape the world, CIOs will continue to play a pivotal role not just in leveraging technology, but also in sculpting a resilient and innovative business landscape, according to Upchurch. Their insights offer a roadmap for other leaders navigating the intricate maze of today’s technological innovations.

Here’s the complete video interview, part of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of SAS Explore:

(* Disclosure: TheCUBE is a paid media partner for the SAS Explore event. Neither SAS Institute Inc., the sponsor of theCUBE’s event coverage, nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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