The Evolution of a Next-Gen CIO
Gillett knows a thing or two about pressure and being a team player. He was a member of the University of Oregon Ducks football team, which plays in the Pac-10 Division 1 football conference and usually competes in big-time bowl games, like Gillett's team did in 1996 at the Cotton Bowl. Gillett played the offensive guard position, where the success of the entire offense depends on five large men working in concert to provide protection for the quarterback and open lanes for running backs.
At a glance, Gillett is both a contradiction and affirmation of IT stereotypes: a jock, but also an MBA grad and once one of the top guild masters in the online role-playing game World of Warcraft . Those gaming skills helped Gillett land a senior director of engineering position at Yahoo and they've enhanced his leadership skills more than his MBA coursework, says Dr. John Seely Brown, director emeritus of Xerox PARC and a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California, whom Gillett counts among his vast social network.
Former managers describe Gillett as a socially gifted and highly charismatic businessperson. Just how charismatic? In 2006, he became the CIO of Corbis, which is owned by Bill Gates. During his tenure, Gillett often went head to head with Gates on internal technology-purchasing decisions and persuaded Gates to adopt tech platforms that were, in some instances, from Microsoft's competition, such as SAP's ERP products.
"Stephen was able to explain to Bill why Bill's product wasn't the right product," says Ted Cahall, EVP of the platforms business unit and technologies division at AOL, whom Gillett worked under at CNET and who twice attempted to hire Gillett for the AOL CIO position.
"You'll meet a lot of technology people who are extremely intelligent but they have really stunted social skills," Cahall says. "They don't have an ability to sell their ideas and don't have the ability to ingratiate themselves with key leaders. Stephen does that so well."
Of course, you don't become CIO of any organization without having the technical chops. At 12 Entrepreneuring, where Seely Brown and Gillett worked together, Seely Brown says under Gillett's watch the company installed the first complete VoIP Cisco system and "bet our entire enterprise on it working," he writes in an e-mail. The system worked quite well. "I think [Gillett] even helped Cisco debug the system," Seely Brown says. Cisco used some of 12 Entrepreneuring's learnings in a product-training video. "[That's] just one simple example of thinking both about the technology," says Seely Brown, "and the people."
And, by the way, Gillett's just 32 years old. So it's a safe bet that he's one of the youngest Fortune 500 CIOs. But his take on leadership and success makes him sound older than his years. "Those are traits that are really age agnostic," Gillett says. "Having a proven track record is what really drives your ability to execute."
What emerges, then, is not only a picture of the IT leader who's tasked to transform Starbucks' technology infrastructure and digital in-store offerings, but also a glimpse of the next generation of CIOs: a technologist with an MBA, a socially adept leader with loads of ambition, and a senior vice president of a multibillion-dollar company who uses the Web for LinkedIn as well as World of Warcraft.