Apex 1 on 1 with John Arsneault: Insights from a CIO, venture capitalist and a startup advisor

With over 30 years in the technology industry, his expertise in strategy and execution within the realm of growing business has made his 1 on 1 with Apex fascinating. Read John’s perspective on how the legal industry is evolving in the current state and his five step process for managing an organization.


Q: Have you developed a business driven data strategy; is there support for it and is your organization becoming more data-driven? What steps are you taking to ensure all areas of the business are data driven?

A: We set out to develop a business systems architecture that modernized all of our back office systems utilizing a platform first strategy.  This included moving to SaaS only vendors with modern API’s which allows us to move data in and out of systems as needed without heavy effort.  With a SaaS architecture, systems are automatically updated with new features, allowing IT resources to focus on value-add efforts vs. system upgrades and maintenance.  The organization has an ever increasing appetite for data driven decision making around client preservation, revenue generation and back office decision making.  We believe that simplicity in systems architecture plays a big role in adoption of tools and idea generation around them.


Q: How do you balance the need to ensure that non-revenue generating data-driven transformation efforts receive the commitment and funding that are required to sustain these efforts?

A: We build business cases for IT initiatives and run those cases through a technology steering committee for selection of a diverse set of annual investments.  While ROI is a key driver in the selection process, a balanced approach to progress across the entire firm is a key guiding principle.  Keeping the overall firm healthy from a technology perspective only happens if we invest in all areas of the firm vs. focusing only on revenue generating activities.


Q: How are you justifying the cost needed to evolve and adapt IT to support the speed and agility required by the business?

A: We have been successful keeping IT costs relatively flat despite investing heavily in new systems.  This is accomplished primarily by utilizing SaaS solutions.  Migrations from managing data centers and DR facilities to being 100% cloud as well as cloud PBX adoption has cut traditional IT infrastructure costs substantially, which offsets the investment in new systems.


Q: What operating model and cultural changes have you considered as you shift to a digital business?

A: This is something that is very much in progress in the legal services space.  Some technologies such as e-signature capabilities have made an immediate impact on efficiency and client service. Others such as Zoom have cut travel expenditures significantly.  There are many examples of technologies that have adoption curves that take years, while others catch on quickly.  Emergencies (like a pandemic) or an extreme competitive disruption can accelerate adoption, most however take a little time.  Our firm has moved in a direction of digital work processes quite a bit in the last few years with a focus on speed of delivery for clients.   


Q: What is the current state of Big Data and AI investment and do you sense the pace of Big Data and AI investment changing?

A: This has been mostly an experimental space in the legal world.  The biggest issue holding back adoption of AI in legal is the lack of focus on UX.  The majority of focus is on the back end of the systems, resulting in solutions that are hard to use, limiting who can take advantage of them.  This follows a typical innovation curve of complex systems and I expect this to change in the next 3-5 years.  There is already an uptick of focus on the UX of AI systems in the legal space.

Q: What advice would you give an early stage CIO or CDO joining an enterprise organization?

A: I think it is important when you join an organization to learn the business at a high level and develop a multi-year (call it 3 years) technology strategy for the organization. If you get too bogged down in the weeds early on, it is very difficult to shift to strategic work. I try to follow a five step process for managing an organization:

  • Develop a strategy aligned with the industry you are in and get executive buy in.
  • Build a team of A level players that are excited about the strategy.
  • Break the strategy down into tactics (prioritization, resource management).
  • Show up each day and grind.  Be consistent and keep commitments. Your staff will mimic your habits.
  • Develop the art of saying no.  You will be inundated with requests and ideas.  If you allow these requests to disrupt your tactical plan, you will not succeed with your strategic plan.  This is art form – you need to learn to say no without making people feel like you don’t listen or care.  That is not easy but it is a vital skill.


Q: How has cloud services changed the way you design, build, deploy, and operate online systems and secure infrastructure?

A: SaaS has changed everything.  You can focus on data and feature usage vs. deployments and maintenance.  Applications don’t get old, IT doesn’t have to choose what new features to give to the business because of limited resources.  There is no infrastructure to manage.  Tech access gets simplified, no VPNs, user experience is the same regardless of where you are or what device you are using.  The IT folks can focus on usage and value vs. keeping the lights on.  Product development can be more easily influenced with strategic vendors as they are now maintaining a single code base.