Vittorio Cretella left school at 17 to join the Italian Army. Now he’s CIO at Procter & Gamble.
Procter and Gamble CIO Vittorio Cretella left school to join the Army in his native Italy at the age of just 17. After serving in the military for six years, he entered the workforce at age 23, armed with a humble computing diploma, to take up an opportunity at IBM. To say he hasn’t looked back would be an inaccurate turn of phrase — although he’s now running a large team of technology experts and overseeing a sweeping digital transformation project at the $300+ billion by market cap consumer and packaged goods (CPG) company.
Rather he does look back – to reflect on his career journey and how he can draw on his experiences to nurture those from unconventional backgrounds into rewarding careers. At P&G that’s meant leading on hiring programmes that seek out veterans, talented High School students; those seeking a return to the workplace after extended periods away parenting or caring for aging parents; and specialist recruitment for the neurodiverse.
Speaking with The Stack, he’s emphatic both that everyone deserves a chance to shine, and that there’s never been a better time to do so in IT — as it becomes increasingly central to strategic transformation.
Technology-driven change at P&G
Right now, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) talent is warmly welcomed across the company: there’s lots to do. The Procter & Gamble CIO’s focus, for example, is firmly on a huge digital transformation drive that has seen the company — which has an estimated five billion customers, 100,000 staff, including 6,900+ in R&D, and 37,000 active patents – ramp up its use of machine learning, migrate major workloads to the cloud, sharply increase its ecommerce footprint and work to digitalise its huge supply chain.
(The company’s most recent annual report gave a snapshot of some of those efforts, with CEO David Taylor telling stakeholders that P&G – which makes a huge range of widely known brands; i.e. Ariel, Dawn, Fairy, Head & Shoulders, Mr. Clean, Old Spice, Pantene, and many more – had “advanced our supply network capabilities to… [include] shipping directly to customers when needed and accelerating the use of data platforms and machine learning capabilities to better understand consumer consumption and raw material availability.”)
As Vittorio puts it to The Stack: “We are in the midst of a massive, pervasive digital transformation.
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And what’s interesting is it’s pervasive because it touches all dimension of the P&G business: the way we engage with our consumers, the way we distribute, sell our products, how we develop new product experiences, and also and most importantly, how we operate the business on a daily basis. A common thread across all of it is applying machine learning and AI to deliver competitive advantage. For example, we use algorithms today to augment the human capabilities to generate predictions. That is making a huge difference in the way we engage with consumers; we can move from mass marketing to one-to-one mass personalisation of messages, or more effectively work with retailers across all channels; even the way we develop product experiences is going from years to weeks.
“The trick [for us] is to move what is today 90% supervised learning, to more cognitive computing — but also firstly, to build the data and the technology foundation to scale it up and secondly, adapt the company culture to embed data, machine learning automation, in everything we do.”
Data culture; data architecture
Building up a data culture and cloud-based data architecture that can support the company’s efforts has been among the CIO’s focuses. As he puts it: “When we talk about data architecture, a large amount of the effort is linked with acquiring the data and making it usable; not so much in developing the algorithms. The visible and sexy tip of the iceberg is when we develop breakthrough algorithms. What often is forgotten is how long it takes to acquire the data to make it usable … so data is definitely one area of investment for us.
“We also want to make sure that this data is open and can be leveraged across all business processes and applications. So investment in integration, making sure that you have API’s — both internally as well as with the external world, and increasingly in a seamless way — that allow speed at the edge of the business. We have fantastic loyalty programmes supported by consumer applications that tap into those platforms, thanks to API’s.”
A lot of this runs in the cloud, Vittorio notes: “We have 60% to 70% of our computing and storage capacity in the cloud across the three major hyperscalers today. Most of what we put in the cloud is supporting our strategic initiatives: from AI to the Agile DevOps-type digital solutions that we develop,” he says, adding that “from a network perspective, in sync with that, we have re-architected our network, taking more advantage of a diversity of carriers and technologies, and migrated the large majority of our links to SD-WAN. That allows us to transport data faster and make it interact with those cloud capabilities more seamlessly.
Procter & Gamble CIO Vittorio Cretella: Leading from the top
What has he learned about leadership in his years as a CIO, we ask? (Cretella, who joined P&G in early 2020, previously was CIO at Mars and has had a wide range of senior IT roles in the CPG industry, from CTO to line of business CIO.)
He tells The Stack: “I think in particular the foundation of high-performing team engagement is shared values, common objectives and inclusion. All of us are driven by some personal passion. And when we are faced with a strategy, the first reaction of most people is ‘what’s in for me?’
I think the role of a good leader is to help the team to define those shared objectives and values that really everybody can relate to. If you do that in the most inclusive way, across organisational boundaries, teams, functions, organisational silos, then you really get a shared common vision.
“And I believe that a shared common vision is way more powerful than any reporting line. So I’m not a big believer in changing the organisation and making everybody reporting into a certain IT [function]. You unite people through a common vision, a common strategy. That’s much stronger than organisational charts.”
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Among Vittorio’s visions is a genuinely inclusive one that recognises talent in any quarter. Beyond the programmes at P&G, he also sits on the board of NPower, a national non-profit that is “on a mission to move people from poverty to the middle class through tech skills training and quality job placement.”
As the P&G CIO puts it: “NPower basically aims to create paths to prosperity for veterans, and young adults from underserved communities by providing them with professional IT training certifications, and access to paid internships and careers with companies like P&G – where we have a great opportunity to create a more equal workforce through STEM. And we do need a highly skilled STEM workforce: engineers, scientists, IT experts, data scientists, innovators… we need to drive the technology-based innovation that is behind our brands and business.
“We have several programmes that are designed to break down those barriers, and help individuals of all types to get opportunities in STEM. These include recruitment of veterans, of women who are looking to re-enter the workforce after a pause in their career. We are the first company in the US to implement a neurodiversity hiring programme that includes promote the hiring of people with autistic spectrum disorder. And I think this is really essential, because the more diverse points of view, of perspectives and thoughts you have, the larger and the broader your own view and effectiveness becomes.”
As he concludes: “What’s exciting today — more than it was 20 years ago for an IT professional — is that digital is so pervasive; it’s front and centre of every discussion we have. I think that’s very rewarding. IT has always been rewarding, for me, but seeing applied technology creating value for consumers and growing our business, hearing our leadership at P&G talking about data digitisation being an essential factor in the success of our integrated growth strategy, I think it’s very motivating for everybody involved.”