What is the biggest challenge in getting a job as a first-time CIO? Is it out-competing others who look similar on paper?
I think there is a tremendous amount of competition. Most of the CIO positions out there are usually going through some type of an executive recruiting network. The recruiters I talked to don't usually pull up a set of criteria in a database online. One recruiter I talked to doesn't even recommend candidates putting information into an executive recruiting online database, because most executive recruiters aren't going to use it. They're going to look to the contacts and network of sitting CIOs or deputy CIOs to ask if there is someone on their staff or someone they know.
You became CIO of the World Wildlife Fund at age 37. What helped you most to get that job?
I was recruited for it. I did not approach an executive recruiter for that position; they approached me, at the recommendation of another sitting CIO. I had established my credentials in the private and for-profit sector. I had gotten experience with a variety of technologies at some pretty tier-one organizations: it was Sallie Mae on the financial services side, and PricewaterhouseCoopers on the consulting side. I had gotten all my tickets punched. I got my technical MBA at Johns Hopkins University. I actually took it a step farther. A year after I obtained by graduate degree I started teaching as an adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins -- intentionally.
As a way to increase your network?
Increase my network, increase my exposure. As an adjunct faculty I was giving back to the IT community and the educational community, but at the same time I was greasing the skids for easier access to publications. When someone was looking at my bio and saw I was a director of this, a tech MBA and teach at a graduate level, when I submitted articles I believe they had a little more merit behind them.
What's the biggest mistake you made in plotting your career?
I'm not sure that I made any.
I really don't think that I have. I've gotten consulting experience, I've gotten for-profit experience, I've gotten Big Five experience, I got my tech MBA, I've got publishing experience, I've got my graduate adjunct faculty. The only thing that I would -- I don't know if this is really a mistake. I was about to say, started my graduate work earlier. But Hopkins wouldn't really let me enroll in the program until I had a specific number of years of business experience.
Fifty percent of your experience is in consulting, and you strongly recommend that aspiring CIOs work as consultants. Why?
You've got to get both sides of the fence if you want to be a viable CIO. You have to understand the consulting proposition. You have to know also how to manage consultants and vendors.
Being a consultant makes you a little bit humble. There are many instances where you have to sidestep and put the brakes on what you may know technically or business wise. You may have to deal with a client or a customer that is not that smart or that doesn't know as much as you do, and you've got to figure out creative and diplomatic ways to get that customer on board or eliminate any roadblocks that the customer may be putting up. In the organizations that use consultants regularly, some of the internal employees are a little bit jaded. They're thinking, 'Why did we have to go to the outside, when we could have probably done this on the inside.' Serving in a consulting role gives you far more experience than flat-out IT experience.
Define for us what you call in your book "the IT glasshouse."
I define the glasshouse as the central IT management infrastructure of the past where all decisions, all the systems and all the policies were pretty much made within the IT shop. If you had to classify it as a government, it would be an IT monarchy. Today, I don't believe that works. I am not a fan of 100% decentralized IT, where managers and staff are completely decentralized and put into business units. I am not saying do a 180-degree from the old model. But I do think that today's CIOs need to work more with the business units and customers of their organizations and form better relations to share the risks, responsibilities and project sponsorship, as opposed to assuming the responsibility in IT or forcing a system on a business unit.
There is a lot of talk about letting your business units take responsibility for the technology they use. But how do you do that? Do you get it in writing?
I do. But I don't let them take responsibility for the technology. I let them take responsibility for the business process that drives the solution. So when we are looking at doing a requirement analysis for trying to solve some problem or drive some goal, whether it is increasing revenue or something else, when we put budgeted dollars toward the project, we use an organizational structure that integrates with the project manager in the business unit itself. I bolt on an IT lead and have at least one business VP take accountability as co-executive sponsors. At the end of the day if I don't get signature from a business unit sponsor for a business unit application, I will not press forward. I make the calls for infrastructure, for security, all those good things. That is my job. But if we are looking for a CRM system, for example, to help drive donor management, the CIO should not own that system. IT should be owned by the business unit that is responsible for the revenue.
I have a simple phrase: IT drives technology decisions. The business units drive application business technology.
I thought it was refreshing to read in your book that a CIO should have a solid grounding in technology, because so much of what you hear now is that this position is being taken over by businesspeople.
I just met one the other day. A new CIO from the business unit, and I think he's scared. Think about it. I take the inverse view that businesspeople can do the job. I think it is way off, and I am not shy in stating that. Look, this is a profession that in my case includes 20 years of work experience at some of the best companies in America. I have gotten a top-tier education. If you combine all that together, I am somewhere in the 28-year range of progressive IT skills and experience, managing technology and applying it to business. Now, would you hire someone who came up that track, who had all that experience in IT, to head up your financial organization? I wouldn't.
The flip side is why is it hard for technical people to speak in business terms?
Given the amount of time they work on the technology side versus the amount of time they spend in the business unit side, it is so easy to lapse back into all of the different acronyms and the lingo the technology people use. I'll be honest. I have to force myself to be conscious of the fact that when I am speaking to a nontechnical audience to not be too technical. I have to force myself, today, and I am a sitting CIO with a new book out giving guidance to others on how to follow in my footsteps. It's hard.
Does it have anything to do with the notion that the kind of people attracted to technology are very concrete in their thinking; they simply think in a different way from businesspeople?
Working in the technology area takes an analytical, top-down, logical, process-oriented person. That said, I think at some point in their career they have to force themselves to branch off and submerse themselves in an environment, like an MBA, which makes them recognize the other side of the fence and to think like a business person. The technology field attracts far more the introvert than the extrovert. I probably started out as a pretty strong-typed introvert and became a forced extrovert as a result of going up the ladder.
When did you turn outward?
When I realized that it was absolutely one of the most important skills needed for an IT executive to have excellent communication skills.
How long did it take you to hone your presentation skills?
Oh gosh. I'll give you the answer in the form of advice given to me from one of my mentors. I asked how long it would be before I was completely comfortable giving presentations to an audience I had never met before. The answer was, once you've done your first 100 or so, you'll get the hang of it.
Your book's title is Straight to the Top, and top for you is CIO. Do you ever think there is somewhere else to go once you're a CIO?
Absolutely. I think it is the next-generation track to chief operating officer, and potentially a CEO of a technology company. I can tell that my career aspirations include one or two of these tracks.
You devoted an entire chapter to golf. I found that a bit shocking.
It wasn't the whole chapter. Half of it was about the vendor management function. I talk about the importance of relying on vendors, having a vendor management strategy, in my case reducing the overall number of vendors, and distinguishing between commodity-based vendors and strategic vendors. I consider Dell a commodity-based vendor. I buy stuff from them and put it in. A strategic vendor will actually help me go from Point A to Point B. It might be a CRM vendor. It might be a consulting vendor. And I talk about that whole process of how do you manage and scorecard your vendor and different approaches for doing that. And I ask other CIOs how they do it. So you'll see stuff about outsourcing.
Then, halfway through Chapter 8 is when I start talking about integrating sports to build your relationships and to grow your network and build stronger relationships with your vendors.
But why go out with them at all, especially given the sensitivity about conflict of interest these days?
Well, let me ask you, define conflict of interest.
There are some companies that say don't even go out for a cup of coffee with your vendors, because you don't need to be friends with them or beholden.
That would be the federal government. And you know what? I understand why they do it. But I don't think that a cup of coffee is going to materially make a difference in the decision to purchase goods or services. I think the federal government has just decided to take that track. But I take the issue beyond the level of the CIO. How many CEOs do you know who go out and have dinner with some of their partners and vendors and colleagues? And how many CEOs and presidents do you see on the golf course? I can tell you I played golf in a tournament and John Thompson was there. He is not a CIO. He is the CEO for Symantec.
It doesn't have to be about who pays for what, as I clarified in my book. My guidance to people is, check what your policies are. If there is a no-pay policy, fine, pay for yourself. There are some clear benefits of getting out of the office and spending some time with people, getting to know them. And at the end of the day, because I have a better relationship both professionally and through sports, I have several vendors who I can pick up the phone and say, 'Listen Tom, I need this done, you need to help me out with this.' Now granted, they should be able to do that regardless, as a vendor. But it doesn't work that way. And if you look at the quotes from the vendors in the book, people tend to reciprocate, form partnerships and get more stuff done, cut through the [bull], when they have a better relationship. And I have found that a 30-minute meeting in my office doesn't get me a better relationship with a strategic vendor.
Another piece of advice you give is that a CIO has to think like a chief financial officer. Why?
If you don't start thinking like a CFO, you're going to be reporting to one.
What is so bad about reporting to the CFO?
Because historically, CIOs who report to CFOs are doing so because the CFO is not comfortable with their financial management skills, or the CIOs need to be reined in on their cost controls. The other research that I found is that CIOs who reported in to the CFO spent overall less percent of the company's revenue than those that didn't. A CFO's job is internal controls, audit, cost containment, financial management and reporting. I don't think that is the best creative place to put a potential innovator and catalyst, such as the CIO, who interfaces with just about everybody. There is no other executive that touches every other point of the organization.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer
Gregory Smith, author of "Straight to the Top: Becoming a World-Class CIO" and CIO of the World Wildlife Fund, talks about his carefully plotted route to the executive ranks and offers some tips for aspiring CIOs.
You tried a little junior college before deciding to skip higher education and go to work. Do you have any formal training in computer science?
I did take a course in COBOL, which was extremely useful, mainly because I saw that not everybody could do something that came pretty naturally to me. I discovered that everybody is good at something. You just have to figure out what it is.
You started out as a computer operator, at 18, at Computer Sciences Corp.
I got in trouble real bad. Because I could sit there and just operate the thing, I started logging on and trying to snoop around. But instead of being fired, I got promoted and I got a wonderful opportunity to work in another division, which was working on something they called DNS but was actually the very early stages of client server technology. I was developing database applications. I was exposed to a variety of customers.
St. Jude's Children's Hospital came to us and said we'd like to use your computer and could you help us build an application that would help us keep track of all of our donors. I was behind the scenes developing this application according to spec. When it came time to turn it over, I was brought in and went to train people on it. Bless their hearts, there are these two little old ladies who were afraid of the computer.
I always hark back to that. Here I was behind the scenes having a blast designing this database, thinking about how to make it more efficient and all this other stuff, but I realized none of that made any sense to these ladies and they didn't care. In my career I have seen the habitual problem that IT has of not understanding the business value, and very early on in my career I had an opportunity to see that problem.
What was your worst job?
I was working at a major financial institution with a 700-person IT shop. You got lost. It was tough to accomplish anything. It was around that time I realized I really am a doer. I can get bored. I remember the day when I came in and cracked open a newspaper like everybody else did and ended up reading it cover to cover I said, 'I can't do this. This isn't me.'
How did you get into the entertainment business?
I had left CSC and was working at the financial institution and various other things and came back to Computer Sciences. Then one day I got approached by a headhunter about a job at MGM United Artists. I started off as a manager over the financial systems and became a director of applications and development. When I took that, it rejuvenated me about what I was doing.
Is there any entertainment experience in your background?
In junior college, I worked in theater arts behind the scenes. I did publicity, lights, sound, stage managing. I am a musician. I have a studio in my own house. I have a Christian rock band. We play in boy's prisons. We even played a Christian biker festival.
Getting back to your career, what's the best career advice you've gotten?
Don't argue with a fool because somebody walking into the middle of the conversation won't be able to tell you apart. IT is a strange business. People, for example, don't call you up and thank you when however many thousands of users are on your network are able to log in today successfully. They only call you when they can't.
So the enabler rarely gets to bask in the success.
We become the go-to source, and that has a good and a bad side to it. They're always running to us and complaining, but I started to realize that they're running to us because we are the geeks, or whatever you want to call us, within the organization that people are looking to and trust will be able to solve their problems. Inherent in that is the thank you.
Tell me about a good CIO decision you've made recently.
When our data warehouse went live, the first people that were going to receive the reports were our store personnel, not the executives. The week that store system went live, our store managers ran with that ball. We have graphs that show all the key performance indicators in each store. And the store managers are excited. If that system has a minor hiccup we hear about it immediately. They're out there tracking the horse race [sales] every day.
Can one store see what the other stores do?
I've worked in other environments where they are so protective of data. But in our case, we let any store see what the other store's performance is, down to department, down to a SKU, down to a 15-minute increment.
How do you do data management?
We use the Microsoft SQL Server for our data warehouse. I brought together a user team to go out and evaluate business intelligence technologies and ultimately pick. We came down to a bake-off between Hyperion Essbase [TK] and Microsoft's SQL Server. Behind the scenes I had been doing my homework and realized the way SQL Server was priced and the tools that came with it blew others away. One day the team asked me what I was voting for and I refused to answer them. They laughed, and said, 'We knew you would do that.' They made the choice.
So music is an avocation. What's your favorite guilty pleasure?
My entire game. But I play anyway.
What technology do you wish you lived without?
I wish I did live without mobile e-mail.
Are you worried about BlackBerry service being shut down?
I chose not to go with BlackBerry as a standard for our organization. We're using the various Windows Mobile-based or Palm devices. We ourselves at Virgin certainly have been approached about patent infringement, which we've tended to walk away from it pretty unscathed. But I understand the right of the guy who truly created the technology to come back and ask for his just due. It would seem foolish to me that would cause the service to come to a halt.
Robert Fort was in kindergarten when his mother, an applications developer, started taking him to work to help sort punch cards. At 8, he dressed up as a computer for Halloween. After graduating high school a year early, he skipped college and took a job at Computer Sciences Corp. Self-taught and self-assured, the 46-year-old Californian got his big break when he went to work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. Now, as director of IT at Los-Angeles based Virgin Entertainment Group Inc., the North American subsidiary for the U.K. conglomerate, Fort keeps IT rocking at the $200 million company, recently bringing the sales data for every store online to managers throughout the 17-store Megastore chain. We spoke by phone about his vocation and avocations.
This is such a unique business. Where do you get the software?
The software was largely developed in-house, largely based on open source packages. We've had the luxury of being able to develop software for a business that was growing organically. That means we were able to build a prototype system. We weren't sure exactly what we wanted but had a reasonable idea. We threw together something very quick. It took us a few months.
I think it was at about 1,000 members that we said alright -- no significant improvements will be made to the existing system. We're going to spend the next six months putting a solid foundation in place. We knew we wanted to support a large number of cities. We wanted to support thousands of vehicles, though at the time we probably had 40 cars. And what's going to happen when we have 100,000 customers and are running 24/7? We stepped back and said 'OK, what do we need to do to build something that can scale?'
Again, it was the luxury of organic growth. We had 1,000 members, and we could see could see we'd have 2,000 members in six or seven months. We had the luxury of stepping back and to spend a lot of time working on the underlying database. That was maybe six months. Then one Sunday night we switched over to the new system.
What did the new system have that the prototype didn't?
It had Oracle as the back end. It had an architecture that had a reasonable set of middleware -- where we had separation of business and data. We had a much more secure system. We had factored into that serious scalability, not just in terms of more transactions and more data -- but also from the user interface side, especially on the back office.
How did this idea get started?
We were inspired by European versions of this. Little mom-and-pop operations in Europe with quaint European ways of doing things -- 20 cars and lock boxes and little log slips you'd fill out. We looked at that and said, 'Well maybe that works because you can trust your small population of 200 or 300 people that might be using this small fleet of cars.' But we wanted to come at it with the big American approach that would allow us to go out and raise money -- because you could build a substantial business off of this.
Convenience being the key?
The reservation system had to be really easy to use. Access to the car had to be brain-dead simple, reliable and secure.
So that laid out the constraints on the system we had to build. We had to put wireless things in the cars because the cars had to be scattered all over the place. They needed the wireless component because that was the only way we could figure out how to build a secure system. How can you possibly keep track of how far people are driving if it's not automatically recorded?
Were there any early missteps?
In the early system we put out, we hadn't finished all the development of the wireless stuff, so people would go to cars and assume that everything was working like magic. But, in fact, if they had gone to any car, at any time of day, they would have been allowed access. But nobody knew that. Again, it was starting out very small, and there weren't any bad apples, so it was OK.
How are Zipcar's online reservation features unique?
It's a location-sensitive system. That is, when you go to reserve a car, the system knows where you live; it knows where you work; it knows the places you visit; where your cousin's house is, where the gym is -- all the locations you've told it about. Because of that, it knows what cars are near those locations. You tell it, 'I want to book a car tomorrow afternoon near my house.' And it will tell you, 'OK, these cars are available at the times near your house.'
It is scalable, because as we add a location -- and we're constantly doing that -- or deleting a location, it happens automatically. So we don't have to constantly tell people, 'By the way, there's a new location.' Because for people to remember all the locations, that's just crazy. But it's done in a subtle way. Every person who comes in to reserve a car gets a slightly different interface.
A key to automation is reducing human transactions. What's an example of how you've done that?
Lost and Found. People are always leaving things in the cars, cell phones, BlackBerrys, gloves, their Prada sunglasses. And people are always finding that stuff. We used to get lots of calls for that. I lost my cell phone! I found a cell phone! What the heck, we're getting lots of lost-and-found calls! This is starting to cost us real money, and what the heck are we supposed to do? So we had a policy -- if you find something, leave it in the glove box.
Then we put in place a big, simple, lost-and-found system for members to report the items online. You can report an item lost or found only in one of the cars you've used in the past 30 days. You go to the Lost and Found, and the only cars you can see -- in terms of what you want to report -- are the cars you've used.
Then it's like a match?
If you've found something, you can report it found. If you've lost something you can look at what's been reported found in the cars you've used. And that takes us out of the loop. The member then has to book a car for the hour. Booking it is the only way you can guarantee the car will be there. The number of calls went down to next to nothing.
What about things like snow removal or street cleaning? Does that make your job tougher?
We don't put cars on streets that are going to be hit by street sweeping, because operationally you'd be sending out the flying monkeys to move the cars. You've got to simplify.
Now, as the business evolves, the system changes. In Boston, we recently had a partnership with IKEA where we wrapped a half-dozen cars with IKEA advertising. That allows us to offer the cars to members for a discount. We wanted those cars used mostly for short trips, and so did IKEA, so we said, OK, the pricing will only have the discounted hourly rate -- and not the daily rate. It's a good deal.
What did it mean for IT?
We had to put into the system enough messaging up front to prevent two things: One, when the members got their billing they weren't really disappointed, because they booked it for 48 hours and ended up paying an hourly rate -- and two, that when they got to the car they didn't say, 'What the hell is this? This is not a Zipcar.' We took photos of the individual cars. We made sure that you could see on your reservation what you were going to get and we put in one intermediate step telling customers to be careful, that car can only be rented for an hourly rate.
It was a complete success. I don't think there has been a single complaint.
Roy Russell is vice president and No. 1 IT guy at Zipcar, a Cambridge, Mass.-based short-term rental car company that is six years old and profitable with annual revenues of $15 million. Talk about managing traffic. Russell has to make sure 50,000 registered members can share 900 cars in 28 cities across the country using wireless access cards. Today's technology provides Zipcar's competitive edge. Here Russell talks about the early Zipcar days, as well as his new lost-and-found service.
was innocent -- fiddling with a database
-- that brought the system down. But the lesson here is you don't allow technicians to go and make changes without including...