The Keys to Creating a Transformative System

By Rino Bergonzi Print this article Print

Veteran IT executive Rino Bergonzi's Rule No. 1: Fit the technology to the operation, not vice versa. Rules 2, 3 and 4: Secure wide support.

Too many chief information officers devote too much of their time to understanding new technology. It's a comfort zone for a lot of us—it's something that's easy. You can just go to these conferences and spend time with Microsoft or Sun. If you want to hide, this is the place to do it. I realize this will probably not go over big with a lot of CIOs—my saying they're hiding behind their technology. But that's exactly what happens.

You can have the opposite problem too, of course. There are plenty of CIOs who get promoted from business positions. That was historically the case at United Parcel Service (UPS), which I joined in 1985 from Western Union, where I'd been responsible for all application development.

Before I joined UPS, the technology executives there all came from the finance department. It was obvious they didn't know a darned thing about technology. They didn't think they needed to. The package was king at UPS—they were experts at getting a package from Point A to Point B. It was all done manually, using industrial engineering methods. But as a business grows, you can't do everything manually. And we had something to remind us of that: Federal Express. Though far smaller than us, FedEx was eating our lunch in technology—and taking a lot of our business away.

UPS had one important thing going for it as a company: the level of commitment to any kind of initiative deemed critical to the company's future. And that quickly became the status of the package-tracking system we were developing in the mid-1980s.

As a leader of that project, I was particularly fortunate for the support I got from one UPS management committee member, Frank Erbrick. Frank didn't understand technology and didn't want to. But he knew when technology was needed. And it was certainly needed in the mid-1980s to improve UPS's system for tracking packages.

For projects like this that cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to complete, you often spend a lot of time trying to get approvals. But Frank was able to clear a lot of the hurdles. I knew the battles he had to fight and I had great respect for what he was doing.

And what a project it was! At the time, UPS had 129,000 vehicles on the roads; it was delivering an average of 12 million packages a day. To overlay a system on that operation—which couldn't be brought down for a few hours, let alone a few weeks—was incredibly complex.

The UPS drivers were used to a clipboard; we didn't want to change that too radically. So we developed an electronic clipboard. All you needed were two thumbs to work the whole thing.

Another thing that was a huge challenge was building a centralized database. Nowadays, it's not a problem, but back in 1985, off-the-shelf databases couldn't handle the kinds of volumes we had. Oh, there were certain customized databases—the ones used by the airlines, for instance—but they were typically very expensive to maintain and manage—and frankly, somewhat antiquated. We had to structure the database design to take advantage of available products without going into customized database design. That's exactly what we did, on IBM's DB2 platform, and it worked very well.

The third challenge was building the wireless network. We had to negotiate separate contracts with forty or fifty wireless companies. You could do it through one company today, but you couldn't then.

Hard as this project was, it would have been much harder to implement if we hadn't had the full support of everyone in the company. Everyone was accountable. Had we failed, the whole company would have failed. That's a different philosophy from a lot of other firms out there—but it's the philosophy you need to make huge technology projects pay off.

Rino Bergonzi is a co-founder of The CIO Group, a new consulting company. He previously served as chief information officer of AT&T and United Parcel Service.

—Written with Robert Hertzberg

This article was originally published on 2002-08-13
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