The Bottom Line Per … Don Sunderland

Don Sunderland arrived in 1999 as chief information officer of Edison Schools, a for-profit company that runs 136 public elementary and secondary schools from Chula Vista, Calif., to Baltimore. A former managing director in charge of global technology for derivative products at Union Bank of Switzerland, Sunderland’s current job gave him the chance to develop the information systems for a rapidly growing company. In the 2002 fiscal year, the company allocated $35 million of its $50 million capital expenditure budget to technology.

Q: What lessons did you learn while ramping up operations quickly?

A: We focused on what the goal was five years down and asked, “What’s going to hold up and grow beyond that?”

Q: Other sectors are obsessing over customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). Do you share these obsessions?

A: A lot of what we as a company do relies on how we are perceived. We engage in a politically complex realm. We’ve taken more traditional approaches to CRM, and have engaged [research firm] Harris Interactive to do polling. We did school surveys, home surveys and HQ (headquarters) surveys to gauge our effectiveness.

Q: Edison Schools is known for measuring results, such as student performance. How does that apply to your department?

A: We have a series of metrics that include help desk metrics. For example, how many service tickets are we servicing? How many from HQ, how many from the schools? What’s the mean time to resolution? We have developed a service level agreement for the schools for HQ support. We’re in the process of pushing the help desk model down to the school and regional basis as well as developing the same metrics for reporting there.

Q: There have been reports that Edison could run out of money as soon as this summer. What have you done to control your department’s expenses?

A: We negotiate aggressively with our vendors and partners. We run technology on a dime. For example, we have (IBM’s) Tivoli software to remotely administer machines in the schools. The idea is to minimize the amount of local support, to make it as appliance-like as possible.

Q: What advice do you have for other chief information officers at companies anticipating major growth?

A: Take a deep breath and plunge ahead. You cannot waffle over these decisions. You have to see where the big needs are and you need to fill them.