The Twin Challenges of Succeeding as CIO

Throughout my career, I’ve made it a point to understand every aspect of the business I’m in, and understand what the customer wants from my business.

Growing up in a small town in the South, I was fortunate to have been raised by my grandfather, who owned and operated a general store, a thriving feed business and a farm. Although he wasn’t an educated or sophisticated man, having only finished the third grade, he was a born entrepreneur who, on the strength of those businesses, put two generations of family through college. He was a great salesman, very focused on understanding every aspect of his business, and on understanding his customers. That focus is something I internalized and have carried with me my whole career.

In the mid-1970s, when I was teaching business courses at the University of Memphis, Frederick W. Smith, the founder of Federal Express, was looking for a more efficient way to meet customer demand.

The problem Federal Express was having involved the rigid maintenance schedule that 20 aircraft required, a schedule that had nearly all of them out of service at exactly the same time. To solve that, someone had to go in and develop a series of computer simulation programs to, in essence, fly the system backward, staggering and smoothing out the maintenance schedule.

I started my business career at Federal Express as a consultant, designing computer programs to more efficiently manage that FedEx fleet, helping provide customers with the overnight delivery they so valued. I spent the last 12 years of my 15 years there as chief information officer.

When I became the CIO, one of the initial things I realized is that the position literally puts you in the middle of the business. What connects the business physically is a number of critical processes that literally go through the company, invisible threads of infrastructure that most people take for granted.

I also realized that people who are technologists tend to stay technologists, never fully grasping the whole business. And that those who understand the business may not have grasped the technology that makes the business work.

Because of this, I began to develop the role of middleman—someone who could broker both sides. It wasn’t simply that I tried to articulate the benefits of technology in terms that would be meaningful to my business-side peers—though I did do that. It worked the other way, too. I’d tell my staff, “We’re going to take a step outside this operation and look back at the company. This allows you to see the company as a customer sees it.”

It turns out that a willingness to think as both technologist and business person is rare. When I joined AT&T as global CIO, we created a structure of divisional CIOs for individual units. In recruiting those CIOs and setting up that system of governance, I was struck by the extent to which so many of us have always been more technology than business focused. And life is even harder when you haven’t spent time bridging the technology gap and communicating it.

If anything, I think it has become even harder to find what I call complete CIOs. The first hurdle getting people with a deep understanding of both technology and business—remains intact.

But there’s another challenge. Technologists today tend to specialize. We are systems developers or computer operations or network managers. A lot of technologists are great—I mean great—at what they do. But it’s different from having the end-to-end experience. When I became a CIO 20 years ago, I always had responsibility for all the functions and came to learn how complex and interdependent everything is, and how important both teams—the technologists and the business teams—are to success. As I learned at a very young age, you can’t meet the needs of the customer if you don’t understand your business.