Fernando Gonzalez

In the fast-paced fashion industry, agility is this CIO's core strength.

Fernando Gonzalez, CIO at San Francisco-based Byer California, has worked in the IT field for decades, making his way through the healthcare, aerospace and medical devices industries. In fact, he says he cut his teeth with EDS founder Ross Perot back in the 1960s. Over the years, Gonzalez's career has taken a few twists and turns, including a return to Byer, which he had left to take the CIO role at a large semiconductor company. Lured back to the maker of women's apparel about eight years ago, Gonzalez is happy to be working at a private company, without shareholder pressure, and with an IT team whose members are all in one location. But he also revels in the constant and evolving challenges of IT.

What's been the most challenging initiative you've undertaken recently? Implementing an ERP system. Everything else does not fundamentally change your company. It's just hardware and software behind the scenes. When you go to a new ERP system, you are really changing your company and putting it in place to go forward. We told everybody who was going to have to deal with it, "You are going to hate this thing, it's going to be difficult, it's going to be unforgiving, it's going to be more disciplined, it's going to require a lot more data, and it's going to require a lot more work on your part. And there's not much in it for you, the individual user. What's in it for you is that the company is going to be around in five to 10 years, and you'll still have a job."

What are some of the unique challenges you have found in the fashion or retail industry, compared with other companies you've worked for? Time to market. The product has a shelf life of about 10 weeks. There's close to a dozen seasons in the year now. You're going from the design or the product idea to hanging it in the stores in 10 to 12 weeks. That's a very short cycle for any product.

How does that short shelf life influence IT's needs? Our systems have to be up and available all the time. Everything we do has to be directed to getting it out the door faster, quicker, seeing where things are at all times in the supply chain. That's where it affects IT. Having a system that's reasonably fast, that's the key to our business.

What effect does such agility have on your need for network security? For us, with such a short shelf life, if you broke in and hacked a pattern to make a girl's dress, you can't make it cheaper or faster than us or in the quantity we can make and get it in the stores. Security is less important because of the speed of doing business. You have security in place because you don't want someone to be malicious. But security from the point of view of trying to protect intellectual property -- [it's] less important when you're fast.

Does Byer use predictive analytics to determine what fashion trends are going to be popular? My belief is that it doesn't exist, and it will never exist, because you cannot predict a woman's buying habits from one season to the next. It's an emotional buy. What they bought last spring doesn't say what they're going to buy this spring. You can do it in jeans. You can do it in polo shirts. You can do it in those areas, yes. But in fashion, I don't think you can use BI to predict what is going to sell.

What emerging IT trends will impact Byer? Definitely mobility. Mobility is going to be the key thing. The issue with that is that [users will] want to [use mobile devices to] get into the ERP system. There's not going to be a lot of people, maybe Samsung, competing with Apple for the [tablet] for the consumer. I see people like Lenovo and people like Dell creating [tablets] for the enterprise so that they can transact data, so that they can VPN in easily. When those [tablets] come out for the enterprise, I see that's a big push coming into IT that we're going to have to respond to.

How would you describe your leadership style and how you interact with your co-workers? I know I'm extremely collaborative. I always tell my staff to keep your career No. 1 and your job No. 2, and you'll stay, because you're marketable. I'm always trying to make sure that we're working with some good technologies, current technologies, that will make them marketable. I also try and give them plenty of room to fail. If you don't let them fail, they're not going to make great strides. If you make it so tight that they can't fail, then they're not going to grow; they're just going to play in the safe zone all the time.

What's some of the best advice you've gotten in your career? You can't know everything, so try to surround yourself with enough people so that, as a group, you might know almost everything. Anybody I hire, I always tell [them] I am going to be wrong. If I make a stupid decision, come and tell me about it, let's discuss it. You can tell me in a nice way or a not-so-nice way, and I'll tell you why I made it, and maybe you'll see my point of view, and maybe I'm just wrong. I don't want somebody who's going to work for me who says, "He's the boss, he said so, it must be right."

What advice would you give somebody who's just getting started in IT today? Never expect to be a journeyman or a master; you're always going to be an apprentice. The technology changes too fast for you to ever become a master. As long as you always want to be an apprentice, it can be a great job, it can be a lot of fun, because it's always changing -- always.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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