Toughest tasks, lessons learned

Five IT chiefs talk about the most difficult challenges they've ever faced at work

  • Rob Carter

    Executive vice president and CIO

    FedEx Corp., Memphis

    Business: Transportation and business

    services provider

    Rob Carter, executive vice president and CIO at FedEx Corp.
    Rob Carter Eighteen years ago, Carter was working on his MBA when he was asked to direct the development of a large-scale billing system at a telecommunications company. The difficulty of the project was compounded by the need to keep pace with business requirements that changed while the system was being developed. There was also the challenge of adapting the legacy code, with all of the surprises it contained.

    "There were huge pressures on us, with a lot of fault being placed on the IT team for dates being missed," he says. "I saw the other side of the equation, where we were trying to build something that was constantly changing."

    Bolstering his team's confidence was key to meeting those challenges. "I spent a huge amount of time celebrating our successes," Carter says.

    Lessons Learned:

    • Acknowledge that "big bang" system development isn't a wise business strategy. It's better to break up your deliverables into increments.
    • Remember that legacy applications often contain solid components and code that is salvageable. "It needs to be re-engineered, it needs to have a new front end or user interface, it needs some rearchitecting, but you don't have to start with a clean sheet of paper," Carter says.
    • Give your team a chance to blow off steam during an arduous project. Carter arranged for his employees to indulge in fishing, go-cart racing and paintball fights.
    • Stand up for your team. "Fight to make sure that your team has the opportunity to lead a balanced life," he says.
  • Dennis Fishback

    Senior vice president and CIO

    Calpine Corp., San Jose

    Business: Energy supplier

    Dennis Fishback, senior vice president and CIO at Calpine Corp.
    Dennis Fishback You know that you are in the midst of the "IT perfect storm," Fishback says, when an unexpected series of hardware and software failures leaves you scrambling to get a critical business operation back on its feet. Last summer, a malfunctioning storage device kicked off one such storm at Calpine. The snafus that followed caused major system outages, which threatened to cripple the company's energy-trading operation.

    While working on the problem, Fishback's team had to calm the company's traders, who balked at reverting to manual work-arounds. "You do that by getting personally involved," he says. "I got on a plane to Houston to show that I was engaged" in fixing the problem.

    Lessons Learned:

    • Maintain a close working relationship with vendors at the executive level. "You should know who to call to get a personal commitment from them to solve the problem," Fishback says.
    • Stay personally involved.
    • Show that you have confidence in your staff and third parties who pitch in. "You have people working around the clock for days on end. Make them feel like they are part of the solution, not part of the problem," Fishback says.
    • Provide regular status reports during a crisis to executives, department heads and others who may be affected.
    • Start now to manage your internal customers' expectations. "Keep them realistic. The systems aren't going to be up 100% of the time. They need to practice their manual work-arounds routinely," says Fishback.
  • Jim Lester

    Senior vice president,

    global technology strategy

    Aflac Inc., Columbus, Ga.

    Business: Insurance provider

    Jim Lester, senior vice president of global technology strategy at Aflac Inc.
    Jim Lester Four years ago, Lester was called on to rescue a multimillion-dollar core business application project that was floundering. He performed a technological reassessment, redefined the project's goals and brought in new managers. He also had to make the difficult decision to replace a large, high-profile vendor. These moves helped Lester get the project back on track about eight months later. But in the interim, the pressure never subsided. "The stakes were very high. It was an expensive, complicated, international project," he says.

    Lessons Learned:

    • "Don't just preside over large projects; proactively stay ahead of them," says Lester. Focus on four core principles: people, schedules, budgets and measurements. "If one of the four gets out of whack, you need to know beforehand," he says.
    • Get tough. If one milestone in a large project is missed, it can trigger a domino effect that can ultimately cripple the project. "Find out who missed the milestone and replace them," he says. "Call a fact a fact. Quit worrying about hurting people's feelings. I sound like a hard case, but there has to be pain felt in the corpus of the organization in these large projects."
    • Establish a performance-based relationship with your vendors. There is too much at stake in large projects to proceed based simply on trust.
  • Tom Shelman

    Vice president and CIO

    Northrop Grumman Corp., Los Angeles

    Business: Defense contractor

    Tom Shelman, vice president and CIO of Northrop Grumman Corp.
    Tom Shelman When Northrop Grumman acquired three companies in 2001 and 2002, Shelman learned some hard lessons about bringing new employees into the fold following a merger. After experiencing what he called "significant employee engagement issues" early on, Shelman hired an independent consulting firm to interview the new employees and gauge their enthusiasm. He learned that some weren't thrilled to join a new corporate family, especially if their company had already been acquired in the past. "It's humbling to find out what people really think versus what they tell you to your face," he says. These insights prompted Shelman to change some of his strategies.

    Lessons Learned:

    • Employees in large companies are more likely to follow the lead of their

      managers, not their executives. Get the management team's support early.

    • At your first meeting with managers, find out how they feel and address their concerns. "Mostly just by their knowing that we cared and were listening to them, we'd get the management team engaged," says Shelman.
    • If employees are gung-ho about joining your team but their manager resists, consider replacing the manager. "If the manager isn't behind you, you have 40 people who aren't behind you -- even if they want to be," Shelman says.
  • Kurt Woetzel

    Executive vice president and CIO

    The Bank of New York Co.

    Business: Financial services provider

    Kurt Woetzel, executive vice president and CIO of The Bank of New York Co.
    Kurt Woetzel On Nov. 20, 1985, The Bank of New York's security broker/dealer clearing system suffered an epic meltdown that sent shivers through the U.S. government securities market.

    "The application's original design did not take into consideration that the volumes it would need to process on any given day could grow

    by 6,500%," says Woetzel, who had been hired just three weeks earlier to head a small IT team. The bank's inability to clear U.S. government securities created a record $23 billion overdraft at the

    Federal Reserve

    discount window that evening, and the bank racked up millions in interest expenses.

    Lessons Learned:

    • Develop processes to manage change. While few businesses suffer the level of IT catastrophe that befell The Bank of New York, all businesses change over time.
    • Build a culture that emphasizes technology risk management. "There needs to be a strong emphasis on quality of technical design that considers the business dynamics and how engineers need to design for mitigating the risks those business dynamics create," says Woetzel.
    • Keep your staff aware of these principles. Woetzel frequently uses the example of that fateful 1985 day. "There's nothing like a real-life example to help people focus," he says.
    Have a horror story of your own? Share what you learned.
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