George C. Rimnac: Disciplined Leader

George C. Rimnac, 52, is vice president and chief technologist at W.W. Grainger Inc., a Lake Forest, Ill.-based distributor of facilities maintenance products. He was a pioneer in distributed and peer-to-peer computing in the 1980s.

More recently, Rimnac has become a strong advocate of disciplined methods and very thorough testing. He talked recently with Computerworld's Gary H. Anthes.

What's your biggest challenge in IT right now? We are trying to provide a consistent, highly integrated set of services across all our different sales channels. We want customers to get the same prices, the same information, the same set of services and so on. It's been a real challenge because we've had to build some tightly integrated systems to do that.

That creates a very complex environment that requires a substantial amount of testing and care to make sure you don't break something while trying to extend a capability somewhere else.

So how do you balance those things? We are still trying to puzzle through it. We are focusing on consistent process around development and testing, and we are doing as much as we can to automate those processes so we can execute them quickly.

And we are making sure there are a few key members of the management team who are directly responsible for this integration, people who can think broadly and see the big picture. It's a combination of IT people and some from the business.

You started out programming warehouse automation applications, then you were assigned to the Advanced Technology Group at Grainger. How did that come about? I worked on a project to revamp a whole new generation of minicomputer support for our branch-office network to 250 locations. We pioneered the use of peer-to-peer networking protocols. This was in the mid-1980s, and we were doing some pretty interesting things with distributed information management. It was a turning point for me.

How so? The gentleman who became our chairman really spent a lot of time with me talking about what the business was trying to accomplish, to help me frame some of the evaluations we did on technologies. It allowed us to build a bridge between the IT area and the business that exists to this day. The business understands that while we are an industrial distributor, we are also an information-based business. And IT has the opportunity to not just react to what the business wants, but also help the business innovate.

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You had a rocky implementation of SAP ERP software some years ago, yet now you are doing another one. We had one that was very difficult in 1998 and 1999, for branch-office sales support. Now we are implementing the entire SAP [suite] across the whole company. We intimately know what can go wrong, and we have taken many, many steps to make sure those issues don't occur again.

Such as? Probably the biggest single difference now is very thoughtful and highly structured testing. We have been testing for almost a year now. It's expensive, but we don't believe it's expensive in the long run. It's a set of disciplines we'll continue beyond this project.

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