Mark Popolano: Master of Details

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A glance at a single day's jam-packed schedule for Mark Popolano, 48, senior vice president and CIO at American International Group Inc. (AIG), offers insight into the approach he favors for managing the global IT operations of the international insurance and financial services conglomerate.

His calendar on one autumn Monday lists eight meetings, but his day begins long before the first one, scheduled for 9 o'clock.

5 a.m.

Popolano departs from his New Jersey home for AIG's headquarters on Pine Street in New York. On other days, he might commute to AIG's office in Jersey City, N.J., or to the company's data center in Livingston, N.J. Through the magic of voice over IP, one telephone number locates him at any of his three offices.

6 a.m.

Popolano reads and answers e-mail, then reviews information from the prior night's data center activity, including application upgrades, patch deployments, security issues, remediation work and telecommunications updates. He prepares for the day's meetings by reading reports that staff members have prepared. On some mornings, Popolano holds 7:30 a.m. breakfast meetings, either with external technology vendors or with his staff. He sometimes schedules "meet the CIO" sessions where a hundred or so of his employees can query him about strategies or standards.

9 a.m. to noon

Popolano conducts a budget and strategy review with the divisional CIO at AIG United Guaranty Corp., followed by an update with executives from the domestic brokerage group.

He then holds a planning session with the chief technology officer to plot "next-generation networks" and data center virtualization efforts.

Noon to 1:30 p.m.

Not surprisingly, Popolano typically has a working lunch. That might mean a tete-a-tete with a consultant or vendor on the top floor of AIG's 65-story Pine Street building. Or it could mean a sandwich at his desk or pizza with staffers at the data center in Livingston.

"Whatever is required to get the job done," he says.

Popolano prefers the detailed view from the 100-foot level to the vast landscape he'd see from 20,000 feet. He says he likes granularity. He calls it "management by walking around."

"You have to know the details because you may have to do modifications of your strategy very quickly," Popolano explains.

He says he has seven to 13 meetings every day. Mondays are generally reserved for strategy sessions and quality time with the CTO and divisional CIOs. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are set aside for AIG's various divisions and external business partners. Thursdays and Fridays are devoted to the data center group and an infrastructure consolidation initiative. "Even though it may seem like a lot of meetings, it's just simply the pace of work," he says. "There is actually time where we shut down and go off-site and do strategies and things of that nature."

1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Popolano starts the afternoon with a meeting on Internet initiatives with the chief financial officer, a divisional CIO and business executives. That's followed by a status report on deliverables for the domestic brokerage group, with 23 executives on hand. Then there's a budget/strategy update for the personal lines division with that group's CIO, the CFO and other business executives.

Julie F. Butcher

Mark Popolano, senior vice president and CIO, American International Group Inc.

Photo Credit: John Rae

The first three months of the year are spent planning, both for the year and long term. In the succeeding months, short-term tactical deliverables become the key areas of focus. And at year's end, the process restarts and rolls into the next year.

Popolano has 13 direct reports who are either senior vice presidents or divisional CIOs. Another nine CIOs at AIG member companies also check in. The IT organization is "mapped to how the company was organized," Popolano notes.

"We created hierarchical structures," he says. "It was much more granular at one point. Now we have a series of senior people that have taken consolidated roles."

Although AIG is moving closer to a centralized model, it's currently a highly decentralized organization, according to Popolano. That has necessitated a "federated" approach for setting up compliance, governance and deliverables with the company's various divisions and 31 member companies spanning 130 countries.

In addition to gathering data from his staff, Popolano collects information from the security group, the executive project management office and an organization responsible for business transformation and offshore development centers. He estimates that he spends about 35% of his time on the road -- mostly to visit AIG offices around the country.

"I constantly get fed data that allows me to steer the organization in the directions that bring us the best opportunity," Popolano says. "But it requires a lot of time, and I have an organization around me that helps drive it as well. It's not done just by myself. Trust me."

The Night Shift

Vendor briefings with EMC Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are slated to run until 7:30 or 8 p.m. But Popolano says his day usually ends at 7 p.m. -- assuming there are no phone calls to or from Japan or any of AIG's other international offices.

"It's a hectic schedule," he says, "but I wouldn't have it any other way."

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