CIOs explain how to thrive under pressure

Johnson & Johnson CIO creates new jobs; Walt Disney chief awaits recovery that will come in a 'blink'

Running IT organizations with thousands of employees and budgets of tens of millions of dollars takes wit and wisdom, especially today, and some CIOs at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders conference this week shared both, perhaps none better than LaVerne Council, the CIO at Johnson & Johnson.

Council was among a number of CIOs from large organizations, including Walt Disney and FedEx, who talked about today's IT at the Premier 100 Conference in Phoenix. All of their stories shared common themes.

Johnson & Johnson, a $62 billion consumer health care products company, was wide open for reform when Council was hired in 2006. The company was expecting its new CIO to deliver a lot, including improvements in IT service levels.

"That was reasonable," said Council, "given that they didn't have service levels identified anywhere."

Johnson & Johnson also wanted Council to implement programs and systems that would improve customer satisfaction.

"I love this concept of customer satisfaction," said Council. "In fact, for the last 20 years I've been telling my husband about customer satisfaction," she deadpanned to audience laughter.

Council did note that something was missing when she joined the Johnson & Johnson IT organization, which employed about 4,000 people globally.

To explain the problem, Council drew an analogy to early days in IT. "I could remember starting as a programmer analyst and feeling very energized and very excited about what I did," she said, adding that she said had no doubt that the IT employees at Johnson & Johnson at one time were similarly enthusiastic about their jobs.

Council's plan to fix that problem included giving the IT staff a shared mission and vision. "The team wanted leadership and wanted to belong," she said, "and sometimes that's half the battle."

Council also wanted the business to know where "every dollar went," and to convince it that IT creates value and competitive advantage. She set a goal: "For every dollar they invested in IT, we would like for them to get 2.5 dollars back."

She also aimed to make Johnson & Johnson's global IT organization a "sought-after partner for innovation" as well as "an employer of choice. I like making jobs -- I think it's what we should do," said Council.

In a "town hall" meeting last year with IT workers, Council recalled that CEO William Weldon once said that he "didn't have any expectations about IT" and felt it was something that could have been outsourced to reduce costs.

However, she recounted that Weldon added at the time: "But now I can say that I'm actually looking to that group to deliver our innovation through technology to provide true competitive advantage, because now I do have expectations and they're high."

To hear that "made all the risk worth it," said Council, and "having my team there [to hear it] was priceless."

Walt Disney Studios

Steve Davis, the chief architect and vice president of information technology at Walt Disney Studios, suggested that today's economy has a movie-like quality about it.

"Even though an economic turnaround is slow in coming, when it comes it comes in the blink of an eye and all of a sudden it's happening, [then it will be] too late to sit down and say 'What are we going to do now?'" said Davis.

Davis stressed the importance of planning but added that there's an all-too-human reason that can make it difficult. "They don't want to be seen as promoting spending at a time when there is austerity," said Davis.

But planning doesn't have to be perfect, he stressed. "You can make place-holders for the future," he said.

For instance, on the fourth year of a movie studio's road map there may be a placeholder in June that says "summer blockbuster," explained Davis. The studio isn't sure what that film will be, but it knows that it needs a summer blockbuster and it knows roughly what that blockbuster will cost. "We can do the same thing in systems planning," he said.

When the economic meltdown came, Disney's IT unit was prepared. "We had already arranged our investments in a way that we knew what we would defer," said Davis.

Good planning doesn't mean that legacy systems are quickly phased out, said Davis, noting that existing systems are like poured concrete. For example, he said that his organization has been "killing Domino servers for eight years" and there are still two servers left. The audience chuckled.

FedEx Ground

One of the ways that Ken Spangler, the CIO at FedEx Ground, illustrated the importance of IT to his company was to point to technology's ever-expanding role at FedEx.

For instance, he described a new tool just developed by the company's laboratory as a "combination of GPS and sensor technologies" that can be put into packages to determine the location of a package en route, its temperature and whether it has been opened or not -- data that could, for example, be necessary for the biomedical industry.

United Airlines

In a joint presentation, Charlie Feld, a former CIO at a number of companies, including Frito-Lay Co., and the author of the new book Blind Spot IT (Olive Press, 2010), and R. Keith Halbert, senior vice president and CIO at United Airlines (who participated via videoconferencing), answered an audience question that has broad implications for current and future IT workers.

This question: how can people can be encouraged to get into IT when so much work is being sent offshore?

"Outsourcing can be used for good or evil, depending upon your motivation," said Halbert.

He argued that a company can outsource certain functions while retaining the right IT expertise and leadership. These "are all complementary tools and techniques" to drive down costs, but it all depends on the vision that is set.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

This story, "CIOs explain how to thrive under pressure" was originally published by Computerworld.

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