Careers: Interviews
Internationally Regarded Award-Winning IT Authority, Top Ranking Senior Executive

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally regarded, award winning, top ranking IT authority, and noted senior executive, Jake Star.

 

Jake is currently VP and Chief Information Security Executive for the $1B+ Mohegan Sun Resort, the world’s most profitable casino/resort operation. Jake was pivotal in taking revenues from $700M to $1.1B in one year. His wide experience includes considerable successes in P&L management, operations, strategic planning, sales, marketing, and information technology.

 

Past senior positions with government and industry include VP of R&D, Director of Technical Services, Director of Information Technology, Marketing Manager, Manager of Communication Technology, Manager of Application Development and Support, Project Manager and Project Director.

 

Jake has won numerous software development awards from PC Magazine, PC World, and Parent’s Choice Foundation. He is an Advisory Board Member, for Network Computing Magazine.

 

Jake holds a BSc in Mathematics from Tel-Aviv University.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Jake, you have an impressive and long record of accomplishment as both an industry leading IT expert and top ranking executive. We are fortunate to have you with us to do this interview—thank you!

 

A: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some of my experiences. I’m looking forward to this format.

 

Q: What sparked your interest in computers?

 

A: To keep me out of trouble when I was 14, my mother gave me a Timex-Sinclair. I couldn’t deal with the 30 minutes it took to load the chess game from a cassette, so I ended up playing around with the BASIC language. I was drawn by the logic required for coding. Like most programmers, I believed I could do it better.

 

In college, I studied mathematics, which brought all the challenges of waiting for computer time to run my programs. While waiting, I tried out this communication “thing” called Relay. In my first day of using Relay, I reconnected with an old friend, and made many new ones. While it is almost embarrassing to think that a chat room is what got me into computers, those of us using Relay (back in the mid-80’s) had a real sense that this was the beginning of something special.

 

My father was an elementary school teacher in a school district that didn’t pay very well. He told me I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, but if I became a teacher, he’d break both my legs. (I tested this promise when I told him I wanted to be a musician.) Even so, I was drawn to teaching. I haven’t told him that the biggest part of my job now is teaching my employees and customers.

 

Q: Will you please share the background behind the many awards you have achieved?

 

A: I was raised on an old-fashioned work standard – if you build good products, you’ll be successful. But when I started my career developing educational software, I learned very quickly that marketing (letting the consumer know you have a good product) is just as important. I’ve been fortunate to work with teams that worked hard not only to create great products, but worked just as hard to make those products respected in the marketplace. All of the awards are a tribute to the efforts of those teams.

 

Q: You have so many of them. What are your top three achievements and why?

 

A: The expansion of Mohegan Sun certainly ranks at the top of my list. We completed a $1.2 Billion expansion of our property in June, 2002. We went from a large casino to a huge casino, plus a hotel, convention center, retail space, and 10,000 seat arena. From an IT perspective, it goes beyond the fact that we completed our portion ($50 Million) on time and under budget. I am even more proud that we successfully operated a 24/7 business, led a huge expansion, and replaced all of our major systems (network, PBX, ERP, casino apps) at the same time. That we did this in a manner which allows us the flexibility to expand even further is a tribute to both the team and the commitment our management has shown to IT.

 

Developing educational software was extremely rewarding. Even with the challenges we had back then (we couldn’t even assume that the computer could display color), it was so exciting to watch a 2-year-old child learning the alphabet from something we developed.

 

I spent a year working with a consulting firm at the Connecticut Office of Health Care Access (OHCA). All hospitals in the state are required to report detailed financial information to OHCA a number of times each year. This used to be done using over 100 spreadsheets that hadn’t changed in over ten years. We developed a web-based system to ease the data entry, and eliminated 80% of the data points that were never used. As a result, the process for each filing period went from over 80 hours down to two hours. I’m proud of this not only for the actual results, but also because we helped demonstrate that government can use technology to benefit constituents.

 

Q: With your many successes, which three “prior” positions provided the greatest challenges and lessons? What were these lessons?

 

A: A number of years ago, I took a foray into the world of marketing. I became the marketing manager for Polaris Software. This gave me a great perspective not only on how IT is perceived from within the organization, but also of the challenges associated with building a brand and product awareness. It certainly wasn’t as easy as it looked from the IT side of the fence.

 

My first consulting project was at a major insurance company here in Connecticut. It was my first exposure to a huge IT organization and the challenges they can face in fulfilling the needs of many internal customers while maintaining some sense of control and standardization. Since my job brought me into contact with many of those internal customers, it became easy to see a critical pattern – the business areas who felt they had a friendly ear within IT, someone who understood their business, were the ones who perceived the greatest benefit of the IT organization. However, this perception didn’t match the reality of the quantity of services provided. The customers getting the most service were the least happy, because they didn’t perceive that they had good communications with IT.

 

I’ve worked at companies with no IT processes, as well as those who are close to Level 5 on the SEI Capability Maturity Model. Lack of process, especially in software development, can be disastrous. At the same time, I’ve found that you can’t get from Level 2 to Level 5 overnight, and you may not truly desire to achieve Level 5. As the name implies, companies need to mature from level to level. I worked at a company where we decided to implement a lot of processes, but the employees didn’t understand why they needed to do things differently. If the employees don’t understand why, and how they are going to benefit, the maturity leap can’t happen.

 

I have to add a fourth, because it is one of the easiest things I’ve done in my career, with the greatest financial reward for my employer. I was working for a Clinical Research Organization, SCIREX, which primarily manages studies of drugs for major pharmaceutical companies. My software was an add-on Interactive Voice Response service which, while highly profitable, usually represented under 5% of the overall project. Our sales folks asked me to demo the system to a potential new client. She was considering us for a $20 Million project, but had previous bad experience with a company that provided an IVR. Instead of jumping into the demo, I asked her about this bad experience. She talked about customer service issues, and not being able to reach a support person. After she finished her explanation, I simply gave her my home phone number – we never demoed the system. The next day, she gave us the business, and listed my home phone number as the reason she chose our company.

 

Q: Can you describe your current work and your greatest current challenges?

 

A: Mohegan Sun is a relatively young company (7 years) which has undergone tremendous growth, with more on the way. A lot of my time is spent working with my team on maturing our processes. At the same time, I’m looking at the impact that new technologies could have in our operation, and trying to evangelize those technologies to both the business folks and my team. Finally, I’m working with our executives to make sure that we have the right technologies and plans in place to support the next phase of our expansion.

 

We want to drive innovation and growth, but also need to make sure we successfully operate a 24/7 business with stable systems. Our greatest challenge is in preserving our core while maintaining a strong drive for progress.

 

Q: What are the major strengths of your company?

 

A: I think it all starts with leadership. We have an extremely energetic executive team (average age is 46) that is not afraid to take us down a different path.

 

At Mohegan Sun, we’ve adopted the concepts in “Built to Last”, by Collins and Porras. There are a few areas of the book that stand out:

 

Having a Core Ideology which we deeply believe and religiously preserve helps us to develop the passionate employees who lead our success.

 

Our Core Values don’t limit our potential, but they drive our actions. The management team is just as focused on how a project will “Blow Away the Customer” as they are on “Bottom Line Performance”. (Our other two Core Values are Developing Dedicated and Passionate Employees and Continuously Striving for Perfection.)

 

In the past, I’ve encountered many organizations which were almost overwhelmed by the volume of work to be done, especially in IT. We would tell management we could accomplish one goal OR the other. “Built to Last” reminds us to focus on the “Genius of the AND”. While the workload may be scary, we try to find ways to accomplish all of the goals.

 

Of course, all of the leadership results in us having a great product. While most people may have thought of us as a casino, we believe our mix, including retail, entertainment, sports, and dining, is what drives happy customers.

 

Q: Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?

 

A: We have some very aggressive growth goals for the organization. Our research shows that there is still room for growth in our local market. In addition, our success has led to numerous requests to assist other tribes who are getting involved in gaming.

 

I’m excited at the prospect of leading further expansion. At the same time, I see many areas where my team can help the business operate more effectively.

 

When I stepped into the VP role here, I was concerned that it might take me too far away from the hands-on technology access I love. What I’ve since learned is that, the better I am at delegating to my team, the more time I have to keep looking at technology.

 

Q: You have a remarkable career with so many leadership positions resulting in great achievements—especially in spurring revenue growth, reducing expenses, and increasing efficiency! What are your top ten tips for effective leadership?

 

A: Distilling leadership into a top ten list is a great challenge for me. As I list the tips, I keep thinking that they should apply to everyone on my team. I have found that the leaders I admire are those who build consensus, but are not afraid to make tough decisions (and take responsibility for those decisions). Sometimes, the tough decision that a leader makes is simply to be quiet.

 

1) Understand the business ahead of the technology.

2) Build consensus, but don’t be afraid to make decisions.

3) Your customers should know what to expect from you.

4) Judge yourself more by how much you teach than by how much you learn.

5) Give your team the tools they need to earn your trust.

6) Always be visible, available, and open to interaction.

7) Treat everyone as a customer. Thank them for the challenges they present.

8) Minimize the need for heroism, but make everyone a hero.

9) Demonstrate the value in everything.

10) IT folks love sweets – so learn how to bake cookies.

 

Q: What prior experiences are “amazing” to you?

 

A: When I worked at Polaris Software, we had a product called “PackRat”. It was an early Personal Information Manager, before much of that functionality was built into OutLook and Notes. As their Marketing Manager, I ran their online forum on CompuServe. While I had been online for a number of years already, it was my first experience where my message was getting out to hundreds of people, and where my ability to communicate was a bigger factor than my technical skills. The most amazing part was that the customers I encountered online were fanatics about the product. It was so important to their daily lives that they felt a great need to help us make the product better.

 

I spent some time at a very small software company called WaveMetrics, in Oregon. Their product is used by many scientific researchers for graphing and analysis. Again, the customers were fanatics about the product – most of our sales came from word-of-mouth. It was amazing to see our product in use – in operating rooms, on particle accelerators. This was also my first real experience with international markets – the Japanese researchers we worked with are among most appreciative and gracious customers I’ve ever encountered.

 

When I was still in college in Israel, I had the great fortune to encounter member of a large group of immigrants from Ethiopia. These fantastic people had never been exposed to what we call modern society and conveniences. Electricity and plumbing were concepts which they had to be taught. One day, a neighbor walked into my apartment while I was “vegging” on the couch listening to my Walkman. He was amazed when I put the headphones on his ears. I was amazed when, within two minutes, he had grasped the concept of a Walkman, how the music worked, and how it got to his ears. This experience taught me a lot about embracing new technologies.

 

Q: Do you have any humorous stories to share?

 

A: I always strive to have some new experience each day at work – sometimes they are not the experiences I had in mind. On my way in this morning, I was thinking that answering these questions would be my new experience for the day. I received a page from my help desk. A pipe had burst in one of our storage rooms, raining water on over 200 PC’s, monitors, and other peripherals. Not exactly what I had in mind!

 

I’m extremely proud of our expansion project here. Not many people can go out and see a beautiful property that is the result of their hard work. But the enormity of what we had accomplished didn’t hit me until a few months after the construction was complete. I was sitting at home one evening, watching television. I turned on wrestling for a bit, since they were broadcasting from the Mohegan Sun Arena. They were doing a piece from one of the dressing rooms, and Stephanie McMahon slammed one of my phones! Seeing one of my phones slammed on national television is what drove home the enormity of what we have done here.

 

Q: Please pick five topics from your extensive work experiences. Can you share three “special and very useful” tips in each topic area?

 

A: Area - Strategic planning

1) Work hard to understand the direction in which your business is heading.

2) Even if the direction starts with “It depends”, gather the nuggets of information that are available.

3) Plans change. “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.

 

Area - Integration

1) Don’t describe it in terms of making life easier for IT.

2) Unique systems will still exist, so don’t create an all-or-nothing environment.

3) We have not yet reached the end of new integration technologies, so plan for radical change in integration techniques.

 

Area - Marketing

1) Don’t do anything that limits their creativity.

2) As soon as the requirements are documented, they are outdated, so…

3) Plan for and embrace the changes are coming.

 

Area - Auditors – the casino industry is very highly regulated. My team goes through an average of five different audits each fiscal year. As federal regulations impact more and more IT departments, I believe we all need to be prepared to partner with those who will be monitoring our work.

1) They are not the enemy – make them feel like a part of your team.

2) They can be another tool for marketing both your progress and those areas you feel need more investment.

3) Perceive your response to an audit as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership – for each finding, document your plan for resolution, estimated timeframe, and designate a person to be responsible.

 

Area - Casino Industry – every visitor and vendor asks me similar questions. Here are the answers:

1) Yes, we are watching all the cameras.

2) No, I can’t tell you which machine is about to pay off big.

3) It is nothing like the show “Vegas”.

 

Q: What are the five most important IT trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

 

A: 1) Wireless in the enterprise – I believe we’re finally past the security issues and are prepared to demonstrate Return on Investment. Wireless isn’t about connectivity everywhere, it is about the applications that we can provide. From an infrastructure perspective, wireless is scary right now. The best products are not from the big vendors, which is a sure sign consolidation is coming.

2) Business Process Optimization – For a while, I thought that Web Services was a big deal. In reality, it is another tool in the BPO toolbox. BPO is IT’s opportunity to lead the business to much greater efficiency. BPO is how we will apply the formal IT processes to the rest of the business.

3) Regulations – Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA. If we see all these new regulations as a pain, we lose. If we see them as an opportunity to lead our companies (especially in BPO), we can get some real bang for the dollars we spend on compliance.

4) Security – As cool as biometrics has seemed to me, I’m not yet convinced I want many people to have access to my fingerprints. However, I think I’ll be giving in soon, as the amount of identity theft and fraud tied to current security mechanisms is growing at an alarming rate.

 

I think we’ll see a greater adoption of Identity and Access Management in the next year. Not in the form of Single Sign-On. Most of our businesses are too complex – too many moving parts for SSO. Instead, federated identity – systems sharing that which is common, but maintaining their differences as well – will be the flavor most of us implement successfully.

5) The fall of the analysts – As IT becomes more challenged to demonstrate the ROI behind every decision we make, I’ve been seeing that we are having a tough time explaining the big subscription fees we pay to the analyst services. While we used to need their help in understanding which products to choose, we can now get good information from many online sources. The analysts will need to change their strategy and pricing in order to remain relevant.

 

Q: What are the five greatest challenges facing businesses today? What are their solutions?

 

A: I think there are many direct links between the challenges we face and the IT trends.

1) Limited economic growth – I think the past couple of years have taught us that we can’t assume huge growth. That is putting more focus on operating our businesses as efficiently as possible.

2) Regulations – As painful as they may be, all of the new regulations I see are common sense. We need to stay focused on the role they can play in improving our bottom line.

3) Adapting to the true impact of online – As the Internet has grown, I think a lot of companies have seen it as a tool for getting their message out to a large audience. However, the truly successful online companies clearly understand that customers are still individuals. The customer wants a message targeted specifically to their individual needs. Online Customer Value Management systems, which are affordable for all sizes of businesses, are a key solution here.

4) Security – We gather so much information about our customers. Our customers want us to use that information to tailor a message for them. At the same time, they are extremely concerned about the privacy of that information. We all need to focus even more on the security of our information. We need to insist that our vendors bake that security into their products.

5) Perhaps the biggest challenge I see, and there are a lot of factors behind it, is finding and keeping great employees. With limited economic growth and increasing health insurance costs, it is difficult to maintain long-term loyalty. We’ve been fortunate that we keep finding exciting projects that motivate our best employees.

 

Q: Where do you see IT in relation to business strategy and operations?

 

A: If you look at the “mission statement” of most IT departments, it would include something like, “We will lead the company in the use of technology…” The key word here is “lead”. In order to lead the business, we need to understand the business. I’m encountering more and more organizations where IT is now not only involved in the strategic planning process, but is leading the process.

 

As we become more involved in the boardroom, we need to keep in mind that not all solutions require technology. I find that respect for my team grows more when we assist in building good processes than when we implement a new technology.

 

Q: Any predictions about the economy and future IT spending?

 

A: I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend the last four years at an organization that has continued to spend through the downturn in the economy. That spending has shown great benefits to us – the experience level of the staff we’ve hired has improved, and we’ve made some great deals with vendors seeking to weather the storm.

 

I think the economy has turned a corner, though some areas of the country are lagging behind. We’ll see a lot of companies spending on technology refreshes that have been put off for a couple of years. However, I don’t see IT budgets growing significantly faster than the economy. Instead of the meteoric rise (and fall) we’ve seen the past few years, I believe we’re in for a more gentle ride.

 

Q: What are your top recommended resources for both businesses and IT professionals?

 

A: I am constantly reading. Even though many of the trade publications will give the same story, I find I learn from the subtle differences in perspective.

1) Google – This is both powerful and scary. If you Google yourself and don’t find anything, you need to get online more.

2) Weekly Trade publications – I try and balance a number of “generics” (eWeek, Information Week, InfoWorld) with some area-specific ones (Network World).

3) Bi-weekly or monthly publications – Find the ones that go beyond just your area of expertise. Network Computing and CIO Insight are great examples.

4) Business books – these can be tough for us IT folks. If you haven’t gotten into the spirit of reading this type of book, start off with anything written by Guy Kawasaki.

5) Mentors – I’ve found that having someone outside my company to bounce ideas off of is a fantastic resource. Having a mentor who also tells me when I’m way off track is even more beneficial.

 

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

 

A: I tend to upgrade my office PC every few months. We use Dell machines. I use Microsoft Virtual PC, so I can have one partition which is the standard image my customers use. My other partition tends to be more fun. I’ve got both a Polycom ViaVideo and a Logitech 4000 camera for my videoconferencing testing at the moment. I’m also playing a lot with proof-of-concept demos using Office 2003 – trying to show how our business can benefit from the upgrade.

 

At home, it’s a combination of Dell (for the games my daughter and I play) and a PowerMac G5 (my wife, a graphic artist, is still convinced that the right mouse button represents the fall of modern society). We’ve got Cisco wireless network, but also a Cisco 3548 switch so I can stay up to date on my networking configurations.

 

I gave up my laptop about nine months ago. I’ve found I can do almost everything I need to on my PDA-phone.

 

Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

 

A: Well, I’d certainly try to make them a bit easier!

 

Q1: What is the single most important factor in the success of IT in your current position?

A1: Our IT Steering Committee. All Senior VP’s and above participate in the monthly meeting. They help us set priorities, as well as address any challenges we’re facing. The good news is that they know exactly what is going on, and support us. Of course, that also means we can’t hide our failing from them.

 

Q2: What part of your education has been most useful to you in your career?

A2: I took a class called The Psychology of Creativity. We learned about some of the geniuses throughout history. More importantly, we looked at how some teams of highly intelligent people made bad decisions. For example, how did John F. Kennedy go from such disaster in the Bay of Pigs to such success with the Cuban Missile Crisis? This class really formed the basis of my leadership style, and still guides how I work with my teams.

 

Q3: What is the hardest part of transitioning from technical leadership to business leadership?

A3: Even though moving from a completely technical focus to a business really does involve learning a new language (ROI, accruals, amortization, P&L, etc.), I’ve found that it takes more effort to sell my ideas. As a business leader, I need to present my ideas in different ways. I have to present them many times. It may be obvious to my technical team that we need to do XML and Web Services, but I need to phrase it differently for the business. I need to speak in terms of what they are going to be asking me for next year, and how these technologies will position my team to deliver those future solutions more quickly.

 

Q: Jake, your in-depth insights are of great value to our audience. Thank you for doing this interview!

 

A: This is a truly unique format – I’ve found it both more challenging and rewarding than the normal interview. Thanks for providing the challenge!

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