Careers: Interviews
Top-ranking IT Authority and Senior Executive

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally regarded, top ranking IT authority, and distinguished senior executive, Bob Ferry.

 

Mr. Ferry, a 20-year IT veteran, is executive vice president and CIO of international logistics and mail services provider Deutsche Post Global Mail, Ltd. — the US division of Deutsche Post Global Mail, GmbH. He has functional responsibility for the company’s information technology, including strategy, planning, and management of all IT-related activities. Mr. Ferry is also a member of the company’s Executive Committee, which is responsible for the day-to-day management of the $200 million+ company.

 

As President of the technology consulting firm Insight Information, Inc., Mr. Ferry first worked with Global Mail from 1992 until 1994 designing the company’s integrated information architecture. He left consulting to take on CIO roles at telecommunications providers Sector Communications and Pathnet Telecommunications and as Chief Technology Officer for Internet retailer GreatMeals.com. Mr. Ferry rejoined DPGM as CIO in 2001.

 

Mr. Ferry received his B.S. degree in Physics from Purdue University and continued with graduate studies in electrical engineering and telecommunications at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Hired out of college as a project manager for a defense contractor, he honed his programming skills by developing acoustic propagation models for the Navy. He also worked on one of the first databases of government information made available for online public access. This system, which first went online in 1984, allowed FCC license holders to search for and update commercial license records using a PC and a modem.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Bob, you are a top-ranking IT authority and industry leading executive. We are fortunate to have you with us to do this interview—thank you!

 

A: I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you and your readers.

 

Q: What first triggered your interest in computers?

 

A: My first exposure to computers was actually in grade school. I had a teacher who was interested in computing and was convinced that computers would become really important in the future. This was pretty forward thinking since, at the time, computers had not broken out of large, air-conditioned rooms and few people had actually seen one in person. He actually taught us some basic programming logic using paper models.

 

I didn’t actually start using computers as a tool until college. Purdue was one of the first universities to have a mainframe computer and many of my physics instructors assigned coursework that required us to learn to program. Looking back, I think that I enjoyed the FORTRAN and Pascal work more than the physics.

 

Q: Describe your early work with the Navy and with the first databases of government information.

 

A: During my college breaks, I worked as an intern for a Navy contractor. I spent most of my summers working with scientists and engineers developing better models for how sound travels through the water. The goal was to make submarines quieter and harder to find. Once again I found myself doing more programming than science – and I liked it.

 

After graduation, I returned to the same company and spent some time riding around in submarines trying to figure out if our acoustic models matched reality. Those trips were a lot of fun, allowed for very little sleep, and convinced me that computers were in my future. A couple months later I went to work for the IT (then MIS) department.

 

Years later I worked on a pilot project for the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC had several large databases containing license information for two-way radio transmitters. Any company that operates two-way radios (taxi companies, construction contractors, etc.) has to renew their licenses on a periodic basis. The FCC tasked us with finding a way to make that information available to the public via personal computers. We developed a system that allowed anyone with a PC and modem to dial into our computers and perform searches based on things like frequency range and key dates, print out renewal forms, and download reference information. This was one of the first examples of the government providing the public with on-line access to government information. You can still perform the same type of searches on FCC’s web site, so I guess the concept was successful.

 

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

 

A: Global Mail Deutsche Post, Ltd. specializes in providing international mailing and logistics services to corporate customers. We offer an alternative solution to moving business mail from the US into any other country. Our customers include publishers, financial firms, direct marketers and e-commerce retailers.

 

As CIO, my primary responsibilities are: 1) helping to define the business direction of the company, 2) aligning the IT strategy to that of the business, and 3) identifying talented people to deliver on that strategy.

 

In a more tactical definition, I am responsible for making sure that we can keep track of the hundreds of millions of mail pieces that go through our hands every year, that we keep the network humming and that we help to deliver new products and services to our customers.

 

Q: What are the major strengths of your company?

 

A: First and foremost, we have great people that really understand the business. Secondly, we have scale. We’re one of the largest international mail services in the US, which has its advantages. Thirdly, our high level of automation and significant IT infrastructure allow us to provide services that many of our competitors can’t offer.

 

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

 

A: That’s a really tough question. From a personal standpoint, my goal is to grow into a COO or CEO position. The CIO position is a training ground for developing the business acumen needed to move into the top slots.

 

Q: You have an illustrious career as a widely respected senior administrator. What are your top ten tips for effective leadership?

 

A: 1) You can’t over communicate

2) Encourage people taking calculated risks

3) Get people what they need to be successful

4) Honesty is the only policy

5) Keep your ego in check

6) Make sure that your people keep learning

7) Make sure that you keep learning

8) Set a good example

9) Be fair

10) Have fun!

 

Q: Do you have any humorous stories to share?

 

A: Last year; I was flying from Munich back to the US. My first leg was to Frankfurt, and the flight was running late. Upon landing, I almost had to run between the domestic to the international terminals in order to make the flight.

 

When I arrived in the terminal, the line for security was a block long and not moving very fast. I set down my bags and reached for my PDA to verify the flight time. Unfortunately, however, my PDA was not on my belt, nor in my briefcase or coat pocket. This was a major problem as I rely on that little gadget to run my schedule. The problem was made worse by the fact that if I left the line to search for it, I would surely miss the flight. It was not turning into a good morning.

 

When I finally cleared security, I hurried to the gate. Upon arrival, I provided my ID and ticket and was met with a smile and a greeting. “Ah, Mr. Ferry. We’ve been waiting for you. Oh, and by the way, will you still be needing this?” at which point my “lost” PDA was handed back to me.

 

I love this story because it reflects two things that I believe in: great customer service and the fact that IT can help you provide great customer service. Someone obviously found my PDA while cleaning up the plane. It was then probably given to a gate agent who saw my name on the back, assumed that I might be switching planes, and found out where I was going. Could this person have figured out that quickly which gate I was going to without IT resources? Probably not, but without a customer-service focus, nobody would have bothered anyway. It’s a great example of a good company (Lufthansa), with a good customer-focused culture using IT-provide resources to offer a great customer experience.

 

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

 

A: IT Infrastructure

1) People only notice when the lights go out – not how long they had been burning. Keep the lights on.

2) Security is going to consume an ever-increasing portion of your infrastructure team’s time. Accept this and plan for it. Spend some time understanding what’s going on and spend some money on training your team. Apply the principal of rule #1.

3) Develop a plan, then work the plan.

 

Systems Development

1) Get your developers talking to the people that will be using the new systems. Don’t assume that they can build everything perfectly from a written requirements document. Encourage (demand?) that the development team spends some time doing the tasks that they’re automating. The level of learning will increase dramatically and you will get a better system and happier end users.

2) Custom code can still be a strategic advantage. Having internal control can provide flexibility and it can differentiate you and your business process from that of your competition.

3) Not all systems are strategic. Don’t build a new General Ledger just because you can. Use your resources on building things that make you stand out.

 

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

 

A: 1) Nanotechnology -- I’m not sure how this will impact the business of mail and logistics, but I think that the possibilities for the manufacturing, biotech, chemical and other industries will be significant. Recommendation: For now, I’d 1) keep up with the literature and 2) sit back and be amazed.

 

2) Radio Frequency Identification -- RFID will have huge ramifications within the logistics, postal, retail and any industry that needs to keep track of “things”. As with any new technology, there are questions about the use of RFID. Issues regarding privacy have already been raised. But these problems will be solved. Recommendations: Start asking questions about how RFID could impact your organization. How much more efficient would you be if you didn’t have to open up every bag of mail to determine what’s inside? How much money could you save if you didn’t have to perform inventory cycle-counts in the warehouse?

 

3) Web services. The concept of web-services is great, but I think their actual use will begin modestly and will stay contained inside the firewalls of most companies. As key issues regarding trust, security, availability, etc. are worked out, web-services will start moving outwards towards trusted partners, vendors and customers. Recommendations: If you don’t understand the concepts, ask your developers. I’m sure that they’re up to speed. Start some small projects such as providing better visibility into internal legacy systems.

 

4) Pervasive broadband – That’s what I call being connected everywhere, all the time, through a wide pipe. 3G, ultra-wideband, Wi-Fi hotspots, WLAN – all these technologies will grow, morph and overlap until people are connected all the time, independent of data rate and physical location.  Recommendation: Start planning your security and authentication strategies now. Run pilot projects using WLAN. Start understanding what changes these technologies will mean to the structure of your organization.

 

5) Off-shore development. I’m not really thrilled about this trend, but it is real and can not be ignored. In this global environment, the low-cost provider can be anywhere. Recommendations: Consider doing a test with a project that is very well defined but not of strategic importance.

 

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

 

A: 1) Access to skilled personnel

2) Access to affordable capital

3) Over-regulating governments

4) The low-level of trust that the public has for business as-a-whole (think Enron, WorldCom and Tyco)

5) Global instability/terrorism

 

As for solutions, if I could solve the five greatest challenges to business here in this interview, I would probably be answering this question from my personal island in the South Pacific.

 

But I will offer up my two cents regarding item number one. How we educate the next generations of our society will be critical to the effectiveness of business in the future. Unless business executives get more involved in the educational process in this country, and start valuing an educated supply of talent with the same level of importance that we value other critical resources, we will soon start feeling the pinch. This is already evident in the engineering and science fields where the number of US-trained students is dropping in absolute terms as well as in comparison to countries like India.

 

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

 

A: IT is key enabler to both strategy and operations. In operations, automation/technology often allows companies to lower the cost of doing business. This is a key contributor to being competitive.

 

Strategically, technology can provide ways to differentiate your company’s products or services; the way it communicates with customers, vendors and partners; and the way it learns. IT can also help to accelerate processes and faster processes can mean faster cash flow, reduced expenses, reduced risk, faster results and increased agility.

 

IT can also bridge the gap between business strategy and operations. Strategy is the plan for moving from where you are to where you want to be. From an operational standpoint, this usually involves large quantities of change. IT can help to facilitate this change.

 

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

 

A: Basically, I’m optimistic about the economy here in the US, although I’m still worried about how things are progressing in other countries. As for IT spending, I think that many forward-thinking companies have been making strategic IT investments for several years now. The rest will be trying to play catch-up.

 

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

 

A: 1) The Society for Information Management (SIM) has a program called the Regional Learning Forum (RLF) that I participated in years ago. It’s a great program for up-and-coming IT leaders.

2) Google.

3) Anything written by Peter Drucker.

 

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

 

A: I do most of my work on a Sony Vaio Z1 notebook. I also have a desktop system, but use it infrequently as the Vaio is light enough to travel with and has enough power to run software that required a workstation several years ago.

 

At home, I have an HP desktop with a pretty big hard drive. I’m somewhat of an electronic pack rat.

 

I’m also addicted to my BlackBerry. I just upgraded to a unit that works on the GSM networks in both the US and Europe so I can get email just about anywhere.

 

 

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

 

A: Q1: Is the role of CIO going away?

A1: The position of CIO is now often responsible for a multitude of areas: technology, obviously, but also strategy, knowledge management, governance, business process, learning, security. And the playing field on which we’re playing is continuously changing. The roles and requirements of the CFO, for example, have not changed that significantly over the years. I don’t think that the same will be true for the CIO position. For some companies – especially large ones – the functional areas that I mentioned above will be split up and given to different individuals because the job gets too big for one person.

 

Q2: Is IT still in a position to bring strategic value to a company?

A2: Absolutely. The need for a certain types of technology will come and go, but the need for information will always be a business necessity. Better information, faster information will always have strategic value.

 

Q: Bob, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview. Your in-depth insights are of great value to our audience.

 

A: It was my pleasure.

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