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Careers: Interviews
Jeff Wacker

Go Deep or Go Wide: Career Strategies with EDS Futurist Jeff Wacker

In describing the distinguished career of Jeff Wacker - EDS Fellow, Vice-President and Chief Information Officer within Global Industry Solutions at EDS - it would be more accurate to say that he has "blazed a trail," rather than he has "followed a path." Born and raised in the Nebraska heartland, Jeff was diverted from furthering his family's farming legacy by a severe case of environmental allergies. What started as a search for an "indoor, creative career" sparked a passion for computing and an

Jeff Wacker

insatiable thirst for information and knowledge. The template for personal and professional satisfaction that Jeff has crafted over the past 30 years is based sound principles, seized opportunities and strong vision. EDS has recognized the talents of this prized employee with the distinguished title of IT Futurist and also its rare and highly respected distinction of EDS Fellow - one who is able to identify, incubate, create and bring to market the leading edge technologies that will define the way that companies work.

Jeff has graciously accepted NPA Executive Director Doug Cooper's invitation to share some of his insights and experiences with NPA members. The result is this first in a series of NPA Mentor Profiles.

Doug: Let's talk about your strategies for career development. What sort of advice would you give to people who are at a crossroads in their career development?

Jeff: In clothing and careers - one size does not fit all. In fact, I would say that one size fits no one. There are two basic patterns to choose from: you can pick one area and go deep - be an inch wide and a mile deep. Or you can pick many areas and become competent in them all - be a mile wide and an inch deep. There is no right answer. Either way poses its own unique challenges. I chose the latter because being a generalist helped me satisfy my great craving: an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and information.

Doug: Are there any magic formulas for deciding which way a person should go?

Jeff: It is based on personality. Most people realize their inclination by the time they reach higher education. It is a matter of what fits you best, and the world needs both kinds of people. We need people who are an inch wide and a mile deep to drive technologies to their best economic fruition. And we need those who are a mile wide and an inch deep to understand how those technologies should be deployed and employed for maximum business value. It is a partnership.

Doug: What are some of the attributes of the two types?

Jeff: In the mile deep category, you should know everything there is to know about your subject area and be an expert. If you are going to be an expert in a niche, you need to understand the entire area as well as all of the points of interface for that area - all of the adjoining silos of technology, so that you can most effectively employ it. Plus, you have the opportunity to drive the new inside of that silo. For instance if you are focused on communications, you have the opportunity to migrate from fixed, to fixed wireless to full wireless environments, matriculating through all of those different needs for new standards and new capabilities.

If you are talking about being a mile wide, you are entering the realm of the "futurist." A futurist is somebody who has a great interest and a great proclivity for understanding everything from religion, to demographics, economics and technology - anything and everything that impacts everybody and every business. So the futurist role is the epitome of being broad and being able to understand the interrelationships of so many areas. So it is a matter of personality: If you really want to master something, find a niche and master it. If you like to look at the big picture, stay out of the niches (but understand them) and work across the entire spectrum.

Doug: What are some of the factors for professional success?

Jeff: The biggest goal is to be the best at what you can be. The factors for success start with "don't be afraid to get involved." You have opinions and people want to hear them. I have met many young people who are afraid to have opinions because they are in awe of somebody or because they are insecure. If you are going to move up in your field you need to have some well-founded opinions that you can passionately support.

Everyone benefits when you get involved. You are on the bleeding-edge and can help determine the direction of technology. For example, in the case of the communications field, there is a lot of confusion caused by the lack of standards. That is a huge impediment. Companies must either wait or bet their future on a guess as to which way things will go. So getting involved with the setting of new standards is a very personally enriching process. You will network with many highly talented people, and you will influence the future of the industry.

Just as important is my philosophy that you need to have clarity of vision ahead and a passion behind you. Almost everything gets done by people who have a vision of what can be and the passion to pursue it. Without the vision, the passion is squandered and people are aimless. Without the passion, people do not move off of zero. The biggest waste of talent is for somebody to see potential and not pursue it. Companies that hire you don't want you to be silent. They want you to cultivate ideas and have passions. That makes you a more valuable employee.

The best way this philosophy was communicated to me was with this advice: "You are 'Jeff Wacker, Inc.' That means you work for yourself. Your largest client is the company that employs you. You must sell every day; you must perform every day in order to get paid. It is up to you to motivate yourself to do that. The company is not going to do it for you." If you are out there and you had to make your own money on your own ideas and passions, would you be silent? I don't think you could afford to be silent.

Doug: How is your choice to be a generalist - a mile wide - reflected in your early career?

Jeff: Well it all started with the back of the proverbial matchbook cover in 1969. It said, "Train to become a computer scientist." The University of Nebraska was one of the few schools offering a degree in computer science. I chose to pursue that and fell in love immediately. I was a traditional geek on campus, which had its advantages, including working with professors who wanted more computerization of their courses. This led to my first real job: working with the psychology department, understanding what they were doing and helping to create an on-line education system.

I leveraged this experience after graduation at Control Data Corporation (CDC), where I received my first big break as a generalist (a mile wide person). I joined a wildly eclectic group - formed because management was tired of turning down requests for services that the company could not offer. We were charged with the challenge of doing anything and everything that no one else in the company could do. This led to a string of stimulating and rewarding projects, including working on the message switching system and world weather watch projects for the United Nations, developing seismic array processing for Mobil Oil, working on weather prediction models for CDC's largest computer, and getting involved with the emerging personal computer.

Perhaps the most intriguing project at the time was called "Safeguard," which was CDC's effort to sell computers into the Communist Bloc. To satisfy Department of Defense concerns about selling technology into this market, we made a three way deal: the Department of Commerce would allow the CDC export licenses if we could provide the Department of Defense with periodic tapes from those sites. The tapes were secreted out in diplomatic bags, and the DoD would reverse engineer the code to stay current on the nuclear weapons program in the Soviet Union.

I was involved in building the modifications, designing the support systems, working with the DoD on the reverse engineering. This included trips to the Eastern Bloc countries to work on site with analysts on installation as well as work with the people who would secret back the tapes.

These fantastic opportunities early on fueled my passion to become very capable and competent in a wide range of areas. So, as I furthered my education, I did not follow my fellow computer science majors into Electrical Engineering masters degree programs. My decision was focus on business, because an MBA would give me a broader foundation for developing viewpoints.

Doug: What sort of work-related advice can you offer to network professionals?

Jeff: Unfortunately many employees feel that they are not a big cog in the wheel. They feel that they are a voice that would be lost in the wind. I have always told myself that I had a voice, because I knew I had the passion and the ability to see what could be. And so I advise people to build the ability to see what can be. Innovation is a learned thing. Most people don't know that. They think they are innovative or they are not. But you can learn to become innovative. It is a trained way of thinking. With innovation and seeing the potentials ahead, you then have to pair that up with action. If you see something then it is your responsibility to exercise your passion to pursue it.

Doug: How can one learn to be innovative?

Jeff: Take courses, read books on innovation and how you can create it. Edward deBonoa British author is one of the best on this subject. He actually gives you some exercises that help you train your mind to be innovative. I learned in drama classes way back in high school that if you act the part you become the part. So you can act the part of innovator and become innovative.

Doug: How can one be most confident in making good career decisions?

Jeff: The first thing you do is find a good mentor and role model - and they will be different at different times in your career, as your travel a variety of roads to get to where you want to be. There are certain universals: ask for help; help others; continually be learning as part of the whole process.

During your first three to five years on the job you have some opportunities, but the greatest percentage of your time is spent on learning the job. After five to ten years and beyond you know your job and a much greater percentage of your time can be spent on creating more innovation in that job or industry. The young, seeking attitude of the learner is valuable to the senior people - it is a complementary effort - because they need the refreshing look as much as the newer employees need the senior experience.

The complementary effort can be lost if people become hardened into an attitude of "they know what they know," or "they know everything." It is a lonely existence if you know everything. The masters of innovation say that you have to understand what you don't know. Then you fill that glass; and in doing so you know even less because you have to know more. That is my metaphysical lesson for today.

And remember that your career decisions will never be "dead end," because you learn something from everything. For example, after three years at Control Data Corporation, I moved back to Nebraska to work for a small company called Northern Natural Gas. Many of my colleagues considered this to be a big step backward, but in fact what happened was that I had a first hand view of the industry deregulation, which was an experience not to be missed.

Doug: How did that decision impact the course of your career?

Jeff: The evolution of the industry to an economic-based, competitive market with diminishing margins provided challenging and valuable experience. Ultimately, through a series of company changes, I was working for the company that would later become Enron - which at the time was a proud place to be. Then, in the late 1980's I was part of a team that decided to outsource our IT function - and by virtue of that strategy I became an employee of EDS, where I am today. The wonderful irony is that I was back in the wonderful position of working on a whole variety of projects and in a variety of roles.

Since 1989, my time at EDS has afforded me tremendous opportunities. After joining the company I did some post graduate work at MIT's Sloan School of Management
and also attained the credentials from the World Future Society to become a "Professional Futurist." What started as a hobby actually enhanced my career at EDS. I have found that the future is already with us; it is just not yet widely distributed. That awareness empowers you to say, "I think I know what is coming next." So my ability to meld my vocation with my avocation began five years ago when I became a Professional Futurist and culminated three years ago when I was granted the distinction of EDS Fellow.

Now the door has been opened for me to speak all over the world, and to consult with all of the leading companies, and to really understand what the next trends will be - what is after "e."

Doug: What sort of bad career moves have you observed?

Jeff: The surest way to cut your own throat is to say "No." We have to learn how to say no in a way that is not destructive. I have seen people sabotage themselves by saying "no, I don't have time for that." My advice is that you can never say you don't have time. What you mean is that you don't have priority. Because in fact we have time for everything we choose to do. So not having enough time is never an excuse. This is all difficult in an age when companies demand 200 percent, but we need to start asking people to work smarter, not harder. The real opportunities lie in working smarter.

Another bad career move is to violate the confidence. As technical professionals we work with a lot of information that is confidential even though it may not be designated as confidential. Now we are looking at network professionals as the keepers of at least the pathways of the trust - and the ethics working in the network environment will become even more critical.

Scott McNealy predicted early on that "the network is the computer." Now I think of it as "the cloud is the computer." We are looking at a lot of paradigms of computing on the edge of the enterprise, with infinitely scalable processor capability and storage on demand in the cloud. With content in the cloud (which is the Internet now), the network becomes the pathway to virtually all of your computing resources in the future. So now there are ethical issues as well as technical issues, because you can put companies out of business by violating the trust associated with that. This is why I am intrigued with- and support the idea of a professional certification that addresses the ethics of working in the network environment.

Doug: As the network becomes more pervasive in our lives, how will IT professionals handle that trust?

Jeff: Network professionals are coming into their own. It used to be that they just made sure that the networks talked and that there was some external connection for EDI. Now they are the mainline because the cloud is the computer, and access to and from the cloud and within the cloud is everything.

Right now we are at the extension of the IT revolution from the central devices down to the distributed devices, the embedded chips and the ubiquitous computing world. In the next seven to eight years, 20 percent of the ten trillion things being manufactured every year will be smart. When you have trillions of things thinking, they don't just think - they also link. When they link, what do you do with that information? How do you handle all of that connectivity, communication and content that is moving across the network?

Now we are looking at new models - even biological models like ants in a colony or termites in a mound or bees in a hive that act as a society. We have to be able to work with the subliminal process that will be out there. Because things that are thinking and not linking will be worthless. And this of course will give rise to new sorts of privacy and ethical issues - because while there may not be many ethics associated with a chip in your stapler to tell you when it is empty, if the microchip is embedded in you then it becomes personal.

So now the profession is a mainline that it has not been in the past. And the challenge is to recognize that and get the respect that is now due. Historically there has been a lack of respect between business and technical people. But there can no longer be business and technical people. Instead we must be technically savvy business people and business savvy technical people. Even if you are in the mile deep niche you must have business savvy in order to apply your skills appropriately.

Doug: What are some of your favorite web sites, in terms of professional and personal interests?

Jeff: There is a wide range of sites that I go to, such as ArcaMax that are subscription sites. This is where I find a lot of leading edge information. The Scientist and the Economist are two others. These sites give me insight at a very rapid pace, into what is happening. That is what I require - rapid looks at the world. When something catches my eye I can take a longer look. That is my professional use of the Internet: information survey and gathering.

Personally, my favorite site is eBay. The reason is that I am restoring a 1950 Hudson Commodore 8 automobile, the car I drove in high school. If you have ever tried to find parts for an orphan car, you understand that the value of the Internet has been in putting communities together. I talk to people all over the world who are trying to solve similar challenges in restoring cars. Then, of course, I get into friendly competition when we bid for the parts.

***
Who is Jeff Wacker?

Jeff Wacker, an EDS Fellow, is Vice-President and Chief Information Officer within Global Industry Solutions at EDS. He has over 27 years business experience, most of which has been in the application of advanced information technology capabilities for high business impact. Mr. Wacker is an Information Technology focused Futurist for EDS. He is known for his innovative approach in identifying and applying emerging technologies to create differentiated value.

Mr. Wacker is an accomplished keynote and workshop speaker and was the focus of an NBC news segment on future technologies. He conducts seminars with corporations and government entities across the globe on the utilization of emerging technologies as a means of creating and sustaining competitive advantage. He is the EDS liaison to the MIT Media Lab, Things-That-Think Consortium and works with a wide variety of groups to transition innovation to productive application for companies across the financial, manufacturing, healthcare, government, transportation and energy industries.

Mr. Wacker is an avid practitioner of Organizational Learning and is a graduate of the Sloan School of Business, Organizational Learning Center course on Leading Learning Communities and is a member MIT's Society of Learning. Mr. Wacker received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Science and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Nebraska.

Jeff can be contacted at jeff.wacker@eds.com.

***

Jeff Wacker's Guidelines for Professional Success:

  • Choose your path: a mile deep and an inch wide; or a mile wide and an inch deep.
  • Have clarity of vision ahead and a passion behind you.
  • Don't be afraid to get involved.
  • Develop views and express opinions that you can support.
  • Train yourself to be innovative; combine innovation with action.
  • Ask for help, help others and continually be learning.
  • There are no dead end decisions. You learn something from everything.
  • Be a keeper of the trust: maintain high ethical standards in the networking environment.



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