with your peers
Five IT executives chat about the technology,
management and business issues served up at work.
By Julie Bort
Network World, 07/17/00
E-commerce, outsourcing and retaining superstars. These are the issues that make up your day, according to five network executives who took part in a roundtable discussion led by Julie Bort, senior editor with Network World's
The executives come from various industries, backgrounds and locations. From an established company is Art Krulish, chief information officer at apparel manufacturer Aris Industries in New York. From a dot-com start-up is Brett Thomas, vice president of technology for EMusic.com
in Redwood City, Calif. Representing a dot-com spinoff is Don Springer, vice president of Internet strategies for WholePeople.com, a launch of health food retailer Whole Foods Markets in Thorton, Colo. From the financial services industry is Isaac Applbaum, president and CEO at Concorde Solutions, the IS arm of Bank of America in Concord, Calif. Running a government network is Richard Glasberg, director of data communications for Massachusetts
What emerging technologies are you watching?
Hear what Applbaum, Krulish and Thomas have to say about emerging technologies. (RealPlayer required)
We are focusing on wireless - in particular, wireless across multiple devices, the ability to leverage the Internet and the ability to provide our clients with the capability of becoming remote models.
We have two basic areas that we are really focused on. One is downloadable music. Most consumers don't have the consumer electronics hardware necessary to really make full use of our product. You've seen the portable MP3 player, but we still need stereo rack components and car stereo units. We need a way to get that music around, and that's probably home or wireless networking. Internally, we've been intrigued by really low-cost commodity hardware instead of going with large-scale, monolithic, big brand name products. Our Web operations manager has coined the term 'RALPH,' for Redundant Array of Linux Peripherals and Hardware. Rather than spending half a million dollars on an expensive, single piece of equipment so that it will never fail, you spend $100,000 on a bunch of little pieces of equipment that are totally redundant, so when they do fail, you don't care.
We're watching e-commerce. It's always been a pitfall for us because of how stringent electronic data interchange has been with its rules and regulations. But what is happening now, especially with application service providers, is that transferring documents between companies is going to be very simple.
In that regard, I actually have a few questions for Don [Springer] and Brett [Thomas]. My main concern with outside providers is that I am going to spend a lot of time and energy in building something, and they're not going to be there tomorrow. Do you have any concerns about that?
I feel strongly that we build ourselves [when it's central to our business]. We can build a custom solution, maybe for a bit more money, but it will do exactly what our business needs, and I don't have to worry about someone else responding to my problems. . . . That said, we do outsource a fair amount. For example, we don't have any competency in redundant electrical systems, so we don't host our stuff here. But it's a fairly simple service, and is common to all [the hosting companies'] customers. So I feel pretty comfortable about it.
I agree. If it's core to your business - like your commerce engine, databases, profiling, how you interconnect, the personalization piece - you build it yourself. When I talk about using outsource providers, hosting is an obvious example, maybe storage becomes one because they can do it cheaper and keep you up to speed. My chat discussions, my bulletin boards, my search engine or an online gift certificate program, there are companies out there that are becoming so good [at these specialty areas] that it's much easier to use their software or use them as a Web-based service.
The other point I would make is when you do outsource, find someone that does it core to their business. We actually had a disastrous experience outsourcing part of our gift certificate program to a partner that didn't really do gift certificates but said it could.
Where do you invest your dollars when technology in these businesses seems to change overnight?
Thomas and Springer discuss open source. (RealPlayer required)
I know in a lot of big, corporate shops, open source software is a dirty phrase. But with it you don't have to worry about the vendor going away, because even if the vendor did go away, you could support it yourself.
It's attractive to look at some of these leaders from a technology standpoint, not so much from a service standpoint. Even if it's a small start-up, it's going to have 50 to 60 people who are really focused on being the best in their industry at that piece of technology. We're going to see this more as the Web model matures. Standards like XML and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language] are going to allow us to do more integration.
So you go with the best technology, not necessarily the market leaders?
The best technology, and hope that with your industry expertise, you can mesh nicely with someone who is an expert in technology, and you can build something jointly. I would like to see this openness produce a technology that can be tailored and maintained
easily. Everything we buy seems to be outdated two days after we buy it.
Brett, it doesn't sound like you've got that problem, or do you?
The more money we've spent on a solution and the more robust it is supposed to be, the more frustrating an experience I have had, because those tend to be complex systems, and most of the intelligence - most of the knowledge necessary to support them to the level that I would like - resides with the vendor. And so I have had infinitely more trouble with our Oracle systems and our Clariion disk arrays than with our Apache Web servers running Perl on Intel boxes.
How has e-business affected your job? Are you more visible, having to handle more work?
There are new solutions, concepts and ideas every minute. And just to stay on top of things - forget about getting ahead of them - we are working much harder and a lot longer. We have to be more creative, we need to be more competitive and adapt new technologies more rapidly. It's a tremendous challenge.
E-business for us really is just in its beginning stages. For the most part, we were a wholesale distributor for large retailers. We are not really set up to do business like a catalog company, a small piece, onesy, twosy-type operation. We ship thousands of garments at one time. So most of our operations really have not kept up with the infrastructure to support an e-commerce environment. We deal with companies like CyberRetail that perform those functions for us. From an industry standpoint, my suppliers, especially in fabric, buttons, bows and all that, have not kept pace. The largest suppliers are moving toward it, but it's not been very fast for the apparel industry.
We are doing a lot of online government, where agencies figure out innovative ways to get their business partners online access to the back-end databases to do things like get gaming licenses. Now [my] people are really baselining and benchmarking applications so that we know what kind of service delivery we are going to be giving. Because an application that rolls out and can't run doesn't exactly make online government look good, we're working on network performance, network management and service-level management.
As far as how e-commerce has changed my job outside of my internal efforts, because everything I do everyday is e-commerce, we use e-commerce with our outside vendors in a relatively small fashion. For us, business-to-business has not been revolutionary. Our big suppliers have intranets. Instead of picking up the phone and calling to find out where an order is, we can check and see where it is. I can go on their Web sites and get their part numbers. But if I am going to do a big order where I don't know exactly what I want, I pick up the phone, talk to a salesman and have him take me out to lunch.
And negotiate price.
And have a good feeling that I'm not getting the price that anybody who comes along on the Web site gets. When it comes down to it, I don't need to be going to my suppliers' intranets. I need to go to a marketplace and let all the suppliers bid on my business, but [business-to-business e-commerce] hasn't gotten that far.
Switching tracks here, how are you dealing with the employee shortage?
We're aggressive. We pay well. We have been able to differentiate ourselves in the type of technology that we are using and implementing. I find that if you keep the work exceptionally interesting, then you don't have to buy them a BMW or something like that.
We focus on retention. If you get a superstar, a talented, technical person, it kills you when you lose him or her. So I let those people get trained, promote themselves, take on responsibility and go in new directions so they can manage their career within our company as opposed to taking off when the next best opportunity comes around.
Have people stopped job-hopping just to get bigger salaries?
Well, 30% of my global head count is unfilled right now. It's the shortage, but another part of it is that people are buying into their companies' futures by signing stock option agreements. They are saying, 'OK, if I hang out here, I am guaranteed a lot more money every quarter as my options vest than anyone is going to offer me in cash. And not only that, I get to pay lower taxes on it because it's a capital gain, if I've done things right.'
The other thing on retaining people, the way you lose superstars is by not doing it right. They get miserable, so go out and find a job that's fun. If we keep those people happy, the ones who end up job-hopping are the ones who aren't any good.
I agree 100%. It's got to be fun. Give them things that they want to do while steering them into things that are beneficial to the company. If you offer normal salaries, good benefits and keep these guys creative, there are times when it's 10, 11 at night and these guys are still hammering out things. They're excited. They're happy. That's what keeps good people.
But on the 10 or 11 o'clock point, my feeling is, even as a start-up, we shouldn't be scheduling for more than 45 hours a week. But if we set the environment up right, we are not going to be able to pry them away from their desks, to go home and take a shower or to get another job.
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