IT a-Listers: Recharged, Ready for Business Growth and Speed

Editor's note: Each year, Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders awards program honors the brightest talent in the IT industry. Even through economic turmoil that for many meant budget cuts and staff downsizing, these 100 men and women continued to deliver innovative projects and measurable business value.

Editor's note: Each year, Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders awards program honors the brightest talent in the IT industry. Even through economic turmoil that for many meant budget cuts and staff downsizing, these 100 men and women continued to deliver innovative projects and measurable business value.

Explore the full Premier 100 package by viewing the list of this year's honorees, along with their photos, predictions, cool projects and more. This year's class joins a fellowship of hundreds of Premier 100 alumni, listed here, each of whom has demonstrated leadership qualities throughout their careers.

To learn the secrets of successful IT leadership, check out the best management advice from Computerworld's editors and learn more about the 12th annual Premier 100 IT Leaders conference, which draws together these IT leader alumni and other top IT executives for three days of learning and networking.

Last year, CIO Steve Phillips and his team turned an 8% uptick in the IT budget into a 75% increase in Avnet Inc.'s e-commerce revenue with a new Web site aimed at a brand-new market segment and unique customer niche for the $19 billion, Phoenix-based electronics distributor.

In a year that the national monthly unemployment rate hovered just under 10%, CIO Paul Cottey grew the IT staff at Accretive Health Inc. by almost 20%, and he set up an agile development process, enabling the delivery of new or enhanced business functionality to healthcare providers every 30 days.

And while most other companies were spending only about one-third of their IT budgets on new projects, Southwest Airlines Co. CIO Jan Marshall was investing a full 50% in new revenue-boosting services, including a new ticketing system, a new customer loyalty program and an entirely new Web site, which is the heart and soul of the airline's distribution channel.

"Whether it's a great or a terrible economic time, we take the same approach. We always focus on opportunities to grow our airline," says Marshall.

This kind of clear, unwavering business vision, bolstered by seamless leadership and integrated technology planning, is what best characterizes the success strategies of Computerworld's 2011 Premier 100 IT Leaders. Rather than pulling the plug on new or ongoing projects during tough times, these leaders instead continually readjust and recalibrate, seeking out new, imaginative and/or lower-cost ways to realize an abiding business vision. They cut costs not so much by narrowing or shifting their business focus or withdrawing investment dollars, but by coming up with creative systems and processes for enhancing services while streamlining operations.

Many of the honorees are heading into 2011 with more cash than they had last year. In fact, 51% of them said their IT budgets had increased in the past 12 months; in comparison, just 36% of the 2010 honorees reported a budget increase in a survey last year. And honorees' IT staffs are bulking up, too: 40% reported adding employees in the past 12 months; in our survey of last year's honorees, just 28% said they had expanded their IT departments.

Marshall says Southwest's IT operations may grow because the airline is expanding into new markets or because it's offering new products or services -- or for all those reasons simultaneously. "Instead of 100 parallel [IT] projects going on, we have some big projects that all relate to the 100 requests we have," she explains.

"We've learned how to synchronize our deliveries," she says of the airline's 1,200-person IT organization. "We've gone to a release-based strategy across our entire portfolio that's helping us manage multiple initiatives and delivery of those initiatives in a predictable way."

For example, in addition to highly visible, big-bang projects like the new Web site, "we also have an underlying thread of work that is aimed at foundation components," Marshall says. This includes things like upgrading the database environment or enhancing the ticketing system, which gives the airline continued flexibility. "We build a plan once a year and then adjust it monthly through a series of executive steering group meetings, to make sure we're prioritizing the right things," Marshall says.

She says the leadership skill she relies on most is the ability to help IT staffers understand how their work fits into the broader business vision. "Seamless leadership comes at all levels," she notes. "This recognition is for the great work the IT organization is doing and the leadership they're taking at every level."

Fast and Focused

For Avnet, growth was the primary business imperative in 2010, and it remains so today, as the Fortune 500 company continues to expand by acquisition. Since 2009, Avnet has purchased six companies, and it is in the process of finalizing three more acquisitions, including the largest such deal in its history. Phillips himself came from a company that Avnet acquired five years ago.

"These acquisitions are strategically important in terms of our long-term ability to be the leading value distributor," he notes. The faster Avnet can close an acquisition, the faster it can accrue the benefits of its larger scale and minimize disruptions to customers and employees. To streamline the integration process, Phillips and his team developed a step-by-step playbook of best practices for completing all technology integrations within 90 days of an acquisition. "We now have a set of repeatable tasks and responsibilities, and that allows us to move fast with a fair degree of competence," he says.

Another key strategic project for Phillips in 2010 was the design and creation of a consumer-like e-commerce site to expand Avnet's base of smaller-volume and specialty customers such as engineers and prototyping firms -- a key but previously untapped market for the distributor of electronic components and computer products. As the economic news worsened throughout the year, Phillips says, executives looked at expenses and considered where to continue investing and where to cut.

Ultimately, Avnet decided to preserve the e-commerce project. "We could see the need was still there, and it was an investment that would pay out beyond the economic cycle," Phillips says.

It was the right decision. "So far, we've seen a 75% annual increase in e-commerce revenue and a 50% annual increase in site visitors," says Phillips.

Delivering Return on Risk

Regardless of the economic climate, a key component of every IT leader's job is keeping the rest of the executive team apprised of the range of alternatives -- and their associated risks -- for meeting strategic business goals, according to Bruce Jones, head of global IT security and risk at Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y.

"At the end of the day, business managers are in charge of bringing in profits, so they're going to take risks," Jones says matter-of-factly. "Whether they are technology, security or business risks, there's a need to understand and manage [them]." As IT leaders, he says, "we have to be the educators, helping them to understand the risks and giving them alternatives that can reduce the risk but not cost more."

In 2010, Jones saw a reduction in both his budget and staff, yet "we still haven't found that it's been disabling," he says. "We've held true to our values and our process to work with the business" while keeping costs down.

This is largely the result of following a robust risk management program that Jones and his team developed as a way to map all security and compliance goals to specific business goals. As an added bonus, the program, which capitalizes on lean principles, has shaved costs by $500,000 a year. All risks are documented in terms of impact to the business, giving IT a way to demonstrate potential consequences, costs, effect on brand, legal and regulatory ramifications, downtime and liability.

Before the risk management program was established, "security was seen in terms of black vs. white and them vs. us and was not aligned with the business well," says Jones. "This risk management program is highly focused on actions that map back to specific business goals, objectives and potential impact to the business -- financially, legally and operationally. This has helped to consistently drive the right decisions as well as sales and revenues, brand value, customer and brand loyalty, and other business posture measures."

All security projects undertaken at Kodak in the past two years have supported very specific business needs. For example, when the business needed a streamlined process for provisioning third-party contractors, Jones' team implemented a server log monitoring application for that purpose.

"I view this relationship with the business as the most important part of the job," Jones says. "In the past, IT security was one of those organizations that sat in the corner and said no. I've challenged my organization to never go in and tell a business manager no, but help them by going in and figuring out a good solution."

Indeed, taking a proactive stance and heading the innovation efforts to achieve an overarching business vision is another defining characteristic of the 2011 class of Premier 100 IT Leaders.

At St. Louis-based bioMérieux Inc., for example, Global Senior Director of R&D Information Systems Haroon Taqi and his team were out in front in analyzing how the maker of diagnosis systems could improve its diagnostic software and its competitive positioning with customers.

"In the past, the norm was for marketing to come to us and tell us what they need. But instead, we [in IT] decided to work with marketing and our customers to determine the biggest hurdles to expanding our product and our market share," Taqi says.

"We drove the change we wanted to create," he notes. "IT did the competitive analysis, and I did some of the analysis myself."

Ultimately, the IT group conceived and developed a new software architecture and system that enables bioMérieux to automatically deliver software updates to customers without having to dispatch IT personnel to do so. BioMérieux's software is embedded in instruments used to identify new and evolving types of bacterial infections.

"What we've done is make it easy for customers to do updates themselves, much like installing patches," Taqi says. "Before, it could take as much as a year for us to have all of the delivery mechanisms in place to do installations for customers."

Quick Turnaround

Accretive Health, a provider of financial management services to the healthcare industry, also has a business goal of speeding its software products, services and updates to market. Cottey's challenge as CIO is to continually work with business managers to decide which updates and services are most critical. Last year, he and his IT team designed and implemented an agile development methodology to deliver new software capabilities that match and/or stay ahead of the flood of new and changing healthcare regulations that Accretive's clients must track.

"One of the ways we get things out quickly is we plan to get things out quickly," Cottey says, adding that all work IT undertakes is rated on a scale designed to measure its business impact.

"We're in constant touch with business owners to measure what impact a certain change might yield on our efficiency," he says. "It's not the time to invest in eye candy or gee-whiz things without a good bottom-line value. We focus on that 10% to 20% of capability that is worth delivering right now."

The Seeds of Future Growth

Many of the IT projects that delivered business value in 2010 will continue to yield big dividends going forward, especially at companies like JetBlue Inc. and Scottrade Inc., where IT leaders deployed new, foundational systems that transformed the business.

JetBlue CIO Joseph Eng says a new customer service system that his team rolled out last year enables the airline to quickly establish new partnerships with other airlines, and thereby helps it expand its global network.

"We're able to grow the number of destinations, routes, places and people who travel via JetBlue through these partnerships," Eng explains. "It's all very technologically based because you have to connect the two airlines' systems, sharing route, inventory and network information so you can also share itineraries."

Soon after the system went live in January 2010, JetBlue announced several new partnerships, giving travelers the ability to use a single system to make plans to fly from Tel Aviv through JFK Airport in New York and on to any of JetBlue's domestic locations. Eng says the airline will announce additional partnerships this year, extending its international network to London and Johannesburg, South Africa.

"We went to work on the customer service system with the knowledge that we wanted to enable these kinds of partnerships much more quickly," Eng says.

"Our leadership team has a fundamental belief that this is actually an opportune time, which is why we continue to invest in the business from a products, services and operations perspective. The idea is, let's drive through some of these tough times but also prepare ourselves so that when we do have an uptick, we can do even more to stimulate growth," he says.

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