by Peter High, published on Forbes
Rob Carter is on the short list of the finest CIOs in history anywhere. I have profiled his accomplishments in an interview published roughly one year ago. A few months ago, Carter spoke at the Forbes CIO conference with his CEO, FedEx founder Fred Smith. First, it was readily apparent how much Smith values Carter’s opinion, indicating that no strategic decisions are ever made without Carter involved. I was also particularly struck by Carter’s overview of the IT transformation that he has led. As he said then, and as he describes in greater detail in this interview with him, the systems that were at the core of FedEx’s success in recent years in becoming and maintaining its position as a logistics and data analytics leader would not be the same ones that would sustain its success. In fact, as Carter notes, the longer the organization waited to transform, the more those systems would actually impede its success.
Carter graciously agreed to dive into greater detail in describing the transformation, and what he describes as the “Four Horsemen of Dominant Design.” At the heart of this transformation would be a cloud-first strategy. Carter readily admits that this is a decade-long journey that they are roughly in the middle of, but the results so far have already proven the value of simplifying in the ways described herein.
Peter High: You have mentioned that it dawned on you a couple of years ago that the technology that helped FedEx achieve success was not the technology that would help FedEx maintain that success. What led to that insight?
Rob Carter: I started at this role in 2000, and at that time the number one thing that I wanted to do for the business was to become fast and flexible at creating business value, because the world was changing. The needs of FedEx and the expectations of our customers were changing rapidly. The complexity of the system which we had deployed – which at one time was one of our most powerful assets – was becoming a challenge to agility for our business.
The reality of the modern computing era – and with a company like ours that has deployed technology over the last 40 years – is that this is the advent of the modern computer era. 40 years isn’t a long time. We’ve deployed unbelievably strategic technology over the years, but some of them were things like 800 MHz spectrum coast to coast so we could stand up radio towers and communicate with data to our vehicles. These weren’t voice communication tools; they were data communication tools. They communicated with the first generation of handheld computers.
Well, as much of a breakthrough as that was in allowing information to flow freely back so that customers could have the ability to track their packages, it clearly became a legacy that burdened us as the modern generation of connected mobile devices began to surface. One of the first ways they surfaced was with cell networks that could communicate with industrial handhelds, not just consumer devices. So that is a window into creative and strategic deployment of technology which becomes a burden over time.
When you’ve invested in an aggressive way, as FedEx has, to further the technology brand that our company is well known for, you wind up with a lot of things that market forces find a way of providing a more general solution for; and often one that is more economical, flexible, and frankly works better than those first generations of technology.
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