By Peter High, published on Forbes
The Chief Information Officer of $100 billion revenue Express Scripts Neal Sample has had unusual breadth and depth of experience for someone who is still in his mid-40s. He has a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford, which allows him to dig into the weeds of the technology his team develops with the best of them. He also spent time professionally as a consultant, giving him an orientation and a toolkit to solve a diverse array of problems. He spent time with legendary digital native companies like Yahoo! (where he was Chief Architect) and eBay (where he was CTO of X.Commerce, eBay’s venture to bring together a comprehensive set of commerce products and capabilities to help merchants and businesses compete in the world of social, local, mobile, and digital-driven commerce). At American Express, he grew from CIO of the Enterprise Growth unit to become president of the unit.
Sample took his current role for the St. Louis-based pharmacy benefits management behemoth nearly two years ago. As he notes in this interview, information is the coin of the realm for Express Scripts, and he has helped tune his team to drive better insights through better gathering and synthesis of information. His team helps lead the innovation agenda for the company, and he has grown leaps and bounds.
Peter High: In the 20 or so months that you have been the CIO of Express Scripts, you have been in the throes of a transformation. What was the state of IT and technology when you joined Express Scripts and what changes have you made?
Neal Sample: For 20 years, Express Scripts had primarily grown inorganically through acquisitions. The enterprise’s growth pattern was fairly consistent, they would purchase another pharmacy benefit management company or a related business, integrate it, capture the synergies from the integration, and then leverage those synergies to acquire the next business. From a technology perspective, this meant that they often did not end up with the systems they would have designed or chosen if they had started with a blank sheet of paper. It was not one plus one equals three, it was more like one plus one equals one. There was a lot of technology debt. There were many systems that would have been upgraded if the focus had been on infrastructure, instead of integrating the next company. There were also a plethora of systems. We had 31 development languages. Any technology stack you could imagine was present. Midrange, mainframe, on premise cloud, off premise cloud, it was all there. We had the opportunity to do some clean up, to enhance our reliability, and to become more agile. From a business process perspective, development had been primarily waterfall, which meant that not only were the cycle times long and fairly expensive, but the processes were rigid in their ability to respond to the market.
We had our work cut out for us. We had to decide to start with people, process, or technology. We picked all three. We began a tech debt retirement program and a move from waterfall to agile. We also focused on attracting and hiring in-house talent. Years of outsourcing had left us a little light for the transformation. In summary, I came into an environment that was target rich in people, processes, and technology, and began chipping away.
High: Part of your purview as CIO is innovation. As you have taken care of the efficiency part of the equation, trying to get to that one plus one equals three equation, what innovative ideas have you pursued?