'You have to be masochist to be an IT person': FedEx CIO

ORLANDO -- "You have to be a masochist to want to be an IT person,'' says Robert Carter. And he would know. Carter is the soft-spoken, hard-driving CIO who has been fighting for the past 11 years to transform IT operations at FedEx, where "the planes don't fly and trucks don't roll without IT services.''

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Carter, executive vice president of information services and CIO at FedEx Corp., told attendees at the Gartner IT Symposium keynote Wednesday that when he arrived at FedEx, the IT department was a mess. After decades of incremental upgrades and corporate acquisitions, "mindnumbing complexity'' was threatening to bring the whole system crashing down.

There was FedEx Air. There was FedEx Ground. There was the acquisition of Kinko's. Systems were stitched together, but the seams were starting to show. "Customers were no longer willing to deal with the seams,'' he said.

The 51-year-old Carter said the defining moment of his FedEx career came when he found the challenge so daunting that he marched into legendary FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith's office and announced that "we're going to run straight into a brick wall at 200 miles an hour'' unless we make radical changes to the IT department. "It's going to cost a lot of money and take a lot of time, but we've got to make these investments,'' Carter said.

Smith, whose mantra has always been that the information about the package is as important as the package itself, signed on, and Carter was off and running. The first thing he did internally was to "give credit to the people working in silos,'' and the next thing was to blow up the silos. FedEx was going to "compete collectively,'' he said.

Carter knew that in order to make his case internally he needed to use facts. So, he compiled detailed information on how many databases were running, how many HR systems, how many duplicates of the same application. "We created some ugly pictures that had an incredible resemblance to Hurricane Katrina,'' said Carter. After a while, he became known as Hurricane Rob, but eventually he convinced people that "this complexity is not sustainable.''

The next step was trying to actually reduce complexity, which proved to be extremely difficult. "We ran into a buzzsaw,'' said Carter, as nobody wanted to give up the app or system they were invested in. So, instead of "knocking heads,'' Carter spun up completely new core services, 22 in all, which worked across the entire company and which everybody migrated to.

He built a brand new data center from the ground up, using what he calls the modern, common standards that have emerged after 35 years of trial and error in the industry. Those include commodity x86 servers running VMware, 10Gig Ethernet throughout, the SaaS model and SOA. By building a new data center from scratch, "we broke the paradigm of people owning their own boxes,'' Carter said.

While the technical issues were daunting, Carter said the cultural challenges were the hardest, both internally and externally. Carter had to convince FedEx business partners that these changes were for the best. Education is the key, Carter said. "We had to get them in the wheelhouse a little more.''

And internally, he had to convince IT to change. "Some people want to ride the Cobol bus'' all the way to the end of their career, and there's a place for those people, Carter said. For others, there's a great opportunity to advance their careers in new and different ways. "It's not easy. There's no silver bullet,'' Carter says. But he re-organized the IT department in a way that provides plenty of choices for people to work at different levels.

Looking ahead, Carter said he's excited about using sensor-based computing to create "smart packages." The idea is that FedEx would include a sensor inside a sensitive package. The sensor could report back on everything from temperature to radioactivity level. So, for example, if the package contained food or medicine that needed to be stored below a certain temperature, the sensor could send an alert if the package were approaching dangerous levels.

When it comes to the cloud, Carter said he considers FedEx's Web-based services to be a private cloud. "We provide a robust set of Web services today and it's fundamentally the essence of the cloud.'' He says his data center architecture is essentially the same as that of Amazon and Salesforce.com.

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.

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