Eyes and Ears

By Sam Douglas  |  Posted 09-01-2001 Print Email

Eyes and Ears

Haile may be an IBMer at heart, but he did convince Fidelity chairman and CEO Ned Johnson to build FCAT its own home in 1999. "I've got to be ready for the next wave, whatever it is," Haile says. "It's the look ahead that lets us say what the next big steps will be. Wireless could be it. Biometrics could be. It could be voice recognition." The $5 million FCAT spends annually is the kind of cash a big, privately held company like Fidelity can treat, if not quite like mad money, then as risk capital, he says.

Kevin Kelly, president of Fidelity Brokerage Co., which includes all of Fidelity's personal and institutional brokerage and mutual fund accounts and is the firm's largest subsidiary, says Haile's presence means he and other business-unit leaders can think about technology without worrying about it. "We don't worry about missing an opportunity, because he and his people are our eyes and ears on the whole industry. The future exists today—and it exists at FCAT."

With the collapse of the Web boom, the wireless guys, now not so in love with the idea of building a business on the backs of active traders, are domesticating their avant-garde technology. In the current generation of Fidelity Anywhere, you can use a cell phone, pager, handheld or even the OnStar telematics system in some cars to check your mutual fund and 401(k) accounts as readily as your shares in Cisco Systems.

Ask Haile about this year's agenda, however, and he'd rather talk about the "middle tier"—the server farm, where in the past the 300 or so computers linking automated teller machines, Fidelity.com and branch office kiosks to the company's mainframes could barely talk to each other. Haile's two-year initiative to convert these servers to XML, he says, will pay off in lower costs, faster service and greater innovation. Inside Fidelity, business unit executives love XML because the more precise tagging protocol lets them make changes to their Web-based services more easily and cheaply. The most obvious payoff to outsiders: Transactions will happen between 0.8 seconds and three seconds faster. The project has already cut out 100 servers.

Analysts think that, of all Haile's investments, XML will have the biggest impact on both speed, efficiency and time to market for new applications. They say it represents a more ambitious commitment to the technology than any other company has demonstrated.

"It's a courageous move," says Roy Schulte, a vice president and research fellow at Gartner Research. "To marshal the resources and face the inherent organizational inertia to implement XML in such an aggressive fashion does take the courage of your convictions. Every CIO on the planet has an XML strategy at this point, but most of them are doing it piecemeal and most are not expecting to gain as much as Fidelity is."

Another big operations target: cutting the total cost of ownership on each of the 35,000 PCs at Fidelity by $1,000 to $1,500, or up to 30 percent. The key: software that will fix problems without human intervention. "We prefer to buy, but we'll build it if we have to," Haile says.

Still, he accepts the responsibility of throwing bombs—and completing them too—through the work of the applied technology center. "Our role is to be the focal point for innovation within the firm as a whole," says Brenner. "We want to be the intelligent filter for new technologies, to say: 'This is not only a cool technology, but here are a half-dozen ways we can use it within Fidelity.'"

The center is also helping streamline Fidelity's mutual fund businesses. Among its projects: voice-recognition enabled voice mail that will let fund managers search their mailboxes by keywords. If Microsoft announces earnings, for example, a Fidelity manager will be able to pick up the phone and ask for messages from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "We're looking at how that could cut back on the two hours of voice mail a fund manager gets daily," Haile says.

The center will be crucial to the future of Fidelity's wireless group as well. The goal is not only to make wireless more intuitive but also a lot more ubiquitous, in the name of wearing down the resistance of slow adopters. FCAT is making an especially hard push into Wi-Fi wireless networking technology, which can deliver full-screen wireless at up to 11 megabytes per second—faster than home broadband. The goal: To let people access Fidelity Anywhere using any device, even a fully featured laptop, rather than relying exclusively on phones, pagers and PDAs.


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