Keeping the IT Trains Running

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 01-29-2009 Print Email
In tough times, IT leaders need to work closely with—and think like—businesspeople, says Amtrak’s CIO. Once that happens, IT can find success in pushing companies forward, in good times and bad.

Ed Trainor is certainly an aptly named CIO. As the IT chief of Amtrak, Trainor is responsible for making the organization's information infrastructure run on time. This is his second stint at Amtrak, after having served at the organization from 1976 to 1985. In the intervening years, he has held CIO positions at an impressive list of prestigious companies, including Flying Tigers (acquired by Federal Express), Southern California Gas Company and, immediately prior to Amtrak, Paramount Pictures.

CIO Insight contributor Eric Lundquist spoke with Trainor shortly after the annual meeting of the Society for Information Management--and while Wall Street was still in the middle of the economic crisis. What follows is an edited, condensed version of that conversation.

CIO Insight: Ed, I just took the Amtrak from Boston to New York, and it was great. Imagine that: a user with no complaints.

Ed Trainor: That's what we like to hear. That's terrific.

You were down at SIM recently with lots of your compatriots. What is the talk in the corridors about the current economic turmoil?

Trainor: Most of the people here haven't seen the impact yet. The people I've talked to have not seen any dramatic reductions yet.

Why is that? After the dot-com crash, it was a terrible time for technology.

Trainor: The dot-com bubble was like the housing bubble: It was an inflated environment. We are not like that right now. As a matter of fact, most companies have been in a reasonably constrained environment.

I'm painting with a pretty broad brush here, but unless a company is in a really dire financial situation, there isn't a bubble to burst. I won't say no one has been impacted; it depends on what industry you're in. If you are in the automotive industry, you are not starting any major projects at this moment.

You've been through a lot of economic ups and downs. What's your advice for a CIO who may not have weathered as many storms as you?

Trainor: At the end of the day, it's all about the business. We are businesspeople; we are not here just for the technology. So being a business partner and delivering a business benefit are key. If my company is struggling in the economy and has to reduce operations--or whatever it has to do--I need to be a partner in making that happen. I need to be a businessperson first, and that is the bottom-line advice I would give to anyone.

Any other advice?

Trainor: If I may put in a personal plug for SIM, this is a time, more than any other time, to stay connected with a personal network. It doesn't have to be SIM, but my choice has been the SIM organization. You want to stay connected to a professional organization of some sort, and there are reasons for that.

One is to keep your skills current, but also to network with your peers, so you have contacts for other jobs if it becomes necessary for you to do so. It is more important now than ever to be connected with a professional society and a professional network of your peers.

How should CIOs go about setting a project priority in 2009? What advice can you provide in terms of deciding which projects should move forward, which should be put on hold and which ones should be eliminated?

Trainor: In each of the companies I've worked at, there is a sponsorship or advocacy for projects. We're really talking about capital investment, so what's germane is whatever the capital investment or budgeting process is in a company.

Typically, the business is sponsoring the benefits, and the IT group is partnering with that group in terms of speaking about the technology costs of whatever the project entails. If a company is talking about cutting back on a project or raising the hurdle rate for a project, those decisions have to be made through that [capital investment] budgeting process. It really has to be a partnership.

And you've found that the project decision process works through economic ups and downs in your career?

Trainor: I have 25 years' experience--including businesses in an airline, a utility and a railroad--and I'm still seeing and saying the same thing: There are different ways of doing it, but it is a capital budgeting and development process, and it is led by the businesses.

There's a lot of talk about President Obama creating a U.S. chief technology officer position. With your wealth of experience, what advice would you offer if asked about the qualifications and expectations for that position?

Trainor: I can only think about it in business terms. If you don't have some kind of long-term plan and some idea of where you're going, you will end up with a hodgepodge of stuff. It is no different in any business than it would be in this situation.

I may be showing my naiveté, as I have never taken on--nor would I want to take on--anything as enormous, but it seems to me that you want to have some idea of what you want to accomplish, a vision. President Obama has talked about streamlining the government through technology, but somebody is going to have to figure out what that means. How are we going to do that? How are we going to make those decisions? Will we make it more centralized?

I gave you the description of the capital budgeting process at a very superficial level, but you'll need something like that in the government where you prioritize based not just on the financial benefits, but also on the perceived contribution to the strategies and strategic objectives. There has to be some sort of governance model put in place to do that. You have to decide, Are these decisions going to be made in a centralized or decentralized way? These are fundamental decisions that need to be made.

Which would you think is best for accomplishing the mission?

Trainor: I think that if you are going to extract the maximum benefit, it argues for a more centralized direction.

Is that what you developed when you went back to Amtrak?

Trainor: Previously, there had been a decentralization of the company to strategic business units. A subsequent CEO had taken a more centralized approach to try to recentralize some of it. Amtrak was following a largely decentralized approach to information technology, particularly on the application side. We're trying to move it to a bit more centralized direction.

I'm trying to find the right balance between centralization and decentralization, whereby we take a more enterprise approach. We're trying to develop an IT strategy and vision of enterprise architecture, of what this should look like five years from now, and we're trying to work with our business partners to implement that vision and direction for the projects that are funded.

How does your organization go about deciding which new products or technologies to consider and possibly adopt?

Trainor: The Gartner organization has something they call the Hype Cycle, which is amusing, but actually has some truth in it. A company has to decide how important technology is to its [business], if it is competing on the basis of technology.

For example, with a financial company or a high-technology company, you need to take a lot more risks than you do with some company for which technology is important, but has a secondary or tertiary place.

So how you make those technology adoption decisions depends on what type of company you are. You need to understand where you are and what is appropriate for your strategy.

We're more of a fast follower. We have an enterprise architecture group that looks at new technologies. A lot of times, we don't want to be the first one out of the box.

In the last five years or so, Amtrak and mass transit have gone from being an issue of less interest to an issue of great interest on a national and even an international basis. How does that interest affect your activities?

Trainor: It makes my work a lot more interesting, certainly. The issue is that you can do only so much in the near term, and not just with information technology. In our case, IT--along with its business partners--is being asked to undertake a transformation of the company.

We're being asked to work with our business partners to create an integrated technology environment, and that's going to take some time: It can't be done in three months or six months. We're talking about a multiyear plan and implementing it as aggressively as we can.



 

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