Confessions of a Serial CIO

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 10-01-2004

Barbra Cooper's career in IT spans two decades and five different industries, and that experience has taught her to listen, observe, and then act. Since taking over the top tech post at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., in 1996, she has revolutionized an aging it infrastructure while navigating the company's pervasive corporate culture. Because of her, Toyota U.S.A.'s it department now enjoys the respect of upper management, but there's still work to be done.

CIO Insight: You've been a CIO at three different companies. Were they all in the automotive field?

Cooper: This is the fifth industry of my career, and my third CIO position. So I'm giving away my age. I started my career in retail, in the department-store business. From there, I went to American Express Co. and sort of pioneered their distributed computing architecture. I took my first CIO job in government, of all places, in Maricopa County, Ariz. Then to a CIO post at MicroAge Inc., and finally to Toyota in 1996.

So when you arrived at Toyota, you had no experience in the industry. Did that make your transition more difficult?

I've often said that being a CIO in any business of virtually any size or any industry, we all have the same ten problems. They're in different order and they have different emphasis, but the fundamentals are very much the same. And when you talk about the automobile business, the additional challenge is learning the language. What is the terminology, so that you can at least communicate in business speak.

Career Highlights
  • Group Vice President and CIO of MicroAge Inc., a technology services provider.

  • Chief Information Officer for Maricopa County, Ariz.

  • Vice President of Technology at American Express Co.

  • Director of Information for Miller & Paine department stores.
  • The second thing is really understanding the sociology and politics of that particular culture, how fast can you move, what are the funding opportunities, what are the restrictions, the rules of engagement. And most of that, at least in my experience, comes from spending lots of time listening. So when I come in, I go on a kind of listening tour, and Toyota is what I would call a high-relationship, high- context company—very based on personal face time. No one here really knew what a CIO was. So you had to put a personal presence around it.

    So you feel that the IT department within Toyota has made great strides?

    I do, and one reason I feel confident in saying that is that we survey. I surveyed the key executives about a year and a half ago, and actually hired a consulting company to come in and personally interview in order to get a comparison between then and now. And I think there has been a distinct improvement. But anytime you're dealing with IT in a large operation it's a constant challenge, because, even if you push more capability as they consume more, they come up with more demand.

    Have you succeeded to the extent that Toyota now views IT as something more than a cost center? Have you made IT strategic?

    I would say that we're not at that point, and I think there are maybe only a few [companies] out there that have made it that far. But at Toyota, they are still very much pragmatists about IT. They see it in a strategic way, in that they know it will play a significant role in the company's future and in their ability to globalize and so forth. And yet they are extremists when it comes to proving issues, taking every possible dollar out of each process.

    Has the work that you've done with business performance management caught the eye of upper management in Japan?

    They notice it. Anything that speaks to saving money or gaining efficiency, they're going to give you a big thumbs-up on it. And right now, Toyota's really on a pretty aggressive globalization push, going into China and Mexico. So trying to find optimization techniques that make the business more effective without adding overhead is crucial. They're all interested in what we are doing and how we got here.