Meet the Beatles

Meet the Beatles

When Yaros arrived, he began at the profit margins. At that time, Hollywood considered IT a cost center that needed to be controlled, similar to the view in other industries. But Yaros was among the first technology executives in the studio system to realize IT's potential. "I wasn't a marketing guy and I wasn't a filmmaker. I was an IT guy. So I was going to use the tools at my disposal to make an impact in the industry," he says. "And when I realized that it was going to be an uphill battle, in some ways that made it all the more of a challenge and all the more exciting"—not to mention risky, too.

Yaros set out to be the youngest CIO in the industry, achieving that goal at Twentieth Century Fox in 1997, where at the age of 37 he created a Spirit-like system called Eight Ball to dissect box-office data. Eight Ball was a first for the entertainment industry—a real-time data analysis system that could provide within hours information that used to require days, or even a week or two, just to enter by hand.

Then, when a former Fox boss invited him to move his ideas over to SPE, Yaros thought it would be a nice step up. The operation was running smoothly already, he was told. Complaints were few. Yaros came on board in December 2000, and quickly found out why. Fed up with the one-size-fits-all systems offered by centralized IT, the company's executives had written off the entire IT operation as a dismal failure. Individual business units were handling their own technology needs as best they could, turning to IT only for big-dollar projects, and then watching their worst fears realized as projects came up short. Although business technical liaisons—"beatles" for short—had been assigned to each operating unit, none worked directly within the businesses they were assigned to serve. Instead, technical questions were shunted to a central help desk, and each business unit fought to maintain its own database and analysis systems, with or without IT's knowledge. More often than not, it was without. Centralizing IT's resources worked in many more homogeneous industries, Yaros noted, but not in SPE's diverse world of television, motion pictures and home entertainment.

So Yaros set about reorganizing the operation from scratch. He talked with everyone in IT, figuring out where their talents and interests lay. He approached each business unit to determine which projects would be of greatest value to them. He persuaded each unit to make room for the IT personnel needed to implement and maintain those projects. And then he closed the loop in what he calls his "credibility wheel" by making sure IT could deliver on its commitments on time and on budget.

Boosting credibility was key: When Jay Sands became senior vice president of international operations at Sony's Columbia TriStar Film Distributors in May 2000, he immediately began to receive 50 to 100 e-mails each day containing data and status reports about sales and distribution of movies within each of the unit's 60 international territories. Data was plucked from these e-mails and entered into Excel spreadsheets, which often languished, unanalyzed, in several different desktop computers. "It was insane," Sands says. Faxes and e-mails were never read, movie and television clips and trailers were copied and couriered to and fro at great expense yet never shown, release dates conflicted directly with the competition and revenue projections were based solely on gut instinct.

When Sands asked what IT could do to consolidate the data, he was told not to bother even discussing it with that department. An earlier international data distribution system had gone hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and missed every deadline for completion. "I just kept hearing, 'We don't get anywhere with them. Let's just get some contractors in here, and put together our own systems and to hell with them,' " Sands says. "When Justin came in, it was almost an immediate 180-degree turn."

At one point, Yaros sent a number of his key lieutenants to an executive training program at The Anderson School at UCLA, where Professor Moshe Rubinstein encouraged them to "bring the future to the present" by thinking backwards about what they hoped to accomplish: Visualize the end result and then work the problem back to the beginning. But what started as a five-day seminar became an ongoing work group. Reinvigorated by what they'd heard, and passionate about IT's potential within the industry, the attendees decided on their own to keep the momentum going.

"The great thing about Sony Pictures Entertainment is that by hook or by crook, these people were determined to make a difference within the company," Rubinstein notes. Thinking through a project from the end to the beginning is like immunization, he believes; by subjecting yourself to a mild form of trouble now, you can become immune to bigger trouble down the road. "Begin with the ends," Rubinstein urges, "and then figure out how to summon the means."

But first, Yaros had to relocate nearly every member of the IT staff, persuading the skeptical business units not only to house IT members in the individual units, but then once inside, convince them that IT could be counted on to meet its commitments—and fast. "The credibility of this [IT] group was very, very low," Yaros said. "Over time, it had disassociated itself from the lines of business."

This article was originally published on 10-01-2003
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