CIO Update Q&A with Cingular Wireless

By Allen Bernard

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It may be old news that Cingular Wireless is a conglomeration of 11 different wireless carriers melded together in the early part of the decade, but, for CIO Thaddeus Arroyo, these mergers have led to a new way of thinking when it comes to managing IT, his bosses expectations and providing customers with intuitive, self-service offerings they want.

Arroyo manages 5200 IT staffers, (down from 7000 when they merged with AT&T Wireless in 2004) and have been in the midst of an application rationalization process for the past six years, which was under control until the AT&T merger which jump started the whole process all over again.

CIO Update caught up with Arroyo earlier this summer to talk about what it's like to manage such a massive operation and to find out how he keeps Cingular's offering fresh and on target.

CIO Update: Where do you spend the majority of efforts, managing technology or managing people?

Arroyo: [E]nsuring that IT is aligned with the business units is a big part of my job. It drives our ongoing focus, which is that Cingular IT is a business-enabler not just an order-taking cost center.

So that means your people are your No.1 concern?

Management people to me is reviewing, leading them and looking at where they are relative to the commitments they've made to our customers and they've made to me.

When Cingular was formed (in 2000) we were going through the integration of a lot of companies. It was actually 11 brands we brought together to make one. So, since joining as their CIO (in 2001), we've been in the execution mode relative to bringing together IT to help create a national product set and a national brand.

So, as result, it took a lot more focus on execution of existing commitments and less of the strategy side of the typical CIO responsibilities. So, as result of that, I spend a lot of time managing those expectations for my business partners as well as helping my staff understand the problems we are trying to solve.

What were/are some of those problems?

Focusing on the execution (post-merger with AT&T Wireless) is critical for us. We have to drive through a large integration and rationalization effort without impacting the business—essentially changing the tires while the car is moving.

With the initial formation of Cingular, because it was 11 smaller brands, we had about 1400 enterprise applications. We created a roadmap after forming Cingular to map down to less than 300 applications.

Really, what our focus has been, is managing business complexity; managing support and customers across the company's large-scale … application rationalization, is how we've driven that.

With the merger with AT&T Wireless we had just under 600 enterprise applications and our objective is, by the end of 2007, to have to that to less than 300 again.

What's been the hardest part of these efforts?

I'd say where it is most difficult—it's less difficult for back office—the most difficult one is your customer facing (applications): your customer care and billing conversion are the most difficult and they take the greatest amount of focus.

By consolidating and rationalizing applications we actually achieve two things: we're obviously selecting those apps that have the highest level of automation but we have fewer interfaces and we can automate at a faster pace.

Is that why automation is your most important technology to implement?

The reason that is so important for us is because of the complexity of the business we support. So, if you look at wireless today …. Building a self-service capability … becomes critical for us; ensuring we can really meet that customer's expectations and provide them the optimal customer experience.

This is not just about basically making our call centers more efficient, it's about ensuring we can extend the information to our customer in a way that maps to how they chose to consume it.

What you really have to do is extend your core applications that, historically, there was a human interface in front of … you have to extend that into a mode that is intuitive for the customer.

So most of your efforts today are really about better aligning IT with the business?

Cingular has good IT/business alignment today, but we’re always looking to better align our goals and prioritize accordingly. It’s an integral part of our IT governance process.

I believe we’re better aligned than most IT groups, many of whom are still, basically, order-takers. At Cingular, IT is a thought center, not a cost center … to make sure we're taking new ideas forward and we're focusing on the problems we're trying to solve not just (the business') requirements.

And that's important because the most value we can provide is, in many cases, telling (the business) the 80% answer verses trying to solve for every one of their requirements.

What technologies/methodologies do you employ that provide the most benefit to your efforts?

As we go to build a new service it's really around an SOA (service-orientated architecture). So, rather than me build it for each of the front-end systems, it makes a lot more sense for me to build it in the core and you handle only presentation in the front-end system.

We (build) the core functionality in the center, in our SOA, and then extending it to the Web, extending it to handset really becomes then just building the different presentations to the same functions. Then it can talk on the back-end to different core systems.

How is IT viewed by the business side of the house?

  • a) Necessary evil.
  • b) Nice to have.
  • c) Essential to the company's future.
  • d) All of the above.
  • e) None of the above.
  • It’s all of the above, but I’d prioritize it as follows: No.1 is “essential to the company’s future;” No. 2 is “necessary evil;” and No. 3 is “nice to have.”

    I think the "necessary evil" (comes into play) because of the complexity of business we support today. We couldn't provision one customer without IT.

    In the old days, there were a lot of manual ways to go and service our customer and provision them but if you look at the modern network there are so many network elements now that have to be provisioned and have to be mediated and have to be supported that IT has become the basic glue that holds that together.

    Where are you finding your biggest cost-savings these days, assuming it's not just cutting staff?

    Having just gone through a large merger (AT&T Wireless), our single largest IT driver of cost savings is rationalizing our application portfolio. We will reduce our application portfolio by 50 percent over a 24 month period.

    What this means is … If I can turn off an application and get users on consolidated applications, that will always be the best economic model.

    If you could change anything(s) about IT today, what would it be?

    I think I can sum it up in one phrase: Making sure that we have IT professionals, at all levels, who understand the 'art of possibility'.

    Can you define that?

    The art of possibility is … rather than simply waiting for someone to come to you with a set of requirements, it's understanding enough about the problem they're trying to solve and then having a good understanding of information technology to know about what's going to be possible in helping them solve that problem.

    This can be done, for the industry as a whole, by positioning IT as a thought-center, rather than just a cost-center. IT pros must have the skills to understand the problems they are asked to solve, and not just the technical requirements of an assignment.

    To do this, our IT pros must be fully immersed in the business initiatives so that they can engage in a good dialogue around what is best for the business.

    So, is Nicholas Carr right? "IT Doesn't Matter."

    Good IT does matter. And there are many examples of IT failures that have impacted business across many industries. Those failures prove that IT also matters when it doesn’t work.

    We’re in a fast moving industry that relies heavily on the sale and use of technology products. At Cingular, IT is at the core of our business and our reliance on IT is greater now than it’s ever been.