Mail To Email: An Interview With The U.S. Postal Service's CTO

By Esther Shein

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Bravo was named chief technology officer of the U.S. Postal Service in September 2001. A 28-year postal veteran, Bravo reports to the chief financial officer and is responsible for overall technology leadership and direction to increase the quality and value of postal services. His areas of focus include the Information Platform, improving the technology infrastructure, improving address management systems, and using best available technologies, including the Internet. The vice president of IT reports to Bravo.

In October 1992, he was appointed the manager of Environment Management Policy for the Postal Service. In July 1994, Bravo was named Federal Environmental Engineer of the Year by the Conference of Federal Environmental Engineers. In May 1997, Bravo received the Postal Service's Postmaster General Award and the White House Lifetime Achievement Award for his leadership on environmental initiatives.

In 1998, he was named manager, Technology Acquisition Management and was responsible for the acquisition and deployment of more than $1 billion in new technology annually with major investments in automation, flats, vehicles, robotics, and advanced material handling systems.

Bravo was a Sloan Fellow and earned a M.S. in management upon completion of the Stanford Sloan Program in 1992. He received a B.S. in engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1971 and a M.S. in electrical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1976.

Q: You have a strong background in engineering. How did you segue into technology? And were you named CTO as a result of 9/11?

Over the years I have worked in the engineering organization. I held a job in '98 and '99 as manager of technology acquisitions, which is about a billion dollars a year. Linkage with the IT group is one [way] obviously [since] all our electrical and mechanical systems run on software. There are more issues related to software than hardware and the second thing is most of the systems stand alone for the most part, and there was a huge opportunity to leverage information and use it in the corporation. The Postmaster General asked me to become vice president of the information platform in Dec '99, which was a new position he created. The idea there was to build an IT system that would improve efficiency and offer more value-added services and better track mail throughout the system. The key reason they put me in that job is when you deal with information systems you have a whole business aspect -- connecting all the systems together and that's how I segued into that. I count very heavily on experts with an information technology background. I do have a strong engineering background. I see that part of my role is to bring all the pieces together and work across the organization... and my continuing role is seeing the bigger picture.

Regarding becoming CTO in September, I was named acting CTO in June 2001...and when we restructured they asked me to take the job, so it's not related to 9/11. The restructuring of the postal service took place on September 7th and that's when they asked me to take the job. As part of that we did some restructuring of the technology organization and we eliminated the vice president of information platform position, and migrated the function directly under me as CTO.

What is the 'Information Platform' and what were some of the things you implemented to reduce costs and streamline services?

We built it around the way we do our business. We accept mail from our front-end systems, process it in our plants, transport it and deliver it so...we focused on some key programs to allow us to do that better. On the front-end piece for acceptance, we have a program called Postal One, and what that enables us to do is to do better mail acceptance and exchange of information for acceptance and payment of mailing processes.

Now we're moving into phase two of Postal One. In our plant we worked on a couple of information systems to strengthen our infrastructure. We integrated data services so we can better move information around within our plants and move it to our data centers. That's currently being deployed and we're putting some tools on so they can better monitor the performance of the automated equipment that processes the mail.

In the transportation area...we've put in over the last year and a half a new mail system called a Surface Air Management System, which is the assignment of mail to transportation either to trucks or aircraft. So we built that and a database that we migrated to a data warehouse, which we call a Surface Air Support System and from that we capture every scan we do on trays or containers of mail dispatched either through our surface or air network. Those tools have been put in place and we're putting in additional tools. The next piece was in the delivery area and we deployed a delivery operation information system to better manage the workload of our carriers. We use information from our automation equipment to establish those workloads and other workloads of volume. We combine that information with the information from our time and attendance system, which allows us to better manage the carrier workload.

The Postal Service claims to have the largest intranet in the world. What makes it the largest and what is the intranet used for?

We use it for a number of things -- sharing information with our [28,000] facilities, including 400 major mail processing facilities. For example, some of the services we provide like delivery confirmation scans, that information is uploaded through the intranet. We have information coming in from every location where we have a post office. We handle over 200 billion pieces of mail per year and we capture data to help us direct that mail more efficiently.

We have data in a number of systems but as a result of changes in technology we have a new technology platform and are doing data consolidation for the purposes of improving our data reporting and analysis. Currently, our data warehouse has eight terabytes worth of data in it. The new platform [the data warehouse] is being enhanced to handle more retail information, scanning mail and other sources of data and allows us to do more than we have in the past. It allows us greater flexibility and...we will be populating it with more data.

What are some of the specific changes that will be made as part of the ACE (Advanced Computing Environment) initiative?

We're streamlining from 13,000 servers to 1,500 servers. We're doing more with less. Servers were located in 11,000 different locations and we're reducing that to 540. We're taking advantage of more capacity in new servers [formerly Compaq, now HP] as well as a focus on standardization and getting rid of things we don't need. It's a more focused approach and more standardized software and we're reducing the number of software packages.

We're moving more towards Web-based applications...which are easier to support remotely. The move is to provide data to our user base more efficiently. We're moving to centralized servers and standardized services and moving to a browser-based world to provide more timely information and greater information -- any application, which today or in the past operated on a mainframe or client environment.

An ACE example: we're taking projects that were operating in the delivery world and leveraging the ACE environment so that in HR, people can report a leave, which used to be an activity that was on the client portion of the desktop. Now we're Web-enabling those functions. In the pay arena, we're automating changes to someone's time information and changes as it relates to a person's work hours and ultimately their pay, so it can be done online.

Some examples of external applications: at usps.com, people can go in and track delivery confirmation. There's a rate engine in there to determine the cost of postage, a zip code lookup. You can print labels for express or priority mail.

The goal of the upgrade is to save the postal service up to $200 million over five years. How will that be achieved?

Everything mentioned above. Were also reducing the number of help desks from 85 and consolidating that into one. By reducing the number of servers and moving to more Web-based applications, we can reduce the amount of support at the same time.

Have you increased network security spending since 9/11?

We've had a program in place addressing security and in particular, we established our chief information security officer in June of 2000, so it's not just as result of 9/11, but we have a program in place to strengthen security and it's an area of focus for us.

What role did technology play during the shut-down of postal operations in New York City after 9/11 and subsequent post offices that were temporarily closed due to the presence of anthrax?

We were able to download key information from the major processing facility that got shut down so we could still continue to support our operations. There were also communication problems with 22 post offices in lower Manhattan after 9/11 and we used satellite communication with those facilities to restore data communication. Regarding shutdowns for one reason or another, we continually connect into those key facilities and can download data and have that data available from our data centers. In general we have contingency and backup plans that deal with a number of potential things that can occur so we always have plans in place to restore operations.

I understand you set up a command center at the Washington D.C. headquarters right after the Pentagon was attacked?

We set up a command center at our backup site in Maryland when this building [postal headquarters] was shut down and we activated information and necessary communications at that site.

What are some of the emerging technologies you are utilizing?

Wireless PDAs. We've provided 250 of our managers with them so far this year, and we plan to go up to 2,000 as a way of communicating with wireless. We are constantly monitoring the newest technologies...from wireless to the latest process control equipment to the latest data warehouse techniques to the latest IBM or Microsoft or Sun puts out. We also provide handheld devices for scanning packages to our carriers.

How large is your IT staff and what skills are you in most need of right now?

The staff is over 1,300. Technology skills are needed in the areas of data warehousing, system architecture, technology architecture design, security, and project management of fairly large-scale projects.

What else is occupying the bulk of your attention these days?

My primary focus is supporting programs identified in the Postal Service's Transformation Plan to improve operational efficiency, to use technology to enhance value, to support a performance-based culture, and to implement key technology initiatives.

Which of your skills has served you best in managing IT?

My ability to address business issues so that the technology supports the business requirement and is successfully implemented. I am result-oriented and depend on a team of good people to get the job done.

What advice would you give someone looking to advance their career the same way you have?

For anyone to advance their career, they need to be successful in each job they have and achieve results. In the technology field, one needs to strengthen their technical background and continue to learn about new technologies and process change.

What keeps you awake at night?

I generally sleep well but my primary focus is to keep people focused on the key priorities, to complete projects, and obtain successful results.

What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy spending it with my family and playing golf on a regular basis.