OnStar CIO's Career Success Is No Accident

Don't dismiss Jeff Liedel as just another auto-industry guy. His interesting path to the CIO slot started on a plant floor and led him to listen to Apple about dealing with tough times. One personal rule: There's no such thing as a bad career assignment.

Jeff Liedel is as much a car guy as he is a computer guy. That much becomes clear when he's discussing his 20-year career track and the businesses he's served: Ford, Covisint, GM and now OnStar, the in-vehicle communications company and GM subsidiary, where he is CIO.

Liedel deftly moves the conversation among a range of topics: embedded telematics and mobile application capabilities in a Chevy Volt electric vehicle, the energy efficiency of internal-combustion engines, and how BI tools can help OnStar. He seems to be equally at home in a data center or on the floor of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, where OnStar announced a mobile app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberry Storm and Motorola Droid that allows drivers to monitor and control the Volt's electrical functions.

OnStar CIO Jeff Liedel
OnStar CIO Jeff Liedel

His responsibilities cover IT systems that deliver safety, navigation, vehicle diagnostics, telephony and other services to OnStar's 6 million U.S. and Canadian subscribers. Every month, those systems process a wide range of interactions, including: 2,600 automatic crash responses, 10,400 emergency services, 600 stolen vehicle assistance and 62,700 remote door unlocks, according to OnStar data.

So while it might be easy to label him a "Detroit guy" and dismiss his experiences as "too automotive," take another look. The details of Liedel's story actually offer a roadmap as to how CIOs become CIOs today: Why he did what he did to get to the top spot (i.e., got his MBA), the atypical assignments he purposefully chose (not at HQ), and the advice that helped him ascend the ranks, which all combine to create an instructive picture of what tomorrow's IT leaders need to do today.

CIO.com Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum spoke with Liedel, who became OnStar's CIO in 2009 and reports in to GM's new CIO Terry Kline, about IT's 24x7 responsibilities, OnStar innovation and the important lessons he learned from a trip to Apple.

CIO.com: What is your role as CIO of OnStar? I imagine there's a large service delivery piece, but do you also get involved in innovating new products as well, since technology is OnStar's product?

Jeff Liedel: The OnStar product is a lot information technology, and there's a lot of in-vehicle engineering. Putting the communications device in vehicles is a task the OnStar engineering group does. We work very closely with that group; we had a partnership with them to develop the mobile phone app. And the back-end systems are all managed by my group.

Interestingly, I talked to the CIO of Apple on the same topic: What's his involvement in iTunes or App Store? He owns the back-end infrastructure, and the same is true at OnStar. We're right in the middle of the OnStar technology stack—from mobile device back to the vehicle [with new services] and also the traditional services. We don't just do payroll and e-mail here. We're part of the product.

CIO.com: What about getting closer to the customer?

Liedel: We've built a lot of CRM tools for the [OnStar] advisors. For example, when I push that blue button in the car and the advisor comes on, they know it's me: "Hello Mr. Liedel. How are you today?" Now, when I contact, say, Dell, it takes a while for them to figure out who I am: You built this PC, you probably should know.

In the OnStar experience, we know who's driving the car. We have the e-mail address, and we're sending you monthly e-mails: the status of oil life, tire pressure, where to get the car serviced, and how many miles driven, for instance. We've got a real ongoing relationship with the actual driver of the car, and all that is enabled from back-end IT.

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