by CIO Staff

Charles Feld on 20 Years of IT Change

May 11, 20075 mins
IT Leadership

The "always on," global-information-at-your-fingertips-with-Bluetooth-in-your-car world that doesn't go away when you leave work has flipped the paradigm.

Charles Feld, former CIO of Burlington Northern and Frito-Lay, was the founder and president of the Feld Group, which was bought by EDS in 2004. He is currently senior executive vice president of Applications Services and a member of the EDS Executive Committee. Feld was inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2007, we asked Feld what have been the biggest changes and advances in IT—the technology, the discipline and the CIO role—over the past 20 years.

It’s probably pretty obvious but the biggest change is the pervasiveness of technology. IT used to be locked up in one room in one building. There was one terminal in a department that everyone shared. You’d sign up and wait your turn. Then it started to get out into the business departments. Next was the PC era; everybody had one. Then it was the mobility era, where everybody had two or three. Now it’s gotten to be the “always on,” global-information-at-your-fingertips-with-Bluetooth-in-your-car world. It doesn’t go away when you leave work. You’re still connected. That’s flipped the paradigm.

All this has been accelerated by the continuous miniaturization and pervasiveness at the edge—modern networks and the Internet. There’s a continuous flow of information—structured and unstructured. In the beginning, we used to have what we called the glass house where the mainframes lived and you had to have a badge to get in there. Now anyone, anywhere, anytime around the globe has access to anything.

This has created phenomenal opportunities. It enables so many new things that are both positive and negative. The positive is that you’re always connected. The negative is you’re always connected. One has the ability to do work and be entertained anywhere around the globe at any time. You can be on the streets of India, talking on your cell phone to somebody back home. This has created a knowledge sharing that is beginning to remove many barriers.

The negatives are that we know more about things than we need to know. There’s a minute-to-minute, constant drumbeat of information. There’s no time for peace. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not real. Anyone with a blog can put out anything. It’s difficult to balance the notion of making things inviting for people to use with the need to make them secure and private.

Like any other invention—fire, the wheel, the internal combustion engine—there’s good and bad and you have to learn how to harness it and use it for good. On the one hand, IT makes it easier to form terrorist networks. On the other hand, maybe we’ll have a cure for cancer and kids will be safe because they have cell phones with RFID tags in them. Progress is progress. I think there’s more good in this than bad. I have a lot of faith in the future.

The IT discipline is just becoming a discipline. Our profession is only 40 years old. No one heard of computers before 1964. And hardly anyone saw a computer before 1980. Manufacturing, engineering, finance, sales—they’ve all been around for centuries. IT is almost in its adolescence and just becoming professionalized. However, the stakes have become very high very quickly and we must accelerate our maturity.

I’m very proud of how far the profession has come. I am a product of the 40-year history. Sure, we’ve had some problems, and maybe some things weren’t built right over the years. But if you went back and looked at the very first bridges engineers built, they probably weren’t great.

I’m very optimistic about this becoming a true profession where results are more dependable, things are more professionally managed and disciplined, the standards and ways of doing things are well known. IT leaders of the future will have to be both technically and socially astute, and have a passion for business and economics.

There’s been a convergence of executive capabilities as the industry has matured. The CEO has to know something about technology and the CIO has to know something about the business.

I’ve been a CIO for 27 years; I’ve been at it since the beginning of the role. Back then it wasn’t called a CIO, it was the IT director and then the VP of IS. Eventually, it became the CIO and you got a seat at the table, but it was at the far end of the table. Now the CIO is in the middle of the mix.

I’ve watched the role evolve from when the best technician got to be the head of department to the point where now, to be an effective CIO, you have to be more of a renaissance person. You have to understand the global economy and understand technology. You have to be a change agent, a salesman, a visionary, an evangelist. It’s a very important role in most enterprises. It’s gone from the back office to the very middle of corporate and enterprise success. And it’s also a fun job.

—As told to Senior Editor Stephanie Overby