Veteran CIO values personal connections

After transitioning from a long tenure at GE to the CIO position at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Martha Poulter's first move was to go on a 'listening tour' to get feedback from users.

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Martha Poulter, CIO, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide

When Martha Poulter took on the role of CIO at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide in June 2014, she saw a leadership team that shared her thoughts on how technology supports business strategy. "What really excited me in talking with the leadership team here was the spirit of innovation and creativity around how to continue to position Starwood, its brand, its properties, its owners in a leading light in a digital world," she says.

A 25-year IT veteran who previously held several IT leadership positions within the GE corporate family, Poulter now leads a technology team that includes 350 corporate-based employees, 1,200 people in other locations and 1,000 with Starwood's outsourcing partner. Here, she shares her ideas on IT leadership.

How did you approach taking over as CIO? I started with a listening tour. I wanted to validate that thinking, and get real input from those who were having that day-to-day interaction in the field. I wanted to spend time walking in the shoes of our associates, so I spent time in the call center, behind the front desk, with sales leaders, hearing about how they did their work, how technology enabled them to do their work, what challenges they had that they thought could be solved differently.

And I was not just listening but watching. Sometimes they can't tell you what's going on; you have to see it for yourself to really learn. Coming into a new industry it's important to understand what the business is all about. So a big part of it was getting feedback from the team to understand the history.

What was your biggest challenge coming into the position? I'd break it down into two things. There was so much that was being done, so much change that was happening in terms of new product capabilities coming to the market, that it was important for me to not get in the way.

No. 2, [the volume of activity] was really enlightening to me, because the amount of change that happened in 2014 was one of the biggest technology outputs for the organization. So we had to meet the speed-to-market demand that was happening, and we had to find more efficient ways to deliver products so we could meet that speed demand.

How many deliverables came online in 2014? There were several multiyear initiatives and carry-overs. The exact amount of releases is impressive: It's in the thousands. [Starwood had 3,203 application releases in 2014.]

What was your biggest achievement during your first year? I think about it more as what the team achieved. The team had a record year of delivery with a record year of new functionality that is helping us to stand out in the marketplace. What enabled us to do that is a foundation that we set over time around our development processes, our testing processes and our production processes that made us more efficient.

Of course, we're never done. So we're pursuing the next generation of that, with our DevOps road map that will look to automate a ton more of the deployment activity and get us to the next level of speed-to-market.

Do you do a lot of in-house development? We do. Obviously we have some off-the-shelf, but we've found that for the type of scale, the type of global solutions we were working on, at the time the solutions were needed, we were better suited to develop them ourselves.

Second, we develop [programs] ourselves where we have a unique value proposition that hasn't been created out there; we think of those as competitive differentiators.

The third [reason for in-house development] is where something hasn't been invented at all; for example, the SPG Keyless has never been done before.

What's the SPG Keyless? SPG is Starwood Preferred Guest, and the SPG Keyless is the ability to use a mobile app and mobile phone to request a digital key and a room assignment to be delivered to the phone to bypass the check-in process at the hotel, to go directly to your room and unlock the door with your phone and the SPG app.

What's on the agenda moving forward? I would kind of break it into three buckets. One, as a business we have a big agenda around growth, and technology plays a big role in that. We've introduced a new brand, we're working on revitalizing other brands, so there's all the work that goes into that, such as guest-facing capabilities for those brands. Another dimension of growth is continuing to drive personalization for guests. We've already done a lot in that space.

The second dimension separate from growth is how do we continue to bring value to our owners. And so there, from a technology perspective, we're focused on the next generation of analytics and being able to deliver solutions with speed-to-market.

The third dimension is one that's ever evolving, and that's cybersecurity. So making sure that, as that area continues to evolve, we continue to evolve with it.

What's a unique IT challenge in the hospitality industry? I'll give you the "aha" that came to me as I came into this industry. To me it was really around inventory and how we price it. I came into this and thought, "We know our inventory, it doesn't move, we don't have to track it. And clearly we have been pricing since the dawn of time." But it turns out it's a huge problem, it's probably the biggest analytics problem we have going.

One of the things we've done is invest in that problem. We're investing in very sophisticated analytics that take into account our own historical data, external market data, and have a very strong sense of time. You can imagine a hotel in Vermont in ski season is going to have a different pricing strategy than a hotel in Miami in August. All that differentiation sounds intuitive, but if you're booking those properties today for 2016 versus today for this weekend, it's going to have a very different sense of urgency for us.

So it's how do we take that into account and how do we leave space for groups, which is a big part of our business. There's a lot to consider. So we've invested in revenue management capabilities that do that analysis for us and arm our revenue management teams with analytics to make the right decisions.

What can others learn from your aha moment? Walking a mile in the business partners' shoes is time well spent, because you really get to understand the challenges in-depth from their expertise and you uncover these kinds of things that aren't obvious coming into it.

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Martha Poulter, CIO, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide

You've talked in the past about the importance of personal connections. Do you think IT pros are unfairly labeled as having a difficult time making those connections? I think for most of us, if you do a Myers-Briggs [personality] test, we tend to be on the introverted part of the scale. I think the part that doesn't hold true with the introverted stereotype is that most of us have strong ideas about what makes sense and we want to make those ideas come to life. So we're really in sales. You have to get people to agree to your ideas, and so you have to be able to evolve these soft skills and communication and negotiation skills.

The people who are successful, whether they stay technical or expand into management, are successful because they can influence and negotiate and they have technical skills. It's and not or; they can do all those things.

How do you build those personal connections, particularly as a CIO? We all have a ton of things going on, and this notion of spending time to connect with others seems to fall to the bottom of the list. But there's no substitution for spending time on this. [In the past] I blocked out time on my calendar called catch-up time, meaning catch up with others. I'd walk around or dial up people.

Now I do less calendaring, because social networking allows us to have more frequent reminders to pick up that phone or drop them a line.

And being in the top position makes me think about how I can facilitate others wanting to do the same thing.

But in professional settings, relationships that matter are built on a foundation of trust, and trust is built on seeing each other in action. So finding ways to work together and finding ways to come together for problem-solving I have found are very effective ways to develop those bonds of trust.

You had a long tenure at GE at a time when IT professionals had a reputation for moving around a lot. Do you think IT undervalues longevity? I don't know if IT does. I think the business world went through a period where the belief was that, if you weren't moving every 18 to 24 months, you were stagnating in your career.

That position has changed. But I would say that early in one's career moving more often seems appropriate, but as you grow, it's appropriate to stay longer because you're developing strategy and if you don't stay long enough in your role to develop it, implement it and see it through, then it's very difficult to know if you are an effective leader.

This story, "Veteran CIO values personal connections" was originally published by Computerworld.

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