- After 20 years on the job, FedEx CIO Rob Carter is still pushing new innovations at the logistics giant — like drones and delivery robots.
- He credits his success to the ability to make IT more central to the business and to align the tech priorities with the overall priorities of the business.
- Carter doesn’t let technologists on his team refer to colleagues as “customers,” opting instead for the term “business partners.”
- “The role that I’ve played over and over and over again is to go right at those places where trust is lacking or the relationship is lacking and work to fix it,” he told Business Insider.
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June marks FedEx Chief Information Officer Rob Carter’s 20th year on the job and 27th at FedEx.
It’s an eye-popping length of tenure for a role that has evolved dramatically over the past two decades.
Carter’s been at the bleeding edge of technology since assuming the role — from the onset of the internet and managing slews of physical data centers, to a pivot to the cloud and overseeing the adoption of delivery robots.
His role in helping to keep FedEx a leader in innovation is one reason a tech leader told Business Insider that Carter’s “the Beyoncé of CIOs.” He’s so well-known in the community only his first name is required, the leader added.
But it’s not just his work at $69.7 billion logistics giant that has made him such an icon among IT chiefs.
Several newer CIOs listed Carter as one of the main individuals that helped them navigate their early days in the role.
And as CIOs see their role expanding — now even more so after the coronavirus pandemic forced a sudden pivot to remote work — Carter’s work to integrate technology into the business is a model for other companies seeking to do the same with their own digital transformations.
“When the business and IT are pulling together in the same direction, in a trusted relationship, working to achieve the goals of the business, this job gets really easy,” Carter told Business Insider. But “when business and technology are at odds, or pointing fingers, or lack trust, or have a blaming relationship, then it’s an insult to glaciers to say that things happen at glacial speed.”
“The role that I’ve played over and over and over again is to go right at those places where trust is lacking or the relationship is lacking and work to fix it,” Carter added.
20 years of innovation runs into a historic challenge
The slew of tech initiatives that his team has pushed over with that mindset is impressive.
FedEx is now experimenting with drone and robot delivery. The company launched an award-winning IT platform that enables FedEx to partner with retailers to deliver packages. Even efforts to streamline the firm’s application portfolio pre-dated what is now a rush of similar initiatives across corporate America.
It’s a masterclass in the power of continual innovation. But despite all the challenges of the past 20 years, perhaps the most prominent hurdle is right now.
For one, long-time CEO Fred Smith finally acknowledged last year the pressure the company is facing from Amazon. That, combined with drastic changes in demand, led to dire profit warnings for 2020. And, of course, the Pandemic Protocol has only added to its struggles.
But a key goal of innovation is resiliency. And Carter expounded upon the key steps he has taken to create a resilient IT team over a 27-year career at FedEx.
‘People don’t necessarily understand what you’re doing’
Nearly a decade ago, Carter opined that someone would have to “be a masochist” to want to work in IT.
It was a nod to the difficulty of the job, particularly back then, when the department didn’t have such a central role in the organization. But it hasn’t gotten any easier.
“People don’t necessarily understand what you’re doing, and how it works, and the fundamentals of it,” said Carter. “You certainly get plenty of attention when things go wrong with the technology and not a ton when it just runs like it’s supposed to.”
But in many ways, FedEx would not be the company it is today without those tech improvements created by Carter’s team. It may seem commonplace now, but Smith was the first in the industry to conceive of a “digital twin” for packages — or the system that allows customers to track packages. And the IT team turned the vision into a reality.
Without a push from Carter many years ago, FedEx may not have even been able to achieve as quickly the innovations it has in the past 20 years. He famously marched into Smith’s office and said the company was “going to run straight into a brick wall at 200 miles an hour” if the IT department wasn’t overhauled.
Carter credits his influence within the organization in part on being able to advocate effectively for the IT department as a key driver of growth.
“Information technology executives don’t do the best job they could do about representing themselves as part of the business,” he said. “A critical differentiator for a top-tier CIO is to have a strategic perspective, to have a strategic voice and find themselves in positions where they’re contributing.”
‘It’s like standing on the beach waiting for the tsunami to sweep you up’
Making that a reality among his team, however, took some drastic changes. For one, Carter won’t let IT employees call others in the organization “users” or “customers.”
“Customers are the people that are paying the bills every day,” he said. “These are our business partners.”
That mindset is increasingly common across corporate America, as more CIOs are being called upon to help lead companies through major digital overhauls. It’s bringing IT out of the shadows and further integrating the division into the business.
Companies like 1-800-Contacts, Fidelity, and Boston Scientific are all switching to more agile-like teams, where tech professionals are paired up with experts from various lines of business to solve specific problems.
The goal is to move quickly, then constantly iterate to cut down development timelines and get new products or offerings to market faster. But it’s no easy task to change mindsets so drastically from the old “waterfall” method — where plans are given to IT, the group executes, then delivers a product back to the business.
“Most importantly is recognizing what a significant cultural change that is,” said Carter. “It’s the organizational change management that really gets at the heart of what’s hard about making the shift.”
It’s a challenge many companies either are facing — or soon could — as digital becomes no-longer a “nice-to-have,” but a requirement for any organization that wants to remain relevant in today’s environment.
And Carter had strong words for any executives who think moving cautiously is the least risky way to go.
“Business and IT leaders tend to over calibrate the risk of going forward, of doing something … they talk about how hard and how expensive and how risky that journey is. They completely under-calibrate on the risk of standing still,” said Carter.
“Standing still is the biggest enemy that any enterprise has today. It’s like standing on the beach waiting for the tsunami to sweep you up,” he added.