Take out the mystery, urges United's CIO

One the biggest challenges for IT managers today is demystifying the systems they run and the people who run them to their user population, Eric Dean, CIO at United Air Lines said today.

Computer systems aren't much different from bicycles, he told an audience of his peers in the opening keynote address here at the Computerworld Premier 100 Conference. Systems are machines, not magic, and the people who run them aren't wizards, he said, citing the Hollywood image of a mad genius coding his way to omnipotence. That image, trumpeted often in the mainstream press, hurts the very IT community it deifies because it places unrealistic expectations on programmers to solve what are really business problems.

"The truth is, the machines are just machines, and they're never going to read our minds," Dean said. Given that view, IT professionals need to be candid about what their systems can, and more importantly, can't do.

"When you don't have the resources, you need to say no," he said. "It's not a computer problem. It's a lack of understanding by the user."

Dean, who runs an IT organization of 18,000 employees with an annual budget of US$500 million, said it has been easier to navigate the political waters at United and present his view to his users since Sept. 11, which has refocused attention on the need for updated technology, as well as underscoring its limits.

All employees at United, the Chicago-based subsidiary of UAL Corp., have generally pulled together in trying to move the airline forward. In particular, they have been understanding about the limitations of the company's legacy system, the Transaction Processing Facility (TPF) from IBM. Much of that system was created 40 years ago in 360 Assembler language, which uses 6-bit bytes and a flat file system to manage reservation data on mainframes.

He noted that some of the workers who originally developed the system still work at United but will be retiring in the next few years. That makes it even more imperative, he said, for United -- and other companies still reliant on legacy systems -- to upgrade their technology on a continuing basis.

He stressed that his goal is not to totally overhaul the system all at once. "The really hard thing to do is not to design the new computer system, it's to design the paths to migrate it," Dean said. "The problem is, there's not enough money in the world to get all of this stuff in one shot."

Dean, who has worked at United for 18 months, said his company and the airline industry in general have failed to upgrade their TPF systems during the last 30 years, in part because this "monolithic," system was so intimidating.

"The thought of replacing this software with something new was so daunting, nobody wanted to do it," he said. That means companies can quickly fall behind because of institutional reluctance to tackle major changes.

The result is that, "companies get the computer systems they deserve," he said.

Nonetheless, Dean has tried to move away from a maintenance model with the TPF software and into "a steady diet of constant overhaul," where upgrades are a regular budget item, not a capital cost. And the way he is trying to achieve that is by tracking the cost of maintenance.

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