5 minutes with... Jeff Smith, chief information officer, Telstra

Q: What were your childhood ambitions?

There were always two things I really wanted to be — an astronaut and a major league baseballer. I’m still a huge sports fan and also remain fascinated by anything related to space or astronomy.

Q: What was your first job?

My first job was with FMC Corporation in California as an Assembler and Cobol programmer. FMC is a defence contractor and we built manufacturing and accounting systems to support the assembly of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. It taught me a lot about the processes and methodology required to deliver complex systems.

Q: How did you get into IT?

After studying a BSc in Applied Science (Systems Analysis major) at Miami University, I was always destined for a job in the IT world. It was my degree that helped land my first job as a programmer.

Q: What does your current role involve?

My current job is about getting the most out of Telstra’s IT function by being the leverage point for the IT groups within the company. Many people don’t realise the scale of Telstra’s role in the IT industry — we’re one of the largest IT employers, consumers and providers in this country with an annual IT budget of between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion. My key focus is on enterprise-wide IT processes, organisation and technology strategies.

Q: What projects and issues are you working on at the moment?

My key projects are focused on maintaining and enhancing Telstra’s IT capability through the delivery of repeatable, reliable results. Of particular interest is Telstra’s IT delivery effectiveness and use of appropriate IT metrics. I’m also spending some time looking at operations consolidation and efficiency — there isn’t an IT manager in Australia that doesn’t need to prove they’re getting the most from every IT dollar spent!

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

The most challenging part of my job is finding the best way to leverage the innovation and intellectual property created within Telstra across all parts of the company. We have some excellent people doing great work, so it’s my job to ensure everyone in Telstra can benefit from this.

Q: How many IT professionals make up your team?

I don’t have a lot of people reporting directly to me, and that’s the way I like it. I’m keen to avoid a large, centralised IT group. However, Telstra is one of Australia’s largest employers of IT professionals. We indirectly employ about 4000 people through our IT partners and directly employ around 1200 through our business unit IT, infrastructure and development groups.

Q: What is the most pressing issue you face as CIO?

Like any CIO or IT manager, the most important thing I can do is ensure my function delivers value for both the company and its customers. They key thing that I am targeting is driving down cycle times so Telstra is best placed to deliver more products and services to our customers.

Q: Briefly describe your average week.

I never seem to have an “average” week, but there are certain things I try to do whenever possible. Firstly, I like to meet as many interesting people as possible — there are a number of great people I’ve met both internally and from our IT partners. I also enjoy having regular contact with other CIOs — either professionally or socially. Secondly, no week would be complete without spending every minute possible with my wife and kids. Right now, we’re involved in soccer, swimming or Taekwondo both on weeknights and weekends.

Q: If you could walk in the shoes of any other IT professional, who would it be and why?

It’d be fascinating to walk in the shoes of Scott McNealy — Sun Microsystems CEO. He started a company based on a simple premise of providing open systems-based infrastructure and fostering innovation in those around him. He had a vision and has stuck to it for 20 years. I also admire the way he’s committed to his family life.

Q: If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

I really enjoy the interaction and innovation that can come from spending time with customers. If I could change one thing, it would be to spend more time discussing new products and services with Telstra’s customers.

Q: What is the most difficult IT decision you have had to make?

The most difficult decision for any manager is one that affects people’s jobs. The most difficult decision I’ve made involved shutting down a facility — dealing with the resulting redundancies did not make anyone feel good.

Q: List three likes and dislikes about your job:

Likes: Innovating on new platforms, products and services; meeting and energising high potential people; creating value for customers they don’t expect. Dislikes: formal meetings; activities that don’t directly create value for our customers; people who state the “reasons why not”, before they consider the “how”.

Q: What is your company Web strategy?

Telstra’s commitment is to an open-systems, standards-based approach for the delivery of all IP-based services. We recently announced our intention to create an online standard operating environment that will foster the creation of innovative content and applications, allowing its delivery across any device, anywhere, any time.

Q: Name five people, living or not, you would invite for a dinner party and why?

Assuming my wife was already invited, I would love to have the following people over for a dinner party — Alan Greenspan (chairman of the US Federal Reserve), Michael Jordan (US basketball player), Bill Murray (actor), Scott McNealy (chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems) and (Microsoft’s) Bill Gates. We probably wouldn’t need any wine to get the conversation started!

Q: What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you at work?

It happened before I worked at Telstra, but I turned up to give a board presentation and had forgotten to shave.

Q: What is your IT prediction for this year?

Over the next year, many companies will join the movement towards open systems and standards-based environments. The focus for all IT managers will rightly be on practical solutions for customers, including the delivery of key IT projects with shorter cycle times.

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