Retiring MasterCard IT chief on IT challenges

Jerry McElhatton started out as a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, and ended up as the chief technologist at MasterCard International, overseeing 2,700 IT employees and a US$100 million payroll. McElhatton, 65, MasterCard's senior executive vice president of global technology and operations, is retiring next month, a year after completing a five-year, US$200 million rewrite of the company's processing systems and opening a US$135 million operations center in O'Fallon.

Now looking to join the consulting world, McElhatton spoke with Computerworld this week about the MasterCard project, IT trends, his management style, and finishing projects on time and within budget.

What are some of the bigger challenges you've faced at MasterCard over the years?

When I came in, there had been attempts to rewrite these systems. They hadn't been successful, so one of the challenges was to get the talent and organization (to rally around a plan) to rewrite these systems in a meaningful way while keeping the other systems in place. It's like changing an airplane engine in flight.

What did you do differently from past IT managers there?

We organized the effort into manageable segments. I recruited people who had a lot of experience both inside and outside of the industry. I can teach people the industry, but I need people who have confidence in terms of their delivery skills. One of the big challenges was not only to develop (relationships) internally, but to establish and make sure relationships with our members were such that we could get them on schedule to convert to the new software.

How has the job of CIO changed over your career?

There's more and more value extraction (that) people are looking for the CIO/CTO to give. You have to be a good business person. I've seen a lot of technology introduced that can help people do things better, faster, cheaper. But I've also seen a change that successful people in this industry have really extracted business value and manage IT as a business.

You have an open-door policy where anyone can e-mail or call you to voice concerns. Has that always been your style?

I've done that throughout my career. In order to motivate people, you have to establish the right culture, and the right culture is to have an open and honest and direct culture. We've got a big job to do, and our customers, members and internal users expect us to be right at the top of that pile all the time, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun doing it.

What are some of the bigger challenges coming down the pike?

We have lot of leading-edge technology, but we're not bleeding-edge. No one likes to have a problem with a financial transaction. The challenge we have is to take this infrastructure technology and new product technology and make sure it's fully integrated and fully tested, so when it's used we're 100 percent sure that it's going to be a successful transaction.

How do you manage vendor relationships?

You have to have a partnership with your vendors, and they have to understand your expectations. Do we have problems with vendors from time to time? You bet. But if you have good communication and coordinate with them, you're going to get a lot better results.

What are some exciting emerging technologies?

I get excited about grid computing. I don't think it's ready for commercial use yet, but we're excited about it. (Linux has) got potential to again drive down the economic dynamics of what it is we're doing.

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