In one way, John Steenson's job is not unusual. Like other CTOs, he worries about finding good IT help for his company, Intira Corp.; he must keep on top of new technology advancements; and he needs to make sure his mission-critical e-business applications are running smoothly. But the difference for Steenson is that if he hits a snag in his infrastructure, it can take down not only his network but also the networks of his clients: the major Fortune 500 companies that pay Intira to host their e-commerce Web sites, business extranets, and secure intranets.
Companies that trust Steenson's organization to handle their e-business applications include such powerhouses as Armstrong World Industries, FTD.com Inc., PartMiner, Emerson Electric, and SingleSourceIT. For clients like these, Steenson oversees the design, deployment, and management of their entire network infrastructures. He also manages Intira's enterprise-class data centers in St. Louis, New York, and Pleasanton, Calif.
Intira is riding a wave of e-business expansion. Its customers like the business advantages of outsourcing critical network components to a secure hosting facility and letting Intira's technical team worry about keeping their e-commerce applications up and running. Relying on Steenson's technical expertise means they will get to market faster with online services, avoid investments in expensive hardware, and escape the burdens of IT staffing and infrastructure management.
These responsibilities fall on the shoulders of Steenson and his staff.
Steenson chooses the technologies used to run, connect, secure, and monitor his customers' applications. He manages the national network, SANs (storage area networks), and other back-end systems that make up Intira's infrastructure. And he figures out how to price, package, and deploy these services to the business market.
The end result is a highly reliable, highly scalable infrastructure that allows Intira to enter into service-level agreements that guarantee between 98.5 percent and 99.95 percent uptime. How is that guaranteed? If Intira fails to live up to its commitment, it shares the pain of downtime -- issuing a day's credit for every 15 minutes a client's system is inoperable.
"For some customers, that can be a quarter of a million dollars," says Steenson. "It's serious money to us. The other thing they do is take me out to the pillory in the courtyard and throw things at me."
The antidote to such competitive pressure is teamwork, both within the company and with the clients' development teams. When something goes wrong with a customer's application, everyone at Intira is accountable and the Intira teams work around the clock until the problem is resolved.
"Anytime a customer goes down, every person in the company is on [duty around the clock] until that customer is back up," Steenson says. "There's nothing anybody is doing that's more important than returning that customer to business. This idea is culturally ingrained throughout the company."
Most of Intira's customers are not interested in the money-back guarantee; they want their systems up all day every day, with no service interruptions for their customers.
What they are interested in is uptime, Steenson says. And no one is concerned with pointing the finger when technical glitches occur. In fact, Steenson says, many of the problems they have experienced occur at that "fuzzy boundary" between the customer's application and Intira's infrastructure, requiring Intira and the client's teams to work together to resolve a problem.
In one recent example, when a database application malfunctioned, the customer flew its developers in from Russia to brainstorm with Steenson's team. What looked at first like a problem with Intira's infrastructure turned out to be a database configuration issue.
"But it doesn't really matter what the exact problem is," Steenson emphasizes.
"Over the long haul, we just need to get them back up and going."
Steenson's example involving the Russian developers also illustrates the importance of establishing -- and following -- explicit procedures for maintaining mission-critical applications. In this case, a Russian developer had made a change without notification.
"Until they got over here and saw the impact of it, they didn't really think they'd done much," Steenson recalls.
The point, Steenson explains, is that such tricky situations can only be resolved with teamwork, often in the form of face-to-face brainstorming sessions to pinpoint glitches and trace them back to their origins. Then Steenson's team manages the change process, communicating with the clients' development teams or other systems integration companies to fix the problems.
Because so much teamwork is involved, it comes as no surprise that the most important element for delivering mission-critical e-business applications, in Steenson's view, is personnel.
"Anybody can buy data centers, anybody can buy equipment, anybody can claim to have fully redundant everything everywhere," Steenson says. "But it's the people, the skills, the dedication, the talent that really make the difference."
Getting and keeping the best people is Steenson's No. 1 concern, and then keeping them challenged and properly rewarded, he adds.
"After that, everything pales in comparison," he says.
John Steenson: Intira
Title: Vice president and CTO
Reports to: President and CEO
Mission: "To enable Intira to deliver leading-edge solutions for our customers in a highly reliable manner"Education: B.S. in Computer Science; M.B.A., technology management specialtyCareer path: Twenty-seven years in technology development; seven years as president of Spatial Dynamics; senior management at Oracle, Ingres, Computer Associates, Applied Data ResearchBiggest challenge:
Growing a team and a business in an extremely competitive environmentFavorite escape: Family outingsFavorite e-business sites: wsj.com, Yahoo, msn.com, and Amazon.com.