Careers Q&A: FedEx's Alison Dack

FedEx Express' new Asia Pacific CIO talks experience and what got her into the industry

FedEx Express' Asia Pacific chief information officer, Alison Dack, is only new to the Hong Kong-based role, but having spent four years with the logistics company, there's a good chance she knows a bit about the business. With a breadth of management and IT-based experience behind her, Dack now takes on the important role of determining the technology required to get that package to your door; and there's a lot of it.

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As Dack settles into her role, she talks to Computerworld Australia about her experience, and the "bits and bytes" that caused her to get into the industry in the first place.

Can you provide a brief history of your career in IT?

I have over 30 years experience leading technology operations and initiatives across various industry sectors with the culmination of my experience resulting in my current role as Vice President, Information Technology and CIO, Asia Pacific FedEx Express. I was appointed to this role in August 2010.

Prior to my current role I held the position of Managing Director, IT Services Asia Pacific, FedEx Express to which I was appointed in 2006. In this capacity I was responsible for the delivery and management of technology services to support FedEx business needs in Asia

Before joining FedEx I was the Consultant Programme Manager for a multinational media and entertainment company, leading the implementation of more than 20 critical business solutions and other technologies necessary to support the operations of a multi-billion dollar start-up business.

I have also set up my own management consulting company based in U.K. and in 1997, I moved to Hong Kong to take up a Vice President position overseeing IT strategy and architecture at a major telecommunications service provider.

My initial graduate traineeship was in management consulting and software services at a company in the United Kingdom (U.K.). It was a great learning ground and the customer service-oriented position enabled me to see the value of IT from a strategic business perspective.

What are you responsible for in your new role at FedEx?

As Vice President, Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, Asia Pacific, I am responsible for strategising and leading the Information Technology group in Asia Pacific which supports and enhances the FedEx technology infrastructure and information flows to meet regional business goals.

I lead a team of 400 talented IT employees based across 13 countries and they provide business technology software engineering, voice and data network management, data center and information security services and field support for all FedEx business and operational IT solutions in Asia Pacific.

What caused you to get into IT in the first place?

In a high-school extra-curricula course, I discovered a real affinity for the logic of ‘bits and bytes’ and the power of ‘0 and 1.’ Later, when considering career options, I was attracted by the opportunity of leveraging the power of technology solutions not only to solve business problems but also to extend the horizons of business development.

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What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in IT during your career?

Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges that I face. IT is challenging, demanding and very exciting as there are always new business opportunities and new technologies to explore. Juggling career and family means making tough choices, especially for a woman but I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work in companies such as FedEx who champions diversity.

FedEx is focused on increasing the percentage of women in management by creating a culture that fosters diversity and gender equality and provides our employees including myself with an equal opportunity to excel. In Asia Pacific, 40 per cent of FedEx managing directors are women, along with 28 per cent of the management team. In Australia, 25 per cent of the management team are also female.

How does Asia Pacific differ in its approach to IT, as opposed to other countries you have worked in?

Asia Pacific is a vast region made up of many countries with some unique and distinct cultures. To try and articulate differences would be to make generalizations that would not be accurate. However, I believe that the diversity of this region coupled with desire to be ‘early adopters’ of technology because they understand the economic value of an IT-enabled workforce, makes the Asia Pacific region unique.

What do you see as the next big technology for the transport and logistics industry?

Any technology that adds value to our customers is the next big thing. The FedEx culture of technology innovation is all about empowering our teams to find ways to add value to our customers’ businesses. Everything we do from an innovation perspective has got to be about providing an outstanding customer experience in order to build and retain loyalty.

For instance, one of the latest FedEx innovations is SenseAwareSM, which combines a GPS sensor device and a web-based collaboration platform, to monitor the whereabouts of heart valves, knee implants, and other critically sensitive healthcare shipments. This first-of-its-kind technology solution took three years to develop and provides real-time visibility into our customer shipments, including light and temperature signals to notify recipients if a package has been opened before it reaches its intended destination

FedEx is also expanding its frozen shipping capabilities for the life sciences industry, using the latest technology breakthroughs. Our new CryoPort Express Shipper allows products to remain frozen at temperatures below -150C for up to 10 days, unlike dry ice shipping which often requires re-icing during transit. This is an innovation that is set to revolutionize the frozen shipping model.

Another key technology is the next generation of sensors and active RFIDs, which are going to really revolutionise the internet and what is possible. With smart packages you can set all kinds of alerts and as these sensors go mainstream, there are going to be all kinds of applications – for instance, the ability of GPS to tell you exactly where a package is, at a given point in time.

FedEx and UPS have faced off before in battles for technological supremacy. Do you see that happening again in the future?

I can’t comment for other companies but what I can tell you is that technology has long been a strategic competitive advantage for FedEx. FedEx has always been a technology innovator and we are constantly investing in new technologies to maintain our competitive advantage.

Do you feel that most of your IT knowledge was gained through self-experience, or did you align yourself with mentors to get that knowledge?

Most of my knowledge has been gained by experience and by self-motivated learning. Until joining FedEx in 2006, I did not have the opportunity to benefit from the value of having a mentor. However, throughout my career I have been fortunate to work with some high caliber IT leaders whom I observed carefully to assess what made them successful and to learn from their example.

At FedEx, I have had fantastic role-models both in IT as well as in top management whose mentorships have provided me insights on how to be a good leader.

For aspiring IT workers looking to get into the field or move up the career ladder, what are your suggestions?

A university degree is a pre-requisite to starting out in a career in IT. As an aspiring IT worker, a Computer Science or related degree will enable you to get into an IT practitioner role. Then it is important for you to take 100 per cent responsibility for your career.

My advice is to really take the time to know yourself, understand who you are and who you are not. Be truthful and ruthless in assessing your career goals in the context of your strengths and the areas for improvement as well as your inherent personality. Take opportunities to move out of your comfort zone to add breadth and depth to your knowledge and experience. Remember that project management is a great way to develop leadership, communication, risk management and organization skills.

For aspiring CIOs, business thought leadership is a must. It will be desirable for you to earn a MBA or MSc in Management. Equally important is to find a mentor who will guide you.

Are there any specific ways to really stand out from the crowd?

One of the most important ways to stand out is to really understand the business you are in. Be a driver of business change. Be a communicator who can bridge the language barrier between business and IT while helping business to understand the IT business. Show leadership, courage, honesty and integrity. Be willing to take risks and take on a challenge.