Interview: Sam Coursen (CIO, Freescale)

Sam Coursen is a veteran in the IT industry, over 36 years — thats more than my age, thankfully :)– in an interview the FreeScale’s CIO spoke on whole lot of things that not only affect his company but also the overall industry at large. I liked his take on the onshore-offshore debate. His response, “ the globalized world, everything is onshore somewhere”. Read the interaction as it was published in the Dataquest Magazine, the link being:(
‘With IT, one needs to be agnostic in the outlook’

‘Am joining a 70-year old startup’ is what Sam Coursen had said while joining Freescale Semiconductors as vice president and chief information officer in 2005. And he was not much off the mark. Freescale had existed for quite many decades as part of the Motorola group; it was only in 2004 that the company branched out. Today, it is one of the largest semiconductor manufacturer, and a leading supplier to the automotive industry.

Even in these ‘three’ years of its existence, a lot has changed at Freescale, from being a part of Motorola to being bought out for over $17 bn by a consortium led by Blackstone Group LP. The Freescale purchase, which closed on December 1, 2006, is reportedly the largest private buyout of a technology company and one of the ten largest buyouts of all time. Sitting at the Austin HQ, Coursen is keeping a tab on everything, not only ensuring that everything goes according to plan but also keeping his eyes on the horizon for newer technologies and breakthroughs.

Thirty-six years is a long time, and that is how much Coursen has spent working in the tech industry, starting with AT&T and then Bell Laboratories. For seven years he was at NCR as the CIO, before he took up the challenge of joining Freescale. The best thing that this industry veteran likes about his job is that: ‘it is never the same. Technology is changing all the time and it keeps me on my toes…Moore’s Law has never stopped working and hopefully would not in the near future as well,’ he says with a flourish.

When Coursen is not in office or trotting across the globe, he can be found at a golf course, swinging his clubs. More recently, he has developed a liking for whiteboard surfing on a lake that is nearby. Coursen likes to travel a lot and loves Sydney, though he also likes Scotland, Germany, China and, of course, India, probably due to culinary reasons. In an interaction with Shashwat Chaturvedi, Coursen spoke about the changing role of the CIO over the years. Excerpts.

At the time of joining Freescale, you dubbed it as a 70-year-old startup. What would you term as your biggest challenge at Freescale?
When I came here, I found a very good team of professionals who were exceptionally good at their work. My biggest challenge was to get the team sort of pointed to overall strategy for IT, making it more holistic in nature. To that end, we have defined a vision state that we want to attain, and have gone for major projects. It was like adding a strategic level to the function. Fortunately, for me, the team was quite capable of actual execution, so it was not that big a challenge.

While joining a big MNC that is spread across different geographies, what according to you does a CIO need to bring to the table?
Several things, but first I think a CIO needs to have the experience of operating globally. One needs to be empathetic to differences in systems and cultures, and to succeed it is imperative to adopt a global sourcing attitude. In today’s world, the concept of onshore or offshore does not make a difference for a global company, because everything is onshore at least somewhere.

How have the systems evolved at Freescale, and what are the changes that you are bringing in?
Even when Freescale was a part of Motorola, it existed as a separate business unit, so the systems were pretty much independent, and at an enterprise level. That was quite good in many ways. Some of the systems or functions were integrated to the Motorola one, so Freescale had to actually implement them from scratch, for instance, the HR function was shared with Motorola, so in the first year of separation we went for a complete implementation of the SAP HR suite, one of the most complete implementations of the suite. So, we have one single instance of HR for all our employees spread across the globe, and all our HR systems are in one place and uniform. That is not common, I know from experience that a lot of companies have HR systems based on countries or location, which makes it difficult to do a complete analysis at times, for instance, salary planning or headcount, etc. Thus, we had a set of systems focused on the business independently even when we were at Motorola, and we had to augment the systems that were shared with Motorola.

Coming to the second point, we have initiated a number of projects. My personal favorite is enterprise data warehousing. It is a big thrust for us. While our ERP is SAP, we did have a few legacy systems like in manufacturing, while some systems were in Oracle. So, there existed these data islands that one could not do much about. We are in the process of creating architecture to bring all that data in one place. It is a long drawn process, but we are making good progress. Currently, we have the core data in place. We also have a number of projects, wherein we are replacing legacy systems with new ones.

Freescale has operations in around thirty countries and more, and an employee base of 24,000. How do all these people collaborate and work?
We use the same collaborative tools that are available to all companies like Net meeting, Live Meeting, audio and data conferencing, etc. The good thing is that we have a good culture of taking advantages of those in this company, so a lot of this collaboration happened over the IM or the email. Going forward, we are looking at modernizing product design, so we are implementing PLM suites, where in there are lot of cutting-edge tools for collaboration. We are taking the first step toward PLM by implementing product data repository. The current project is to put in the foundation of the data management piece, and then look at different collaboration tools that would ride on top of the database and allow us to collaborate inside the company as well as with our partners.

Obviously, being a semiconductor company, IP protection must be a big issue. What’s the latest on that front?
We are actively looking at enhanced technology and evaluating the potential. We do have a number of security capabilities in place that relate to data storage, especially sensitive data; we use tools like encryption and what not. The employees are also sensitized to not have data in environments where it is harder to enforce patents and copyright laws. In the future, there is lot of work happening on IP protection, so you have an emerging technology that allows you to protect by particular document. For instance, a company, Liquid Machines, lets you designate certain IP with every document, which will provide enhanced levels of security. We are looking at whether we can implement those, as these technologies are not inexpensive.

For seven years you were the CIO at NCR, before coming to Freescale. How has the role of CIOs evolved?
I must admit that it has undergone quite a change. I keep reading all these debates in Harvard Business Review whether IT is really a strategic asset that can enhance value of the company or a cost to be reduced. And, that debate relates to the job of the CIO. Let me explain, A CIO cannot afford to ignore either of those two views. IT has become pervasive in every company, and it almost underlies every process. That’s good news for CIOs, and bad news as well. The good news is that IT has become an important function that can make a difference; the bad news is that because it is so pervasive, it is in a way expensive as well. As it is such a big part of the expense of the company, CIOs need to continually look at how to do the IT function more and more efficiently. We need to focus on how the whole thing can be done in a cost effective way, thereby making the company more productive. For instance, invest in manufacturing capabilities, invest in data warehousing, thereby enabling managers to make faster decisions, better ERP, supply chain, etc thereby optimizing everyone’s process. So, I got to focus at least half of my time on driving IT to be very efficient, so we can have the most possible affordability to really drive business process reengineering, and get strategic advantage over our competitors. A CIO today needs a balanced approach to the job.

What would you term as your biggest nightmare?
I share the same fears as my other CIO peers, namely a complete network breakage, data center is going to burn up, etc. As most of the companies operate on top of the IT infrastructure, it has to be there 7X24X365. It is a challenge to keep everything running smoothly, as the world is getting more dangerous with the bad guys trying to break into your systems. If we are well connected with the rest of the business, I think we will build the right systems. But, to keep them running without a glitch is the challenge.

How is it working with a multi-cultural team, and what are your learnings?
There are a lot of learnings; to have people from all across the world with different perspectives can be quite advantageous if you can leverage the multiple perspectives. I visit different regions where we have offices to meet my teammates, and then have them visit me at the HQ, so that you get to know the people face to face. It’s good that companies today tend to drive standard processes globally. But, they do vary to some degree based on local culture, local laws, and local customer needs. One needs to have a good appreciation of what can be standard, and what needs to be truly effective, and the only way to do that is to work in a multicultural environment.

What are your views on outsourcing and the big debate on core vs non-core?
Core and non-core are things that apply at a company level. For a company like Freescale, R&D would be the core. But, with IT, one needs to be agnostic in the outlook. I strongly believe that if someone can do a particular function better than me, then I should let him do it. What I don’t really like is this big second company do a total outsourcing kind of a deal. Because, I really think that it is very hard for one entity to do all the things in an efficient manner. You could term my attitude on outsourcing as more like out-tasking. For instance, 20 years back we would have gone and bought our own PBXs and built our own voice networks. But now, you go to AT&T, or any other company and buy software, etc to set up a network. This works out quite well, so no one in the right mind would look at building a voice network by them. I see a trend toward specialization, but I want to have control on the different pieces that I outsource or out-task. The people who have regretted their actions are the ones who have taken their entire thing, and outsourced it to an EDS kind of a thing.

What is the strategic roadmap for IT at Freescale?
It is interesting, systems support not geographies, not organizations, but they do support processes or a function right? For eg, a set of systems support HR function, supply change, financial, etc. Based on this, we have organized systems by the processes that they support. I have created a structure where we have defined a function map of the company, there are like twenty of these functions like finance, HR, etc. We have identified a business owner and an IT owner of each of these twenty functions who work towards establishing the vision state that I had mentioned earlier. We are currently very focused on data warehousing and manufacturing excellence, we also have a lot of work on supply chain systems. There is lot of work to keep us busy in the future.

Now that Freescale has been bought out, do you see any changes in your function?
Not really, nothing much changes for me. The owners have changed, but we always had someone owning us. Also, I see the potential as quite positive. For a semiconductor company economies of scales are important, and if by being part of a big group it could be leveraged in a better way.

Feature: Story on an innovative company in India

This story was published in the Dataquest Magazine and is about an amazing couple from the US, the Binfords, who decided to not only make India there home, but also dstart up a venture in India that promises to revolutionize the way devices read human inputs…. (

Reading a Bright Future

Towards the late nineteenth century, William John Warner, a young Irishman, traveled extensively through the length and breadth of India to study the ancient Indian art of astrology. He purportedly visited a lot of Brahmins in North India, studying extensively from the ancient manuscripts possessed by them. Later on, he went to create his own sect of astrology, and was known to the world as Cheiro or Count Louis Hamon.

A century or so later, their was another person who landed on the Indian soil. But this time he was not here for knowledge, rather fashioning it from here. It was the time when the ‘world had not yet been flattened’ and ‘tiger was just a cub’, when Prof Thomas O Binford decided to shift to India bag and baggage. For over three decades, Binford, a leading researcher in image analysis and computer vision, was at the Stanford University as a professor of computer science (Research). In 2000, when he retired from Stanford, Binford decided to don the hat of an entrepreneur and work on a startup. Since, he would be funding the startup from his retirement fund, he had to be quite discerning about how and where he invests the money and that is where India comes into the picture.

Handwriting Recognition Engine
Around the same time India was emerging in the global consciousness, thanks to the Y2K success. Binford decided to take a risk, and in 2001 shifted to India with his wife (a former manager at HP). Settling down in Bangalore, Binford floated Read-Ink Technologies in the space of handwriting recognition. Read-Ink is currently building handwriting recognition technology that could be used in tablet PCs to mobile PDAs that use the stylus. A whole lot of companies across the world have been trying to solve this issue. “The case is fairly simple, every individual has a unique handwriting much like his fingerprint. How can computers decipher it? How can it be digitized? We are trying to solve this problem,” says Binford.

The company is close to building a high accuracy recognition engine for handwriting and printed text. Based on this, organizations across the globe can automate their data capture process. According to Binford, the engine is going to be launched in the market soon, and already has generated considerable interest in the market.

“We are currently in the prototype stage and working on the alpha version. Hopefully by the middle of the year the product will be launched,” he says. Read-Ink has close to 20 engineers that are currently working with Binford. “Most of them are IIT graduates, highly motivated and raring for a challenge,” he adds.

For the professor the biggest source of support has been his wife, Ione. She is the CEO of Read-Ink and takes care of all the operational issues, like managing the team, marketing, etc. She even runs a small all-night accounting back-office service for American customers. “It is a small service with few clients. It helps us to cover the cost,” she says. Surprisingly, Ione does not think much of the cultural shift. “Since, I am basically from Brazil, India seems quite like home, except probably the infrastructure is much better in Brazil,” she adds gingerly.

A few years into the venture, the Binfords made acquaintance with Pankaj Jain, a Stanford University and IIT Delhi alumnus. Jain was just back from a stint in the fabled Bay Area and was planning to do something on his own. He had earlier worked with Oracle and Seibel in the US. It was after the interaction that Jain and the Binfords launched another venture, Taxila Labs.

Named after the ancient university in modern day Afghanistan, Taxila Labs is working at developing a solution that makes vast amount of information available on mobile phones both through voice and data, thereby making mobile phones as potent as the PC.

“By using the technology developed by us, companies like retailers and service providers can build storefronts and portals that consumers can access on mobile phones and discover the relevant items with ease. These storefronts and portals provide the same choice that is available over the web through a PC and thus enable the Long Tail economies on the mobile phone,” says Jain. The company is very close to finalizing deals with a few companies in India and would be commercially launching the product soon.

“We intend to run and test this technology first in the Indian marketplace, before taking it to advanced markets like Japan and Korea. Considering the mobile explosion in India, if the technology works well in India, it can work anywhere in the world,” adds Jain.

Till date, the Binfords and Jain have been funding the ventures from their own pocket. They live and work in the same building, saving on rent. The ground floor contains a kitchen and employee dining room as well as the Binfords’ bedroom and employees’ guest rooms. Things might have been a wee bit tough, but they are sure that the technology that they are developing is going to take the market by storm, the way Google and Netscape had done in the Silicon Valley. Like Ione says, “I see a dim light at the end of the tunnel”. The distance seems to be decreasing and the light is getting brighter. Who knows, as in the twentieth century the world learnt palmistry thanks to India (merci Cheiro), probably in the twenty-first century the devices might learn to read handwriting, again courtesy India (merci Binfords).

Interview: Jonathan Palmer (CIO, IMF)

In an interview IMF’s CIO Jonathan Palmer spoke about how IT has made the organization more proactive and transparent. This story was published in the Dataquest Magazine, the link being:(
‘IT has made us more transparent and accessible’

It is hard to come across a person who has not heard of the International Monetary Fund. Even harder to come across one who does not have a view on IMF (in all probability a negative view tinged with apprehensiveness and distrust). But the irony is that not many individuals seem to really know what really the IMF does. Often, one comes across new stories that belabor the IMF’s Keynesian approach and its frequent ‘austerity programs’. The Fund, as it is referred to as, is often chastised for it recommendations to poorer nations on currency devaluation, and balancing of budgetary deficit.

That said, the IMF plays a very crucial role in the world economy today. In a globalized society that we exist in, the IMF acts as monetary and fiscal guardian angel over the 185 or so member countries. The fund describes itself as “an organization of 185 countries working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty.” A lofty goal indeed. To achieve this goal, the Fund is employing the best and the latest that technology has on offer. And Jonathan Palmer is overseeing that this very aspect.

Palmer is the associate director of the Technology and General Services Department of the IMF. Informally, he is the CIO at the Fund and describes himself as an ‘economist on the field’. Not such a long time ago, he was an adjunct professor at the Canberra University, when the opportunity of heading the technology division at the IMF came his way. He readily took up the challenge and seems to be enjoying his role, every bit. According to him the biggest challenge he has faced has been in terms of working with diverse and multi-cultural teams. While he admits that he is interested in open-source, he is certainly not obsessed with it and feels that proprietary standards and software also have a lot to offer. In an extended telephonic interaction from Washington DC with Shashwat Chaturvedi, Palmer spoke to Dataquest and gave an insight on what makes the IMF tick. Little surprise, it is indeed technology. Excerpts.

How does technology help the IMF meet the changing needs of member countries in an evolving world economy?
The IMF has a clear strategy for responding to the changing environment, in particular to the challenges of globalization. It’s called the Medium-Term Strategy or MTS. Technology plays a strong role in supporting this strategy. For example, since one of the requirements of the MTS is enhancing the IMF advice on financial and capital markets, we are assisting in developing new financial models for assessing risk. We are also working on reducing e-mail overload and maintaining the Fund’s efficiency, and several other aspects related to the MTS. In brief, IT helps us in meeting up with the challenge of globalization.

The IMF has been established to promote international monetary cooperation and exchange rate stability. What are the mechanisms in place to help the IMF meet its goal? How strategic is IT in meeting these objectives?
All our processes are completely enabled by IT and technology. IT has been integrated in all the core activities of the IMF, which include surveillance, financial and technical assistance. We have a broad portfolio of systems, data warehouses, publishing systems, document repositories, economic models, and a range of systems that support our Human Resources Department, our Finance Department, mission travel, etc. To say that IT is strategic will be an understatement, as it forms the basis of all our operations.

Starting with around 40 member countries in 1945 to over 180 now, how does the IMF link all these member countries and how are the statistics recorded?
The IMF has 185 member countries at present. Its organization includes Resident Representative offices in about 90 countries, three regional offices, and six technical assistance centers. All the staff in these offices are linked to the head office in Washington through our network, and we are making increased use of video conferencing, Internet telephony, instant messaging, and extranets to improve this linkage between IMF staff at headquarters and the staff in the field.

As far as collecting statistical information is concerned, we use a highly automated and secure system called the Integrated Correspondence System. We are also participating in an initiative called SDMX (Statistical Data and Metadata Exchange), which is defining formats for the exchange of data and metadata. This is relevant because to automate the collection of data and integrate data across countries, it is important to have appropriate standards. The IMF is playing a leadership role in this area.

How has the current IT infrastructure evolved over a period of time and what is the current infrastructure?
In the last year or so, we have put a lot of work into improving our infrastructure redundancy and availability. We have two data centers at headquarters, which operate independently and support each other if one of them goes out. We also have a remote DR facility, from which we can host systems in the event of a major disruption to our headquarters.

Another change is the support for new devices in the network, like Blackberries and Windows Mobile devices. We recently finished a pilot deployment of Skype and we’ll be deploying it organization-wide as a platform for instant messaging and telephony. Also, we are exploring software as a service. We are working towards keeping up-to date with the latest that technology has to offer. The two key drivers behind all our initiatives are high availability for our global workforce and cost-effectiveness, all in the framework of our MTS, as I mentioned before.

A major accusation against the IMF is the apparent lack of transparency, are there some initiatives in place to deal with this as well?
We have made enormous changes in accessibility to information and our website has been a key mechanism for that. We now publish the vast bulk of the material that we produce on surveillance, at the global, regional, and country-specific levels. The challenge for us now is to recognize that it’s not only a question of putting the information in the public domain, but communicating effectively about what the information means. That’s a challenge that technology can support. We are already doing much more video presentations through our website, we have plans to provide enhanced support for multiple languages, and right now we are doing some very interesting work on data visualization.

You have been associated with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the New Zealand Statistical Authority, and have been adjunct professor at the University of Canberra. So can you talk about the transition of roles? How does it feel to be a CIO of an organization that has such a major role to play in the global economy?
In many ways my role is not unlike the ones I’ve had in public sector institutions. I’m continuing to work in organizations that have a very strong public mission and do important work. But there is a difference in the global dimension this time. Personally, I’m enjoying the diversity and high caliber of the staff at the IMF.