for All Seasons
Steve Elfman delivered IT solutions for companies young and old, in good times and bad
When Steve Elfman joined a start-up company after years with established corporations, he wondered if he would be "flexible and nimble enough" for the job. It was a modest question for a CIO with a proven ability to move easily between IT and business as well as North American and international cultures, and to handle everything from GE Capital's mainframe maintenance to AT&T Wireless' market-driven growth.
In some ways, IT challenges at Terabeam--a broadband wireless provider--have been a cakewalk, Elfman says in an interview for "Information Technology Leaders." With no legacy systems to deal with or multiple applications to integrate, he could start Terabeam off with top-tier systems in six swift months. Nothing could prepare him for the dot-com bust and the post-9/11 economic downturn. But Elfman, an unflappable man who lives by the cost-benefit analysis, is optimistic: "I think we're poised with the right type of product, and more importantly, the right type of people."
"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washingtons School of Business, presents multi-faceted portraits of the people filling the top IT positions at major corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and AT&T Wireless Services. The revealing interviews show that personal characteristics often play an important role in the unpredictable career trajectories of this industry.
Born in Britain and raised in Canada, Elfman foresaw opportunities in the ways businesses would use telecommunications when he was a college student in London, Ont., studying computer science and business. But he wouldn't get a chance to explore the industry until midway through his career.
Out of college, he was recruited by Minnesota-based manufacturing company 3M, initially working out of the Ontario office. One of his first projects was building an order processing system for the company's 60,000 products--everything from heart-and-lung machines and post-it notes. Elfman's success resulted in a promotion, making him 3M's youngest director. More importantly, it had a clarifying effect on his career. He realized, "I wasn't there for the sake for IT. I was there for the sake of growing the business and understanding how the business can use IT."
Elfman proved an exception to the perception that IT people were too technical to cross over to business, and this made for a long and enjoyable tenure at 3M. After 17 years, he was recruited by the "Jack Welch machine" to join GE Capital. Elfman liked the new challenges offered by the financial company. But one of his first tasks as CIO was to "stop the bleeding" of 30-percent turnover in the IT area. He'd mastered managing down at 3M, so he put these skills to good use, improving communication with his direct reports and increasing cross-functionality within his team. He also set up a cultural diversity program, drawing on what he'd learned through frequent international travel at 3M.
Elfman had spent some time in Seattle and wanted to move there. So when AT&T Wireless came calling, he recalls, "It took a nanosecond to decide, 'I'm in.'" The location wasn't even the main draw; the company was poised for double-digit growth, an exciting time from both a business and IT perspective. It was also his long-awaited chance to enter the burgeoning telecommunications industry.
On the downside, AT&T Wireless had regional offices working fairly interdependently of each other. Jumping in as CIO, Elfman immediately started prioritizing. "I am really big into metrics and establishing a goal, identifying how you're going to measure that, and then monthly, weekly, or daily determining how close we are," he explains. Amid 42 percent growth, he worked to bring regional costs and to integrate AT&T Wireless with its "mother ship," the land-line company.
Then Elfman decided to follow a respected AT&T Wireless boss when he left to start Terabeam. "If he could go and do a start-up in the telecom world when it was going to tank, why can't I go with him?" Elfman chuckles, recalling his reasoning. There was also the lure of developing bandwidth technology at a time when everyone wanted greater connectivity. Terabeam focused on the "last-mile access problem" by helping businesses transmit high-bandwidth applications to the fiber optic rings around cities through laser technology.
Expectations didn't quite measure up to reality, especially given the tough economy. Keeping Terabeam afloat meant layoffs and cost-cutting. "We've had to mature very quickly," says Elfman. "Instead of going in with a high-price product and hoping we'd be able to ride that for awhile, we had to bring the cost structure down to be able to compete."
In retrospect, leaving AT&T wasn't a clear triumph, but Elfman knows that work isn't about the place, but the people. He's happy with the team at Terabeam. As a manager, his style is as successful in the start-up environment as it was in corporate culture. He's clear with objectives and respectful of his team's intelligence. He inspires loyalty that has people following him from job to job.
On the other side of a successful career transition, Elfman speaks excitedly about the future of high-speed access. "The bandwidth epiphany is still to happen," he vows. His track record suggests he's well-positioned to leverage the new technology in ways that benefit business.
Produced By: Christopher Redner
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