Ex-Submariner Applies Lessons To Technology

Ex-Submariner Applies Lessons To Technology

I got a mission orientation at a very early age. I worked on the George Bancroft, a nuclear submarine whose job during the Cold War was to provide a psychological deterrent to the Soviet Union. I did that from 1965 to 1971 and got a good education in running complex, mission-oriented systems.

When you’re part of a submarine crew, there’s a tremendous amount of teamwork. Everybody’s able to do everyone else’s job. Yes, I did electronics-repair work—but I also did sonar operations, and could run the supply systems on the ship. The people who were missile technicians also could fix navigation gear. Even the cooks were cross-trained.

Submarines don’t have the usual hierarchy you see in the military. You leave your rank at the gangway. Your survival’s at stake, so everyone’s got everyone else’s back.

Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve always tried to apply what I learned about management on the Bancroft—the importance of team-building and collaboration and making sure I understood all the aspects of everyone who worked for me. It’s not just how the person is doing in their current job; it’s how their career’s going, how they’re getting along. That’s a crew orientation, I guess.

My submarine days also taught me a lot about project management. I was part of the Bancroft’s crew while she was being built. Everything was broken down into tasks. A lot of the advances in methodology, like critical-path analysis and Pert diagrams, which lay out the pieces of a project graphically, were outputs from the nuclear-submarine programs at companies like General Dynamics.

A member of the crew—me, sometimes—would come through and inspect the work as it progressed. It made sense, of course, that we were part of the quality-control team, since we were going to be the ones riding in it.

When I look at my career over 35 years, I feel I’ve done just about every job there is to do in the information-technology (IT) industry. I’ve worked in a lot of businesses—insurance, clothing, construction materials, automobiles, telecom. And one of the things I’ve done a lot is to come in and clean up not-so-nice IT situations.

There are a couple of things that go into doing that well. First of all, you’ve got to sense what you’ve got. You’ve got to look at the organization, understand the state of the culture. You need to get the foundation pieces right first. If you get the infrastructure right, all things are possible.

Getting the infrastructure right means making sure the networks are working and that you don’t have application crashes every day or every night or every week. It means stabilizing the environment. Then, you can start building the right teams, understanding what the strengths are and what the weaknesses are, and putting plans in place to fix the weaknesses.

You know you’ve stabilized the environment when you no longer hear people complaining, “I could’ve made my numbers if the system didn’t crash,” or “We would’ve had the books closed on time if it hadn’t been for this system.” Things are smooth at that point. They may not be pretty, but they’re smooth. It’s running. It floats. It’s making headway.

Then you can start thinking, “OK, what do I need to do to take it to the next level? What are the top three or four things that will really give this corporation an advantage?” Then you can start moving it up—to areas higher, if you will, on the hierarchy of needs identified by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist whose work I apply to a lot of work situations.

Of course, if it’s a nonperforming IT environment, you can’t get to self-actualization—the top of the pyramid that Maslow identified. You haven’t even accounted for the basic food and shelter level. There isn’t very much magic in any of this, and for me, at this point, some of it is sheer habit. But you do have a sort of scientific process. And a mission, I guess. I’ve done it a lot.

Bob Napier is Chief Information Officer of Hewlett-Packard, the $80-billion company formed from the merger of H-P and Compaq. He previously held CIO poisitions at Lucent, AT&T and Lockheed.

—Written with Robert Hertzberg

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Baseline.