Delivering the Total Package: How FedEx CIO Rob Carter Continues to Lead the Industry
Rob Carter shares his experience as CIO of the world’s leading logistics provider, FedEx, and explains why he believes technology is the 'digital nervous system' of a company.
CIO of FedEx, EVP of FedEx Information Services
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling billion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax with more than 20 years of experience, working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth.
Narrator: Today, Chet is joined by FedEx CIO, Rob Carter. Rob is responsible for setting the technology direction of the FedEx applications, networks and data centers that provide around the clock and around the globe support for FedEx product offerings. Recently called the Beyoncé of CIOs, Rob has received many industry accolades and serves on the board of directors for both the New York Life Insurance Company and Pilot Travel Centers, LLC. Learn why Rob has stayed with FedEx for so long, about his customer first motto, and about his future endeavors.
Chet Kapoor: Rob, thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate you making the time.
Rob Carter: Oh, it is really my pleasure, Chet. I always enjoy talking with you, and this is such an interesting time in the world that we live in that it's a great time to have this conversation.
Chet Kapoor: Awesome. You've been at FedEx since 1993, and you have been quoted as saying technology is the digital nervous system of the company. Planes don't fly, trucks don't roll, packages don't sort and customers don't have visibility that they expect to have if the system doesn't work. Tell us about your evolution of your roles at FedEx. Walk us through your time at FedEx.
Rob Carter: Well, in 1993, I definitely wasn't looking for a job, but I had just finished my MBA. And one of the companies that I had studied was FedEx. Back in that day, we were talking about strategic systems and we were talking about companies like Sabre in the airline and travel industry and FedEx having strategic systems that connected them to their customers. And so when FedEx came knocking, I was intrigued to say the least.
Rob Carter: And I started out in Colorado Springs with the company as a director managing the tracking systems, which to me were one of the most interesting parts of what the company had to offer, the tracking systems, the handheld computers, which at that point in time were pretty unique in the industry still. And then I progressed through having a vice president role after that where I had a lot of the operational technology across the business. And then in 1998, I became the CTO for the company. That was the first time a CTO had been appointed. I've always loved technology. And then ultimately, in the year 2000, in fact, June 1st, 2000, almost exactly 20 years ago now, I became the CIO. And frankly, I just kind of pinched myself. This is my dream job. I've been here for 20 years now in this role. And I just can't imagine doing this anywhere else. I love this company and I love what we do.
Chet Kapoor: Rob, as not many of us, right, not many folks actually have a chance to be at a company as long as you have and still love what you're doing. What came easy?
Rob Carter: Yeah. This is a company that really values people and technology. And those are two of the things that I love the most in my work is working with people, having respect for the teams that make it happen for us every day. And Fred Smith was known when I got here for being an information architect. He said back in 1979 that the information about the package was as important as the package itself. And as you said in your comments, the technology is in fact the central nervous system for the company. It's how we manage such a global network and global enterprise and all of the customer connections that we facilitate every day, 24/7/365.
Chet Kapoor: It seems like having someone visionary like Fred who thinks technology is important certainly paves the path for you to go off and implement a phenomenal technology stack and use technology as a nervous system. But even with that support, what was hard?
Rob Carter: I think, Chet, that change is what's hardest. When you look at legacy technologies and how they get a foothold in businesses, and we've already kind of exemplified that, FedEx started early in enterprise technology. Before many companies were implementing any kind of enterprise technologies, we had significant systems that marshaled the operations of the business. But those systems were implemented on legacy technologies, which, once your pride and joy, become in fact an inhibitor towards being connected in a cloud-based world. The hardest thing that we've done is try to marshal forward into the modern, dominant design of technology, things that still work, but really won't get us where we need to be in the future.
Chet Kapoor: Yeah. Change is hard. How do you balance being fully present and alert while driving towards what's next? Because it's clear, right, just like you said, what got you here may not take you in the future. And so you have to do this great balance of being present, being grateful for where you are, but at the same time, push really hard for the future. How do you do that balance on the scale that you do it at?
Rob Carter: Well, one of the most important things about the here and now and the nonstop drum beat of the world that we support in the operational systems and customer connections is that you have to have a great team. You have to have a great team that's very focused on operational excellence and the needs of the business and the needs of customers to have access to the information that is required for customers to ship or for us to effectively move their shipments around the world.
Rob Carter: But I think that my job really has to be looking over the horizon. I call it up-and-out. And so we spend a lot of time on up and out as a senior team. We'll do planning sessions a couple of times a year as a senior team. And for certain of those meetings, we'll spend our time on the current baseline of projects. But then at other times, we'll go up and out and look at something completely different and we'll have wonderful connections to luminaries in industry and analytics. Lately, we've been working with Val Sribar at Gartner. In the past, we worked with George Colony at Forrester. Charlie Feld has been a significant advisor to us. So I just want to say that a huge part of up and out is connecting to people that have different points of view than what you would get if you were, what I would call burning your nose on the grindstone of what's right in front of you.
Chet Kapoor: That's awesome. Now, when you talk about ... You started by saying it's about great teams. Great teams are obviously folks that are on your leadership team, but it also applies to all the folks, the thousands of people that you lead. You've done something very interesting with Cloud Dojo, and you had a chance to reskill about 2,500 folks, because reskilling is a challenge, right? It's a personal challenge for all of us, right? We need to keep current and be on the cutting edge, like you said, the up-and-out and stay on the next horizon. But at the same time, it's also something that we have to take responsibility for as institutions. Give us your perspective on what has worked and what are things you could have done better if you had known when you started the journey.
Rob Carter: The Cloud Dojo has been a lot of fun. It's been a great way to intrigue team members to come learn something new. If you think of the construct of a dojo, it's a place you go and up-skill yourself, work hard and reach a new level. And so the very concept of the Cloud Dojo, though, was based on the fact that we had a well-defined set of technical tenets that were describing the future that we wanted.
Rob Carter: We had created a manifesto essentially that was complete with rigorous technical tenets about what it really meant to be cloud-native, what it really meant to be API-first and so many other core tenets that drove what we actually aspired to, and then that made it easier for the dojo to take the work that these teams were doing.
Rob Carter: And by the way, they would bring real work with them, not textbook work that they showed up and immersed into. They would say, "Here's the journey that we're on with these applications. Help us in our modernization journey." And it was a lot of fun. I wish we would have thought of it sooner is about my only regret when it comes to the Cloud Dojo.
Chet Kapoor: You think it's something ... I mean, will you do it again? Do you think it can be applied to other industries or do you think it was fairly FedEx-specific?
Rob Carter: Oh, I definitely think this is something that's replicable. I've talked about it in public settings quite a bit, just to provide insights into how we did this. And it didn't take a massive investment, but it did take an investment. We had to put together a team of Senseis in the dojo really knew what they were talking about and knew how to describe it, how to teach it, how to make it in many different circumstances that they would get presented with. We're always happy to exemplify what that kind of learning system can do and how effective it was for us.
Chet Kapoor: Rob, you and I have had a chance to talk about data-driven enterprises. We've talked about digital. Obviously, FedEx has been on the leading edge of technology for a while. You've implemented your own networks long before they were public networks, right? And so the interesting thing is that digital is probably something that's relatively easy because you can see a mobile app at the end of it. Being a data-driven enterprise, on the other hand, is harder because it is harder to make that cultural shift. And given that you've been.../ the information about the package is just as important as the package itself, Fred Smith's perspective, how has this data-driven enterprise piece that you've implemented at FedEx worked and what were the cultural nuances that you continue to work on?
Rob Carter: It's a terrific question and it's something we take for granted here because we've been so data-driven for so long, but one of the things that we're really working on now in this connected world and all the possibilities that it brings with it is, how do we activate the data at a more macro level? And by that, what I mean is, there is an awful lot of detail about individual journeys of a shipment through the network. And that's very useful for anyone expecting critical parts or shipments to their home, but at a macro level, when you look at all of it, given the fact that we connect 98% of the world's GDP, and we have very rich data about what things are moving, where and how and why to some degree, how do we activate that data a little bit more?
Rob Carter: And so one of the things that's been useful is the fact that we've never been a company that just let data slip through our fingers. We have significant repositories of data. And now what we're doing is using this next generation technology to activate that data in a more real way and try and provide insights to the world and to customers that we think will be quite valuable.
Chet Kapoor: What excites you about future technologies? What is up and coming that gets you personally excited, right, brings the geek out of you, gets you super pumped up?
Rob Carter: Well, that's one of the easiest things in the world to do is bring the geek out of me, you know what I mean? But I mentioned the fact that this is a connected world, and I've believed for some time that the connections of the world have always been important. They've been the basis of civilizations since networks began to connect and trading lanes opened. And when the information era came in, layering information on top of those connections has been super important.
Rob Carter: Well, in the world of IoT, something that I'm really excited about is sensor-based logistics, our SenseAware intelligent package. We have many, many patents here at the company now on sensor-based logistics and embedded sensors that move inside of shipments, that light up critical shipments. And this year will bring a pretty significant wave of innovations from us around that.
Rob Carter: But, I'm also crazy excited about autonomy. I think that unmanned delivery bot that we've been working on with DEKA is really an interesting application. And finally, the last thing that pops to mind, which almost keeps getting pushed to the background these days, but I still think is important, is blockchain. I think that when you think of supply chains and connected custody chains of how something moves through the world and as the world becomes more full of counterfeits and issues at borders and things like that, I think blockchain has a huge potential to be an open and connected system inside of supply chains globally.
Chet Kapoor: I can feel the excitement in your voice when you start talking about technology. It's so cool. So, shifting gears, your childhood travels as part of an Air Force family really contributed to your motivation to being the world's logistic provider. Any wisdom? What would you share with a younger version of yourself on what works, what doesn't work, what to pay attention to?
Rob Carter: Yeah. You mentioned my childhood, I grew up in a world where I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I had crossed the Pacific Ocean three times by the time I was five years old. Had this perspective, even as the world was just beginning to emerge for me, the world was a big place and that there was a lot of diversity out there in the way the world worked and its potential. And so not only did that give me a diverse perspective because I grew up in a world where everybody didn't look like me and sound like me, so I think particularly in today's world, it's important to have a diverse mindset because diversification is a value creator. It's not something that's a task we have to do. It's something that creates value. I love that part of my life.
Rob Carter: The thing that I would impart to CIOs, and it's a little bit anomaly that we're in right now, but I've often said I'm not smart enough to just sit in Memphis, Tennessee, where our headquarters is, and understand the cultures and the dynamics of the world around us. I have to go stand there. I have to go stand in our operations. I have to go visit our acquisitions. I have to go assess what it's like to be in their shoes in order for me to be effective at integrating and deploying technology to the places in the world that we have to go.
Rob Carter: To me, it's really important that at some point, we're going to have to go out again into the world then and be engaged, although as you and I have talked about, everything has changed about the way business communications and meetings that are typical in nature can now take place.
Chet Kapoor: That is awesome, Rob. I really, really, really appreciate your time. And thank you very much for doing this podcast. I think as we listen to it and the audience listen to it, I think they'll all find it to be very helpful, very inspiring and very motivational.
Rob Carter: Totally my pleasure, Chet. I always enjoy catching up with you. And the work that you've done over the years is inspiring to me. And even this current generation of work that we're about together is something that's really important.
Narrator: From the power of activating data at a more macro level to the Cloud Dojo Bootcamp, and always looking up and out, we hope you learn different ways to scale up.
Thank you so much for tuning in to today’s episode of the Inspired Execution Podcast hosted by DataStax CEO Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests with phenomenal stories to come - so stay tuned. If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at email@example.com.