Dell CIO's daily challenges

Randy Mott used to run Wal-Mart's technology division. Now, at Dell, his unit keeps 53,000 employees, eight manufacturing sites and more than 800 suppliers ticking.

CIO 1-on-1 "The chamber of unreasonable requests." So declares a printout stuck on the in-tray of one of the desks near Dell CIO Randy Mott's office, which, as with thousands of other employees at the computer manufacturer's Round Rock, Texas headquarters, is a Dilbert-esque cubicle on an open plan floor.

Only Mott's is a slightly grander cubicle -- or collection of cubicles for himself, his PA and other colleagues -- numbered F105 with an unassuming note tacked to the wall reading 'Office of the CIO - Randy Mott'. Earlier this year while on a tour of the Round Rock operation, which is just outside Austin, I was told that only Michael Dell and CEO Kevin Rollins have their own offices in the more plush wood-panelled executive section of the building.

It's not quite what you'd expect from a man charged with running the IT infrastructure behind Dell's manufacturing colossus around the globe, and not only running it but applying the same rigorous approach to driving out inefficiencies that penetrates every level of Dell's business.

Speaking softly with a slight Southern drawl Mott underlines the importance of IT to Dell. "We build to order not build to shelve which means if we can't build we have no revenue," he says.

Just to put some numbers on that, Dell has 53,000 employees, eight manufacturing sites and more than 800 suppliers. In terms of IT infrastructure that translates into some 72,161 client systems, 13,859 servers (Dell, of course), 62 global wide area networks and one petabyte of storage (equivalent to 200 times the contents of the library of the British museum).

But then if anyone is equipped to handle the job it is Mott, who cut his teeth as CIO for the world's largest retailer Wal-Mart, where he worked for six years before joining Dell. The magazine covers and awards adorning the walls of his private meeting room are testament to some of his achievements.

Mott says some of his most basic beliefs are "always value the bottom line" and do it "on time every time", and he has the metrics to prove it.

During his time at Dell, Mott has reduced the cost of IT as a proportion of company revenue from 1.91 percent in financial year 2001 to 1.43 percent at the end of the most recent financial year. Of course Dell's revenues have also rocketed in that period -- to US$49.2 billion -- but it highlights the emphasis on operating expenses.

Perhaps more important are the benefits the IT projects provide. Mott says he is tracking US$1.6 billion in benefits for the last financial year compared with US$350 million in 2001.

Mott acknowledges that while there are some differences in working for Dell as opposed to anywhere else, he faces many of the same problems as CIOs the world over. He cites "planning for obsolescence" as one of the big issues facing IT departments at the moment. Indeed Dell is in the middle of its "Sundown" migration from Sun hardware -- which has seen 39 migrations from Sun Solaris boxes to Dell platforms with a further 27 planned for this year.

"We will continue to move off proprietary Unix in Europe to Dell and Linux platforms," said Mott.

As with any global multinational business, security is an issue for Dell. Mott has implemented a ruthless patch management programme that means critical patches are rolled into the live environment less than 24 hours after being issued by a supplier.

"We've taken a very aggressive role that says your best protection is to be current. Within 96 hours of a security release we have that in most of our environments," he says.

Mott recognises security threats will always continue -- although he believes the biggest vulnerabilities are behind us -- but he claims computer crime needs to be treated more seriously by the police and the courts.

"It needs to be realised it is a destruction of property and it should be treated on the same level as that -- more in line with what the damage is. It does have a material impact on people and companies," he says.

Because of the business Dell is in, Mott and his IT department also work closely with customers -- sharing the lessons and best practice learned internally.

"We are very certainly early adopters and people from the IT team will sit down with the customers. We also do about 12 CIO knowledge shares a year around the world with groups of eight to 10 CIOs for a best practice sharing approach," he says.

Mott has come a long way since studying for a mathematics degree at the University of Arkansas and says his inspiration is the opportunity to work with visionaries such as Sam Walton (Wal-Mart's founder) and Michael Dell.

It is clear Mott lives and breathes his role. Alongside some more adventurous hobbies, such as scuba diving and riding a motorbike, he lists interacting with his peers and expanding his knowledge of business and IT as leisure activities.

Who knows where you go from helping to build and support some of the world's most efficient supply chains at Wal-Mart and Dell, but for now Mott is focusing on getting real bottom-line dollar value out of IT.

"There are a number of ways to create competitive advantage and IT is one of them," he says.

Silicon.com's Andy McCue reported from London.