Flying High: How NetJets’ CIO Reshaped IT

So, you think your IT clients are demanding? Walk a day in Alan Cullop’s shoes and you will see the world from a whole new perspective. Cullop is the CIO of NetJets, a Warren Buffet-owned company that caters to the extremely rich and extremely demanding. First of all, if you’re part of Berkshire Hathaway (Buffet’s holding company) performance expectations are high, but to be the CIO of the largest commercial fleet of aircraft on the planet that also promises three-hour delivery―on time, every time―of a jet anywhere in the world (with car service, catering, and any other convenience money can buy included) … now that’s a high pressure IT job.

To say that NetJets’ clients expect a lot for their money would be an understatement. Let’s just say that if you can afford to be a NetJets customer, chances are you could probably buy the company on one of your many no-limit credit cards. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but for a starting price of $425,625 (yes, that’s six figures, not a typo), you get a 1/16 ownership in a small private Jet. Obviously, prices go way up from there. With that barrier to entry, only the wealthiest of the wealthy would even consider becoming a client.

Since the world runs on IT, it is Cullop’s job to ensure the smooth operation of this pick up and delivery service on steroids. To make matters just a bit more challenging, NetJets is global; made up of six different companies and an affiliated company, Marquis Card, that sells even smaller fractions of jets than the minimum 1/16 NetJets offers. Add to this a slew of FAA regulations that equate to miles of reports being generated and processed, globe trotting owners, and you can have a lot of long days at the office. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to “5-9s”.

Not only do Cullop’s systems also have to be reliable and integrated internally, they have to interface with companies far, far down on the CMMI scale. For example, NetJets will get a call from an owner in SomeWhereOutThere, Montana. They want their plane to pick them up in three hours (it’s 2 A.M., by the way), they need a ride to the airport and a vegan breakfast waiting for them on the plane along side a pitcher of mimosas. Well, for starters, the nearest jet-worthy airport is an hour away in Butte so the car has got to be on the way soon to make the round trip happen and the client’s in Montana, not a state known for it’s vegan breakfast places or all-night champaign and OJ bars. This same scenario happens anywhere in the world, all day, all night.

Still, it is NetJets’ job―and therefore, IT’s job―to make all of this happen. “So, we’re constantly moving assets around, both the personal aircraft and everything else that goes along with that. All’s you need to know is you wanted a jet at noon and we get one for you,” said Cullop. “In order to pull that off … the plan has to adjust constantly on the fly. The old systems were very siloed and therefore did not support that coordination of activity or end-to-end work flow very well.”

Without getting into too much technical detail, the way Cullop’s team makes this happen is through a real-time, shared services platform that relies heavily on automated decision making. Until Cullop joined the company in 2006, NetJets was hampered by the heterogeneous, siloed infrastructure that most CIOs know and love so well. Technology decisions were often made for reasons other than what would work best for the company as a whole. Cost was often the deciding factor as was time, or, more specifically, the lack of it. This led to a lot of shadow IT being purchased and a lot of human-intensive activities (think phone calls and faxes) taking place behind the scenes to get clients their planes when they wanted them and how they wanted them. In fact, without automation (and Blackberries), the company would need to add a entire floor of customer service reps just to take calls from pilots.

Starting Over with Shared Services

What Cullop did when he came on board was kill as much technology as possible without effecting services. He then embarked on finding the right mix of mainframe-based and PC-based software and platforms that everyone in all the six companies could share, with share being the key word. More shared services simplify everyone’s life, especially Cullop’s. Of course, all of this had to happen in real-time without anyone outside of IT noticing.