CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Renowned IT Authority and Software Expert
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the widely regarded, IT authority, and noted executive, Wesley Bertch.
Mr. Bertch is the Director of Information Systems for Life Time Fitness, one of the fastest-growing, health, fitness and nutrition companies in the US and fitness retailers in the US.
At Life Time Fitness, Mr. Bertch is responsible for leading major software systems initiatives to enable the overall business strategy of the company. Recent projects include enterprise POS, member management systems, and CRM.
In addition to leading the software team for Life Time Fitness, Mr. Bertch is an advisory board member for and contributor to Network Computing Magazine.
Before his current position, Mr. Bertch was a software consultant and Microsoft Certified Trainer. Mr. Bertch completed undergraduate coursework at Brigham Young University and holds an MBA from the Carlson School of Business, University of Minnesota. He is married (to a Canadian) and has two daughters.
Q: Wesley, you have an impressive record of accomplishment as a leading IT expert in software systems. Thank you for doing with interview!
A: Thank you, my pleasure.
Q: How did you get into computing?
A: Dumb luck. I was applying for work as a starving first-year law student when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to make $30/hr (US) as a technical trainer. Desperate, I would have sold American flags, door-to-door, in the Sunni Triangle for that kind of money, so I jumped at the chance. I thought, “You mean they’ll pay me for doing something fun?”
After an intense period of study and certification, I was hired on with my friend’s consulting firm and taught MCSE courses during the summer. When law school resumed that fall, I continued teaching evening MCSE classes and worked a second job in the law school computer lab. Finally, mid-way through my 3rd semester of law school, I realized I had to choose between law and computers to be any good at either….So I shocked my family and accepted a full-time offer as a technical trainer.
Q: What lessons did you learn as a software consultant and MCT?
A: My students were all older than I was and typically knew far more IT than I did. They had forgotten more about IT than I had learned up to that point. It was swim or get eaten by the sharks, so I studied constantly, and managed to stay afloat in the classroom. Both my parents were teachers, so I may have had a genetic boost.
As a software consultant, I got lucky to have found great gigs where I could cut my teeth. Consulting taught me to market myself and to deliver business value.
Q: How does your MBA contribute to your job?
A: I view my role as first a businessman and second a technologist, so the MBA made sense as a way to understand the big picture of business. Because my undergraduate degree was not business-related, the MBA was my first formal exposure to corporate governance, strategy, finance, accounting, marketing, and operations.
Q: Describe your work with Network Computing Magazine.
A: I currently serve on the NWC editorial advisory board, which means I get to swap stories with really smart IT people--what we’re working on, our challenges, and information needs. In conjunction with this relationship, an opportunity arose to contribute a story about a failed outsourcing project. I enjoyed doing the piece and plan to contribute further as schedules allow.
Q: You are working on completing an enterprise POS system. What wisdom can you pass on from this experience?
A: The project is far from over—enterprise software is more like a journey than a destination (does that sound like wisdom?). Seriously, the big challenge with enterprise POS in our business is the integration. We sell lots of scheduled services, such as personal training and massage which means you have to integrate complex services scheduling functionality with the revenue capture part. On top of that, you have to expose these services to the Internet for customer self-service. No one in our industry has successfully done that. We’re thrilled to be able to pull it off.
Q: What prompted the move to CRM and what were your key decisions in this project? Can you answer the same questions for your member management system? If you had another opportunity, what would you do differently?
A: Life Time Fitness’s CEO, Bahram Akradi, receives credit for taking a product-centric brick-and-mortar health club company and adding a customer-centric dimension. He designs and builds beautiful health and fitness centers that provide a combination of sports, family recreation, professional fitness, and spa amenities. I mean these clubs are spectacular inside—people who tour the facility are blown away by the value they receive for a relatively low monthly cost. Yet, retaining our club members for the long-term means also understanding their goals and needs, and tailoring the mix of services to help them succeed. This forms the basis of our CRM strategy. If we had another opportunity to do it differently, I’d seriously consider custom-building our own SFA to mitigate integration complexity.
The decision to build a member management system came from necessity-we simply outgrew our legacy system and did not have good off-the-shelf options. Rolling our own J2EE member management system was, in hindsight, a brilliant move. Credit for championing this investment and leading the effort goes to Life Time Fitness VP of IT, Brent Zempel.
Q: Can you describe your current work and your greatest current challenges?
A: The major projects for 2004 are Enterprise POS, services scheduling automation, Time & Attendance implementation, and Document Management. I think the biggest challenge is servicing disparate business units all within a common enterprise architecture.
Q: What are the major strengths of your company?
A: Passion, innovation, and willingness to take risk. These values are embodied in the CEO, and flow by extension throughout the organization.
Q: Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?
A: I love what I’m doing, so hopefully they haven’t fired me by then. The company over the next five years will continue to expand nationally, extending the brand in innovative ways.
Q: What are your top ten tips for implementing any new software initiative?
A: 1) Align the project to major business goals/strategy
2) Find an executive sponsor and budget
3) Carefully select the project manager
4) Follow a software selection methodology if purchasing off-the-shelf
5) Negotiate all agreements with vendors/partners—don’t be afraid to modify their contracts and require they sign your critical agreements such as SLA and NDA.
6) Never shortcut the business analysis or UI design
7) Design the systems integration up front
8) Do a proof of concept
9) Do a pilot
10) Test, Test, Test
Q: What experiences are “surprising” to you?
A: I knew enterprise CRM would be expensive and complex, but I had no idea until we actually implemented it.
I’m always surprised at how relatively young the IT industry is, given its impact on our lives. The IT industry is an unruly whippersnapper, but they cannot live without us.
Q: What are the five most important IT trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?
A: 1) Underinvestment in IT. I believe the US economic rebound will catch IT departments flat-footed; it’s as if we don’t dare believe in the recovery. We need to staff ahead of the growth or risk losing out on the talent. We could see a whipsaw effect once companies begin to see the uptick is for real and don’t have the systems to support their growth.
2) Democratization of information. Increasing storage coupled with inconspicuous multi-media mean everything can be recorded and shared, from human rights abuses in Afghanistan to “off the record” spats with political opponents. This has powerful potential for shaping global opinion in areas heretofore hidden.
3) Inter-company systems interaction. As our kids become the new customer base, I think they will demand new levels of system interaction. For example, the quick-service oil change outfits will have to offer online scheduling, upload information to a file that tracks the car’s service history, etc. Health care providers must similarly integrate patient information across systems or risk losing in the marketplace. Industries should start now to lay the foundation to make this a reality.
4) Services sector domination. Services already account for the 2/3 of US GDP. Services will continue to capture an increasing share of the US economy creating new opportunities for IT in this area.
5) Nanotech. If the stock market is any indicator, nanotechnologies may soon begin to make an impact across our industry. This is disruptive technology that can completely redefine the rules for how computing happens.
Q: What are the five greatest challenges facing businesses today? What are their solutions?
A: 1) Insufficient qualified labor; there are jobs, they just require stronger analytical and communication skills. Offshore outsourcing is a blessing because it forces domestic labor to be more competitive. High end talent is not abundant, probably in any profession, but increasingly in IT.
2) Closed or restricted markets; We need broad free trade agreements to drive global economic growth and prosperity. Bi-lateral trade agreements are not enough.
3) Lack of Democratic societies; We need sustained promotion of democracy in the Middle East and Asia. Along with political freedoms must come economic openness. This will vastly improve standards of living and reduce poverty and war. The struggle for these nations will be maintaining the integrity of local values and overcoming the extremists.
4) Corporate corruption; Capitalism and public capital markets are an undeniable success, but depend upon respect for ethics and law. In the US, the Sarbanes Oxley Act is a step in the right direction—there finally exists some accountability and consequence for corporate misconduct.
5) High taxes, especially in Canada and Europe. To spur growth, these nations must slash taxes and promote capital investment. There is over-dependency on government for social programs. The entitlement mentality is killing entreprenuerism.
Q: Where do you see IT in relation to business strategy and operations?
A: IT acts as both a master and servant to business strategy. Some strategies such as great employee culture don’t necessarily require technology to be successful. Other strategies, such as Dell’s direct-selling of computers, are defined by what the technology can do. A well-architected, flexible IT infrastructure supports dynamic business strategies, which in turn generate competitive advantage. I would never run corporate strategy meetings without the IT leadership at the table.
I think of IT as a subset of business operations, logically reporting to the COO or CEO.
Q: Any predications about the economy and future IT spending?
A: The US economy will continue its rebound, catching IT departments flat-footed. Companies, burned by the shock of the most recent recession, will play conservatively and under invest in IT. There’s a great opportunity here to leapfrog ahead.
Q: What are your top recommended resources for both businesses and IT professionals?
A: 1) McKinsey Quarterly
2) The Economist Magazine
3) Leadership and Self Deception by Arbinger Institute
4) Good to Great by Collins
5) One to One Marketing by Rogers and Peppers
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: At work, HP pc 2.8GH processor, 512MB memory. Dual flat panel monitor. Toshiba Portege’ Tablet pc (laptop). Various other machines comprise my evaluation network. I use an iMac at home.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: Which recruiting methods are most successful?
A1: Word of mouth.
Q2: What ongoing education do you recommend?
A2: Executive business courses, books, magazines, association events.
Q3: What do you do to help drive innovation, growth, and profitability?
A3: Create a solid but flexible systems infrastructure that spawns options for follow-on projects.
Q: Wesley, your insights have given us much to consider. Thank you for doing this interview!
A: Stephen, great questions! I enjoyed this opportunity to pontificate, and welcome candid feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org