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CIO Leadership Series: Leslie Hearn, TDS Telecom

Madison, Wis. - Leslie Hearn's first rule for the execution of information technology projects is "no geek speak."

While some techno jargon is unavoidable, the value of plain-spoken communication is immense, said Hearn, vice president and CIO for TDS Telecom.

Leslie Hearn
"Great IT projects are just like any other great project," she said. "There has to be a lot of plain talk between people because any time you're bringing projects like these together, you're bringing people together who use a whole different vocabulary from day to day."

It is a rule that has been applied to the organization's current project, which is designed to make life simpler for call center service representatives. The way Hearn describes the project, building user-friendly architecture is predicated on the "plain English" interaction between software developers and "reps" - not in a conference room, not in a luxurious retreat, but right in the workspace trenches.

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Hearn was promoted to her current position a year ago after serving on the "business side" of TDS Telecom. The company and its affiliate, TDS Metrocom, operate 125 sales and service offices in 29 states, and serve approximately 1.2 million residential and business telephone lines.

Despite her brief tenure as a CIO, Hearn has been involved in enough technology transformations to have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. In a past work life, she was involved in a similar program for help desk employees, and now she manages a 230-member Information Systems Department that is attempting to improve the company's response to customer calls.

Their task is to take disparate systems used by call center reps and knit them together in a way that helps them shave 30 or 45 seconds off the average call time, and increase the percentage of time in which they are truly serving the customer. The project is challenging because the company has many procedures built up over existing applications, and while it can be arduous to work in all these applications, that's what employees know.

"At worst, there are times when we have a seven-minute call, and a rep might have to go to four applications," she said. "We are building applications on top of those applications so that our reps will have more of a portal to go to as they serve the customers call after call."

Through a combination of different integration techniques, Web services, and Service Oriented Architecture, the company hopes to build a portal that quickly guides the reps to the information they need to handle new product orders or billing or installation inquiries. In that portal, users would not have to know as much about the system as they now do.

Hearn provided an example of how improving the existing system can save time. When a customer now calls with a billing inquiry and the service rep needs to find an address, he might navigate to a given function just to find that one piece of information. When he fields a billing inquiry under the new system, it will guide him directly to a billing function so he has all the relevant information before him in that space.

In Hearn's view, building the necessary architecture would be futile without workplace interaction between software developers and service reps. She would like to establish an organizational tenet around the practice of workspace collaboration between the reps and the developers who are assigned to build and integrate applications.

"We get them to see what the life of the rep is," Hearn said, "and even short visits to the workplace produce a goldmine of information for the developers. Our developers come back from these visits and say, `Oh, I get it now. We have to make their lives simpler. They're really focused on the customer. I've got some great ideas on how we want to present this application.'"

According to Hearn, one of the developers' "Eureka" moments came when they watched the reps in action and noticed how they used a notepad to write things down. Even though they have all these network systems in front of them, they still write down things they see on the screen. "They [developers] would say, `We could automate that so easily for them. I just never knew they went from that system to that system,'" Hearn said.

Technology tracks

Although Hearn didn't start out as a died-in-the-wool information technology professional, she has been a Jill of more than a few technology trades. Armed with a master's degree in finance and a bachelor's in mathematics, both from the University of Illinois, she began as a software developer.

Prior to joining TDS, Hearn was a principal consultant with Cap Gemini America, working with clients on IT strategy and project management. She came to TDS in March of 1996 and has held leadership positions in areas ranging from product development to voice and data network management.

Hearn is part of an organization that does a lot of prototyping and a lot of "mocking up," not only of screens but of process flows to simulate what a rep's life will be like in October when the new system goes on line. Hearn said the service reps and developers will go through about three reiterations, working side-by-side, before they lock in and say, "Okay, design frozen."

The project is out of the analysis and design phases and into the development stage, and a series of tests will be conducted - unit testing, rejection testing and, especially important in the TDS environment, response-time testing and load testing. In essence, the company wants to know how the new system responds under pressure when the first wave of users, 400 in all, attempts to handle thousands of daily transactions with it. This is a key part of the change management process, and it occurs before the system is finalized.

Hearn prefers to build and demonstrate the business value of smaller projects rather than take on too much at one time. With an incremental roadmap, she believes there is a better chance to positively impact users, and less of a chance to unravel a project with complexity.

"I think too often people think that the ultimate project has to be the 'Big Bang' project, where you throw applications out and you bring in a new application," she said. "And frankly, many times you can do it very iteratively and shave off 45 seconds.

"Forty-five seconds sounds like nothing to you and me because we do very diverse things in the course of our day, but if you're doing something again and again and again, 45 seconds off any of those transactions is a lot."

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