The Friday Interview: Martin Curley, Intel

9 Apr 2004

Martin Curley (pictured) cuts an unlikely figure as a technology guru. It is somehow hard to imagine him up on stage in a thousand-dollar suit keeping his audience spellbound with fiery rhetoric about how best they can marshal their IT resources.

No, Curley prefers to get his message across through careful, impeccably presented research rather than soundbites. As director of IT Innovation at Intel Information Technology based in Leixlip, Curley has amassed a wealth of experience and information on the subject of how Intel and business in general, uses and misuses IT. Encouraged by colleagues, he has taken the major step of putting these thoughts on paper in the form of his first book: ‘Managing Information Technology for Business Value – Practical Strategies for IT and Business Managers‘.

Designed according to standard US textbook principles of having as many sections, sub-sections, box-offs and bullet points as possible, the book – all 288 pages of it – is a forbidding read at first. However, one central message comes loudly through: organisations need to stop treating IT as a cost and start looking at it as a business resource.

One telling piece of research Curley came across showed that, during and following an IT project, very few Chief Information Officers (CIO) actually try to determine whether or not a new IT system is delivering the benefits that were promised. In other words to have got the business case past the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was enough; whether or not the system delivered the goods was seen as irrelevant.

Talking to at the launch of the book last week in UCD’s Smurfit School of Business, where he took a Masters in Business Studies a few years back to supplement his degree in Electronic Engineering, Curley bears the stamp of someone who has just written a tome on technology – his conversation is so peppered with references to this study, that newspaper article, the other case study that you wonder if he has a microprocessor (Intel branded, needless to say) implanted in his brain keeping track of it all.

If WalMart founder John Wannamaker once asked the most famous question in advertising – “I know half of my advertising is wasted; the problem is I don’t know which half” – Curley is asking, and attempting to answer, the equivalent question for the IT industry. Five years ago, in the midst of the IT goldrush, this question would have been dismissed as irrelevant as businesses the world over gave virtually blank cheques to their IT departments. These days, the pendulum has swung back with a vengence: IT projects are closely scrutinised and cash released only if a clear payback is guaranteed. In that respect, his book could not be better timed.

Churning out countless examples both of successful technology implementations and ones that tanked, Curley is admirably forthcoming about Intel’s own patchy record in IT investment. Ordinary businesses might take some comfort from the knowledge that one of the world’s most consistently successful IT companies has made some horrible mistakes in IT. Such as its 1997 decision to replace its entire desktop fleet of 20,000 PCs with ‘value’ machines that could do the job for a while but were found to be unable to handle a new suite of applications. The result? A US$40m write-off for Intel and Siberia for the CIO.

“There’s a very good lesson here,” says Curley. “If you buy the highest spec system available you pay a premium, but if you buy one down from the highest spec then you get access to the latest technology and a long life-span. Typically we’re getting up to three-and-a-half years for our PCs now.”

It is also true that there are a number of cases where the semiconductor giant has benefited hugely from IT decisions.

In the book, for example, is a case study of how Intel switched its microprocessor production platform from RISC-on-Unix to Intel servers-on-Linux. Curley takes up the story. “The computing demand is growing 102pc annually which means that if we stayed on our original platform our capital budget would have grow very fast. Since we migrated to the new system four years ago we have saved US$700m.”

Huge savings are not limited to the production area. In the sphere of internal communications Intel has developed a system that uses peer-to-peer technology to distribute video to employees’ desktops at results time. This has saved the company more than US$50m in PC and network upgrade costs.

The more Curley talks about his experiences the more you realise that true IT decision making is not about smoke-and-mirrors or simply having a hunch. When good decisions are made it is because someone has done their homework well.

“One of the key points is that if you try to solve a Rubik’s Cube without a system you won’t get anywhere,” he remarks. “The same goes for IT: unless you have a structured and systematic approach you’re not going to get value from it.”

Another lesson is that IT laggards can quickly become leaders if the right action is taken. Curley relates how, just a few years ago, Intel’s IT division was held in such low esteem within the organisation that an internal newspaper ran the April Fool’s Day headline – ‘Intel IT wins an Intel Achievement Award’. Curley and his team have had the last laugh though: a fortnight ago it was announced that they had won two Intel Achievement Awards for their contribution to the business.

Who says IT doesn’t pay?

By Brian Skelly