When Linda Brigance joined fledgling package delivery business Federal Express as a young computer programmer in 1983, technology was pretty primitive. The company was using 8-inch floppy disks to ferry information between its customers and its back-office mainframe computers by hand.
"FedEx was the first company to ever give PCs to our customers to automate the shipping," she tells The Australian Financial Review in a recent interview. "At the time, people didn't even have PCs."
Even back then FedEx founder Fred Smith was publicly adamant about the benefit that technology would bring to the business he founded in Little Rock, Arkansas. "The information about a shipment is as important as the shipment itself," the former US Marine reportedly said in 1978.
Today, almost 25 years later, Brigance has the increased responsibility of keeping FedEx's technology systems running across an entire region as the company's Asia-Pacific chief information officer. But all the important things have remained the same.
FedEx is today an international powerhouse and it still invests a lot in IT; more than $US1 billion annually, she says.
The money goes to a range of systems, from a global wireless network to back-office systems that interface with FedEx's website to let customers know where their package is at any time.
FedEx is helping to develop tracking technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to the point that one day they could allow real-time satellite tracking of parcels.
Like other global companies such as Citibank, FedEx divides its technology operation into a series of sectors. Brigance heads the Asia-Pacific division from Hong Kong, although the region's main data centre is in Singapore.
She says the model allows FedEx to maintain global standards while still allowing country-specific customisations. And it doesn't mean the US head office gets all the latest gear first: the Asia-Pacific region was the first to recently migrate to a next-generation internal multi-protocol layer switched (MPLS) network to allow more flexible communications.
FedEx outsources some of its more basic technology tasks, but keeps most of its technology work in-house due to the level of importance technology has within the business.
One of FedEx's key projects will be its Fusion initiative, which aims to provide a layer of abstraction to more easily integrate key business applications.
One other thing that hasn't changed is that the backbone of FedEx's global package processing system is still based on the original, if updated and enhanced, mainframe technology that it has used for the past 30 years.
Brigance says IBM uses FedEx as a test subject because of the sheer volume of data pushed through the mainframe system - 3000 transactions per second.
Brigance has also retained her personal interest in technology, saying she always buys the latest gadgets.
Like many executives, she is addicted to her BlackBerry. But she also spends a lot of time at home on her computer, has a Playstation 3 and has just bought a Nintendo Wii. She catches up on her reading with audio books on her MP3 player from audible.com.
Tech productivity tools include an electronic pen and paper that Brigance uses to message her colleagues, and even a virtual keyboard that emits infra-red beams to simulate keys on a desk. "I'm really a techno-geek," she says.
Australian Financial Review
© Fairfax Business Media
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