From Parts Cleaner to Business Leader

I am the Chief Information Officer at a fabulous company,, where I started just a little over 2 years ago as a contract project manager. It has been my honor to be a small part of a great team focused on the customer. We continually strive to implement solutions in absolute partnership and in concert with the business needs.

Out of high school, I attended both the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. However, I needed to pay the bills and was not able to complete my college education so I took a job as a bank teller at Trust Company of Georgia. After cashing a number of Delta employee paychecks, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my father and several of my in-laws who worked for the airlines. So I began my 20 year career at Delta as a parts cleaner working in the Jet Base in Atlanta. I'll never forget a dear friend who worked alongside of me in the hanger. We called him "Tank" as his job was to hang massive weights on the end of the wing in order to tip the plane to lift the landing gear on the opposite site so that we could work on it. Well, never finishing school weighed on me. I was worried about my future without a college education. Tank sensed my concern and told me, "Always give your customer a reason to call you back". For me, this opened the door to beginning a lifelong education through my experiences and my service to my peers and customers.

Within a year of joining Delta, I had the option of accepting a position in Computer Services or of becoming a Flight Attendant. As a young single guy with the possibility of travel around the world, it was a difficult decision at the time. As you can probably guess, I chose the programming assignment. After completing my training, I became frustrated with the long process of programming using "transmittals" and punch cards, which usually required 3 to 6 weeks of processing through the data entry department to compile a simple program. With this backlog process, my desk was littered with stacks of punch cards as I juggled more than 20 programming projects at a time. However, just as I had done as a parts cleaner, I followed orders and built a track record of successful execution. I realized the most important thing to do in a new assignment was to build trust and credibility. Then and only then was I able to start asking questions.

As programmers, we were expected to code against a set of Functional Requirements. Ours was simply to do and not ask why. Over time though, I earned the right to question why. Inquisitive by nature, I started digging deeper and asking the all-important question, why are we…? I was coding for a Business Analyst who was directing my work. One day I was asking him some questions and I heard the word no Programmer ever wants to hear from a Business Analyst. It's the same word you never want to hear from your Surgeon during surgery. The word was "Oops". I was coding to a set of requirements which would not have met the business needs. We would have had to scrap the entire program but we caught it early. Shortly thereafter, I landed a new role as Business Analyst, directing the programming.

In 1984, I attended an insanely boring conference where I reflected on the projects being worked versus the projects that should be worked. I was moved to write a memo of suggestions to my supervisor entitled, "199 things we should consider doing". Again, I would not recommend this unless you have built a track record of performance, credibility, and trust. Thanks to the relationship that I had established with my supervisor, he shared my thoughts up the chain of commend. Three weeks later, I was summoned to my Vice President's office and promoted to Senior Planner - Information Center. My VP stated that Delta needed thinkers that challenged the system in a positive and constructive way.

The Information Center was something of a fad concept back in the '80s where IT departments were trying to figure out how to deal with all of the latest technologies like fourth generation languages and that new thing called a personal computer. I bought the first PC for Delta after submitting a formal Feasibility Study in response to a request from Marketing to purchase a 3270 system which featured "dumb terminals" to support headcount growth. I submitted the study right before going on vacation and was concerned that I may not have a job when I returned. In the feasibility study, I wrote, "A company as large as Delta needs to begin exploring the possibilities of technology versus holding on to the past". I did not sleep for a week thinking that I may have upset someone. When I returned from vacation I was again summoned to the Vice President's office and promoted to Supervisor - Information Center because, "you are the first person who ever told Marketing NO and they thanked you," my VP said. Marketing thanked me because I had spent a great deal of time building relationships and painstakingly understanding their needs and their vision for the future. My study painted a picture of how their vision could become a reality as a result of the solution I proposed.

Later that year, I approached IBM to purchase a large quantity of PC's for the programmers and was told to contact a reseller. You should have seen the eyes on the guy from CompuShop when I told him we needed 600 PC's. That was 600 dual floppy, model 286 personal computers for over 1000 programmers. We initially did not believe the PC's would be utilized enough for every programmer to have their own. Six months later, every programmer had their own PC. The guy from CompuShop probably is retired on a beach somewhere.

Shortly thereafter, the Vice President of Marketing met with me to discuss technology projects and why so many of the Marketing projects were not being managed well. His projects were over budget and created a tremendous amount "organizational frustration" between the Computer Services department and Marketing. After the discussion, I told the Vice President I would think about the dilemma and get back to him the next day. The following day, I left 10 questions on his desk with a note, "Try asking your managers some of these questions each week, but be sure to ask them in random order." These questions had everything to do with the connection between the Vice President's Marketing team and the Computer Services department.

- Did the IT team clearly understand Marketing's vision and what this meant to project execution?

- How were the business requirement development sessions going? How involved was Marketing in this process? How active was IT at listening and understanding their needs? How did this translate into the requirements?

- What types of solutions and alternatives were the IT teams bringing to Marketing for consideration? Each solution may have significant cost, functionality, and flexibility impacts. What types of tradeoff decisions were being made by his team?

- What was being done to minimize change requests?

- What was the current status on each of the Marketing projects being worked by Computer Services? Why were certain projects behind schedule or over budget?

Clearly, there was no alignment between Marketing and IT. A few weeks later, the Vice President called me back into his office and asked me to work for him in Marketing. He said, "You will not believe how much better all of our projects are running and the teams are getting along." That's when I became Staff Manager - Marketing Development.

As Staff Manager, I handled all of the Vice President's correspondence with customers, community leaders, partners, stock holders, analysts, vendors, and internal communications. It was an incredible year of education working for guy who had strict rules for how quickly we needed to respond to customers. He also had a lot of red ink pens to highlight my errors and mistakes. In addition, I was assigned responsibility for all of the Marketing projects that involved technology. Although I was in Marketing, I knew it was critically important for the IT folks to understand our needs before they could solve our problems. The most important part of the IT delivery process is the upfront part. Typically, IT needs to ask more questions and seek more input/advice than they normally do. From an IT perspective, Marketing has to know that you "know" their problems. Only then is IT able to provide a more complete answer and not just the one they think Marketing needs to hear.

While in Marketing, I was asked to help implement a Yield Management system developed by an outside firm. At Delta, this was a very big deal as we handled over 700,000 fare changes per day. In theory, the system made complete sense, but the users kept complaining that it did not work. A small team of us dug deep into the data and re-engineered the mathematical models to isolate a very curious problem of demand forecast thresholds crossing each other over time. In a meeting with the outside firm, a great debate began and lasted for weeks until the actual programming code was compared to the math formula faxed to the programmers. Apparently, fax machines were not that great back then and a Plus (+) sign turned into a Minus (-) sign causing the entire forecasting system to go nuts. The users were shocked at how accurate the system became "overnight" and I was promoted to Manager - Yield Management.

Over time, I worked on a number of interesting assignments including:

· the Western Airlines acquisition and integration,

· the possible joint venture with a Global Distribution System,

· the formation of the WorldSpan joint venture with Northwest and TWA,

· the travel agency system DATAS II, providing performance analytics for advertising and target marketing campaigns,

· and negotiating bulk space agreements with major wholesale and tour operators around the world.

In the late '80's, Computer Services was in transition. Our IT leader renamed the group Information Technology and commissioned a strategic planning effort to better align what IT was doing and providing to the business. As a result of my project performance and deep relationships inside both Marketing and IT, I was asked to become the Director of IT Strategic Planning. Immediately, we began conducting workshops with every department around Delta to help clarify the goals, objectives, processes, needed capabilities, and priorities. At the time, this was completely unprecedented. This was the first time people from different departments spent time together in the same room. If this process were a movie, it would be entitled "Kicking & Screaming" because everyone hated it. However, in six short months, hatred turned into affection and alignment. Every department was marching toward a joint business/IT game plan and our results were showing that connection.

Then in the early '90's, my CEO invited me to accept a new challenge. Delta had purchased the European operations of Pan Am and was having difficulty with the integration work resulting in huge losses. Delta decided to launch a strategic planning effort, made up of four teams called Project Europe, and assigned me to be the Operations Team Leader. After the plans were finalized, the several hundred million dollar turn around program was launched with me as the overall implementation coordinator working on every aspect of the operation including: Sales & Marketing, Customer Service, Operations, and Fleet & Crew Management.

During this assignment, I established Delta's Operations Research department to totally re-engineer the pilot and flight attendant scheduling models. Our overseas routes were completely inefficient. Pilots and flight attendants were spending entirely too much time on the ground resulting in huge cost overruns. At the time, we were using a complex scheduling model which optimized based on 45 critical variables. Well, we brought everyone together in a room and started white-boarding the situation. Collectively, we determined that 1 variable was the most important of all, minimizing a pilot's time on the ground. With a clear objective, the team was set to plan and implement the solution. As the implementation coordinator, I traveled to Europe every week for 21/2 years to ensure everyone on both sides of the Atlantic was working on the same important priorities and that everyone was kept informed of our progress as well as the issues that needed to be addressed. It was program management on steroids. After only 18 months, Delta achieved the targeted 3 year breakeven goal and was in the process of defining the new goal of achieving 10% profitability.

While back in Atlanta, I stopped by the former VP and now SVP of Marketing's office to discuss how things were progressing in Yield Management. The SVP expressed concerns over the lack of progress since I left the group. After being on the road for so long, I jumped at the opportunity to rejoin the group. Back in Marketing, I became the Director - Pricing & Revenue Management and was asked to prepare an assessment and plan for the officers to review within 2 weeks. Again, Pricing & Revenue Management at Delta is a huge deal. So I got to work on a very comprehensive and compelling 25 page power point presentation for the senior officers to review. The day the presentation was due, the officers had a very long meeting as I waited in the lobby for hours. Almost forgetting I was in the lobby, the officers finally invited me into the meeting. As I entered the room, the CEO said, "You have 5 minutes to make your case." So I picked up my stack of presentations, walked over to the trash can, threw the presentations away and said, "Pricing & Revenue Management is in desperate need of repair and it will take time, people, systems, and money to fix it." The CEO stood up from the table and said, "That was the best presentation of the day. You have a blank check. Call me if you need anything else."

Looking back on that moment, I realized my efforts to build relationships, trust, and credibility over many years had resulted in the political capital needed to move even more decisively as a leader and change agent. From that minute forward, I commenced to completely overhauling Delta's Pricing & Revenue Management department including staffing, systems, and processes.

In 1996, TransQuest, a joint venture between Delta and AT&T was failing. The joint venture was intended to provide airline system solutions to other airlines around the world. Shortly after the joint venture was established, AT&T made a strategic decision not to pursue that type of venture and focus more on its core businesses. Transquest was losing money, laying off people, and had no real management structure or infrastructure in place as it was expecting AT&T to provide those capabilities. I was assigned the role of Chief Operating Officer and was challenged with turning TransQuest around. Over the next two years, with the help of Charlie Feld from The Feld Group, Transquest emerged as Delta Technologies with incredible progress in several areas leveraging technology including Gate & Boarding systems, Revenue Management Systems, a completed Y2k program addressing over 60 million lines of code, a strong and stable organization, and a completely transformed culture. This was one of the most difficult, educational, and rewarding times in my entire career. I learned a great deal from Charlie about developing a vision for the organization and about getting others excited about it.

I resigned form Delta in 1999 to take some time off with my family. During that sabbatical, for the first time in my life, I truly took the time to assess myself, my goals and my values and to establish a plan for myself. Later that year, I was surfing the web for job opportunities when I ran across a listing for a SVP - Infrastructure and Engineering at CheckFree. I replied to the listing with three simple words, "I'm your man!" The recruiter responded within an hour saying, "Pretty sure of yourself." To which I responded back, "Yes." Six weeks later and after many interviews, I became SVP - Client Implementations. Initially, I was charged with bringing 60 new billers on board with electronic billing within 6 months. At Checkfree, I also developed the professional services organization and worked on the integration efforts resulting from CheckFree's purchase of a small company, Bluegill, and of Microsoft's online billing and payment division, Transpoint. When the market fell apart in 2001, I assisted with rationalizing CheckFree's cost structure and eventually left CheckFree as part of that same effort.

For the next several years, I provided consulting services to various companies around North America. Some engagements were related to information technology, but most were related to revenue generating and general management. It was through these consulting assignments that I was introduced to I was initially hired to implement a very complex billing system in a few short months. My prior successes at other companies in addition to the "blank check" support I had received from upper management enabled me to move very quickly on this project. Again, we pulled the key players into a room, white-boarded the issues, and started moving forward with making it happen. We worked some long hours and the team even labeled me with a theme song, Ironman. My next assignment as a contractor was Acting Director - Sales & Service. Four months later I accepted a full time position as Vice President - Business Systems. And in August 2008, I was promoted to CIO.

I really enjoy meeting and helping others. And I would do anything for my peers at I've learned a great deal over the years but it all starts with building relationships.

Editor’s note:

We would also like to share a collection of quotes from Mark Sohl with you. Over the course of several meetings with him, we were fortunate to have heard the following words of wisdom:

"It's important to build relationships first, even if you have to wash windows or install air conditioning units. Your customers and partners need a reason to want to listen to you."

"Don't take it all on yourself. You don't have all of the answers. Ask questions and lean on your partners and peers."

"Address the real problem and collaborate on several possible solutions with the team. Not all issues can be solved with code."

"ALL IT folks should spend a year in sales or operations. They must learn the business challenges faced by our clients first hand. Also, they must focus on listening, asking, and understanding."

"Every CIO should have 3 or 4 user executives in each staff meeting. I routinely introduce my peers to my direct reports as an integral part of the IT team."

 ATLANTA TREND™ expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Mark Sohl for sharing his thoughts with us.


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