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10/30/2009
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Q&A: CIO Ross Philo On 'Post Office' In Your Home

In a tough business environment, the U.S. Postal Service is delivering new capabilities for home PCs and smartphones and new services for high-volume mailers, says its top IT executive.

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Ross Philo The scope of the U.S. Postal Service is vast--203 billion pieces of mail delivered last year, 618,000 employees, 221,000 vehicles, 36,000 post offices--and its challenges are in proportion to its scale. The amount of mail handled by the Postal Service declined last year, while revenue, at $75 billion, was flat.

The Postal Service is looking to right itself through consolidation of offices, downsizing its workforce, and offering new services. Just a few days ago, it announced new capabilities for smartphones, including Track & Confirm, Post Office locator, and Zip Code lookup.

CIO and senior VP Ross Philo oversees the Postal Services' IT operations and reports to Postmaster General and CEO Jack Potter. Philo is included among InformationWeek's Government CIO 50, a group of the most influential technology executives in government.

Prior to joining USPS in February 2008, Philo worked for Cisco, startup Visean, Halliburton (as CIO), and Schlumberger. InformationWeek talked to Philo about how IT is being applied within the Postal Service to manage costs, improve operations, and deliver new services.

InformationWeek: The Postmaster General recently said that these are challenging times for the Postal Service. What are you doing in IT to help the Postal Service manage through this tough business environment?

Philo: We see two elements of how we're trying to help the Postal Service address the business challenges. The first is to introduce greater automation, bringing new levels of service to the postal operations, while also delivering innovations that may open up new business opportunities. It's those two things combined that we believe will bring further improvements to efficiencies, new ways for mailers to track the mail and get visibility of the mail, as well as potential new business opportunities.

InformationWeek: In what ways does your experience in the private sector help with this?

Philo: Most of my assignments have reflected an ability to help drive change, and that's obviously what the Postal Service requires looking forward in terms of how to be relevant and provide the sort of services that the American public are going to require for the next century in the same way that we've been relevant for the last 240 years. We have to change; we have to be allowed to change.

InformationWeek: You mention new levels of automation and other innovations. What are some examples?

Philo: The most critical one is the Intelligent Mail program, which has gone into full service. Intelligent Mail is based around an innovative new bar code, which replaces many of the previously existing bar codes that were put onto pieces. But that's just a small part. What Intelligent Mail allows us to do is track a single piece of mail from its origin to its destination in much the same way that you might think that our competitors would track packages, but here you're talking about a completely different scope and scale, where you're dealing with billions of pieces of mail each year. And the Intelligent Mail Full-Service program allows mailers to get complete visibility of their mail pieces from origin through to destination. That's going to completely transform that the way the mail can be used by these large mailers.

InformationWeek: What's the status of the Intelligent Mail program?

Philo: We had an amazingly aggressive timeline to deploy Full-Service, and we managed to meet that target. We had a May 2009 deadline to release the first instance of Full-Service to the mailers, with a nine month development cycle. It involved something like 60,000 man days of efforts, 400 FTEs [full-time employees[ that we ramped up to very quickly. The May 11 date is like having a Y2K incident every year, because that's when the prices are adjusted for the mailing community. We had an absolute deadline that we had to make. Not only did we make that target, but we're also on schedule for the second release of capabilities which are due out toward the end of November and that will provide a measure of discount to big mailers who satisfy the criteria for full service mailings. We went through an absolutely challenging development cycle to get this out. There were a huge amount of resources dedicated to it, as well as a very big effort on the mailers' side because their systems had to be adapted to provide the necessary functionality to take advantage of what we're doing with Full-Service.

InformationWeek: What are some of your other top IT initiatives?

Philo: One of the areas that we recognized really does need further enhancement is our Web presence. It's clear that we need to embrace the internet in all of its aspects as an alternative channel. We want to give consumers the ability of having a 'post office' in their home or in their hand by providing Web-based functionality, so that they can do just about every transaction that's required from a home PC or through a smartphone. As the first step in that, we've just released an upgrade to USPS.com mobile, which allows people to track packages, to locate a post office, to go through a number of typical activities they need to make use of postal services from a smart phone.

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