TechLifeColumbus continues its interview series, titled “Five Solid Questions with …”.  Steve Gruetter, director of market strategy at Expedient and dedicated supporter of TechLifeColumbus and the Central Ohio IT community, is leading this effort.

This month our series of “Five Solid Questions with …” continues with an interview of Rob Zahn, CIO of AAA Ohio Auto Club. If you would like to see past interviews with Brian SheaRon FrissoraDenise ZabawskiMike RoselloBen Blanquera or John Kessler please see the links at TechLifeColumbus above.

Steve Gruetter: This is Steve Gruetter with Expedient and TechLife Ohio, and I am sitting here with Rob Zahn, the CIO for AAA Ohio, a 16-year veteran of AAA Ohio and the CIO for the past seven years. Rob – thanks for doing this interview today. I certainly do appreciate it.

Rob Zahn: My pleasure.  I am glad to assist TechLife Columbus.  I am a fan and read the articles.

SG: You have been in a leadership role for AAA Ohio for several years. At what point in time in your career did you decide that you wanted to be a CIO?

RZ: As you know, there are not many CIOs. Therefore, becoming a CIO, to me, is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.   Early, I knew that I wanted to get into management. Previously, I was the Support Group Applications Manager at The Limited and then I was part of an LLC, where I was the VP of Operations and one of three owners.  My experience at The Limited had me working with all of the Center (Corporate) departments.  I gained valuable experience at The Limited and met many people through this support role.

I also had the opportunity to earn my MBA through the Executive MBA program, at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University.  In my cohort, there were about 54 other executives from a wide variety of companies.  We literally had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon in our class.  The program allowed us to learn from each other, while strengthening our own leadership skills in all areas of business.

Being a partner in the LLC is what drove me to attend the MBA program.  I really did not know much about running my own company.  That led me to want to continue my education.  The MBA program helped me realize that being a CIO was something I thought I could do well. While all of the instructors in the program were good, three really led us through some different exercises to look at what our own legacy should be when we retire. Most people get to their retirement and then they think of what their legacy was. One of the assignments was to think about where you are now and what you hope your legacy will be.  Most of our classmates were in the middle of their careers. Therefore, we spent time on defining our legacy and then how do we accomplish it.  For me it was all about the growth of my staff and leaving the department and company in a better place than when I had started.

The program gave me many tools that I thought I could then use to communicate at the next level. My undergrad degree was a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Systems Engineering at The Ohio State University.  I was good at processes and problem solving, which made me successful in completing projects, but it was all individual success.  However, in the CIO role, it is not really about your individual goals anymore. Now, you are managing people and you need to make them successful.  So going back to an Ohio State University legend, Woody Hayes, “You Win with People.”

SG: You win with people.

RZ: You have to develop the people around you, particularly your own staff. You also have to collaborate and support your peers. Often, as a successful individual, you just take a project on your shoulders and get it done. Many people are successful that way. At the executive level, you cannot do that as much. You need to communicate more with your peers, you need to make sure that they know what you are doing, and you need to respect their opinion in their area of expertise. Therefore, the program at Fisher was good at taking the skills I had as an engineer and giving me the business acumen around it in order to move our company forward. Therefore, that is what made me think that I was prepared and could apply for the position when it opened up here at AAA Ohio Auto Club.

SG: Was there a CIO in place when you were the IT Director?

RZ: Yes, but in the past, AAA Ohio did not use many advanced technology systems.  Consequently, the person I replaced was AAA Ohio’s very first CIO.  His name was Charlie Parker.

RZ: Charlie hired me about 16 years ago.  He actually started at AAA OHIO only nine months before he brought me onboard. Charlie and I worked well together at The Limited.  He was a great boss and I have a lot of respect for him.  When he retired, he recommended me to succeed him.  My current boss is our COO & Treasurer, Tom Keyes, and I am lucky in that he is also a great person to work with.  He is a good mentor for me.

SG: So as you complete the MBA program, you move into the CIO role. There has been a significant amount of change in the community and in the role.  We are seeing the digital transformation and how businesses are trying to catch up and the office of the technology is trying to catch up. How have you seen your role change as the CIO?

RZ: With my role, it really has to do with the pace of change. I think everybody would agree with that.  However, I feel blessed to be in Franklin County. We have a great IT community.  I have reached out to the Fisher College of Business even after I graduated, to talk to different professors about many technology and financial issues. We have the CIO Forum here in town, with over 80 different CIOs from a wide variety of companies and industries. We meet once a month and there are many smart leaders at this meeting. If I do not learn anything from the presentation, it is the networking before and afterwards that is always of value to me.  Sometimes an email to the group will ask for input on a specific problem or even a security alert on a new threat. Within four or five hours, ten to fifteen different people respond, “Now, here’s what we did.”  It is a great source of knowledge and confirmation for us.

RZ: We need to be agile, given the pace of change.  You, as an individual, are not going to know everything and you cannot be aware of every change, as fast as they come.  I have done work on both the East and West Coast, but I was born and raised here in Ohio.  There is just something about the Midwest. We are just have a different philosophy than most areas of the country.  I think we generally collaborate better and work with people for a common solution. We are hardworking, but we trust and try to work well with others. I think that just comes out of our Midwest heritage, and there is a lot of that same mentality among the CIOs here in the Columbus area too.

SG: I agree with that. So with the changes in the role, do you think there is a higher level of collaboration now than there was seven years ago?

RZ: Yes, I think there is.  I think there is a lot more collaboration today than there has been in the past. Moreover, I think part of it is because there is so much coming at you, whether you want to talk about security, mobile, cloud.  I mean, all of these technologies are changing every day. There are breakthroughs happening all the time, and it is hard to not only keep up with, but then what does it mean for your specific business? That is where being able to share some of that thought leadership, not only with the great educators at the Ohio State University, but some of our own CIOs as well is very beneficial.  I also think that Angelo, Ron, Ben, Thornton, and Bruce have done a great job in building these CIO Forums around a close-knit IT community.

RZ: I am similarly lucky to work for AAA.  There are 44 separate clubs in North America.  All of these Club CIOs collaborate, because AAA Clubs do not complete against each other for Members or their business.  Therefore, we share information freely and pool resources on some system developments.  It is almost like our CIO Forum here in Franklin County, but it is all across United States and Canada.  All the CIOs of the AAA clubs get together once a year to share what technologies we are using.  I am also a member of our AAA Technology Digital Channel Subcommittee, which helps AAA prioritize many of our strategies and projects.  I can pick up the phone at any time and call any other Club for assistance.  Just like our Columbus IT community.

RZ: You are not probably going to see Nationwide and Chase sharing any detailed strategies or technologies, because they are competing for those customer dollars. With our AAA clubs, if one club innovated something, whether it is an app or some other technology that they implemented they share that with the other AAA clubs.  We look for best of breed solutions for all our Clubs.

SG: Well, lucky for us here in Central Ohio, we do have some collaboration across industry, like over at Columbus Collaboratory.  However, it is not as if the Collaboratory has Chase and Huntington in it, which is not ever going to happen.  You are actually collaborating with your peers but it is not competitive, which is a unique situation.

RZ: It is unique, but it is one of those things where all boats rise with the tide and we know that. We have the freedom in our different clubs to offer new services to our members. Originally, we did not have a bike service here in Franklin County. Therefore, when other clubs offered a bike service, our Club added it several years later.  It was complimentary service for our AAA Members.  If your bike breaks down simply, give us a call. We also coordinate with many different companies and offer Discounts and Rewards with many bike shops in the area. Those clubs started those projects because it made sense for their population.  Now, I would say at least 70% of all AAA Clubs now offer this service.  When AAA Ohio rolled out the service, it was successful and warmly regarded.

SG: Another benefit of conducting these interviews is I get to be informed not only as a community person but also just as a citizen. In addition, I was not aware of that one, so I am going look at that. Staying on the technology questions, how do you measure the success of your IT organization here?

RZ: Reading your past interviews, I thought this question might come up. We have a technology strategy for AAA Ohio Auto Club.  We have five key technology strategies. We review them every five years, but they are core things that we look at for our organization. We also have some key performance indicators that reflect back to the five core strategies.

The first one, is we really do try to align our IT projects and processes with our business line Strategies.  Unlike some of my peers in the Columbus area, I have multiple businesses lines. Of course, the core service we provide is the Emergency Road Service as a key membership benefit.  Then we have our Automotive business, with ten “garages” in the Columbus area, and our Insurance business line.  As you can see these business lines are completely different from the other.

RZ: We also have Financial Services, which includes our popular AAA VISA card.  Our Travel business line includes flights, hotels, cruises & tours, and our popular TripTiks. We have Discounts and Rewards, which also include attraction tickets, luggage, and other things that you would purchase for your travel.  You can see that we have multiple business lines here that all require slightly different applications or slightly different technology requirements in order to be successful when it comes to servicing our members. When we review our projects and processes, we try to make sure it aligns with one of these business line strategies and is either a service that provides value to the member or makes life or work easier for the frontline personnel in our stores.

Our second strategy is the use of business intelligence to provide real-time analytics on our members. We have not gotten as far as I would like, but we are providing real-time analytics for our different business lines. On a day-to-day basis, management can see how the business is going.  A retail example would be the sale of luggage. If we are having a bad month in luggage sales, after the month is over is too late to reach the goal, right.

However, if you are looking at luggage sales on a day-to-day basis, and you are seeing that the month is off to a poor start, well, now you might be able to do something about that. Maybe you want to make work on the products presentation, maybe you spend marketing dollars and advertise, or maybe you offer a discount.  Giving real-time information to our business line leaders hopefully helps them make better business decisions for the company.

Our third strategic goal is to improve IT processes to enhance reliability, quality, and performance.  We continuously review our change management process and how we deliver equipment to our internal customers. We ask our customers to review how we are doing things to see if they have suggestions for improvement.  When we get new hires from the outside, we ask them how their job is going, and then I ask them, “If there something that you did in a previous job that we’re not doing here? Is there something here that’s keeping you from being successful?” Then we look at what do in order to improve IT processes as we move forward.

SG: So is that with your IT staff here? Or is that with any staff here that is here and a part of the ramp-up process?

RZ: That is just part of ramping the IT staff up at AAA Ohio.

RZ:  The fourth strategic goal is to reduce the cost of IT operations.  Every time we re-new a contract, we try to reduce the cost, because we want to redirect savings from IT back into innovations for the company.  Even an additional 10% savings on a three-year contract is helpful.  We have a training program here at AAA Ohio that every new hire goes through.  I make a presentation to every new hire about, “Here’s what the IT Services departments do, here’s why you might call us, here’s what we do to help you.” I review AAA Ohio’s technology strategy with every new person.  On the IT cost reduction item, I remind them that when our members come to AAA they are not buying IT products.  We are not Google or Microsoft.  Our members want technology that helps them utilize our services.  That is how we need to spend our technology budget.  IT Services enables the business lines in order to do their job more efficiently.

RZ: Our fifth technology strategy is the one everybody in the IT community loves – Security.  It just will never go away. As we transition to mobile and cloud, there are undoubtedly security holes.  Things that are not seen, whether it is from the vendors, or things that people do themselves.

RZ: We do several security audits each year. Our National AAA organization works with the 44 clubs on security.  The National AAA policy name is Technology Quality Standard number five. They come once a year to do a physical audit. They check all our policies and the firewalls & network configurations. How we handle our Member data is very important to AAA.  As you can see, we do a lot around security.

SG: Interesting…I gave a presentation a couple of weeks ago with Cardinal Health. We did a presentation to the International Association for Privacy Professionals, Ernst & Young asked us to speak, and we always take that opportunity. It was some IT and many lawyers in the room.  People want to talk about cloud.  The number one reason people do not go to the cloud is security.  The number one reason people do go to the cloud is security.  Therefore, I brought up the idea: “Here’s a sword, it’s got two edges. Let’s talk about all the good, and all the bad.”

RZ:  I agree.  You want flexibility with cloud products and apps in order to service our members as they want to be serviced, but then you also need to work to ensure that they and the data is secure.

RZ: Back to success metrics.  We share our success metrics with all employees; it is on our intranet page. We have our 2017 corporate goals on the intranet page, in addition to all the business lines goals. The IT group has four categories of success metrics. We have our financial performance goals to explain how well we are doing with our operating budget and our capital spend. We have our customer satisfaction goals, because even though I might not be servicing the member directly, every employee here at AAA is one of my customers in one way or the other.  They could be using the copier, or PC or any number of our software applications.

RZ: One quick customer survey we perform is for equipment replacement.  It is an email sent to the customer once the help desk ticket is closed.  It is a simple two-question survey.  “Was everything delivered to their satisfaction?” “If not, please list any issues.”  I also do an annual CIO survey that goes out to the entire company.  This survey is for our internal customers to rate my four different departments and provide feedback directly to our CEO, COO & Treasurer, and myself.  I even have some questions added for any major projects that we implemented during the year to receive feedback on how the product / application is working.   We also have associate talent and satisfaction goals.  We measure to see if my employees are satisfied and what types of training they are receiving. This includes any certifications that my staff obtains.  In addition, every IT Manager and above has an open door policy.  The last measurement category we have is for operational performance. Is the project on time, under budget?   Operational, we measure if we are keeping the systems up and running 99.5% of the time. – Those are just a few of the metrics we keep track of.

SG: Absolutely, that makes sense. Mentioning the survey on the employee retention, talent satisfaction, for our president, that is one of his top projects annually.

RZ: It is great to see that your president is that involved in employee retention.

SG: We do the survey every year, and he goes market to market and lays out the survey results. Of course, you cannot identify any one person, but it is by each group and each market. We look at ‘how is our performance of our satisfaction level internally compared with other technology organizations in the Midwest?’ Yes, so we get a lot of great data with this survey, and we have been in the ‘Best places to work’ in our HQ market. As you know, one of the hardest aspects of the job is keeping your people.

RZ: Yeah, absolutely.

SG: And you want to keep your talent because you want to grow your talent and you want to invest in your talent.

RZ: Yes. I see it here at AAA Ohio too.   The IT Services department pays for two technology classes a year.  In addition, we also pay for the certification exams.  With retention, several years ago, I lost four people to one company.  We talked with each of them during the “Exit Survey” and made sure it was for the right reasons.  We explain the benefits of staying at AAA Ohio.  Then we explain what to expect at a new company.  As an IT leader, you know you are not going to keep everybody forever.  I try to ensure that they are leaving for the right reasons and is it what is best for them?  We are a mid-sized company and we do attract and get a lot of young talent at times, and so after six or eight years here, sometimes they are ready to move on to a bigger company and a bigger challenge.  There is nothing wrong with that.

RZ: I keep in touch with several former employees.  They had a great opportunity here and then moved on to a bigger company in the Columbus area.  In some cases, I provide a reference for them and I have even given them advice on internal politics that occur within their current company.

RZ: Going back to why I pursued a career in IT, for me, it was more of the passion of learning business processes and making improvements.  Fixing processes or systems, working with, and helping people. Once I became a CIO, it became more about developing the skills of the people that work for me or around me and on improving business processes.

RZ: I will not stay a CIO forever. At some point, I will either want less responsibility, a reduction in my work hours, or want to do something different. Eventually, I might even approach one of my former employees for a project management job.

SG: Well, that goes all the way back to community aspect. You treat everyone well because you do not know whom you are going to be working with. We have had organizations that we have competed against fiercely that I am now aligned partnerships, referral partners, whatever it is, with the people that have left that organization. It is funny how that works, especially in Central Ohio where it is a very close-knit technology community, it really is. So keeping in the realm of community, there are some great things about working in Central Ohio and there are some challenges about working in Central Ohio. What do you think are the great things about working in Central Ohio?

RZ: Well, again, I think we talked a little bit about this at the beginning.  I think one of the best things working in the Columbus area is just our sense of community.  Again, everybody here in the Midwest, we work hard, we collaborate, we get the job done in service to our customer.  Really, you can almost ask any CIO anything and they will help you out if they can and get you a contact or an answer. We have this wealth of talent in Central Ohio to learn and grow from, whether it is from the CIO Forums or any number of the area Universities.  I went to Ohio State but there are a number of other universities in the area as well, which is why our city is growing at the rate that it is these days.

RZ: Then as far as the challenges go, I do not know that there is too many challenges with being here in Franklin County and with the IT community as compared to any other part of the country. The only thing I would mention is that IT people sometimes focus too much on solving the one specific issue.  I think it is common with IT people or with anybody that is technology focused, to not fully listen to the customer and only focus on the software or the solution.  Do not get me wrong we want to fix the issues, but there might be some additional items that when fixed may even provide more value to the customer.  Sometime we get in the woods and we are not looking at the bigger picture.  Therefore, I hope that a good manager is reviewing the project and can assist with the entire solution.

RZ: Again, that is why I like our community here!  You can discuss a particular issue with another CIO or a director, and you will get some different viewpoints and thoughts that you might not have considered before.

RZ: We also have our Smart technology grants for the city of Columbus.  Just so many things are going on in the Columbus area. I know here with AAA, we have an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which in the past did research on seat belts with the car manufacturers.  Of course, one of the big issues today is marijuana use.  They are researching a method to test for driver impairment at the vehicle. That is just one thing they are reviewing in order to help law enforcement at the roadside.  In addition, with the Smart City initiative, AAA actually has some grants that they can make available via the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

SG: What future technology challenges for AAA do you see?

RZ: If you look at AAA’s core promise, the main reason people join is our Emergency Road Service.  You lock your keys in the car, you break down, you call us, and we come and take care of you.  One day, if all the cars are driverless, those vehicles will still break down.  There is a lot of change coming up for AAA and for the whole industry, car manufacturers, taxis, buses, Uber.  Many companies should pay attention to this trend.

RZ: Apple, Microsoft, Google. Everybody wants to be the brain inside the car today. It is an emerging market where you do not know what will come out on the other end of the tunnel.  Who will adapt to the new market?  It is just fantastic the way everything is changing.  What a great time to be in the technology field.

SG: What did you think about the CIO Tomorrow event?

RZ: The CIO Tomorrow event this year was honestly was probably one of the best ones I have ever attended.  The best discussion was when they interviewed the city leaders from other Smart Cities.   It was interesting to see what these cities have done and what they have learned.  Columbus is just starting on this path, and I believe that the Columbus technology community learned from these cities discussions.  I hope we can get them back again next year just to see as where they are at in terms of their smart city initiatives.

SG: Right!  I came out of that thinking a couple of them really had a grasp on it, and I was thinking that for being in the very initial stages of this, I thought we’re pretty well-positioned because we have enough of the smart players involved. Now, I am concerned that when you have many smart players involved, you might have many big egos involved. If we just keep it focused on what the end result is, the best outcome that the community’s looking for out of this one, and really develop the goals with that in mind, I think we’ll be fine. Again, we do play well together in Central Ohio.

RZ: Yes, I think we do, too. Certainly, the money is there to do these things, thanks to the Columbus companies that are supporting this research with over $90 Million.  I know many more companies have stepped up since Columbus got the grant.  The challenge in the early stages is getting the right project managers, the right people involved to manage and move the project forward in a timely fashion. Then, creating the goals to support the research and the best interests of the community at large.  “Okay, now you’ve got all this money.  You have community leadership interested.  So what are the key things that need to be completed first?” What early wins can happen in order to encourage people and gain more traction within the community and to show progress?

SG: Early wins are important, so if there is more money out there or other support that is out there and you can show the early wins and get some people off the fence.

RZ: Yes, absolutely.

SG: So, that is what I am hoping for with both of those big projects, Smart City and Smart Corridor.

RZ: Yes – Franklin County is so lucky. We talked a lot about the IT involvement, but there is a greater community involvement including the Mayor, Mr. Wexner, Mr. Drake, and the many various community, civic, and business leaders.  Our civic and business leaders legitimately care and love our city, and understand the importance of these initiatives for our community and its future.  It is just amazing. I cannot even imagine Columbus’s past reputation as a cow town.  If you look at Columbus today and the growth projections that for 2020 and 2030, we have hopefully left that impression way behind.

SG: And now we are recognized as a top ten technology center, one of best five cities to start a company in, the entrepreneurship activities with Rev1, everything that we are doing in the tech space, I just don’t see us as the ‘Cow Town’ ever again.

SG: I have always been proud of being here but I have never been more proud than now.

RZ: Agreed.

SG: All right. That is a great place to wrap this up. How was your first TechLifeOhio interview today, Rob?

RZ: The interview was very good. Thank you for this opportunity.