The grill: Barbara Koster

The CIO of Prudential Financial speaks to Computerworld

Prudential Financial CIO, Barbara Koster

Prudential Financial CIO, Barbara Koster

Barbara Koster, CIO of Prudential Financial, oversees 1,700 IT employees and formulates policies, establishes standards and architectures, and develops guidelines and management practices for the financial services giant. She also manages the company's global networks and data centers and other technology infrastructure.

What is your favorite technology and why?

Koster: I'm in love with my iPad, so I'd have to say mobile. The iPad, and now all the tablets, have revolutionized our ability to blend our work and home balance. That machine comes with me everywhere.

In high school, I was... nerdy and shy. To which everyone would now say: "There's no way you were shy."

What is the most interesting thing people don't know about you?

I was the first woman in New York City to be allowed to be on the intercollegiate bowling congress. I was the only woman with 120 men. The reason they allowed it was because my average was 192. It changed things.

In a market where the amount of talent is diminishing due to a lack of interest in IT careers, Koster and Prudential have embarked on several initiatives to reach out to the military, universities, high schools and youth organizations to help promote IT jobs.

How do you find IT talent in today's market?

The pipeline of talent is actually diminishing from a college entry [applicant] point of view. We have fewer and fewer of our young adults going into technology. So we've spent a lot of time creating a lot of pipelines. For example, we have a program with Columbia University that takes high school graduates from Harlem and Newark -- those who have a good propensity for math -- and put them through a training program to teach them the technologies we at Prudential find we're in need of.

We've also expanded that program to work with military veterans. We're graduating our first class [this summer]. That's a class of 25 veterans who were selected because they either had skills from the military or have a propensity for technology. It's a hybrid program. It's education and internships.

Why are fewer people getting into technology careers?

I think we, as a community, did ourselves a disservice when we allowed everyone to believe that all technology jobs were going offshore. Coding clearly went offshore, but there are at least 100 different types of technology jobs, whether it's business analysis or quality assurance testing. All [of] that has to be done where the work is being done. When you talk to the kids, they tell you the jobs are being offshored. I think it's a re-education process we have to go through about how exciting technology can be.

How do you keep your employees happy? I think it's a function of communication. We spend a lot of time talking with our folks. We have town halls, which can be up to 200 or 300 people attending online and in person. We do small lunch gatherings, where senior executives talk about business strategies, or invite a guest speaker in to discuss a new technology that's arriving and how Prudential might implement it. Then we test it through an employee opinion survey to make sure we're getting to the employees what they want to know and hear about.

Do you also offer IT job cross-training?

Yes. [Employees] all do attend training throughout the year. Some of it is online, so they can do it when it's the best time for them. We have a broad remote-access program. It's hard to teach them new technology if they can't try it out, so we also offer a lot of pilot programs. We also have swap programs where people will change jobs for six months and try each other's jobs out, but they have to be similar.

You've done a number of acquisitions over the past few years. Do you tend to take best-of-breed IT out of those companies, or do you standardize on your own?

Our infrastructure has grown tremendously. The acquisition strategy we have has caused us to grow the infrastructure. We will take best of breed. We find that's the easiest way to integrate and convert. Then, over time, we'll look at what the new technologies are that are evolving that can help us to be more efficient and effective.

What do you consider the greatest challenge in IT today?

It's what we don't know about security. Like all our peers, we participate with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, but there's still so much that happens that we don't know. You just have to look at the current examples of Sony and RSA breaches, and WikiLeaks. Those are things happening every day, and our ability to stay on top of that is very critical.

How have you embraced personal technologies like iPhones and tablets?

We are hoping to have an environment that will allow our employees to choose whatever they'd like to use. Today, we're already allowing iPads, iPhones, Androids, MacBooks; we have an open infrastructure. We have a virtualized environment, so their individual desktop is sitting inside the data center and then there's a portal for access to that [device].

Have you implemented a private, public or hybrid cloud model?

Yes, to all three. Our private cloud is called our utility computing platform, where we share environments for some things. For example, our grid computing is a shared environment, and the businesses buy their services and pay for what they use. We consider that our private cloud. As far as public cloud, we are out there with Salesforce.com. It's a very good service. It started in two of our smaller businesses, and now all of our big businesses are using it as well.

What have you found to be the greatest benefit of using the cloud?

Clearly, price-performance. You can't beat it. You put the volume together and it drives down cost. Also, for Salesforce, it was great to be able to move into a new service that we didn't have to build the infrastructure for. So it was a very quick time to enter.

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