FedEx Kinko's and our connected future

CIO says move to Web Apps is slow, but vital

As the big name CIO keynoting at this year’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Rob Carter of Federal Express could have been forgiven for doing a deep dive on how his 7,000-person IT team is using AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), mashups, Web video, LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl/PHP/Python), and other checkbox items from the cool-tools list. But Carter took things in a different direction: talking philosophically about how the Internet’s impact is accelerating changes in the way the world interacts and in the way IT works.

InfoWorld Senior Contributing Editor David L. Margulius caught up with Carter after his speech to find out what Web 2.0 means to him and how it’s changing IT.

InfoWorld: What’s on your mind right now? What message did you most want to get out to this Web 2.0 audience?

Rob Carter: The difference between destination and connection. Both the Internet and the physical world have, up to now, been driven by destination. Where are you going? Google has operated as a tuner to allow you to pick where you want to go. But the destination is being replaced by connection -- software services that can be tapped into in new ways.

IW: What’s a “For example”?

RC: Instead of going to Kinko’s online for printing services, you can download a small .Net app called File, Print FedEx Kinkos. It embeds itself into Office, so from PowerPoint or Excel or Word, right on the [Print] menu, you see a FedEx Kinkos icon. You’re directly connected to the services.

What’s the impact of this shift on IT professionals?


RC: This is new. It’s a change in how they have to think about their jobs. They have to think about how this enables them to automate workflows. Software historically has been very vertical: deep applications, deep functionality, and self-contained. We’re transitioning to a very horizontal science of connecting business processes and business services in such a way that you make something happen. And it doesn’t stop at your four walls anymore.

IW: Is the transition to Web apps happening slower or faster than you would have expected a couple years ago?

RC: Slower. It’s a paradigm shift for IT -- a disruption of what IT people do well, which is going deep: analysts generating requirements for vertical apps, for example. They’re changing into people who need to look across apps. In the past, we did that after the fact, after we’d already gone vertical, and we called it integration. Today we’re exposing services like tracking, rating, routing, labels, [and] dispatch, not writing interfaces among them.

IW: How do you go faster? Can you?

RC: It’s both cultural and architectural. It’s not an easy thing to re-architect the way apps work. SOA for legacy apps is fundamentally the shift that has to take place. You don’t need to rewrite the apps, there’s a lot of value there.

IW: Five years from now, will most of the Web apps FedEx uses be externally provided from vendors like a Salesforce? Or will you be mostly building your own?

RC: It’ll be a combination, just like the world today is, of the things we do well internally, plus that external services it makes sense to avail ourselves of. Fortunately the Internet now provides this lingua franca -- from the biggest servers to the smallest mobile phones. Never before in history has that global interconnect been sitting there allowing everything to tap in.

IW: In your keynote, you showed slides of deserts in Africa and then prosperous communities with modern infrastructure. What were you trying to get across with that?

RC: I was trying to show the potential of connection. When disparate places in the world get connected, as soon as that connectivity is there, needs can get met. This is such a huge transformation in societal structure. It’s amazing how communities can form overnight now. We are literally too close to this revolution to see it clearly.