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Wanted: IT staffers with vertical industry chops

Julia King | April 23, 2013
Fast-changing business processes, tight deadlines, customization demands and ever-growing regulations are complicating day-to-day operations. What's needed now is 'IT-plus' -- a combination of technical skills and business knowledge, plus deep industry expertise.

"It was truly a partnership between vendors, IT and clinical users, because you had to make the system useful to achieve the compliance goals," Buckenberger says. "It all adds up to millions of dollars."

- Julia King

"Our end-user community wants apps, and they want them fast and they don't care if they're well baked," Lamonica says. "In order to deliver what they need now, you need to know exactly what it is they're trying to do."

For example, a project manager will walk a construction site and plan the entire job with a mobile app. That information is automatically passed to a purchasing agent. "To build those kinds of mobile apps, you have to know intimately what they need and want," he says.

Pittsburgh-based Alcoa is a prime example of a company that relies heavily on IT-plus professionals.

"At its core, Alcoa is a manufacturing organization, and within the manufacturing processes, we win or lose against our competition," says CIO Nancy Wolk.

Alcoa has a broad initiative under way known as Smart Manufacturing, which Wolk says heavily leverages technology to drive profitability through efficiencies in manufacturing operations. IT staffers and process control engineers work side by side in a global 250-person information processes group. The group is headed by CIO Philip Morrissette, whom Wolk describes as an "IT-plus expert" who is "very much an expert in our vertical industry."

A 33-year veteran of the $23.7 billion manufacturer, Morrissette joined Alcoa with a computer science degree. After a few years, he moved to an IT manager's role at a smelting power plant and mining facility in Texas. At one point in his career, during a strike by unionized labor, he went to work on the plant floor, driving trains and setting controls, he recalls.

Now, about one-third of his team in the information and processes group is made up of predominantly IT people who spent time in the plants and now work on manufacturing execution systems. "They're growing with the job," Morrissette says, adding that the other two-thirds are process control engineers.

"Typically, you don't see engineers move into the IT space. They stay on the process side," he says. "But we certainly have IT individuals who came on board as programmers and are now sitting in the processes group performing engineering roles inside of our information processing systems."

At Alcoa's Power and Propulsion business unit, a project under way for the U.S. Air Force requires a highly detailed genealogy of every manufactured part that goes into each plane. "It helps the Air Force do a better job with predictive maintenance," explains IT director Phil Helal.

But to deliver that level of service, "you have to have IT professionals who understand every step of the [manufacturing] process in order to extract, store and manage all of the information," Helal says.

 

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