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“An IT Professional’s Dream” : Technology at Disney

The last decade has been one of immense technological change in the amusement park industry, nowhere more so than at Disney.  Blooloop's Chad Emerson catches up with Roger Berry (below right), Disney's recently retired CIO.

Related:   Chad Emerson interviews Dan Cockerell, Vice President, Epcot  /  Former Disneyland President Matt Ouimet Reflects   /  Looking into the Future at Disney  /  Theme Park Operations – A Conversation with Lee Cockerell 

Chad EmersonShare with us how you got started in the amusement industry and some of the key leadership positions that you’ve held.

Roger Berry : My first role in the amusement industry began in 2000 as Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) for Walt Disney World in Orlando.  I was recruited, from the Campbell Soup Company by the President of Walt Disney World, Al Weiss. The primary objective of the CIO role, which had been restructured to report to the president, was to lead and transform Information Technology (IT) in support of a new strategic initiative called “Destination Disney”.  This key strategic initiative was focused on leveraging technology to establish “real time” personal relationships with our guests that allowed the guests to book and experience the “magic of Disney” the way they wanted it.  Obviously, technology innovation was critical to the success of the initiative.

In 2003, I was asked to take on the additional role of CIO for The Walt Disney Company following the resignation of the Corporate CIO on a temporary basis.  Handling both roles was very challenging especially with “Destination Disney” underway and major IT changes including IT infrastructure outsourcing in progress at Corporate.  Well, the assignment lasted 2 years and although I learned a great deal and we got a lot done, I’m not sure I would sign up for a dual role at that level again. roger berry ex Disney cio

In 2005, Disney made the decision to consolidate the leadership of all of its’ theme parks in to one global organization including Disney Cruise Lines and the vacation club.  During this reorganization I was promoted to the role of the global CIO responsible for all Information Technology activities world–wide. This is the role I held when I retired earlier this year.

EmersonDuring your time at Disney, what were some of the most rewarding experiences you encountered?

Berry:  Well, there are many, and probably more than we can go into here.

However, in general I guess the highlight experience would be the privilege of working and partnering with all the great and dedicated professionals at Disney.  Disney hires great people at all levels.  I recall shortly after I joined Walt Disney World, Lee Cockerell, who was the EVP of Operations, asked me “What are your initial impressions of the cast, or staff, at Disney?”  I immediately responded  “The cast here are exceptional…anyone who cannot be successful here, with the caliber of cast and their willingness to partner and help you get things done should do a seriously objective self assessment.” 

The next most rewarding experience was seeing the Information Technology organization grow and come together as a team to enable the technology that truly transformed the guest experience at Disney.  It started with “Destination Disney” and the advances kept coming with “ Magic Your Way”, “Magical Express”, “Photo Pass”, and more recently “Mobile Magic.”  When I first arrived at Disney I'm sure there were some skeptics as to the ability of Information Technology to deliver. Well, we did and they are still delivering today!  That is very rewarding.

I guess last but not least I would say my best experience technologically has to be the development of “Photo Pass.”  What started out as an initiative to eliminate the long lines guests experienced when selecting and purchasing their professional “in park” pictures, grew into a major revenue producer.  This was made possible by a new technology team we formed in IT shortly after I arrived.  This group developed a new technology concept and technology platform to take digital pictures, and transport them wirelessly for review and purchase on the Internet.  This new approach and technology virtually eliminated the lines by allowing guest to use kiosks to select their pictures or, steenage girls with mouse ears using mobile phones at disney worldhop and buy their pictures after they left the park, in their hotel room or when they got home.  It was a win for guests, which means, it was a win for Disney.

EmersonWhat about several of the most challenging ones?

Berry:  Well, again there were many.

I guess the most significant challenge was cultural.  The Disney Parks heritage is one focused on creativity, great guest service and getting the job done whatever it takes.

When I joined Disney, IT was considered more of a “back office” function.  Consequently, the challenge was the number of technologies and systems that had and were being deployed without IT being appropriately engaged.  Well, the “Destination Disney” technology strategy called for integrating or connecting a host of existing systems and technologies across all major business areas.  Most of these systems had not been previously connected or integrated.

Ironically, initially the biggest challenge wasn’t transforming the technology diversity.  It was convincing cast in areas like operations and food and beverage among others to get IT involved before they planned and implemented technology.  This didn’t happen over night.  However, overtime IT built creditability and the business areas began to realize the potential of improving guest service and operational efficiency through integrating major business processes and systems on common technology.

The next real challenge was an IT professional's dream.  Let me explain.

I have often said, “When economic times are good, demand for IT goes up…when economic times are bad, demand for IT goes up!  At Disney, once IT got engaged and began to deliver the demand for IT accelerated and then exploded.  Disney is definitely a creative company!   Almost overnight the challenge became getting key area executives aligned around the right IT priorities and then managing and sequencing the IT demand in the most strategically beneficial way.  Managing the ongoing demand is a challenge that still exists today.

EmersonDescribe your strategy and approach toward leadership while you served as an IT executive at the company.

Berry:   That’s an easy one!  I believe with few exceptions people inherently want to be challenged, do a good job and be recognized for doing a good job.

I have successfully completed major IT transformations at 3 fortune 100 companies.  In each case I managed to drive the transdisneys magical express logoformation with essentially the same leadership team that was in place when I arrived.  To be clear I’ve had to make some leadership changes, but in the scheme of things, very few.  I think it is essential for people to understand the needs of the company, for leadership to set and communicate expectations and then challenge, empower people to accomplish them, and recognize them when they excel.

I also believe in building strong partnerships through trust, and always putting the best interest of the company first, the team second, and the individual last.  In fact, before I make a business decision I always validate that the decision passes the company first, team second criteria.  This approach has worked very well in the all companies I have been afforded the privileged to lead.  This was especially true at Disney.  I truly believe it is a privilege to lead people and it comes with clear responsibilities. 

EmersonLooking forward, what do you think will be some of the key IT innovations coming up in the amusement industry?

Berry:  I see 3 key areas where IT innovation will make an impact.

They are: personalization, mobile communications, and data analytics.

Service personalization and convenience is an unstoppable consumer trend in the market place and it is fueled by technology. So I believe the amusement industry will have to continue to expand and exploit personalization to stay competitive in the overall vacation and hospitality market.  That means expanding the use of mobile technology to proactively provide and share relevant and personalized information to enhance guest service and ultimately the overall guest experience.  There is no question that mobile technology will continue to advance and consumers will expect to get more and more information and epcot attractions app mobile for disneyservices through this channel.

I also believe that the advances in mobile technology and personalization will generate a wealth of consumer trend information that will provide significant business insight opportunities for the amusement industry.  Through expanded collective consumer data capture and the use of advanced data analytics and technology, amusement industry players will gain more in-depth business insights to capitalize on emerging consumer trends and service needs.  These insights will help amusement industry players identify and understand what products and services are differentiating, where there are opportunities, and where they may be out of step with the market.

Emerson So what’s next for Roger Berry or, are you really retired? 

Berry:  Well, I’ve really retired as a CIO.   I’ve been spending a lot of time traveling with my wife, Vickey, to make up for some lost time on that front.  As you probably know being a CIO, as with any senior leadership role, can really consume you.  And, both of us are spending a lot more time with our two grandsons.

But, I’ll continue to volunteer and stay involved with technology at the University of Central Florida and my alma mater, the University of Houston.  I’ll also be traveling frequently to Austin, Texas where our new home is being built. 

I’ve been doing some very selective speaking engagements over the last couple of months and have just agreed to join former Disney executives, Joni Newkirk and Lee Cockerell to do some executive seminars focused on inspirational leadership, business insight, and of course, IT transformation and innovation.  Leveraging these three imperatives as a collective vision has been very successful and made a real difference at multiple Fortune 100 Companies, ant that includes Disney.  And, the power we bring as a team – with our unique perspectives and real world experience dealing with real world business challenges – is pretty exciting!  I’m really looking forward to being a part of what we as a group are putting together.  I think it will be very powerful.  You’ll hear a lot more on this very soon.

I’m also writing a book about my experiences as a CIO and a technology leader in 3 Fortune 100 companies over the last 20 years.   Although I’m still framing it up, the overriding context will be how to get things done and the challenges one must overcome to successfully advance technology in large companies, and inspire and manage technology professionals.  I’m working hard to ensure the content is relevant, informative, useful, and light hearted.  A key highlight will be the real  and “unvarnished” stories and business perspectives from me and former colleagues and peers that will reflect the realities and the learning of managing successfully through good times, and not so good times.  And, of course, it will reflect my views of how to inspire, develop, and motivate people, in and outside IT, to do great things and drive value in the business through transformational leadership.

Beyond that I may work to serve on the board of directors of a company or two. I had a couple of opportunities over the last 3 or 4 years but it was against Disney policy.

So retirement is great and I’m done with the CIO  “gig”, but I’m not bored.  On the contrary…I’m excited and inspired!

All images: kind courtesy Disney

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