Jeff Liedel is as much a car guy as he is a computer guy. That much becomes clear when he's discussing his 20-year career track and the businesses he's served: Ford, Covisint, GM and now OnStar, the in-vehicle communications company and GM subsidiary, where he is CIO.

Liedel deftly moves the conversation among a range of topics: embedded telematics and mobile application capabilities in a Chevy Volt electric vehicle, the energy efficiency of internal-combustion engines, and how BI tools can help OnStar. He seems to be equally at home in a datacentre or on the floor of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, where OnStar announced a mobile app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberry Storm and Motorola Droid that allows drivers to monitor and control the Volt's electrical functions.

His responsibilities cover IT systems that deliver safety, navigation, vehicle diagnostics, telephony and other services to OnStar's 6 million U.S. and Canadian subscribers. Every month, those systems process a wide range of interactions, including: 2,600 automatic crash responses, 10,400 emergency services, 600 stolen vehicle assistance and 62,700 remote door unlocks, according to OnStar data.

So while it might be easy to dismiss his experiences as "too automotive," take another look. The details of Liedel's story actually offer a roadmap as to how CIOs become CIOs today: Why he did what he did to get to the top spot (i.e., got his MBA), the atypical assignments he purposefully chose (not at HQ), and the advice that helped him ascend the ranks, which all combine to create an instructive picture of what tomorrow's IT leaders need to do today. Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum spoke with Liedel, who became OnStar's CIO in 2009 and reports in to GM's new CIO Terry Kline, about IT's 24x7 responsibilities, OnStar innovation and the important lessons he learned from a trip to Apple.

CIO: What is your role as CIO of OnStar? I imagine there's a large service delivery piece, but do you also get involved in innovating new products as well, since technology is OnStar's product?

Jeff Liedel: The OnStar product is a lot information technology, and there's a lot of in-vehicle engineering. Putting the communications device in vehicles is a task the OnStar engineering group does. We work very closely with that group; we had a partnership with them to develop the mobile phone app. And the back-end systems are all managed by my group.

Interestingly, I talked to the CIO of Apple on the same topic: What's his involvement in iTunes or App Store? He owns the back-end infrastructure, and the same is true at OnStar. We're right in the middle of the OnStar technology stack-from mobile device back to the vehicle [with new services] and also the traditional services. We don't just do payroll and e-mail here. We're part of the product.

CIO: What about getting closer to the customer?

Liedel: We've built a lot of CRM tools for the [OnStar] advisors. For example, when I push that blue button in the car and the advisor comes on, they know it's me: "Hello Mr. Liedel. How are you today?" Now, when I contact, say, Dell, it takes a while for them to figure out who I am: You built this PC, you probably should know.

In the OnStar experience, we know who's driving the car. We have the e-mail address, and we're sending you monthly e-mails: the status of oil life, tyre pressure, where to get the car serviced, and how many miles driven, for instance. We've got a real ongoing relationship with the actual driver of the car, and all that is enabled from back-end IT.

CIO: Does the power and proliferation of today's mobile phone put pressure on OnStar to diversify its own services, not only incorporating and partnering with those different products and services, but adding new and innovative services to the OnStar product set?

Liedel: The [OnStar] embedded communications in the car gives you a whole bunch of features you couldn't get without it-that safety and security communications in the car. Some people have said that in serious accidents you might not know where your cell phone is. So we're embedded from a safety and security aspect. But we also recognise that we need to embrace the smartphone and cell phone that the customer brings with them, and we're always looking at opportunities to do that.

One of things that [OnStar General Manager] Walt Dorfstatter reminds us everyday: "It has to be simple, and it has to be easy." With the broad demographic that buys vehicles and our products, not everyone is a CS major. You need to walk into the vehicle, sit down and not have to figure out too many things about how to integrate your device to get some basic services. That said, there are lots of opportunities to leverage drivers' mobile communication devices they bring with them.

CIO: In terms of your career path, what did you do to make sure you learned not only core IT disciplines, but also the business and strategy elements?

Liedel: You need to have that breadth. That's important for any CIO-to have networking, operations and development experience, and to your point, the strategy and contract management and business-side experience. That is certainly important in an outsourced [IT] model, for example. You demonstrate you're a savvy buyer of technology, and you've managed a deal with budget management and strategy settings. I was fortunate to have that kind of breadth of IT function.

But it also means working at different kinds of companies. In a company as big as GM is, a big benefit is that you've got the opportunity to work in marketing and sales systems, on the websites and, for instance. I also worked in manufacturing: real-time plant floor systems, machining equipment, doing order management, supply chain management and purchasing systems. Another avenue I had was engineering. When I was at Ford I worked in engineering support-CAD and data management, and a couple of staff jobs in datacentre support and operations. I was also a security guy and compliance officer here at GM.

So there's breadth both from a business perspective and an IT functionality perspective.

CIO: So what about having a big interest in automobiles and all facets of the industry?

Liedel: You need to have that passion for the business, and I was a car nut. I knew what I wanted to do early on [in my life].

There's one other big thing [that IT staffers have to remember]: There is no bad assignment. I don't ever remember turning any opportunity down, especially when it was to do something different. Look at the manufacturing and security experiences. You have to take any one of those opportunities because breadth is so important. Early in my career, a few people said to me: "How about this job?" It wasn't on my list of what's exciting to do next, but it was different and it was a good opportunity to go learn something new.

For new people coming in the business, it's tough to learn at headquarters. When I interviewed at Ford, I had two offers: one to start in the plant and one to start in headquarters. And I asked my dad, who also was in IT, what he thought. Headquarters was across from the Ritz-Carlton hotel, with shiny and mahogany doors; it looked like a really nice place to work. The plant was how you'd expect it to look-lots of noise and a dirty environment.

My dad said: "Hand's down, start at the plant. Go in at the ground level and figure out how things really work. If you're good at what you do, you'll rise up through the ranks, and when you make your way to headquarters, you'll have a ground level view of how the business really works." It was hard to turn down the job in the ivory tower, but I learned a lot more coming up from the ranks.

CIO: I imagine that's what you tell IT staffers who are helping forge OnStar's Chinese expansion?

Liedel: It is an opportunity for them, to work in that kind of a "start up" mode. There are a lot of others who would like to have that same opportunity.

CIO: What have you learned about being a CIO?

Liedel: As in any job, the team that you have working for you pretty much defines your success. I was fortunate to come in with a really strong leadership team underneath me. We have no maintenance windows here. The OnStar system never goes down. I suppose a "CIO moment" is that the fundamentals have to work. You really can't get after the strategic things you want to do-whether it's transforming the business or innovation or new products and services-if you're having daily outages.

I'm fortunate that the place runs very well, and that allows me to support expansion into China and support new innovations like OnStar mobile applications. If [those fundamentals] weren't there, I'd be right there side by side fighting these fires to keep the place running.

CIO: All businesses are going through what McKinsey is calling the "new normal," a challenging and harsh global economic environment, to say the least. The ramifications to IT departments have been severe. How does that affect your strategy as a relatively new CIO?

Liedel: I've been in the auto industry for 20 years, and it's a cyclical business. I've been through tough times before. As a technology guy, we have to focus on the products and services that we provide to customers. GM has demonstrated that we can win with our four core brands, and we're beginning to see that in the market.

Incidentally, when I was on a West Coast [trip], Apple [people] said: Let us tell you about our rough years. And Oracle said: Let us tell you about our rough years. They had good advice for us: Going through tough times, you look for what you need to stop doing, what you need to do less of and what you need to do more of. Apple [execs] had a good example: When Steve Jobs came back, they had something like 32 products. He said: We're going to do one desktop and one notebook and make it the best in the world.

You saw that similar strategy at GM: focusing from 60-plus models down to 30 models or less. So we've reduced the offerings in the product portfolio, and we're going to do the ones we're doing in a great way.

CIO: Have you ever had to use OnStar in an emergency situation?

Liedel: Knock on wood, I've been fortunate never to have been in that serious of an accident, and I log a lot of miles in my car. I often go to the [OnStar] control center. Those stories are all up there. We typically get one e-mail a week that says, "Thanks OnStar for being there." It's gratifying to work in that kind of environment.