Strong brew, free samples and the drive-through
When Starbucks got a new CIO, they put him to work: as a barista. For a week in November 2008, Starbucks Coffee Co.'s new chief information officer, Stephen Gillett, spent the better part of the five days working at the Mercer Island Drive Thru Starbucks store. Gillett took a turn as a barista, manned the drive-thru, handed out samples to customers, assisted a patron who was trying to connect to the Wi-Fi network, and even took out the trash.
Gillett's week-long toil was part of the coffee purveyor's executive immersion program. For many years, Starbucks executives have spent chunks of their time experiencing firsthand the inner workings of the company's stores, talking with baristas on the front lines, and listening to customers' feedback on their in-store experiences. The now-formal program is more critical than ever: Starbucks is in the midst of a grueling companywide transformation brought on by a worsening U.S. recession and the subsequent drop in consumer spending. Getting a reality check—from employees and customers alike—on what's happening in stores is critical for Starbucks executives, and for the future success of the company.
As you'll see, Gillett's experience was an eye-opening one. To read an in-depth profile of Gillett's background and how he got to be Starbucks' "next gen" CIO, as well as the business and IT challenges he faces, see
Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett is brewing change.
November 12, 2009
1. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
"May I take your order?"
That guy wearing the headset and handing over a coffee at the Mercer Island Starbucks drive-thru is Starbucks' new CIO, Stephen Gillett. "They do a lot in the store," says Gillett, who worked as CIO of Corbis and in senior IT posts at Yahoo and CNET before joining Starbucks in May 2008. "They do a lot of manual things, and they do a lot of automated things using systems and process. For me, it really amplified the expediency by which I want to deliver some of our key transformational technology platforms."
2. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Why Starbucks 'immerses' its execs
Margaret Wheeler, Starbucks VP of global learning, says that Starbucks leaders have long valued face-to-face interaction, and the immersion program introduces new hires to the Starbucks culture. "Allowing our leaders to connect to the heart of our business undefined our stores undefined through hands-on training with our baristas provides them an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge that they might not otherwise have direct visibility to," Wheeler says. "In turn, they use their learnings to work with their teams, finding ways to deliver tools and resources that will make that Starbucks experience even better each time a customer visits our store."
3. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Studying tech questions up close
During his week at the store, Gillett says he "was absolutely energized by [the employees'] level of energy and excitement." He says managers and baristas alike were full of questions about the company's strategies as well as what was cooking in IT and how those new applications could help them do their jobs better. "One of the things we're working on is to refresh some of our broad platforms, from point of sale to labor scheduling," Gillett says, while working the register. "So it's really about giving them tools to drive as much efficiency or productivity into their stores."
4. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Cool tech offerings
Starbucks employees took advantage of the IT leader in their midst. Gillett explains as he offers up drink samples to customers: "I brought in my laptop and was showing [baristas and managers] prototypes of new systems. They all came back on their breaks because they wanted to see the new platforms." They asked him whether various documents and data could appear in ways that were more helpful to them. "They asked me a lot of questions about what's coming and when," Gillett says, "and were really engaged about things they would like fine-tuned in future releases."
5. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Are immersion programs worth execs' time?
Robert Spector, a retail expert and author of books on Nordstrom and Amazon.com, says that while he's unsure just how widespread executive-immersion programs are, he says it's a worthwhile practice. "If I'm an executive and I'm making decisions on how a front-line employee does his job, I will make better decisions when I can experience for myself the potential impact of my decisions," Spector notes. "At Nordstrom, just about every executive except the CIO, CFO and CTO starts his career on the sales floor, and work their way up, so they have an intimate understanding of what happens at every level."
6. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Connecting with today's customers
During his store immersion, the 32-year-old Gillett interacted with customers in all kinds of waysundefinedfrom offering samples, to activating Starbucks Gold Cards, to helping a customer log onto the Wi-Fi network. "When you look at our customers and what's happening in our stores," Gillett says, after helping a customer, "you see wireless devices, iPhones, converged networks, laptopsundefinedyou see a generation of customers who are entering our stores and engaging [with us] in new ways."
7. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Gillett's tall order
At a high level, Gillett's mission is to solidify Starbucks' connection to its customers, and to implement the technology vision of "anything that touches the consumer, whether it's in back-end [IT operations] or in how a customer interacts in a physical Starbucks store," says Chet Kuchinad, EVP of Starbucks partner resources. "Stephen's not just about legacy systems and not just about efficiency. He's about: How do we take technology and connect with Starbucks' consumers in a different way?" Gillett's also all about delivering a cup of coffee to a thirsty customer.
8. A week in the life of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett
Serving up nore in-store experiences to IT
As Gillett prepares a sandwich, he says the program was so beneficial that he is attempting to set up a permanent shift (once or twice a month) for himself, especially during key IT deployment times. He also has plans to send newly hired senior IT managers through an immersion program like the one he went through. "Particularly," he adds, "if they're running key functions that impact the store directly."