CIO, Transport America
Time in position: 6 years
Number of IT staff: 8
Major software: Custom applications on Oracle database
Number of users: 1,000+ drivers, 200 desktop users, 10 mobile salespeople, 12 telecommuters
Number of custom developers: 5
Mary Connor: Where does Transport America operate?
Tom Benusa: We have about a dozen centers around the country. We operate primarily in the eastern half of the United States, a little bit to California, and then into Mexico and Canada as well. We have about 12 centers that are primarily homes for our drivers where they can come in, drop off their truck. Truck maintenance, driver services are out there. There’s a lounge and exercise equipment, things like that. We don’t have any docks per se. We just pick it up at point A and deliver it to point B and that very seemingly easy thing to do can actually be very complex.
MC: You mean managing logistics?
TB: Absolutely. Load matching is very key obviously. We need to build our freight network so that we operate efficiently—when you deliver a load, you’re very close to the pickup of your next load and you’re not deadheading, as we call it when we’re driving empty. We want to incur as little of that as possible. So we’re driven to get loads where our trucks end, and the more balance we can put in the network, the more successful we’ll be. We deploy some third-party solutions to make sure we’re trying to make the best decisions possible there. The software will make recommendations. Of course, the human eye can always evaluate for potentially more appropriate fits. But we’re really trying to utilize those tools fully so that that process becomes automated.
MC: Does your IT department support all of North America?
TB: Yes, all of the support is done out of this facility.
MC: What are the scope of your responsibilities?
TB: It’s fairly typical. We support all of our internal users—both the traditional desktop user and the marketing rep, road warrior types.
Sixty percent of our orders come to us electronically, so we’re integrated via EDI—electronic data interchange. That’s obviously a big labor saver for us.
Our customers also can use our Web site for tracking and tracing loads on the fly, printing out documents for after a load is completed, and so forth. But probably the biggest functionality on our Web site is aimed at our drivers. It’s a secure portal, and they can log in there and view their settlement, which is their pay. They can view their upcoming loads that have been offered to them. They can communicate with their fleet manager that way.
MC: What are your major software applications?
TB: The primary platforms that we use here are custom-developed applications for our whole order-to-cash process, customer service, taking the order. We have a custom suite of developed apps that are built over an Oracle database, so it’s a client-server environment. We have our customer information module. We have several other custom-developed apps.
We bolt on some third-party apps where we don’t have the expertise to write them—for truck maintenance for use out in the shops. Our accounting-financial software is Great Plains. And we also use Microsoft SQL databases. We just develop around those. That’s where the integration comes in, when you get these disparate databases, you really have to keep them talking to each other.
We recently tried to look at getting down to just one of those databases and try to minimize or eliminate some of the integration that takes place, but it’s a large project. We’re just not staffed for it right now.
MC: You also have computers in your trucks. How long have you had those capabilities?
TB: It has evolved. Transport America was an early adopter of those systems back in the early ’90s. So they’ve been in place for a long time, and they’ve been enhanced over time. We’re currently putting a new platform into our trucks. We went through about a three-year market analysis, defining our requirements and seeing which vendors met them.
Trucks are becoming rolling offices—that’s really what trucks are now. We communicate with them throughout the day. We need to know what they’re doing, where they’re at. We need to understand how their engine is performing, we need feedback when an engine is falling outside of normal parameters to see if there’s a breakdown occurring, things like that. We have 1,100 rolling assets out there that we’re in constant communication with throughout the day. Of course, you can’t bring all that data back in without highlighting which trucks are having issues. We have to be very good at highlighting those exceptions so that our fleet managers and our shops can respond to those trucks that are in need of special attention.
With this new product that we’re deploying, [drivers] have not only that messaging back and forth . . . this new box can read them a message. Before, they had to stop and read it. And you’d rather not [stop a truck], because he’s got to find a safe spot. It takes a couple miles to slow down, it takes them 10 minutes to look at the message and respond to it, and then it takes him five, six minutes to really get back up to speed again. So stopping a truck is something we try to avoid. So this text-to-voice feature is pretty important to us just as a productivity tool. They can listen to the message and then decide if they need to stop or if they can wait and respond when they’re getting fuel or for their next break.
Those devices in the truck also include navigation, so we won’t be getting trucks into where they’re not supposed to be, getting them efficiently to their next delivery or pickup, and helping the drivers be more productive and helping them be more safe. We really view that as a critical app going forward. We’re looking for great things out of navigation.
We’re going to eliminate the paperwork and any gray area that might be associated with paper logs and move into the electronic logs world. And we’ve been auditing the drivers pretty closely in the past few years, even in their paper environment, so it’s really not that far of a leap for our drivers. I mean, some still fear it: ‘Now they’re really going to be watching me.’ But the reality is our drivers have been watched pretty closely for quite some time now. Once they get it, they like it, because they no longer have that paperwork.
MC: Your in-truck system is from a third-party vendor?
TB: Right, from Qualcomm.
We’ve followed a model in the past where the driver would scan the logs and the trip paperwork, [such as] the bills of lading, at truck stops. It would flow into our systems here in the back office and then be available for billing and payroll purposes. That really got going in the 2000s and was very efficient [compared to mailing], because now we could have the paperwork to bill within a day or two of the driver completing his trip.
[Now we have] in-cab scanning as associated with that new device. We can tell the driver, ‘Drop it in your scanner as soon as you get the signature on the paperwork.’ If we can get that back here, conceivably right away, we can take care of any issues with paperwork. Then, of course, we get to bill it quicker.
MC: How do you work with your non-technical executives?
TB: I think, fairly typical—I’m the bridge there. You always have that challenge of defining and building your case around the need for the timing of your infrastructure upgrades. I lead that project to determine ‘What are we going to do about the [in-cab computers]? How do we build the case that now’s the time?’ I mean, we ran some of those boxes for 15 years. Why is now the time to [upgrade]? But clearly the technology has evolved and you could begin to justify it through the navigation, through the in-cab scanning, lower cellular costs instead of satellite costs, and so forth.
The leadership group here is very knowledgeable and very aware that we can’t fail in terms of keeping our applications available to our users and our customers and our drivers. We’ve worked hard to develop a good disaster recovery plan and to build a redundancy within our own data center and so forth. We have a DR location in Minneapolis that we replicate all of our critical data over there real time.
What we’re really strong on here is: Every minor or significant project needs to have a strong business sponsor. They need to come with a business sponsor and a justification behind it that makes sense. IT doesn’t do things in a vacuum here. We don’t go off on our own initiatives. That helps keep us aligned with the business goals and priorities. So we really do very little of our own. If we’ve got something, we try to take it and find a business sponsor for it. But generally, the business people are coming to us with their requests and then remain as the project sponsor for the duration.
I do try to stress to my employees that, you know, you work for a trucking company first, then you work in the IT department second. So let’s understand the business and we’ll be more effective as a group.
MC: Do you have VOIP?
TB: Yeah, I guess it’s been almost two years now since we switched over to a IP-based phone system. Our entire organization is on one phone system, including the work-from-home people or the people who are on the road. They all can connect back here to all-extension dialing. All the long distance comes back through here and takes advantage of our long distance on our T1’s lower rates. The drivers call in to their fleet manager through traditional means—a 1-800 number.
MC: What will you be working on in the coming months?
TB: One of our top technology projects for the next 12 months is to refresh pieces of our data center. We are clearly handling more data than we used to handle, and our computing power is being stretched. We need to upgrade our capacity in both of those areas, and that’s something that we’ll be doing here this year. Our server environment is almost totally virtualized. So we’ll be looking at desktop virtualization over the course of the next year as well.
We use an IT steering committee here to help with the prioritization. Just on a day-to-day basis, having to take requests from areas of the business and kind of prioritize where they get resources . . . I probably end up having to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ more than I’d like to. I’d like to have a larger department. I also kind of hedge against getting too large because I like for us to be nimble and quick, and we’ve managed to stay there without developing too many layers between the business and IT.
We’re looking at a more robust CRM solution. Over the next 12 months, we’ll be researching some CRMs. What we do currently is more or less based on our own custom applications.
I think probably the biggest thing, from my perspective, [is continuing] to roll those assets out to those trucks. It’s very important for us as an IT department to assure that we’re using those assets effectively. Are we doing our in-cab scanning when we’re supposed to do it? Are we using navigation appropriately?
MC: It sounds like a massive remote training program.
TB: It is. Absolutely. And they’re getting trained by different people at our support centers, at our terminals. And so it’s quite a challenge to do that, and that’ll be an important role for IT, to make sure the business has got the tools to help monitor those drivers. Just pick out the exceptions and say, ‘Well, how come you’re not using the application? How come you’re not doing your in-cab scanning? We don’t want you to scan at the truck stop or our support centers. Just do it right in the truck.’ And try to work with the exceptions and so forth. That’ll be very important, though, because that platform really is a driver for our success.
MC: And you’re working with how many drivers?
TB: 850 company trucks and about 200 owner-operator trucks, so we’re up over a 1,000 trucks. How are you going to monitor those folks when you can never look over their shoulder ever? It’s our responsibility to make sure that those apps are getting used because, again, there’s all sorts of things tied to the successful use of those applications. Just putting them in the truck won’t guarantee their usage or the success of that program.
MC: I heard about an incentive program TA has to reduce idle time in the trucks?
TB: That whole project was very timely for us and has produced great results. Not only does it reduce our costs, but our carbon footprint and everything associated with burning more gas. The drivers get incented for not idling. The sensors in the truck measure [idle time] and we get [the data] back to us via the mobile communications that we have with the truck, at the end of every trip. We understand all their engine operating parameters for that trip. We can see whether they’re idling at a shipper, waiting to unload or load or whether they’re idling during their break. And they have a certain amount that’s acceptable, but they need to get exemptions in order to qualify for the bonus. If they’re forced to idle because of the freight they’re hauling or the extreme weather they’re in, we give them exemptions for that. If you were to sit in traffic for five minutes without moving, it would count that as an idle. The engine knows whether the wheels are rolling or not, what the speed is, and so forth. So it can tell us how much engine time total in a month, and how much of that is idle time.
MC: There’s a sort of popular image of truck driver as a loner and maverick, but that’s not really the case any more, is it?
TB: That was the impression. You know, the guy who had two sets of log books and would be showing one to his inspectors and showing the other one back to the office and doing what he wanted to do and violating hours of service regulations.
The successful trucking company of today will not operate in those parameters. You cannot have mavericks out there. We monitor them very closely now. We know how far they’ve been able to travel and the number of hours, we can tell if they’ve been driving too long and how long they’ve been on duty, if they’re on time to appointments, if they’ve deviated from suggested routes. If the wheels are turning, you’re being held accountable for that time and it will be down to the minute. There’s a definite drive for safety on our part where we don’t want our drivers doing unsafe things, because that is our number-one priority. You really can’t afford to not operate within the rules that are set up for drivers these days. It’s very highly regulated and very closely watched.
MC: How long have you been with TA?
TB: I’ve been here six years. And I’ve been doing IT since the days when it was called data processing. I started as a computer operator and worked my way up through development, project management. I was a one-man shop for a while. [In] trucking and distribution, almost exclusively, for close to 30 years.