One CIOs Prescription for Survival

On May 14 of this year, everything changed for Brian Bertlin and his 189-person IT staff at Washington Group International Inc.

On May 14 of this year, everything changed for Brian Bertlin and his 189-person IT staff at Washington Group International Inc. Until that day, the CIO at the 38,000-employee construction company in Boise, Idaho, had been focused on integrating the systems and processes of Morrison Knudsen Corp. and Raytheon Co.s Engineers and Constructors business unit, the operations that were merged in July of last year to form WGI.

Then WGI, whose projects include the Hoover Dam, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the victim, company officials said, of the effects of a lawsuit between MK and Raytheon. Suddenly, like many IT leaders in todays sluggish economy, Bertlin was forced to confront the rumors and distractions that come with shaky financial circumstances. eWeek Editor at Large John Dodge talked to Bertlin recently about his prescription for survival in an ever-changing, if not harrowing, environment.

eWeek: Whats it like operating in Chapter 11?

Bertlin: Its the worst experience you could go through, distracting you from [emphasizing] competitive advantage. Youre asking your managers to scale mountains with no ropes and putting processes in place that slow them down. Youre trying to paint a positive picture when there is tremendous uncertainty.

eWeek: How do you motivate your people under such adverse conditions?

Bertlin: The people are everything. They will go through every emotion and process, every rumor. You have to get in front of them and size up the situation. Let them know how important they are and keep them busy. If they are really focused, they dont have time for the rumors.

eWeek: How do you handle the swirl of rumors?

Bertlin: We hit them head-on. If theres any fact we know, I clarify it. If its not a fact, I say, "I heard that rumor, too." Some of the rumors are hilarious. If you just dismiss them, youre not putting them to rest. If youre anything but open, youre not credible. Without credibility, there is no leadership.

eWeek: What processes slow your people?

Bertlin: Paying bills now is a very strict process. You have to complete and review a long form that can be audited by the court. Every cent gets scrutinized. A lot depends on whether there was a balance prior to May 14. Whether they get paid before we filed is determined by criticality and whether the service or product can be gotten from elsewhere. Critical services, such as long- distance and data connectivity, get paid regardless of date. If theyre determined not to be critical and the service was before May 14, we cant pay them. We tightened our belt down to the last hole, but when youre in Chapter 11, you keep punching new holes. Were learning and getting good at things we hope we never have to do again. The court mandates all of this.

eWeek: Did you shelve some projects?

Bertlin: We put an [enterprise resource planning] upgrade and network infrastructure project on the back burner. We also put on a hiring freeze. We only do things to support existing operations. But there is a little bit of a pearl in any situation, and that was we were able to knock down the development backlog. [Bertlin said hes been spared layoffs so far.]

eWeek: How is your day different under Chapter 11?

Bertlin: I spend more time with our legal and financial folks, cleaning up some of the transition activities [from the merger]. I double-check all terms of the purchase agreement to see what has been completed [and factor in] extra spin from the lawsuit. I spend more time talking with staff. Whenever theres a press release, we talk about what it means.

eWeek: Are there any look-ahead issues that you can focus on while still in Chapter 11?

Bertlin: We—meaning all my direct reports, which make up the IT leadership team—are trying to pay attention to planning and strategizing with the company leadership so we can figure out how IT needs to change or evolve to support the new company. Were looking ahead to 2002, expecting that in the next 30 to 60 days, our reorganization plan will be approved. We acquired RE&C in July 2000 and were focused on integrating MK and Raytheon into a new company. We were about three-quarters done, and then [Chapter 11] happens. Its like climbing the down escalator.

eWeek: Whats the most important thing youve learned?

Bertlin: The biggest thing is leadership skills because its all about people. Its not about managing. Its leadership. When things arent so great, you really have to focus on the people.