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Alumni & Friends

Hard Drive for Coffee: Alum is Starbuck's new CIO

Stephen Gillett stepped behind the counter of his local Starbucks to find out how his technology decisions impact baristas in 15,000 stores across the globe.Stephen Gillett stepped behind the counter of his local
Starbucks to find out how his technology decisions
impact baristas in 15,000 stores across the globe. Photo
by Dana Neely.

Stephen Gillett (M.B.A., '06), chief information officer and general manager of digital ventures for Starbucks, stepped away from his desk one day and into the shoes of a barista.

 

The experience showed him the pressing need for store managers, near or far, to stay connected to behind-the-counter activities. Laptops were handed out, the first step in Gillett's quest to improve the daily grind for both patrons and employees.


Gillett's illustrious career in technology began in 1997, when the then-20-year-old University of Oregon undergrad ran the IT department at a large Southern Oregon hospital. A mere 12 years later Gillett is the head technologist for the world's best known coffee company.


His ascension in IT has been fierce. After being hired away from the San Francisco-based consulting company he'd joined after college, Gillett endured a series of job changes, primarily as a result of corporate acquisitions. By 2002, he was vice president of IT at CNET Networks.


"Even though I was the technologist -- educated and experienced up until then -- in order to advance past that and really have relevancy in discussing business terms with business leaders, I needed to formalize my training on the business and financial side of it," says Gillett. In 2003 he entered the M.B.A. program at SF State.


Gillett loved Bruce Robertson's course, for its incorporation of online gaming. John Dopp's courses gave him the ability to reference literature about leadership, organizational design and theory, rather than just gut intuition.


"The M.B.A. was absolutely critical, not only in the foundational skill set it gave me and the vernacular I learned, but also for the confidence it gave me to go out and talk with nontechnology leaders in their language."


Meanwhile, Gillett's career continued to advance. In 2004, midstream in his M.B.A., he became the vice president of utility computing at Yahoo. Then, in 2006, the world's richest man came calling. Gillett bit, taking on the role of CIO at Corbis, the privately held stock imagery company founded by Bill Gates in 1989.


Perhaps some of the young man's success came from the fact that while he may have been beholden to Gates, he wasn't intimidated by him. In fact, for the first slide in his first presentation to Gates, Gillett -- a hard-core gamer -- featured a picture of his World of Warcraft character bearing a giant sword.


That expression of individuality is what attracts Gillett the hiring manager to candidates now.


"I look for a differentiation in a candidate's experience, resume and background. Differentiation meaning your credentials get you in the door, but what is it that's particular about you that's unique?" For example, he recalls being intrigued by a candidate who mentioned he could juggle four objects and once lost on "Jeopardy."


In 2008, another Seattle behemoth came calling. At first, Starbucks' interest baffled Gillett, who had no retail background or supply chain experience and didn't fit the company's typical age and lifestyle demographics. But Howard Schultz, Starbucks' iconic CEO, had recently returned to the helm of the company and brought with him a transformation agenda. Suddenly, Starbucks was in search of a new kind of CIO: someone who could merge old-school IT and next-generation technology. Gillett would not only handle the typical CIO duties -- such as overseeing infrastructure, application development and systems for finance and human resources -- but also head up Starbucks' digital ventures.


Adding a gamer with an M.B.A. and a hefty tech pedigree to the grind seems to be making Starbucks extra hot. Already Gillett is modernizing Starbucks' point-of-sales system: Ringing up an espresso drink is now more like selecting an iTunes playlist. If that's a sign of what technology can deliver, latte lovers can only imagine the digital ventures Gillett is brewing.

 

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