Indispensible Tech Tools for CEOs

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January 06, 2008

Case categories include: Technology   

By Warren Lutz

For Elizabeth Hutt (Group 272) , the good old days of her business career were pretty good — even if she needed to carry a roll of dimes. 

“When I started my sales career, I had no laptop, no mobile phone. I even used payphones,” said Hutt, president and CEO of San Carlos-based NuGEN Technologies.  Today, she said, “I live and die by my Microsoft Outlook calendar, which is linked to my BlackBerry.” 

Hutt isn’t alone.  For many CEOs, tech tools like the BlackBerry have become the lubricants that keep their business lives and personal lives on track.  And these tools come in many forms, including smart phones, GPS systems, Microsoft Outlook—even a particular Web site can become an indispensable tool that keeps a CEO informed, accessible and organized. 

The BlackBerry, however, is by far the tool of choice for people running their own companies.  Hutt’s device manages her schedule, delivers entertainment, keeps her informed of activities at the Alliance of CEOs and provides her access to, which her company uses to manage business.

Good technology, however, really proves its mettle in a pinch. When she couldn’t get a computer connection, Hutt has used her BlackBerry to access crucial legal agreements and financial reports while traveling in Europe. “Sometimes it’s very, very difficult to get on an ISDN line, and in smaller areas, there’s not even wireless service,” she said. “At times, I’ve gotten (email) attachments that I could only get on my BlackBerry.”

Times have sure changed since Bjorn Espenes (Group 307) got his first BlackBerry six years ago.  “It had three lines on it,” Espenes said.  “It was not all that helpful.”  Now, says the CEO of Salt Lake City-based Infopia, Inc., his full-sized BlackBerry with a phone is “synced up with everything … I have my Google maps on it, I can go look for information, I get all the feeds, all the news … it’s fantastic.”

With technology developed by his own company, Joe Salesky (Group Q100), CEO of Novato-based ClairMail, Inc., uses his BlackBerry to access Web-based applications such as LinkedIn, ZoomInfo and Hoovers for business contacts.  “At the end of the day,” Salesky said, “it all comes down to relationships, and how efficiently you can establish a relationship.” 

Despite their overall popularity, BlackBerrys do not have a stranglehold on the CEO market.  John Cummins (Group 308), CEO of Sunnyvale-based ZeroG Wireless, Inc., was a BlackBerry user for many years but now uses a Treo, preferring the latter device’s Palm-based operating system.  “The BlackBerry can be a curse, because you get so much email,” said Cummins, referring to the BlackBerry’s focus on instant email access.  “You have to control the temptation to look at it all the time.  They don’t call it a ‘crackberry’ for nothing.”

Richard Bravman (Group Q200), president and CEO of Santa Clara-based Intelleflex Corporation, is a proud owner of an iPhone, Apple Computer’s recent entry into the cell phone market.  Among other things, Bravman uses his iPhone to listen to audio blogs.  “That’s mostly how I catch up with Science magazine and the science section of the New York Times,” he said.  “All of them have podcasts.  It’s certainly a time-saver.”

Bravman admits he hopped on the smart phone bandwagon rather late, and admires the “coolness factor” of his chosen device, which plays movies and songs and stores photos.  Yet sometimes there is no compelling reason to aim for the slickest of gadgets.

Consider Gary Gysin (Group 307), president and CEO of Santa Clara-based Asempra Technologies, who finds the BlackBerry rather limited as a tool for taking and storing notes.  So Gysin uses a day timer—definitely not high-tech, but definitely useful. “I always had it,” he said.  “Some things I just like to write. I make lists of what I have to do every day.”

For the CEO who travels often, GPS devices are a hot item.  Bruce Nagle (Group 108), president and founder of Alamo-based RW3 Technologies, recently bought a Telenav GPS Navigator that works with his BlackJack, a handheld device similar to the BlackBerry.  “Essentially, I can punch in the address I’m going to and the voice and instructions comes out of my cell phone,” he said.

The best tech tools aren’t just good at handling business.  Not long ago, ClairMail’s Salesky was in a board meeting when he received a message from his daughter, who had just been in a car accident.  “I was able to literally step out the board meeting, into my car, and be at the hospital less than 15 minutes after they arrived,” he said.

During personal emergencies, a good tech tool allows CEOs to stay informed on business matters.  Bud Michael (Group 341), CEO of San Jose-based Availigent, doesn’t normally use the phone service on his BlackBerry.  That changed after a brother-in-law was diagnosed with a brain tumor and Michael found himself in British Columbia, trying to get work done during spare moments.  “In an out of hospitals, in waiting rooms and driving around, I needed to stay connected,” he said.  “I really relied heavily on my BlackBerry.”

Another sign that business tech tools are getting personal—more than half of the CEOs interviewed for this story said they keep their handheld device by their bedside and use it as an alarm clock.  Infopia’s Espenes, however, is in the minority.  “I’ve reached an agreement with the family,” he said.  “When I walk through the door, I leave it out in the hallway.”

Still, the ubiquity of tech tools among CEOs is so strong that many struggle to recall life without them.  “Business would probably slow down a little bit. Would it have a material impact on my life? Probably not,” said Availigent’s Michel. “It’d probably be like water seeking other avenues.”

For her part, NuGen’s Hutt is a little shocked at how recent technology innovations have pushed executives into a near-24/7 lifestyle. Without such tools, she joked, “I’d go back to a relaxed, manageable work life.” 

• The best technology is there when you really need it—yet doesn’t get in the way.
• Choose the device that fits your work and lifestyle needs. Avoid unnecessary bells and whistles.
• Personal devices can’t do everything. Sometimes it’s healthy to put them down.