- By Sara Michael
- Mar 16, 2003
As the chief technology officer at the U.S. Postal Service, Robert Otto is always connected.
When he is not at the office, his pager and multiple home computers are always on, keeping him on top of the department's computer operations to make sure they are running smoothly.
"Technology people love the challenge. We're different people. We try and figure out how things tick," he said. That comes in handy when you're managing the world's largest intranet.
Otto is the first to arrive at work — at 4:30 a.m. — an ability he credits to growing up on a Pennsylvania farm, where he awoke before dawn to milk the cows. From his office in L'Enfant Plaza, festooned with framed collectors' edition stamps and a half-dozen jars of candy, Otto insists he is "a simple guy." But his job running the systems that connect processing centers and 38,000 post offices nationwide tells a different story.
Fresh out of high school — he graduated on a Thursday and started work the following Monday — Otto joined the Agriculture Department as a clerk when computer systems were just making their debut. After a few weeks, he went through a training program for computer technicians and gradually worked his way up to supervisor.
"I was the youngest guy promoted the most times," Otto said. "I ate and slept work."
Otto joined the Postal Service in 1980 to develop a security system for a network that, at the time, had no security measures in place. In about six months, he had a system up and running, proving his capabilities in the job.
Again, he rose through the ranks as a systems architect and portfolio manager, and he later headed the Postal Service's Year 2000 initiative.
"I've grown up through the industry here," Otto said. "I know where the skeletons are. I've probably helped put some of those skeletons there."
In January, Otto was named chief technology officer, assuming managerial duties on top of his duties as the chief information officer. Now, besides planning technology changes in the department, he's also influencing his peers and having an impact on business decisions.
He continues to keep control of the infrastructure that supports 650 applications for day-to-day Postal Service business, including the payroll for 750,000 employees. And as CTO, he also helps decide the strategic direction for the agency's information technology — where to use certain technology and when to replace old systems.
"I'm inserting myself in the business side and trying to influence the technology, which hasn't been there for 20 years," he said.
Although it seems that Otto still eats and sleeps work, he insists it's not because he doesn't know how to delegate. "I like to be involved in things," he said, and understanding the systems and having a passion for the job enable him to better manage the IT department.
George Wright, manager of financial administration systems at USPS, has known Otto for 25 years. "He has high standards. He's fair," Wright said. Because of Otto's direction, "it's easy to understand what needs to be done."
Wright said Otto's dedication gives him greater insight into his job. "It allows him to get a level of understanding of everything the organization is involved in," he said. "You don't usually get that with someone who works eight-hour days."
Otto's not the only one working long hours. His managers work 12-hour days, and it's not unusual for him to send one of them an e-mail at 2 a.m. and get an immediate response.
Like Otto, many of his managers worked their way up the ranks, but there aren't many employees waiting to fill their shoes. This void leaves Otto with the challenge of developing good techniques for recruiting and retaining employees.
"We burn ourselves out," Otto said, noting that at 51 years old, he has been working his way up since he was 17. "We're in the prime of our careers. There's nobody behind us."
He said if he hires a manager right out of graduate school, the person will only stay with him for three or four years before moving on, rather than advancing with the agency. In his new position, he has more flexibility to reward and recognize his managers for their hard work — and he makes it a point to do so.
Add to the management challenges the daunting task of deciding when to replace aging technology. All those gadgets might be nice to have, he said, but you can't change the technology to satisfy yourself; it has to satisfy the business. Although he has crafted comprehensive cost analyses to guide him, sometimes you have to go with your gut feeling, he said.
When he's not working, Otto spends time with his cat, Wicked, which he inherited from his daughter in Greenville, N.C. He plays sports and owns two motorcycles that he frequently rides — a throwback to his days as a Motocross champion. He also follows NASCAR racing, and truth be told, "If I had another profession, I would be a race car driver."