J.D. Power Makes Big Data Big Business

J.D. Power’s tech team members aren’t order-takers. They’re strategic advisors­, which is the way CTO Jonathan Miller thinks it should be at every company.

Jonathan Miller’s resume is a sharp departure from that of the typical tech executive. From raising venture capital and designing a business plan to generating leads and establishing partnerships, the first half of Miller’s career paints him as more savvy entrepreneur than IT professional. The CTO at J.D. Power & Associates has a fifteen-year startup career to thank for that.

Today, as J.D. Power continues to do what it’s famous for—ranking automobiles based on customer satisfaction and allowing car companies to advertise those rankings—Miller is taking the company’s tech department to new heights. Here, he talks humble beginnings, J.D. Power’s “mini venture-capital model,” and why engineers should think like business partners.

You’ve taken a nontraditional career path—tell me about your first jobs out of college.

Jonathan Miller: After college, I landed a job at Timeplex, a New Jersey telecommunications company that was making money on the divesture of the Bell System. I was a wet-behind-the-ears electrical engineer, and after two or three years I felt a pull to the business side, so I took a sales support role. That’s how I learned to sell products.

In 1991, I joined a startup company that was building what would one day become the Internet. They weren’t calling it the Internet at the time, of course; they were calling it NSFNet [National Science Foundation Network], and it was a not-for-profit model that operated on a contract from the National Science Foundation. There were about five people in the entire company and one cell phone the size of a shoebox. Basically, we sold commercial Internet connections, and I had to go around and teach businesses what that was. It was a wild ride. I had no idea that it was ground zero of the modern Internet.

After about five years there, a coworker and I launched our own startup, an intranet application that allowed companies to streamline human-resource actions, like benefits package selection.  For the first few months we were working out of her home in Flushing, Queens. She and her husband moved out of the master bedroom so we could use it as an office. Eventually, we moved the company to White Plains, New York, and grew the company to over a hundred people, with millions of dollars in revenue.

“We set aside a portion of our operating budget for new project ideas… Those that aren’t achieving certain goals are killed, but many blossom. It’s a mini venture-capital model within the business.

How did you find your way to J.D. Power & Associates?

Miller: In 2004 and 2005, I worked as a technology management consultant, and one of my clients was Standard & Poor’s (S&P), whose parent company, McGraw Hill Financial, also owns J.D. Power. I was sent to help the new CIO. I made some good recommendations on its product line, and he asked me to come aboard.

It was a scary moment. I’d only been with startups and this was a global, public company with thousands of employees, and I didn’t know jack about financial services. But I decided to face my fears. I’ve been here ever since; five years at S&P building scalable, high-speed financial services apps and tools, one year in the information and media segment; and four years working on platform capabilities to make J.D. Power a more data- and analytics-driven business.

How are you pushing the focus on data and analytics?

Miller: So many things are changing in this space—the way we shop, the way we share our experiences with products and services on social media. That’s been part of my mandate: to figure out how to collect data on those things, to move us more deeply into online analytics, and to drive speed, quality, and lower cost in our operations.

J.D. Power is shifting from a project-driven legacy environment to a more scalable environment that operationalizes innovation and growth. Every year, we set aside a portion of our operating budget for new project ideas. The company will invest in different ideas and monitor their monthly progress. Those that aren’t achieving certain goals are killed, but many blossom. It’s a mini venture-capital model within the business.

After you landed the CTO role, what changes did you immediately make?

Miller: The IT department didn’t have a great working relationship with the lines of business when I came in. Internal IT was the choice of last resort. That’s not good. You need to work toward the same goals as the business: sales growth, profitability, and providing new products that offer the market new value. I’ve worked to make the department a strategic, innovative partner.

I’ve also pushed for more of a technical skill set in the company. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be an engineer, but a fluency in systems and how data works, as well as a good understanding of how information systems drive our business, is important.

How has your sales background served you as a CTO?

Miller: IT leaders typically don’t have the kind of broader business sense that I have. I’ve raised venture capital, worked a speaking circuit, and have had to learn to sell to survive. That broader experience gives me a wealth of knowledge to draw on, and I naturally think about sales and distribution in ways my peers that went a “normal route” don’t necessarily know how to.

I got a really great compliment from one of my peers on the J.D. Power executive team. He said, “Jonathan, when you’re speaking in a meeting and I close my eyes, it sounds like I’m listening to a sales guy.” I think that’s the way it should be—I need my team to speak the language of business and sales.

Now that you’ve worked on both side of the spectrum, how do you think sales and technology departments can work together to prevent silo mentality?

Miller: Most people go into the tech field because they have an attention to detail and they like solving problems. If there’s a bug, we fix it. We like that.

To graduate up the ladder you have to synthesize those issues and translate them into business impact. My team is not filled with order-takers. We’re not subservient to our business partners. We’re strategic advisors and we direct and develop new ideas. Tech teams need to have the confidence to be an equal player at the table. That sounds simple, but it can be a big cultural shift for many companies.