Meet the Man Who Wants to Destroy Your Phone Contract

Gary King, executive vice president and CIO of T-Mobile, discusses the company’s quest to blow up traditional models and what that has meant for IT

Two years ago, T-Mobile set out to upend the way people buy and use wireless services—not a small feat, and one that would require a huge investment from the mobile giant’s IT department to make it all come together smoothly. The plan was to get rid of annual service contracts, loosen phone upgrade restrictions, and offer free data for tablets—all moves creating huge implications for the backend of IT.

Gary King, TMobile U.S.A, EVP & CIO

Gary King stepped in as CIO as T-Mobile was in the nascent stages of rolling out its “Un-carrier” campaign, and he dove right into the technology challenges that each of the planned stages presented.

Now, with the full implementation in place, the company has made a slew of rapid technical changes, each in line with the corporate strategy and with a focus on developing T-Mobile’s retail side. King attributes his department’s ability to enact these changes to that alignment of vision that pushes IT into the bigger picture. “That’s the trick, that’s the magic—ensuring the culture, the operating systems of your IT organization are in alignment with the corporate strategy, and everybody understands that’s the goal and the mission,” King says.

That cooperation enabled T-Mobile to deliver more than twenty-five IT projects in 2014, 26 percent more than it had the previous year, while at the same time shrinking its bug defect rate and post-launch fixes by more than 35 percent. King attributes some of that success to abandoning the waterfall methodology for new enhancements in favor of a more agile delivery method.

“That’s the trick, that’s the magic—ensuring the culture, the operating systems of your IT organization are in alignment with the corporate strategy, and everybody understands that’s the goal and the mission.”

“We would not be able to do this without a very collaborative codevelopment culture,” King says. “We’ve spent a lot of time driving alignment within the organization to this desire to move fast, break the chains of the industry, and rewrite the rules of wireless.”

Here, King traces the Un-carrier process from the IT perspective step by step, taking Sync from the program’s initial reveal through each of its challenges, iterations, and milestones.

March 2013

T-Mobile launches Un-carrier 1.0 and eliminates annual service contracts. It follows up with eight more mold-breaking moves, each of which will require heavy lifting on the IT side.

“What’s interesting is the high degree of collaboration and codevelopment to put that much change into the marketplace,” King says. “Each of those releases represents a high number of enabling changes to the underlying technology and in many cases, the feature that is being released takes a number of changes across time to fully enable.”

Gary King’s Guiding Principles

Act as a hub.
View IT as the hub of a wheel, serving the spokes of marketing, sales, distribution, manufacturing, and other business departments. “The IT organization at the center not only serves each of those constituents, but has the potential opportunity to correlate between those individual spokes,” King says.

Align with the corporate mission.
According to King, the trick to leading a successful IT department is ensuring its strategies are tightly aligned with the corporate strategies and making sure everyone understands the goal and mission.

Don’t forget who you’re serving.
Technology also serves a company’s customers, and it’s important to listen to the customer. Companies need mechanisms to continuously listen to customers and use that feedback to prioritize and determine development road maps. “Communicating clearly the priorities and the alignment is fundamental to being able to move this fast with high quality,” King says.

July 2013

The company introduces JUMP! with Un-carrier 2.0, allowing customers to upgrade their phones up to twice a year instead of waiting until they renew a two-year contract, which is the common timeline with other carriers.

“It’s an example of the two parts of the organization—marketing and IT—working in lockstep to bring that capability to the customer,” King says.

October 2013

Un-carrier 3.0 eliminates international roaming rates for data and texting in more than 120 countries and destinations. King says the service change was easier to pull off because it doesn’t constitute a large portion of T-Mobile’s business. The company also starts offering 200MB in free data each month for tablets.

December 2013

King joins the Bellevue, Washington-based company in December 2013, about nine months after T-Mobile began its journey to become the “Un-carrier” and shun the norms established in the wireless industry.

“I like fast-paced, high-degree-of-change environments, and that’s kind of represented what I’ve done in my career,” King says. He was able to dig right into the backend of how IT would shape its upcoming steps.

 January 2014

T-Mobile begins reimbursing up to $650 for customers’ early termination fees if they switched from AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon and traded in their phones. Droves of customers take the offer during one of the company’s biggest weekends ever. King had to make sure that IT could handle the sudden influx.

“Twenty-four by seven capabilities to monitor and respond is the key feature of implementing a big change like that,” King says. “And then just being in the moment and present—a lot of us spent the weekend in the stores, online, making sure that the capabilities were working.”

The move requires the development of back-end processing to allow customers to upload information from their previous carrier’s final bill and receive a preloaded credit card with the rest of the early termination fee payment. The company implements a fair amount of financial and accounting control.

June 2014

T-Mobile launches two more programs. One allows customers to test-drive the service by borrowing a preloaded iPhone for seven days. The program lets customers check how the coverage works in their area.

“It’s a way of trying before you buy,” King says, and it resonated with people who had previously been frustrated by the inability to do a trial run with the carrier. “In our view, based on all of the listening that we do, that’s a huge customer pain point.”

Un-carrier 6.0 introduces Music Freedom, allowing customers to stream songs from several different services, like Spotify and Pandora, without counting against their monthly data allotment. T-Mobile also sets up a mechanism to gather customer input.

September 2014

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launch, and T-Mobile is the first carrier to offer Wi-Fi calling on these products, with the ability for customers to transition from Wi-Fi calling to an LTE connection during a call. The feature also is now available on Samsung devices.

December 2014

The company introduces its Data Stash promotion, which allows customers to roll over unused data month to month for up to a year. The IT department set up a system for tracking data allotments, accounting for the rollover, and communicating the balance to the network in real time.

March 2015

Un-carrier 9.0 arrives. T-Mobile introduces the Un-contract, which promises to lock in most rate plan pricing, and offers up to $650 to pay off devices under different carrier contracts or leases. T-Mobile also changes and simplifies its wireless plans for businesses.

Photo by Michael B. Maine