Why a Former CIO Makes a Better CEO

Alan Farnsworth, CEO of Vnomics, explains why his past CIO experience allows him to lead the fleet management company into the future

When Alan Farnsworth became the CEO of fleet-management firm Vnomics in 2014, he jumped from a wholly different industry. His previous position was as the CIO of global eye-health company Bausch + Lomb. But that experience, in a different role for a different product, gave him a unique perspective on both corporate and technology leadership. “I think sometimes being relatively unburdened by a long period in an industry is helpful,” Farnsworth says. “You have a fresh set of eyes and ears—a perspective that lets you bust a myth or two here and there.” Here, Sync speaks with Farnsworth on what it takes to be a successful tech leader, learning from challenges, and the evolving industry of fleet management.

Sync: Fleet-management software is an abstract concept to many. What’s the elevator pitch?

Alan Farnsworth: There’s so much information available due to sensors on vehicles today—packaging that and providing it to fleet owners once vehicles are outside their visibility creates real value. We provide actionable analytics—by which I mean tools, data, and measures—that allow our transportation fleet customers to better manage their business, particularly in areas of fuel, safety, and maintenance. Basically, we help our customers make better decisions to improve their business.

Alan Farnsworth, Vnomics, CEO

Sync: Got it—so it’s about connection?

Farnsworth: Everywhere you look, more and more things are connected to the Internet, and therefore to each other, which spawned the term “Internet of Things.” But in the case of transportation fleet management, we’re talking about things that move, which presents a new dimension of challenge and opportunity. My TV and DVR are connected to the Internet but they don’t leave my family room, so if I want to know about them I can walk over and touch them. But once mobile assets leave the yard, a certain amount of operational blindness sets in. Connected technology can go a long way toward addressing that. At the most basic level, the fleet can know about trucks and drivers—where are they, what are they doing. Beyond that there’s the opportunity to learn about their condition and operation, and what can be done to get better performance.

Sync: So you turn the lights on, so to speak.

Farnsworth: Yes. We can inform the fleet owners, in real time in many cases, in terms of safety, fuel consumption, driver behavior, maintenance issues, compliance, etc.

Sync: What underlying technology is used? 

Farnsworth: We provide an onboard computing device that’s affixed to the vehicle and connected to its data bus, where a lot of sensor information is collected. There’s also a display device, typically fixed but increasingly detachable or mobile, using obvious communications tools like cellular and Wi-Fi. We then amalgamate, process, and analyze the data using a variety of analytical tools.

How do you see these technology changes affecting your industry?

Farnsworth: A lot of widespread technology advancements, including better and cheaper data storage and more cost-effective data communications, help us. But the advent of increasingly sophisticated analytical methods and tools, especially within a software framework like ours, positions us uniquely to help our fleet customers deal with the massive amount of data available to them.

Sync: What do you think it will take to be successful?

Farnsworth: I have four pillars, and use the acronym FADA to illustrate them. F is for focus—being sure we’re consciously choosing to do the right things. A is for alignment—making sure all components of the organization are pointing in the right direction. D is for discipline—ruthlessly measuring and monitoring how our execution is going. And A is for attitude, which influences behavior, which influences results. There’s no room in this organization for negativity.

Sync: Could you provide some examples of your philosophies in action?

Farnsworth: In the case of alignment, when I became associated with one company’s IT operation, I realized the IT organization wasn’t really measuring itself and prioritizing initiatives by the same things as the rest of the company. That was easy to fix, and once we did so, the performance of the organization improved to the point that our CEO said he thought it was the best IT organization he’d been around.

Sync: How about discipline?

Farnsworth: I remember a time when a particular group within my prior company had to dramatically improve customer satisfaction. The customer service team was good, but that wasn’t showing in results, so I started looking at what we were monitoring and measuring—most of which had to do with productivity. And that was getting in the way of customer satisfaction. If a customer service person’s performance is measured on how many calls he or she takes in a day, what will happen? We fixed that and customer satisfaction improved.

Sync: Looking back at your career, what significant challenges stand out?

Farnsworth: There was a dark period of time in my prior career when we had to take an important product off the market due to a formulation issue. My team was down in the dumps about it, so I brought out one of my favorite adages, which is E+R=O, meaning the event plus the reaction determines the outcome. Often you can’t influence the event, but you can influence your reaction. So I said to them, “No one wanted this to happen, but it did, and most of us will never experience this kind of market action again, so why don’t we make this the best product recall the industry has ever seen?” You could see the smiles come back to people’s faces. We held our market share and survived with our business intact.

Sync: How did your job as CIO specifically prepare you to lead effectively as CEO?

Farnsworth: I like to think I draw on all my past positions. But in the case of CIO, being a customer and user of software products—particularly software-as-a-service products—gives me a unique perceptive. I’ve been on both sides of the table. And certainly being a CIO gave me the vernacular; I could spell SaaS when I got here.  

Photo by Brain C. Jackson