Philip Stevens is the Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (Exchange) in Dallas, Texas. In this capacity, he serves as the head of software development, technology operations, and technology governance as well as being a member of the corporate Executive Governance Committee. The Exchange is one of the top 50 retail organizations in the U.S. with annual revenue of $10B, employing more than 42,000 civilian and military personnel. In addition to ecommerce, the Exchange operates department and convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, theaters, vending and other businesses on military installations in all 50 states, five U.S. territories and more than 30 countries.
Mr. Stevens came to the Exchange from Scintel Technologies in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was the Chief Information Officer and Corporate Advisor. There he developed and managed Scintel’s systems as well as designing solutions for customers in the retail, financial, and medical industries.
Prior to that Mr. Stevens was the CIO for Education Finance Partners in Austin, Texas, which was the fourth largest originator of private student loans in the U.S. He also was Senior Vice President for Infrastructure and Operations with Macy’s Systems Technology in Atlanta, Ga.
Mr. Stevens began his professional career as an Air Force officer, serving at Tyndall Air Force Base and in the Defense Information Systems Agency at the Pentagon.
Mr. Stevens earned a Master of Science in Information Technology from the Florida Institute of Technology; he also earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Purdue University.
Since 1895 the Exchange’s mission has been to support the men and women of the armed forces during military operations, humanitarian missions and other endeavors around the world. Today, the Exchange is one of the top 50 retail organizations in the U.S. with annual revenue of $10B, employing more than 42,000 civilian and military personnel. The Exchange operates department and convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, theaters, vending and other businesses on military installations in all 50 states, five U.S. territories and more than 30 countries. A modern retailer with the motto “We go where you go” the Exchange also supports the troops with hundreds of millions of dollars in online sales annually and a program to ensure young troops have access to responsible credit. Ensuring the availability, integrity, and security of the infrastructure supporting this 24×7 operation requires the expertise of more than five hundred information technology professionals.
In the United States, we pride ourselves in being a country of boundless innovation and opportunity but we are at risk of losing those true leaders. With the best university system in the world and a culture that values creative thinking, we ought to be well positioned for building our national talent pipeline. But we are not. Declining K-12 scores in STEM education relative to other major economies as well as declining interest in STEM careers is forcing the United States to outsource the technical aspects of creating new products and services. While that may seem like a viable short-term option, it drains our country of a growing pool of well-paying jobs. STEM education and STEM careers are an important contributor to national competitiveness and a healthy economy.
We face many challenges in building a STEM talent pipeline, but two deserve special focus. First, we are not encouraging a culture that values STEM skills generally. Second, low levels of gender and ethnic diversity in undergraduate and graduate STEM programs – and the jobs those programs lead to – mean that we are ignoring the people we need to solve this talent shortage. Business leaders play a critical role in addressing this national challenge by promoting role models at all levels and across every area of the business. When students see more people like them succeeding because of STEM skills, they will increasingly choose STEM education as well.
The Army & Air Force Exchange Service is working hard to support a STEM talent pipeline. We are a multi-billion dollar retailer serving Soldiers, Airmen and their families in thousands of locations around the world. Despite our important and challenging mission, we sometimes struggle to recruit talent because retail is viewed as a “starter job” and not a career. We, and the rest of the retail industry, need to do a better job of conveying the exciting business and technology challenges in twenty-first century retail. Buying the right products, allocating them to the right location and pricing them correctly based on competition and historical experience all involve tremendous analytical processing. Getting the product to stores around the world with appropriate stock for online and replenishment sales demands operational excellence. Providing an outstanding omnichannel experience, allowing customers to shop in-store, online or from a mobile app requires a digital business model. Big data, mobile, social and cutting-edge cyber security – every area of emerging technology is required for a successful retail business.
Supporting a technology-driven business requires a strong talent pipeline and several programs are needed to keep that pipeline flowing. First is an active internship and college recruiting effort to attract a diverse pool of college graduates. Once they are on-board, employees have access to our online learning system, which provides retail, general business and technology classes. We also encourage our associates to pursue advanced degrees with a tuition reimbursement program. For associates interested in a technology career path, we have “IT University” to build the technical, analytical and business skills needed for success in senior roles. The IT department is also deploying a mentoring program exposing senior executives and new managers to fresh perspectives.
Our business is about results, so we measure the success of our talent pipeline development. We are developing a Human Capital Analytics system specifically designed to project future talent requirements and our ability to meet those needs. While we develop detailed analytics, there are exciting preliminary indicators. A great indicator of progress is the growing list of managers who have been promoted into important roles in nearly every area of the business including Merchandising, Credit, Logistics and Human Resources. Another indicator that we are moving in the right direction is the numerous awards the Exchange has won for building a diverse employee base.
By celebrating our success in building a diverse technology workforce, we create role models who encourage more high school and college students to consider retail as a career and technology as a great way to contribute to business outcomes.
Business and government should create an environment that promotes STEM education, but ultimately choosing a path is up to the individual. Success requires passion, so choose a field that excites you and a company with a mission you believe in and culture you enjoy. STEM fields are among the fastest changing and are critical to nearly every business, providing an excellent foundation for personal and professional growth. Furthermore, STEM fields have the advantage of a faster growing job pool along with higher average salaries. A STEM career can be an excellent personal choice.
Beyond passion, several hard skills are critical to success in STEM – and increasingly to all executive jobs. Statistics is a significantly underappreciated foundational knowledge and critical to business analysis. Programming is an excellent way to learn to decompose problems and logically structure solutions. Also, information management and analytics are becoming expected skills in a broad range of jobs.
Finally, some of the most exciting innovations in STEM and in business are coming at the intersection of disciplines. You must be a lifelong learner and collaborator, driving into new areas while applying the skills you have developed on the journey.