Geek Speak

Jody Giles is the Chief Information Officer at Under Armour and Loyola University of Maryland Sellinger School of Business Lattanze Executive of the Year for 2013. Jody has made his mark as a strong leader who instinctively understands the specific ways that technology supports business goals, and he has a contagious excitement for what technology can do. He has pounded code and led the deployment of massive database systems at corporate and public sector giants, but “Business first; technology second” is Jody’s motto. His career has made him a big believer in the importance of system awareness—the willingness to map and analyze how information moves through your business—to a leader’s ability to drive continuous innovation and stay leaner and meaner than the competition.

Jody told me what he had just told a large group of Loyola undergraduate business students: that they should be information science majors, too. That course of study has allowed the current data chief at Under Armour to see multiple aspects of large companies in a way that makes sense, where decision points are clear, and where you gain the confidence and ability to tweak and tinker with the moving parts that make the company run.

Born Joseph D. Giles, Jody grew up around big brains in the shadow of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a place where he says there’s “plenty of beach but no water.” Giles says UNM has some of the oldest average age students in the country because of people like Jody’s father, who worked in the weapons labs at Los Alamos. Learning wasn’t a four-year stint but a lifelong process in his family’s eyes.

Jody started college as a biomedical engineering major, but then he got a crummy grade on an exam in a critical class. His teacher didn’t mince words: the red ink on the test paper suggested that Jody drop the class, and the 19 year-old didn’t disagree.

Despite that grade in a math-heavy course, Jody didn’t shy away from the technical side of things. When his dad pitched in his own advice—“You’d eat up the b-school”—Jody listened to that too, and took on the study of Business Computer Systems. It wasn’t biomedical, but it was engineering, and he got a kick out of the work he did as he learned to do it well.

That dive into the world of computers enabled Jody to see how the rest of his business education could be put into action through information systems. After getting his MBA from Pepperdine, he learned an early lesson from his CIO at Southern California Gas Company that business always comes first: an IT solution is only as good as the business logic behind it, even if those with the 30,000-foot view of systems can see things more clearly than a manager deep in the weeds. They all need to talk. And to share and square observations with each other, team members need compassion. Compassion isn’t a touchy-feely concept, it’s shared vision, and it’s what Jody says underpins his team’s success. Jody sees his mission as equipping his team with compassion. They need to know about needs and turn that knowledge into business solutions.

After all, intelligence is a lot, but it isn’t everything. Jody brings a heavy dose of spirit into what he does, and like other people I’ve profiled in passion-driven companies, Jody talks about the artistry of doing business. “Do your art,” he says. Under Armour is dead set on delivering a superior experience to customers, and Jody is always fine tuning his side of the system to make sure the customer feels the care and time that went into getting that shirt, shoe, electronic device or other piece of equipment just right. Internal customers inside Under Armour appreciate that approach too.

Jody says the highest compliment to his work as a team leader is when one of his team gets pulled out of the IT side of things to help run another division. Not program, not troubleshoot—run the division.

And he outlines four key pillars for how he and the whole corporate team operates at Under Armour: great product; great story; great service, and great team. No matter the stage of your business, you can apply those same pillars.

Under Armour employees learn to be humble and hungry, because as an underdog (despite its growth in employees and profile), the company has always had to outdo the competition on service in order to get ahead.

Inside the organization, that means you don’t give someone a hard time for fumbling the ball—”you pick up the ball.” It doesn’t even have to be one of the starters or players on the field who scores in an environment where real teamwork is the rule. On a successful team, roles change suddenly, credit is shared, and everyone is working toward a common goal with everything they do. “Even the equipment manager gets a Super Bowl ring,” Jody reminds. And information system managers win every day when their systems drive business growth.

With his computer science and business background combined, he pulled a page from Yogi Berra’s book and took the fork in the road when he came to it. He worked in early computer languages like COBOL and says he used to dream in SQL code, but he didn’t want to be a database administrator.

Giles decided to focus on the business end of database administration, building on his experience project managing major database development. He got into blueprinting business systems that could handle heavy-duty data. After working in the energy industry, he went on to become Executive Director of Systems at Paramount Pictures.

Then Jody became the CTO of Virgin Interactive, where he ran one of the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games to be deployed commercially. You may have heard of these MMORPGs like World of Warcraft drawing millions of users and creating new economies for virtual goods online. More than big games, they’re giant systems, with lots of parallels in the way customers interact with each other and with companies.

The ability to scale is as important to sell in the experience-driven gaming sector as it is in apparel and footwear, where Giles has made his mark for the past decade at Under Armour and Vans.

Jody gets together periodically with a group of CIOs who come from cool companies like his and who share his focus on systems. They see how old apparel process design can be reengineered to incorporate better data that represents the athletes and kids and casual wearers their companies want to outfit.

You can do different things with consumer data: you can put out ads that target micro-demographics; you can try to predict the future; or, you can use the data to just keep making the product as good as it can be.

Under Armour is what Jody calls an engineered product. Not that cotton is dumb, but customers expect that there’s science and technology behind the fabric and fit of Under Armour gear. Jody knows that putting on Under Armour means something to the wearer: they’ve made an investment in getting to the next level and beyond. They’re ready to sweat.

Jody and his team are in the performance business, ready to work to earn those customers’ loyalty. Moving in and out of business divisions nimbly and telling managers they might not be seeing their operation clearly is a sweat-inducing exercise in itself. Just like running a mile every day, though, the work pays off and even gets easier.

As he’s gone along in his career, across the country, and in and out of divisions, system awareness has served Jody Giles well. “Consumption varies, but data management principles are the same,” he says.

Originally published in SmartCEO Magazine, October 2013

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