Accenture's CTO: R&D Must Be Practical

Donald T. Rippert explains why the computer-services provider is focusing greater attention on software and less on futuristic applications

Education-wise, Donald T. Rippert wasn't the most obvious candidate for the job of chief technology officer at technology consultant and outsourcing giant Accenture (ACN). Rippert majored in government at the University of Virginia and doesn't hold any degrees in technology or science. By contrast, Glover T. Ferguson, who as chief scientist was Rippert's predecessor, has a bachelor's degree and master's degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University.

But what Rippert may lack in educational credentials, he makes up for in on-the-job experience. For the past 25 years, Rippert has worked his way up the ladder in a number of technology-related jobs. In the 1980s, he cut his teeth writing and designing software and leading a team of assembly-language programmers on a project for the U.S. government. "Those four years probably got me more on the track toward a harder technology background than anything else," says Rippert.

Before his promotion in June, Rippert headed up the global solutions unit in Accenture's communications and high technology operating group. It was there that he came to know the company's current chief executive, William D. Green. "When Bill became CEO he decided to bring up someone with a technology background who he knew," Rippert says.

Today, Ripper is taking Accenture's technology labs in a new, more practical direction. Instead of looking out over a three- to eight-year horizon, Rippert is focusing Accenture's research and development more closely on the here and now. And he is placing more emphasis on building software programs, and less on futuristic applications such as sensor technology. BusinessWeek computers editor Spencer E. Ante spoke with Rippert recently over a lunch in Midtown Manhattan about Accenture's technology strategy. Edited excerpts follow.

Since you are not an engineer by training, it seemed unusual to me that Accenture tapped you to become its new CTO. Were you surprised?

I think it's the practical experience. Glover, who was chief scientist, was more in that futurist world. We've got R&D in a lot of areas. And the labs, which Glover ran, report to me now. I also have about 900 software architects reporting to me, which Glover did not have. Glover worked a lot on the science of technology. He did a lot around more of the exotic sensor networking, things we continue to do.

I feel like my background is more on the software side of technology. When it came time for me take on this role, Bill asked me, "What do you want to call the role?" It could have been managing partner of technology. Glover was chief scientist. I just thought that chief technology officer was something the market understands. It meant I was not only going to do the R&D work in the labs but also the software work in the field. And to set the agenda for Accenture as a whole, which is different than the scientist role.

So I asked the head of the research department, Anatole Gershman, to be the chief scientist. And he is a PhD in computer science. He is prototypical of that type. I took over the CTO role and title. I don't think we've ever had a CTO role under that name. We've had managing partners of technology. I would expect the CTO position to remain.

Does this mean you want to take things in a new direction?

Yes. In the past we had a lot of focus on the scientific side of technology and not as much on the software side. The feeling was that the lab should be three to eight years out. It should be very forward-looking. I want to pull it back a bit. I want to look from today to five years out. And I have a much greater emphasis on the software side. We still do a lot on the scientific side, but that's not all we do. A big reason I wanted the software architects working for me was that I wanted them out in the field telling me what was working, what wasn't working, what the customers were thinking. I wanted to make sure we had that feedback loop in place.

So what have you been up to since taking over last June?

We just finished our vision. I instituted an every-year technology vision. We did it from September through December. We went through about 150 technologies and distilled them down to 42 vision elements, which are opinions we have about the future. And we categorized them in two ways. First, by how important they were to our customers. We had high, medium, and low importance. Then we categorized them by how they fell. We had systems and software integration, intelligent device integration, and analytics.

The largest number of categories was in systems and software integration, which this year is a new category for the labs. The No. 1 category is service-oriented architecture. We think that for our clients and our scope of business it is the most important thing. We'll re-run the analysis starting next September. We'll refresh it every year. And it may move one way or another. But from now until the next five years that's the thing we consider most important.

How else do you use those priorities?

First, it drives our investment decisions. What we consider most important is where we put most of our money. We actually map their importance over a five-year period. It drives our approach to product development. And it generates collateral material that we use in client workshops. We run about 100 client workshops a year and 50 internal workshops a year. Almost every day we are running an innovation workshop.

How do you define success in your job?

The biggest thing is not to miss any major trend. That's probably the single thing that I've got to promise Green. Nothing will sneak up on us. That's the key one, but we have a lot of other metrics such as the number of workshops we present, the amount of revenue that we generate as part of (the) software architecture group, the number of assets that we develop that get included in bids we make throughout Accenture.

We have an asset that makes outsourcing easier. It's kind of a collaboration between the offshore and onshore teams. It involves video conferencing, intelligent instant messaging and document structuring. But at the end of a day I can't miss a major trend.

What's the biggest change you see in how technology companies manage R&D?

The biggest change I see it that it's gone from science to almost becoming the product development arm of a company. I see more and more of the guys doing R&D are not just doing the scientific research. It's nearer term. They've brought in the timeframe of R&D to include the here and now, to include the next release. When I talk to people about R&D, they say it needs to be more practically focused.

Will you miss out on some big ideas if you are too practical?

We align with universities. But as a services company we can probably move more quickly than a chipmaker. As a services company we have to be very good for the next three years, and pretty good for the couple years after that. When you start talking ten years out, we have the flexibility of changing, retraining, re-hiring to catch that. It's less important for us to be that far out. We do have some people working in the distance, on social engineering, voice recognition. But by and large we're in a five-year frame. I doubt we'll miss a big trend. And even if we were later than we should have been, we can move the firm quickly enough to get behind it since we're not building capital intensive factories.

Do you have a role model?

[Sun MicroSystems (SUNW) CEO Scott] McNealy, some of the Silicon Valley guys. [Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates and McNealy.

Why is that?

They had a real good sense for the future, and they understood the economics and not just the technology. [Apple (AAPL) CEO] Steve Jobs. They seem to be able to keep coming up with the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. I think that is a big part of what Accenture needs to do. We need to reinvent ourselves. We can't get stuck in the status quo. I also like the fact that they are outspoken. They have no fear of speaking their minds, no fear of ruffling feathers. It's good for the industry and it keeps things lively. I always enjoyed being around those guys.