Internationally Regarded Award-Winning IT Authority, Top Ranking
This week, Stephen
Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally
regarded, award winning, top ranking IT authority, and noted senior
executive, Jake Star.
Jake is currently VP and
Chief Information Security Executive for the $1B+ Mohegan Sun
Resort, the world’s most profitable casino/resort operation. Jake
was pivotal in taking revenues from $700M to $1.1B in one year. His
wide experience includes considerable successes in P&L management,
operations, strategic planning, sales, marketing, and information
Past senior positions
with government and industry include VP of R&D, Director of
Technical Services, Director of Information Technology, Marketing
Manager, Manager of Communication Technology, Manager of Application
Development and Support, Project Manager and Project Director.
Jake has won numerous
software development awards from PC Magazine, PC World, and Parent’s
Choice Foundation. He is an Advisory Board Member, for Network
Jake holds a BSc in
Mathematics from Tel-Aviv University.
Q: Jake, you have an
impressive and long record of accomplishment as both an industry
leading IT expert and top ranking executive. We are fortunate to
have you with us to do this interview—thank you!
A: Thank you for giving
me the opportunity to share some of my experiences. I’m looking
forward to this format.
Q: What sparked your
interest in computers?
A: To keep me out of
trouble when I was 14, my mother gave me a Timex-Sinclair. I
couldn’t deal with the 30 minutes it took to load the chess game
from a cassette, so I ended up playing around with the BASIC
language. I was drawn by the logic required for coding. Like most
programmers, I believed I could do it better.
In college, I studied
mathematics, which brought all the challenges of waiting for
computer time to run my programs. While waiting, I tried out this
communication “thing” called Relay. In my first day of using Relay,
I reconnected with an old friend, and made many new ones. While it
is almost embarrassing to think that a chat room is what got me into
computers, those of us using Relay (back in the mid-80’s) had a real
sense that this was the beginning of something special.
My father was an
elementary school teacher in a school district that didn’t pay very
well. He told me I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, but if
I became a teacher, he’d break both my legs. (I tested this promise
when I told him I wanted to be a musician.) Even so, I was drawn to
teaching. I haven’t told him that the biggest part of my job now is
teaching my employees and customers.
Q: Will you please share
the background behind the many awards you have achieved?
A: I was raised on an
old-fashioned work standard – if you build good products, you’ll be
successful. But when I started my career developing educational
software, I learned very quickly that marketing (letting the
consumer know you have a good product) is just as important. I’ve
been fortunate to work with teams that worked hard not only to
create great products, but worked just as hard to make those
products respected in the marketplace. All of the awards are a
tribute to the efforts of those teams.
Q: You have so many of
them. What are your top three achievements and why?
A: The expansion of
Mohegan Sun certainly ranks at the top of my list. We completed a
$1.2 Billion expansion of our property in June, 2002. We went from a
large casino to a huge casino, plus a hotel, convention center,
retail space, and 10,000 seat arena. From an IT perspective, it goes
beyond the fact that we completed our portion ($50 Million) on time
and under budget. I am even more proud that we successfully operated
a 24/7 business, led a huge expansion, and replaced all of our major
systems (network, PBX, ERP, casino apps) at the same time. That we
did this in a manner which allows us the flexibility to expand even
further is a tribute to both the team and the commitment our
management has shown to IT.
software was extremely rewarding. Even with the challenges we had
back then (we couldn’t even assume that the computer could display
color), it was so exciting to watch a 2-year-old child learning the
alphabet from something we developed.
I spent a year working
with a consulting firm at the Connecticut Office of Health Care
Access (OHCA). All hospitals in the state are required to report
detailed financial information to OHCA a number of times each year.
This used to be done using over 100 spreadsheets that hadn’t changed
in over ten years. We developed a web-based system to ease the data
entry, and eliminated 80% of the data points that were never used.
As a result, the process for each filing period went from over 80
hours down to two hours. I’m proud of this not only for the actual
results, but also because we helped demonstrate that government can
use technology to benefit constituents.
Q: With your many
successes, which three “prior” positions provided the greatest
challenges and lessons? What were these lessons?
A: A number of years ago,
I took a foray into the world of marketing. I became the marketing
manager for Polaris Software. This gave me a great perspective not
only on how IT is perceived from within the organization, but also
of the challenges associated with building a brand and product
awareness. It certainly wasn’t as easy as it looked from the IT side
of the fence.
My first consulting
project was at a major insurance company here in Connecticut. It was
my first exposure to a huge IT organization and the challenges they
can face in fulfilling the needs of many internal customers while
maintaining some sense of control and standardization. Since my job
brought me into contact with many of those internal customers, it
became easy to see a critical pattern – the business areas who felt
they had a friendly ear within IT, someone who understood their
business, were the ones who perceived the greatest benefit of the IT
organization. However, this perception didn’t match the reality of
the quantity of services provided. The customers getting the most
service were the least happy, because they didn’t perceive that they
had good communications with IT.
I’ve worked at companies
with no IT processes, as well as those who are close to Level 5 on
the SEI Capability Maturity Model. Lack of process, especially in
software development, can be disastrous. At the same time, I’ve
found that you can’t get from Level 2 to Level 5 overnight, and you
may not truly desire to achieve Level 5. As the name implies,
companies need to mature from level to level. I worked at a company
where we decided to implement a lot of processes, but the employees
didn’t understand why they needed to do things differently. If the
employees don’t understand why, and how they are going to benefit,
the maturity leap can’t happen.
I have to add a fourth,
because it is one of the easiest things I’ve done in my career, with
the greatest financial reward for my employer. I was working for a
Clinical Research Organization, SCIREX, which primarily manages
studies of drugs for major pharmaceutical companies. My software was
an add-on Interactive Voice Response service which, while highly
profitable, usually represented under 5% of the overall project. Our
sales folks asked me to demo the system to a potential new client.
She was considering us for a $20 Million project, but had previous
bad experience with a company that provided an IVR. Instead of
jumping into the demo, I asked her about this bad experience. She
talked about customer service issues, and not being able to reach a
support person. After she finished her explanation, I simply gave
her my home phone number – we never demoed the system. The next day,
she gave us the business, and listed my home phone number as the
reason she chose our company.
Q: Can you describe your
current work and your greatest current challenges?
A: Mohegan Sun is a
relatively young company (7 years) which has undergone tremendous
growth, with more on the way. A lot of my time is spent working with
my team on maturing our processes. At the same time, I’m looking at
the impact that new technologies could have in our operation, and
trying to evangelize those technologies to both the business folks
and my team. Finally, I’m working with our executives to make sure
that we have the right technologies and plans in place to support
the next phase of our expansion.
We want to drive
innovation and growth, but also need to make sure we successfully
operate a 24/7 business with stable systems. Our greatest challenge
is in preserving our core while maintaining a strong drive for
Q: What are the major
strengths of your company?
A: I think it all starts
with leadership. We have an extremely energetic executive team
(average age is 46) that is not afraid to take us down a different
At Mohegan Sun, we’ve
adopted the concepts in “Built to Last”, by Collins and Porras.
There are a few areas of the book that stand out:
Having a Core Ideology
which we deeply believe and religiously preserve helps us to develop
the passionate employees who lead our success.
Our Core Values don’t
limit our potential, but they drive our actions. The management team
is just as focused on how a project will “Blow Away the Customer” as
they are on “Bottom Line Performance”. (Our other two Core Values
are Developing Dedicated and Passionate Employees and Continuously
Striving for Perfection.)
In the past, I’ve
encountered many organizations which were almost overwhelmed by the
volume of work to be done, especially in IT. We would tell
management we could accomplish one goal OR the other. “Built to
Last” reminds us to focus on the “Genius of the AND”. While the
workload may be scary, we try to find ways to accomplish all of the
Of course, all of the
leadership results in us having a great product. While most people
may have thought of us as a casino, we believe our mix, including
retail, entertainment, sports, and dining, is what drives happy
Q: Where do you see
yourself and your company in five years?
A: We have some very
aggressive growth goals for the organization. Our research shows
that there is still room for growth in our local market. In
addition, our success has led to numerous requests to assist other
tribes who are getting involved in gaming.
I’m excited at the
prospect of leading further expansion. At the same time, I see many
areas where my team can help the business operate more effectively.
When I stepped into the
VP role here, I was concerned that it might take me too far away
from the hands-on technology access I love. What I’ve since learned
is that, the better I am at delegating to my team, the more time I
have to keep looking at technology.
Q: You have a remarkable
career with so many leadership positions resulting in great
achievements—especially in spurring revenue growth, reducing
expenses, and increasing efficiency! What are your top ten tips for
A: Distilling leadership
into a top ten list is a great challenge for me. As I list the tips,
I keep thinking that they should apply to everyone on my team. I
have found that the leaders I admire are those who build consensus,
but are not afraid to make tough decisions (and take responsibility
for those decisions). Sometimes, the tough decision that a leader
makes is simply to be quiet.
1) Understand the
business ahead of the technology.
2) Build consensus, but
don’t be afraid to make decisions.
3) Your customers should
know what to expect from you.
4) Judge yourself more by
how much you teach than by how much you learn.
5) Give your team the
tools they need to earn your trust.
6) Always be visible,
available, and open to interaction.
7) Treat everyone as a
customer. Thank them for the challenges they present.
8) Minimize the need for
heroism, but make everyone a hero.
9) Demonstrate the value
10) IT folks love sweets
– so learn how to bake cookies.
Q: What prior experiences
are “amazing” to you?
A: When I worked at
Polaris Software, we had a product called “PackRat”. It was an early
Personal Information Manager, before much of that functionality was
built into OutLook and Notes. As their Marketing Manager, I ran
their online forum on CompuServe. While I had been online for a
number of years already, it was my first experience where my message
was getting out to hundreds of people, and where my ability to
communicate was a bigger factor than my technical skills. The most
amazing part was that the customers I encountered online were
fanatics about the product. It was so important to their daily lives
that they felt a great need to help us make the product better.
I spent some time at a
very small software company called WaveMetrics, in Oregon. Their
product is used by many scientific researchers for graphing and
analysis. Again, the customers were fanatics about the product –
most of our sales came from word-of-mouth. It was amazing to see our
product in use – in operating rooms, on particle accelerators. This
was also my first real experience with international markets – the
Japanese researchers we worked with are among most appreciative and
gracious customers I’ve ever encountered.
When I was still in
college in Israel, I had the great fortune to encounter member of a
large group of immigrants from Ethiopia. These fantastic people had
never been exposed to what we call modern society and conveniences.
Electricity and plumbing were concepts which they had to be taught.
One day, a neighbor walked into my apartment while I was “vegging”
on the couch listening to my Walkman. He was amazed when I put the
headphones on his ears. I was amazed when, within two minutes, he
had grasped the concept of a Walkman, how the music worked, and how
it got to his ears. This experience taught me a lot about embracing
Q: Do you have any
humorous stories to share?
A: I always strive to
have some new experience each day at work – sometimes they are not
the experiences I had in mind. On my way in this morning, I was
thinking that answering these questions would be my new experience
for the day. I received a page from my help desk. A pipe had burst
in one of our storage rooms, raining water on over 200 PC’s,
monitors, and other peripherals. Not exactly what I had in mind!
I’m extremely proud of
our expansion project here. Not many people can go out and see a
beautiful property that is the result of their hard work. But the
enormity of what we had accomplished didn’t hit me until a few
months after the construction was complete. I was sitting at home
one evening, watching television. I turned on wrestling for a bit,
since they were broadcasting from the Mohegan Sun Arena. They were
doing a piece from one of the dressing rooms, and Stephanie McMahon
slammed one of my phones! Seeing one of my phones slammed on
national television is what drove home the enormity of what we have
Q: Please pick five
topics from your extensive work experiences. Can you share three
“special and very useful” tips in each topic area?
A: Area - Strategic
1) Work hard to
understand the direction in which your business is heading.
2) Even if the direction
starts with “It depends”, gather the nuggets of information that are
3) Plans change. “No
battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.
Area - Integration
1) Don’t describe it in
terms of making life easier for IT.
2) Unique systems will
still exist, so don’t create an all-or-nothing environment.
3) We have not yet
reached the end of new integration technologies, so plan for radical
change in integration techniques.
Area - Marketing
1) Don’t do anything that
limits their creativity.
2) As soon as the
requirements are documented, they are outdated, so…
3) Plan for and embrace
the changes are coming.
Area - Auditors – the
casino industry is very highly regulated. My team goes through an
average of five different audits each fiscal year. As federal
regulations impact more and more IT departments, I believe we all
need to be prepared to partner with those who will be monitoring our
1) They are not the enemy
– make them feel like a part of your team.
2) They can be another
tool for marketing both your progress and those areas you feel need
3) Perceive your response
to an audit as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership – for each
finding, document your plan for resolution, estimated timeframe, and
designate a person to be responsible.
Area - Casino Industry –
every visitor and vendor asks me similar questions. Here are the
1) Yes, we are watching
all the cameras.
2) No, I can’t tell you
which machine is about to pay off big.
3) It is nothing like the
Q: What are the five most
important IT trends to watch, and please provide some
A: 1) Wireless in the
enterprise – I believe we’re finally past the security issues and
are prepared to demonstrate Return on Investment. Wireless isn’t
about connectivity everywhere, it is about the applications that we
can provide. From an infrastructure perspective, wireless is scary
right now. The best products are not from the big vendors, which is
a sure sign consolidation is coming.
2) Business Process
Optimization – For a while, I thought that Web Services was a big
deal. In reality, it is another tool in the BPO toolbox. BPO is IT’s
opportunity to lead the business to much greater efficiency. BPO is
how we will apply the formal IT processes to the rest of the
3) Regulations –
Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA. If we see all these new regulations as a
pain, we lose. If we see them as an opportunity to lead our
companies (especially in BPO), we can get some real bang for the
dollars we spend on compliance.
4) Security – As cool as
biometrics has seemed to me, I’m not yet convinced I want many
people to have access to my fingerprints. However, I think I’ll be
giving in soon, as the amount of identity theft and fraud tied to
current security mechanisms is growing at an alarming rate.
I think we’ll see a
greater adoption of Identity and Access Management in the next year.
Not in the form of Single Sign-On. Most of our businesses are too
complex – too many moving parts for SSO. Instead, federated identity
– systems sharing that which is common, but maintaining their
differences as well – will be the flavor most of us implement
5) The fall of the
analysts – As IT becomes more challenged to demonstrate the ROI
behind every decision we make, I’ve been seeing that we are having a
tough time explaining the big subscription fees we pay to the
analyst services. While we used to need their help in understanding
which products to choose, we can now get good information from many
online sources. The analysts will need to change their strategy and
pricing in order to remain relevant.
Q: What are the five
greatest challenges facing businesses today? What are their
A: I think there are many
direct links between the challenges we face and the IT trends.
1) Limited economic
growth – I think the past couple of years have taught us that we
can’t assume huge growth. That is putting more focus on operating
our businesses as efficiently as possible.
2) Regulations – As
painful as they may be, all of the new regulations I see are common
sense. We need to stay focused on the role they can play in
improving our bottom line.
3) Adapting to the true
impact of online – As the Internet has grown, I think a lot of
companies have seen it as a tool for getting their message out to a
large audience. However, the truly successful online companies
clearly understand that customers are still individuals. The
customer wants a message targeted specifically to their individual
needs. Online Customer Value Management systems, which are
affordable for all sizes of businesses, are a key solution here.
4) Security – We gather
so much information about our customers. Our customers want us to
use that information to tailor a message for them. At the same time,
they are extremely concerned about the privacy of that information.
We all need to focus even more on the security of our information.
We need to insist that our vendors bake that security into their
5) Perhaps the biggest
challenge I see, and there are a lot of factors behind it, is
finding and keeping great employees. With limited economic growth
and increasing health insurance costs, it is difficult to maintain
long-term loyalty. We’ve been fortunate that we keep finding
exciting projects that motivate our best employees.
Q: Where do you see IT in
relation to business strategy and operations?
A: If you look at the
“mission statement” of most IT departments, it would include
something like, “We will lead the company in the use of technology…”
The key word here is “lead”. In order to lead the business, we need
to understand the business. I’m encountering more and more
organizations where IT is now not only involved in the strategic
planning process, but is leading the process.
As we become more
involved in the boardroom, we need to keep in mind that not all
solutions require technology. I find that respect for my team grows
more when we assist in building good processes than when we
implement a new technology.
Q: Any predictions about
the economy and future IT spending?
A: I’ve been extremely
fortunate to spend the last four years at an organization that has
continued to spend through the downturn in the economy. That
spending has shown great benefits to us – the experience level of
the staff we’ve hired has improved, and we’ve made some great deals
with vendors seeking to weather the storm.
I think the economy has
turned a corner, though some areas of the country are lagging
behind. We’ll see a lot of companies spending on technology
refreshes that have been put off for a couple of years. However, I
don’t see IT budgets growing significantly faster than the economy.
Instead of the meteoric rise (and fall) we’ve seen the past few
years, I believe we’re in for a more gentle ride.
Q: What are your top
recommended resources for both businesses and IT professionals?
A: I am constantly
reading. Even though many of the trade publications will give the
same story, I find I learn from the subtle differences in
1) Google – This is both
powerful and scary. If you Google yourself and don’t find anything,
you need to get online more.
2) Weekly Trade
publications – I try and balance a number of “generics” (eWeek,
Information Week, InfoWorld) with some area-specific ones (Network
3) Bi-weekly or monthly
publications – Find the ones that go beyond just your area of
expertise. Network Computing and CIO Insight are great examples.
4) Business books – these
can be tough for us IT folks. If you haven’t gotten into the spirit
of reading this type of book, start off with anything written by Guy
5) Mentors – I’ve found
that having someone outside my company to bounce ideas off of is a
fantastic resource. Having a mentor who also tells me when I’m way
off track is even more beneficial.
Q: What kind of computer
setup do you have?
A: I tend to upgrade my
office PC every few months. We use Dell machines. I use Microsoft
Virtual PC, so I can have one partition which is the standard image
my customers use. My other partition tends to be more fun. I’ve got
both a Polycom ViaVideo and a Logitech 4000 camera for my
videoconferencing testing at the moment. I’m also playing a lot with
proof-of-concept demos using Office 2003 – trying to show how our
business can benefit from the upgrade.
At home, it’s a
combination of Dell (for the games my daughter and I play) and a
PowerMac G5 (my wife, a graphic artist, is still convinced that the
right mouse button represents the fall of modern society). We’ve got
Cisco wireless network, but also a Cisco 3548 switch so I can stay
up to date on my networking configurations.
I gave up my laptop about
nine months ago. I’ve found I can do almost everything I need to on
Q: If you were doing this
interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your
position and what would be your answers?
A: Well, I’d certainly
try to make them a bit easier!
Q1: What is the single
most important factor in the success of IT in your current position?
A1: Our IT Steering
Committee. All Senior VP’s and above participate in the monthly
meeting. They help us set priorities, as well as address any
challenges we’re facing. The good news is that they know exactly
what is going on, and support us. Of course, that also means we
can’t hide our failing from them.
Q2: What part of your
education has been most useful to you in your career?
A2: I took a class called
The Psychology of Creativity. We learned about some of the geniuses
throughout history. More importantly, we looked at how some teams of
highly intelligent people made bad decisions. For example, how did
John F. Kennedy go from such disaster in the Bay of Pigs to such
success with the Cuban Missile Crisis? This class really formed the
basis of my leadership style, and still guides how I work with my
Q3: What is the hardest
part of transitioning from technical leadership to business
A3: Even though moving
from a completely technical focus to a business really does involve
learning a new language (ROI, accruals, amortization, P&L, etc.),
I’ve found that it takes more effort to sell my ideas. As a business
leader, I need to present my ideas in different ways. I have to
present them many times. It may be obvious to my technical team that
we need to do XML and Web Services, but I need to phrase it
differently for the business. I need to speak in terms of what they
are going to be asking me for next year, and how these technologies
will position my team to deliver those future solutions more
Q: Jake, your in-depth
insights are of great value to our audience. Thank you for doing
A: This is a truly unique
format – I’ve found it both more challenging and rewarding than the
normal interview. Thanks for providing the challenge!