Q&A with Scott Spradley (Part 1)

A headshot of a clean-shaven man with short gray hair wearing a pinstriped black suit with a blue and black striped tie.

EVP and Chief Technology Officer,
Tyson Foods

SCOTT SPRADLEY IS known in the tech world as a “transformer.” Before returning to his native Arkansas to be CTO of Tyson Foods, he was CIO at Hewlett Packard and, most recently, Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Hewlett Packard Enterprise was formed after the separation of the mothership HP, creating two separate publicly traded Fortune 50 companies; one focused on printing, imaging, and personal computing, the other (HPE) focused on enterprise compute, storage, and networking.

Called in business a “divestiture-spin-merge,” this was the largest such transaction in corporate history, and Scott’s reputation as a transformational CIO grew as a result of his leadership in executing it in a mere 10 months. Prior to HP, he held a variety of leadership roles at Chevron and Intel. We caught up with him to talk about both Tyson and his Arkansas homecoming—an interview that produced so much rich material that we’re dividing it over two consecutive issues of the newsletter.

First of all, I’m confused—your LinkedIn bio says you majored in Political Science. How does a Poli Sci major get to be head of tech at Tyson Foods?

It’s true, my listed major is Political Science. But I was always a techno nut—that’s my passion. I grew up in Little Rock, and I’ve had jobs ever since I was 10 years old. I remember I worked at a health club once, and in about three days I knew everything that the system did, and the owner of the club didn’t know anything the system did. So I started popping out reports for him and he was amazed.

But back to my college major—I transferred to a few schools. I didn’t have the financial backing that most people did, and I was always pursuing an athletic scholarship, in basketball. I went to Arkansas my freshman year, and tried to “try out” for a walk-on position, but wasn’t even good enough to get a real try-out. I was in the process of transferring to University of New Orleans when I blew out my ankle and tore my Achilles, and I had that surgically repaired.

Then, in about 1985, I just hitched a ride to California on my own, with 400 bucks in my pocket. I landed in Santa Barbara, and then kind of went on from there. So I had a lot of units when I graduated. And besides Poli Sci I was also pursuing a technical degree, but I hated COBOL. And I actually got into an argument with a COBOL professor—in class—because I had gone surfing for a few weeks and blown off COBOL. So at a more youthful time in my life, when I didn’t understand the more elegant rules of conversation and battle, I told him politely where he could go, and he told me politely that I was not going to pass COBOL. And so my degree was confirmed in Poli Sci.

After graduation I got into technology and made a career, and California was really cool for a long period of time. It still has a lot of great things about it, but the taxes are brutal. And I wanted to come home—I’ve always wanted to come back to Arkansas. Now I’ve been based in Fayetteville for almost two years, and I can hardly wait until I can be in Arkansas over weekends.

Just so our readers understand, at the time of this interview you’re still commuting back and forth between California and Arkansas.

That’s right. When I got on the phone with Tom Hayes, who was the then-Tyson CEO recruiting me, I said right off the bat, “Hey, full disclosure, I don’t make a lot of promises, but if I make them, I’m going to keep them. And I promised my son that I would not have him move once he went to high school.”

“How would you do it?” Tom said. “Well,” I said, “I’d fly in on Sunday and fly out on Thursday, if it works out.” And he said, “I’ll do you one better. If you do that three weeks in a row then the fourth week, I think if anybody in this company will know how to work from home it ought to be you.” And so this arrangement has worked out fine. It’s kind of interesting, because during this period my wife says she thinks she sees me more now than she did in ten years at HP.

Well, let’s talk about Tyson, a great example of a legacy company that has flourished by embracing technology. I mean, you remember Tyson when you were growing up, it was chicken houses….

I do, I do remember Tyson growing up. In fact, I can remember when Tyson owned turkeys. I think they owned Butterball or somebody. And my uncle has a cabin over in Berryville with an immense amount of land and a private lake, and bordering his property was a Tyson property. There was a lot of runoff coming from that property onto my uncle’s property and into the lake, and everybody was nervous about having to go tell the Tyson guy, hey, you got to stop that.

So my dad and my dad’s two brothers went over and talked to the guy, and when they got back they couldn’t get over how nice he was—the Tyson guy told them he’d have it fixed within 24 hours. And sure enough, he went out on a tractor and dug a culvert and did some other things to switch the runs so nothing was running into our property.

That speaks well for the company.

Yep, it does. But when I was considering coming here it took a lot for me to believe that John Tyson was going to be supportive of what I was going to be asked to do, because we were talking about transforming Tyson Foods.

But in talking to John, I was compelled by his vision, to be very candid. He’s quite visionary, and he wants to transform. So it’s been incredible.

I was asked to come in and “modernize” the company. The conversation went something like, “Well, what do you want from a CTO? What are you looking to get?” And the CEO at the time, Tom Hayes, said, “I think I want what we know you do. We know you’re a transformer, and that’s what we want.” And I said, “Well, what does transformation mean to you?” And he kind of flipped it to me and said, “What does it mean to you?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know what you have and what you don’t have, but I would imagine you probably need to modernize a lot of things—like going to mobile, adding data sciences, machine learning, artificial intelligence, moving to the Cloud, changing the cost structures to improve margins…you probably need to rationalize the application and refine the architecture.”

At one point he told me they had a new world-class data center, and my answer was, “I’m sorry to hear that,” to which he was a little taken aback. “Why?” he said. And I told him that one of the reasons I had made the decision to leave Hewlett Packard was that I don’t think owning and operating data centers is a long strategy. The Cloud has disrupted traditional and conventional workload management, and I think the Cloud gives us an ability to manage our CAPEX and OPEX spends in a more unique way, where we can spend what we need to spend, when we need to spend it, but not spend what we need to spend all the time, even when we don’t need it.

“I think what you’re looking for is somebody who’s going to come in here and be a change agent,” I said. “Somebody who has the technology chops to identify technologies that can accelerate the transformation of this company from what I’d describe as a ‘born-and-remained analog company’ to a transformed digital speed company.”

There was a lot of conversation around the fact that today’s new companies are being born purely digital. They’re born on the mobile platform, they’re born on the Cloud, they’ve got lower operating cost structures, they’ve got faster speeds, they’ve got common data models, they can get to predictive analytics and prescriptive analytics faster, and therefore they will disrupt you if you don’t do these things.

And so Tom bought into that, and then our new CEO, Noel White, obviously bought into it. And John Tyson too. It’s exciting to me when you have a chairman of the board and patriarch of the company who really does understand and support what you’re trying to accomplish.

I’ve been here two years on June 26, and we’ve done a lot already. I came in and cancelled the biggest project that was going on in Tyson from a technology perspective. They’d done two-and-a-half years on a technology project upgrade to multiple instances of SAP, which is a big enterprise planning platform. And I said I just don’t think your plan is the right vision. I think the cost is very high—they wanted another year-and-a-half and another $150 million—so I cancelled that and said we’re going to go live in a single instance, on a more modern platform, and we’re going to do this in the Cloud. We did that in record time, like 15 months, and that included two pauses because we didn’t have enough of some of the business resources we needed to support something of that magnitude. Besides that, we’ve started building robotics. We’ve started putting in machine learning. We’ve actually got data sciences now that are predicting EBIT and returns. We’ve got vision systems that are in play.

A lot of people who know me but don’t know Tyson think I’m working at some place that might be a bunch of chicken farms. And they don’t know that “poultry,” as we prefer to call it, is just one of the product lines. Every time they eat a great steak, they’re probably eating our great steak. Or every time they’re having some really good ribs they’re probably having our really good ribs. Or they’re having some new barbecue that might be ours, or that pizza topping that probably came from us, or those taco shells of ours.

In “modernizing” the company, what are your specific goals with all this new technology?

One of the things that Tyson has done very, very well for years is operated well, right? We can create great food products, we can be very efficient in our operation at the plant level. But one of the things we had not been able to do well is to record those transactions effectively in order to ensure that our planning is exceptional. In our business, we provide food to the world, so we need to know what food the world wants, how much is needed, and where and when it’s needed. Because of the enormity of predicting demand and consumption, we have to also go back and look at the supply chain. How are we going to acquire that much food or grow that much food?

That’s where data sciences factors in so heavily. When you’re Big Chief Tableting—that’s what I call the manual process of forecasting—and your data model for forecasting hasn’t really changed in 10 years, but technology has improved so much, you’re cheating yourselves.

I just gave a keynote speech last week, and one of the things I said is that if you go back and look at a management office or a boardroom in, say, 1950 or 1960, what data did they have to drive them? They might’ve had, “Here’s how much we sold last year,” or, “Here’s how much we sold last quarter.” And that might be it.

Today we’ve got social media telling us how many birthdays are coming up, how many golf events are going on, how many baseball games there are, how many football games are scheduled, what the weather is, what the tides are, how long it’s going to take to deliver a product—is it going to take 32 days to get there, or 23 days? Is it going to rain a lot? Is it not going to rain at all? How many people are about to turn age 22? How many people are turning age 25? What does their socioeconomic breakdown look like?

My point is that there’s so much data available today, you can pretty much answer any question you have to ask with significant amounts of data. Today in the world there’s 2.7 zettabytes of data, and a zettabyte is a septillion byte of data. So just to give you a scale of relativity, the Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, and there’s 532 miles of bookshelves inside the Library of Congress. The digital equivalent of all of that is about 10 terabytes. Ten terabytes is nothing! Today we have 2.7 zettabytes of data, that’s 150 million times around the earth. And in six years we’re going to have 170 zettabytes of data. So we should be able to use data to forecast anything, because all the questions have been asked, and we have that many more answers.

Which gives us the ability to make patterns and recognition of patterns, which really improves the curve on predicting and forecasting, and then actually moving toward an autonomous type set of systems. That’s what we’re doing at Tyson Foods from a technology perspective; our technology teams are focused on building these types of solutions. We know that these are the real game changers.

What kinds of tech people are you bringing on?

The day the news of my leaving HP was released in the Wall Street Journal, I started getting inundated with calls from people I’ve known. Some of them were calls like, “Oh my god, Arkansas? You’re going to work at a chicken house?” But ultimately I was barraged with calls from people saying, “Hey, I love the decision you made—the world’s never going to need less food. And that’s a great food company with a great brand, and I want to come join you.”

And my answer was, “I’d love to have you. I’m sizing up the team that I’ve inherited here, so let me go through that for a little bit and I’ll reach back at you and let you know if I’ve got a role.” And I had some very, very good friends from Silicon Valley that are very, very capable people. But turns out I had people here that were already great, so I got back to the others and said, “Hey, I’d love to have you, but I don’t have a role right now.”

Then I finally started looking at getting enough data to make some decisions around the operating model and the org model, and realized I needed some additional talent. Tyson is very, very stable from an IT perspective. We have a lot of full-custom (that is, internally designed and developed) systems, a lot of old systems, but they work, and they work pretty well—but they’re not primed for transformation, they’re not primed for value add, and for what we need to try to do to tighten the operation.

That’s when we began to widen our recruiting focus and brought in a head of data sciences. This is a guy who’d been forecasting global fuel consumption by the airlines, being able to say here’s how much fuel you’re going to need as you fly around the world. We had some very interesting algorithmic conversations. Did you know that planes travelling from west to east are typically heavier than planes travelling from east to west? I mean, think about it. Westerners carry a lot more luggage, and they’re generally bigger people. Easterners carry less luggage, and they’re lighter people, so they get more economy. And then you start thinking about trade winds and headwinds and climate times—this guy’s math on this stuff and the algorithms that we drew on the whiteboard were just incredible! So we brought him in to help run data sciences.

We’ve also brought in a guy who can help us dictate a new future-state architecture: Here are the Cloud platforms we want to have, and this is the way we want to move to the Cloud. We’ve brought in someone to help transform our mainframe environment, because our fresh meats group runs on mainframe. And while that’s very stable, it’s not well suited to moving toward predictive analytics or autonomous-based systems that can plan and forecast and create demand, and demand plans and fulfillment demands, and travel and logistics remapping.

So we’re bringing in all kinds of people with experience in emerging technologies in the areas I mentioned, but also that are ready to lead change. We have great people at Tyson, very smart and obviously dedicated people, but the previous technology leadership was not supportive of Cloud, OpenSource, or Containers—so we need to bring in people who are experienced in these areas to evangelize these newer technologies. We need to have people in leadership who are willing to challenge the long-standing status quos of the on-premise mindset, willing to embrace change and enable an innovative mindset.

Sounds like this has turned out to be a happy and productive homecoming for you.

It really has. One of the things I tell colleagues of mine who are in the CTO or CIO role in other Fortune 50 companies is that it’s nice being the head of technology in a company that’s not a technology company. You get to do what you think needs to be done, and as long as you can prove it out, it gets adopted.

Whereas when you’re in a high-tech firm, like in my career at Intel and HP, anytime you want to bring in some new technologies you generally run into some sales guy arguing “balance of trade,” or piping up about some brochure he’s read that says there’s a better product that we need to consider (usually with a company he’s selling to). It’s funny and reminiscent of a funny line that I’ve used with my father-in-law for years. He’ll start rambling out some facts about something, and if it’s something I know a good deal about, and if I suspect he’s wrong, I might say, “Are you reading brochures again? You need to actually go read manuals.”