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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 1 · Episode 4

The Secret to 20+ Years of Innovation: Always Put the Customer First with T-Mobile CIO

T-Mobile EVP and CIO Cody Sanford makes it clear that customers and employees on the front lines should always be at the center. You’ll hear Cody say it’s not about the technology, but rather about the teams that come together to leverage it.

Published September 22nd, 2020  |  22:41 Runtime

Episode Guest

Cody Sanford

Cody Sanford

EVP, CIO & Chief Product Officer at T-Mobile

View Bio

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling billion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax with more than 20 years of experience, working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth. 

Narrator: Cody Sanford, T-Mobile's EVP and CIO, leads the company's digital transformation strategy for T-Mobile's Un-carrier Revolution. In this episode, Cody makes it clear that customers and employees on the front lines should always be at the center. You'll hear Cody say it's not about the technology, but rather about the team that comes together to leverage it. Listen in to get insight on how obsessing over metrics and staying curious through the pursuit of learning will serve you well.

Chet Kapoor: Cody, thank you very much for joining us. Excited to have you on the podcast.

Cody Sanford: Thrilled to be here, Chet.

Chet Kapoor: So, you've been at T-Mobile for 20 years. Tell us a little bit about the evolution of your roles and what has come easy and what has been hard?

Cody Sanford: Awesome. That's a great question, Chet. I joined T-Mobile, at the time it was VoiceStream, in June of '99. And I've had the wonderful privilege to work in almost every facet of our business. It's been a continuation of a journey for me, because I've been in wireless as soon as I graduated college. I actually started in wireless when cell phones were still held in two hands or in a briefcase. And most of the listeners probably won't remember that, but I remember very fondly picking up my first Motorola brick, and being so excited I could get 25 minutes of talk time.

Cody Sanford: That was my introduction to the wireless. But I started in the network engineering space and had a chance to work all over the country. Spent seven years doing network engineering, in Texas a couple of times, in New York, and in Seattle. And then, I had a wonderful moment in VoiceStream's history, when we were actually lagging in our radio technology. At the time, it was not 5G we were talking about, it was 3G, and we were lagging.

Cody Sanford: I had a chance to come and start thinking about product and technology more as one. So, I got a chance to come up and lead the 3G effort. But the 3G effort, for us, coincided with the launch of Google's first Android phone, so I had a chance to wrap my hands around technology and products in that effort, which was an amazing experience.

Cody Sanford: Then had some amazing mentors and leaders in my career when I was back in Seattle, working for headquarters. One of those leaders, his name was Jim Alling, who was the President at the time, asked me if I might be interested in going back into the field and learning sales. A very rare opportunity in most people's careers to completely change direction.

Cody Sanford: So, I tacked that and I was leading our West region retail sales organization. And one of the experiences I relished the most about my tenure at T-Mobile, is that number of years. And then host of M&A and transformation activities, until I ended up in my current role. Very circuitous route, very nontraditional for a CIO, but I think it's provided me a very unique window into what makes our business tick, what our customers care about the most and how information people and process and technology is threaded from left to right through our company. So, it's been a great privilege to be able to do all that, and that's how I got to where I'm at.

Chet Kapoor: Talk about a zig-zag journey, right? I mean, you've had the chance to be on the build side and on the go-to-market side with significant depth.

Cody Sanford: Yeah, I have. I don't think, unless you've lived both, the recipient of products and technology in the front line and literally in stores, standing face to face with the customers, and on the technology side, ingesting all of those requirements into products and services and tools and utilities, to really be able to bridge that communication gap, which is so hard to bridge organizationally, and so hard to bridge with process. Just being able to have experienced that, I think, has made me a much more rounded executive. It was hard. The transitions were hard. The zigzagging didn't come without a price, but they've been so valuable in my growth as a leader in the industry.

Chet Kapoor: What came easy and what was hard?

Cody Sanford: I would say, generally, this industry has been as dynamic an industry as you can imagine. We have evolved from a functional utility to sitting at the nexus of mobility, the internet and content and mobile life, how people actually spend most of their time living their lives. Those two are unnatural worlds. The hardest part throughout my journey, they didn't come all at once. It's come in stages.

Cody Sanford: I can probably share stories about each of those stages, but generically, when we get to those moments of inflection and you realize that the culture and the people and the way that you're working no longer match the expectations of your customers, of the industry, of the analysts, fill in the blank. First of all, you have to know that you're in that moment, which isn't always easy because you've got a lot of history suggesting that everything that you're doing is going well and you're doing it right.

Cody Sanford: So seeing the moment was hard. Thankfully, I was surrounded by great people to help point that out, but then helping your teams navigate through it, re-tooling and rebuilding the cultures to reflect that. But that has been, by far, the hardest. Hardest, not in a bad sense, hardest in the most rewarding.

Cody Sanford: But definitely, those have come at the most pivotal times in our company's growth. I would tell you that the easiest part for me has been the fact that our company has always kept our customer and our employees, especially our frontline employee, at the center of our decision making. And that is an easy place to ground yourself, because it was always there, and it was always resident in how we made decisions and how we prioritized. And we talked about the implications of our investments and how we analyze success.

Cody Sanford: It's a safe space to go as an organization. Everyone understands the terminology, the vocabulary, and throughout our evolutions, all of our CEOs and our private boards and our move to a public and our acquisition by Deutsche Telekom, our merger with Metro, and then our most recent merger with Sprint, that's always been a truth and axiom that we can align on.

Cody Sanford: And that has made it a lot -  much easier because of that common language and decision making is a foundation. It makes all the hard things in life just a little bit easier, and it makes it so much easier to relate to employees and to bring a reason to your decisions as a leader.

Chet Kapoor: It's about them, not about us, because I just think it makes it a lot easier. Egos go away and you start focusing on what matters to them, and then the outside thinking comes in. Otherwise, you have this tendency to stay in the ivory tower and completely forget about what's happening in the Bazaar.

Cody Sanford: Exactly.

Chet Kapoor: Obviously, the organization is very customer focused. In all the years I've known you, you've been very customer focused. You recently did an episode for Accelerate, and this was your quote, "We get it right most of the time, but getting it right is not what makes digital companies amazing. It's the ability to get it right with feedback and do it iteratively and in real-time."

Chet Kapoor: How have you done this successfully? I think about a service provider or a telco and I think about real-time and feedback and iteratively. Those two generally don't go well together, right? You guys have defied the odds and come up with a new way to work and to be successful doing it year after year after year. How have you done that?

Cody Sanford: I wish I had some top secret recipes to share with you. What I'll share, I think, is going to sound hard to pull off, but it's rather straightforward. When you put the customer at the center of that decision making tree, and then you empower your front lines to influence the decisions that you're making as a company, and then you take the space out between the customer and the leaders, meaning giving the customer access to speak to leadership, either through social channels or directly through internal channels or through acceptable open door policies from the frontline and through data itself.

Cody Sanford: But, creating all these grooved channels for communication to run from the employees that serve our customers every day and the customers themselves, that information becomes instantly consumed by the leadership team, and then we pivot as necessary. We had lots of things wrong. It's impossible to get a product right every time or an experience right every time, or sometimes you make calculated decisions about, "Hey, this experience is good enough." Or, "Our customers really don't care about this."

Cody Sanford: And then you realize you were dead wrong, and that was a thing that they cared about most. Two things happen over time of practicing that. Number one, is your employees feel empowered to tell you before you bring something to market that the idea you have is really a stupid idea or it needs to be improved. We've tried to do our things. We have a group called TOPs or Team of Professionals. We actually, in our product team, we bring about 30 or 40 frontline employees from our care and retail teams from all over the country, and we bring them into our product organization and then distribute them throughout our product teams to participate in the design process and give us feedback as we're designing these experiences to say, "Hey, the tool that you're using to support or serve or sell is not really designed to do that. You should think about this or provide feedback from people who are dealing with our customers every day." And there are programs like that all over the place. So, it's not one area. It's just organically in how we ingest information.

Cody Sanford: And then I would share, I think we do a fairly good job at using data, both in how we analyze decisions that we're making as a leadership team and in our care, and then retail channels themselves. We are obsessed with net promoter scores, and we are obsessed with the metrics that build it to net promoter scores and ensuring that we get really deep on the covers there and provide the frontline, real-time coaching and development feedback on areas that influence net promoter score. All those things which build to a wonderful customer experience are ingrained in the DNA and put those organizations. So, in short, it's not one thing, but it's a commitment to that decision making and the pursuit of that intelligence in every way that it comes in, that I think makes a big difference.

Chet Kapoor: Any specific technologies that have been super helpful, that you see in the horizon, that you think will make a big difference to this journey you have? Because it is constant, and you're going to continue with it for a long time.

Cody Sanford: The most obvious, specifically to this question, is predictive analytics and using ML and AI on the amazing troves of data that we have for real-time, contextual customer journey support. I would share with you, just being transparent, I think we're early in our journey as a company on that. There are companies out there that are materially advanced from where we are today. And as an industry, I don't think that we have done anywhere near enough in this space.

Cody Sanford: And this is using the data in ways that actually make the customer experience much richer. This isn't about monetizing data or advertising to customers. This is about ensuring that we know before a customer asks, what their experience is, and based on who they are and what they've done with us in the past, being able to service them in whatever medium that they come in. Whether that's social care or retail, with information that is gleaned from all of their recent experiences, whatever channel they've interacted with us and bringing it to bear in that moment in time, giving those Iron Man Jarvis skills to our frontline.

Cody Sanford: Those are all unlocked through a ML and AI. And definitely, it's trite, but it's very challenging to actually make that experience super effective across the enterprise, considering how many tens of millions of customers we have and how many touch points we interact with them. I would tell you that's probably the next big adventure for us, which is really leveraging that to the most of its ability.

Chet Kapoor: I think you're being humble. I would tell you, in my discussions with CIOs, CTOs, and CEOs, that almost everybody is in the very early stages of using ML and AI for customer experience. We still don't completely understand how to weave it into the experience and do it at scale, so that it continues to be seamless.

Chet Kapoor: All us technologists who are going off and trying to do it, I think, realize that it's not simply about taking a bunch of data and just doing ML on top of it. It has to be a lot more than that, because it has to be when you interact with the products or with the actual company, and we're still early days.

Cody Sanford: How you structure your data and how you manage your respective data lakes, and how your company values the organization and exposure of data is way more important than the workflow engines and the northbound UIs that manifest the workflows. And it is also one of the hardest things to train organizations to get good at because those muscles are fairly atrophied or never have been developed. They're not inherently beneficial for the unique users. It has to be the stitching together of all the data from across the entire enterprise.

Cody Sanford: So, we're in the process right now of exercising those muscles a lot, the pursuit of a single source of truth and in a single data architecture, and then the evolution of that single source of truth. Those are easy things to say and hard things to execute. Good companies understand that and make that iterative pursuit of excellence part of their DNA. I hope that's what we're doing at T-Mobile. It isn't the actual completion of a particular customer journey. It's the behaviors of thinking about data first and the design of how the data is landed, where it's landed and how it's coupled, how the use cases are built. If you start building that muscle early in the design process of everything that you do, it starts to become second nature. That's the goal.

Chet Kapoor: As you go through this journey, if you project forward five years from now, what would you have loved to have known?

Cody Sanford: It's not about the tech. I wish someone would have told me a long time ago that it has nothing to do with technology. And I know for technologists, that's almost nails on a chalkboard, but I have learned through, especially in the last seven years, which I feel like has been an explosion in this wonderful technology. Making all these low code, and you and I have been partnered on this all the time, taking things that used to be remarkably complex, even not at scale, but making those things accessible to developers at scale, and making it secure at scale. Those are amazing unlocks, but those have always been the easiest part, and getting teams to work together, to leverage the technology, has always been the hardest part. So, if someone would have told me that it wasn't about the tech, it would've helped me a lot seven years ago. I think I learned the lesson most acutely about four or five years ago, but it would have helped if I had known before I started.

Chet Kapoor: We're living in interesting times. Has that affected the way you lead your teams and drive them to results and inspire them?

Cody Sanford: We're learning so much, and the lessons we thought we learned two months ago, we're learning all over again. A few months ago, we were in the honeymoon phase. Everyone loved working remotely and it's working great, and we need to do this forever. And now we're in the, "Well, maybe it's not so great for everyone all the time. And maybe it's not so great for some people ever." All these things that we're learning in this time of COVID, I think are going to be invaluable lessons for how we think about our workforce and getting work done forever. I firmly believe it.

Cody Sanford: We will never see our workplaces return to normal, normal being in the state before COVID. Every company out there that has teams that can work remotely has learned immense lessons about what that looks like. And every company that has employees that can't work remotely have learned about the value of digital only. If they didn't know what before they're acutely aware of it now. And I don't care what industry you're in, you're learning how digital interrelates with your customers and your employees. Either it's wonderful or it's very painful.

Cody Sanford: But for T-Mobile specifically, and for my team in particular, we are literally in the throes of discussing how to have a distributed workforce and preserve the elements of our culture that we think make us unique, and make our teams unique and make T-Mobile the kind of place that someone wants to work for. And how do you unlock all the benefits of remote work with the power of a culture, and not foregoing one for the other.

Cody Sanford: So, we're in the midst of it. We don't have any answers, but I will tell you, we are definitely designing for a workforce that is capable of working in whatever format you choose to go forward. Which means that every meeting is going to be a meeting that is digital and people are going to be able to connect in remotely. And we measure productivity remotely, and we communicate through collaboration channels that were lightly used, which are now heavily used. We're in the middle of the journey, Chet, as I'm sure every one of your listeners and you are as well.

Chet Kapoor: What inspires you?

Cody Sanford: I'm easily inspired. It makes my job fun to show up. I will tell you a couple of things that inspire me right now. I think we are living through a moment in history and I mean a moment in two decades, that probably will have shaped how industry is done and how humans interact, and how society works, more than any other period in human history, maybe with the exception of the Industrial Revolution and even arguably more.

Cody Sanford: But if you just think back in the last 11 years, how the fabric of our society has changed with the advent of mobile life and mobile computing, and then this moment we're in now with the coming together, 5G and content and mobility, and this coalescence of everything in the space that I'm working in, the space itself is inspiring. The times we're living in are inspiring if you are inspired by that kind of work.

Cody Sanford: But, I will share with you mostly I'm inspired by individuals. And in particular, in the last few years, people who are using their influence, whether that's social, political or an industrial enterprise, pursue social good. I think we have unique responsibility and unique exposure and opportunity. And there are people I work with every day that are doing things for, I believe, the betterment of society, and using all that wonderful technology and access that we're bringing to life to advance for things that they care about, and to do good along with their corporate and enterprise responsibilities.

Cody Sanford: And then the last note, I'll just say, is I had a chance to talk to about 300 interns last week. And these interns joined us. They've never met anybody. I mean, they're literally starting internships staring at the WebEx screen. They're still excited and inspired and curious and enthusiastic and all the things that I probably wouldn't have been, had I been their age and at that stage in my career. I find all that's inspiring, too, that passion and curiosity young people are bringing into our space right now, and how advanced they are relative to where I was, anyway, coming in the workspace. I'm regularly awed.

Chet Kapoor: That's awesome. One more question for you. If you had to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

Cody Sanford: Two things that I believe I didn't always practice, but when I did, it has always served me very well in life. One is never stop being curious, and that's everything. Things that you don't know and things you think you know. Being open to hearing new perspectives on it. So, curiosity, and the pursuit of learning. It's one of those skills and practices, capabilities that people have, that it's always serves you well, especially when you're just starting out on your career.

Cody Sanford: And the other thing that I offer is say 'yes' more, and take risks on yourself more. I had, throughout my career, some of which I shared with you, these opportunities to take risks that, on the surface, were not great for my career, probably were more lateral in nature or even steps back. But they were opportunities for me to learn and grow.

Cody Sanford: I had wonderful mentors, which pushed me to say 'yes'. But those moments, when you can take a risk on yourself to advance something that you care about, are wonderful chances to grow and learn. And when you look back into your career, I think those moments are the most powerful moments and the most important inflection points in my career.

Chet Kapoor: Cody, as always, it is an honor and a blast to talk with you. We really appreciate your time.

Cody Sanford: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Chet.

Narrator: The big takeaway in today's episode: customers. It's not about the technology. It's about putting the customer at the center and empowering people on the front lines. Cody's advice to us, never stop being curious and always say yes. And lastly, Cody closes by reiterating that we are living in a moment in history. It's exciting to hear from him how it all comes together with 5G, content and mobility.

Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests with phenomenal stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released and feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at