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An IT Career on the Move

By John Edwards

Chris Sullivan is an on-the-go kind of guy who enjoys challenges and the opportunity to prove his skills in different technical areas. So perhaps it's not surprising that he ended up working in the logistics industry, where trucks, ships, barges and rail cars—as well as the people who coordinate their movements—are all in constant motion. "If you think about the sheer amount of data that's required in logistics, you'll understand that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to coordinate everything," says Sullivan, a senior programmer at Cleveland-based Penske Logistics, a company that supplies transportation, warehousing and other logistical services for companies worldwide.

With more businesses turning to "just in time" deliveries to slash storage costs, computer-managed shipping schedules are becoming the norm. And IT experts are needed to make sure that complex logistics management systems run like clockwork and help shippers maximize their available transportation resources.

ASAP, Please

"Most companies today are investing a lot of attention on their supply chains" says Peter Smith, Penske's vice president of logistics technology. Smith notes that businesses are striving to cut as much fat as possible out of their supply chains.

"Companies want to drive inventory levels down and reduce the cost of distributing their goods," he says. "Ideally, you only want to bring items like manufacturing parts and merchandise onto a site at the moment they're needed." Smith notes that many of the automotive assembly plants Penske serves have delivery windows as narrow as 15 minutes. "A late delivery can shut down an entire assembly line at great cost," he says.

Logistics isn't just trucks and freight cars moving products between states, however. Thanks to free trade and other globalization trends, a growing number of companies are shipping cargo worldwide, by air and sea. "We're really becoming a global company,  says Smith. "We have large operations in Europe, South America and Brazil, and we've also just opened an office in China."

Since logistics is an integral part of so many different businesses, an array of companies require IT logistics experts, including consumer and business product manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Transportation service companies, including trucking and shipping lines, railroads and package delivery services—like FedEx and UPS—also require IT professionals. Third party logistics (3PL) service providers—companies like Penske—handle outsourced logistics operations. These firms need IT expertise to help them serve clients ranging from automakers to restaurant chains. "We have about 135 IT employees, most in North America," says Smith.

Additionally, many business software companies require logistics development help. Major enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite publishers, such as Oracle and SAP, hire IT logistics developers to help them create transportation management system (TMS) applications that help individual businesses and 3PLs optimize their logistics operations.

Abstract Thinkers

Cardinal Logistics a 3PL firm located in Concord, N.C., has about 30 IT specialists on staff. The company's tech team is divided into three areas: networking, programming and business process analysis, where experts select the technologies can help clients streamline their logistics operations. Jonathan Turner, vice president of management information systems for Cardinal, says he needs grads who have the ability to mentally visualize and break down complex logistics operations into logical components. "People who can conceptualize what's actually happening on the ground are much better equipped to write logistics programs than anyone else," he says. "When it comes to routing trucks and setting schedules and so on, there are a lot of abstract concepts you have to wrap your mind around."

Both Turner and Smith are specifically searching for grads with computer science and computer engineering degrees. A background in logistics, such as an internship, is also desirable, notes Penske's Smith. "We're looking for people who have worked with the same tool sets that we use and, hopefully, have worked in the logistics field, so they will understand our business requirements and terminology." Grads with Java and .NET knowledge are particularly sought after, says Smith. "Those are two of the primary languages we use." Relational database expertise is also valued, he adds.

Once hired, a Penske IT team member can expect to spend much of his or her time creating or adapting logistics solutions to meet customers' needs. “It starts with defining the business requirements,” says Smith. “Hopefully, we can modify something that we already have running for other customers, or in some cases we have to create new functionalities and capabilities.” A preliminary design is passed to a development team that does the actual software coding and testing.

Sullivan's Travels

Penske senior programmer Sullivan graduated in 2004 from Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University with a B.S.E.E. in computer engineering. His first post-school job turned out to be a dead end, with little opportunity for career advancement or satisfaction. Sullivan connected with Penske via a friend who worked for the company. "I was kind of joking around with him about job opportunities at the company," he recalls. "I gave him my resume, not expecting much to happen, and three weeks later I had my first day on the job."

Sullivan says he likes designing systems and solving problems, but particularly relishes the opportunity to work with important technologies. He's becoming increasingly acquainted with radio-frequency identification (RF-ID) systems, which use tags and readers to follow the progress of cargo from shipping points to destinations. He's also fascinated by global positioning system (GPS) tools, which rely on satellites to pinpoint the location of people and vehicles anywhere in the world. "You might come into the job with a limited understanding of certain areas, but the potential to expand your knowledge and to become an expert in one or more areas is definitely there," he says.

Sullivan says he feels privileged to be working in a field where boredom is never a possibility. "If you're constantly challenged, why would you want to look elsewhere?" he says. "I work with fantastic people and there's a lot to learn."

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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