EDS retains high-flyers with ‘Top Gun’ program

When John Charlebois gets an e-mail addressing him as “EZ” he can’t help but get a chill down his spine over what’s coming next.

The senior consulting architect for Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems (EDS) Corp. was dubbed “EZ” when he graduated from the company’s Top Gun program in 2004. Just like the elite jet pilots in the 1986 action movie by the same name, Charlebois was given a call-sign.

“As they put it, everything for me was easy,” he explains reluctantly. “Every challenge that was thrown at me, my answer was always that I can get it done.”

But the EDS program that sends their best system architects to work with vendor partners isn’t all fun and games and it’s definitely not easy, says the Montreal native. Aside from having a call-sign, his life didn’t much resemble that of Tom Cruise’s or Val Kilmer’s during the three-month experience.

“If you think you’re going to the Top Gun program to get three months of vacation, you’re sadly mistaken,” he says. “You’re working 10 or 12 hour days and the peer group you’re with are talking about technology all the time – at breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Charlebois, who says he’s lived in every major Canadian city, was one of the pioneers of EDS’s Top Gun program. The company designed it to give their system architects a hands-on experience with partners’ technology as it is being developed. The program also aims to create innovative solutions for clients, and improve retention of the IT services company’s best employees.

The program helps EDS keep up to date with partners in their EDS Agility Alliance, a group of vendors that provide IT products through the company, says Greg Robins, director of EDS global alliances. It used to take as long as a year before EDS adopted a new technology.

“At the rate that new technology is coming out, we can’t afford to do that,” he says. “We’ve got to be at the alpha and beta stages of that technology.”

By getting the architects in early, EDS is able to build the tools needed to support the new environments hand-in-hand with the vendor’s engineering team, he adds. The company tries to run one Top Gun project every quarter.

For Charlebois, his pioneering efforts for the program took him to Redmond-based Microsoft Corp.’s building 25. There, he joined a team of programmers, salespeople and developers to hammer out an easier way to create a virtual server environment.

“They realized that as a vendor, they needed to get their consulting staff and development staff up to speed very quickly,” he recalls. “What they discovered at the time was that most of these people were spending hours, if not days, setting up an environment just to do a 10-minute demo and get some experience with the technology.”

Microsoft tackled their problem by creating a team known as “Demos ‘R’ Us” that was open to internal staff and partners, including EDS. Charlebois says he clicked with the project right away, recognizing how it could transform his company’s business processes.

To help hammer out a solution, Charlebois brought his love for technology and experience as a consultant for various clients – from government to helicopter manufacturers to virtual gaming. He also brought a straight-forward philosophy.

“Whenever in doubt, just KISS,” or Keep It Simple Stupid, the EDS engineer says. “To this day, I’ve kept that tacked up to my wall.”

Charlebois and the Microsoft team were able to work together to crunch what used to be a days-long process into a 15-minute set-up procedure. Including download time, a developer could have a new environment ready to run within a few hours time.

“The original concepts that were done back in 2004 were the premise for what they have on Microsoft’s Virtual Labs site,” he says. Anyone with a Microsoft Live account now just has to click a link in their Web browser to register server time for a 90-minute demo of a product like Windows Server 2008.

Such experiences are found to be very rewarding by employees, Robins says. It helps the company keep their best employees on board and offers them a new career path up the corporate ladder.

“We’ve done followup surveys, and a lot of times they come from one part of the organization and then it gives them the opportunity to move up into another area of EDS,” he says.

Charlebois says he’s had many offers to change tracks in his career at EDS, but the father of two young children has decided to remain dedicated to the client. Now he’s working with Alberta’s provincial government to modernize its drivers’ licence database system. He’s stayed in touch with many of those he met during the Top Gun program.

“Any opportunity you can get to focus your energy on technology and not worry about outside influences is second to none,” he says. “The sheer contacts that are made during that three month period outside your usual world are fantastic.”

The 12-week model has been successful enough for EDS to start considering shorter-term versions of the program to give more employees an opportunity to break away from the usual day jobs, Robins says. The Top Gun alumni often become known experts within EDS and are asked for their advice by many other employees.

For Charlebois, two hours of his typical workday is now dedicated to answering e-mails and phone calls outside of his direct duties.

“I love it,” he says. “For me the real reward to it is seeing how other people are solving problems.”

The well-recognized systems architect also gets to keep in contact with the growing network of Top Gun graduates, he adds. That includes one who went by the call-sign “Teflon.”

“They called him that because everything slid off him – no matter how sticky a situation,” Robins says.

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