CXO

Tragedy teaches tough lessons to one CIO

While staff safety took top priority for tech leaders during the WTC disaster, one CIO also had to think about protecting her law firm's data and helping put technology in the hands of displaced workers. We'll share her hard-won lessons learned from 9/11.


At 7:50 A.M. CST time on Sept. 11, 2001, Nancy Karen entered her office at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, a Chicago law firm, expecting a typical business day. But before she could take her coat off and get settled behind her desk, the 54-year-old CIO learned of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, then the second, and then the Pentagon crash.

The firm had recently made the World Trade Center its corporate headquarters, closing its former midtown-Manhattan office. The move relocated 200 legal professionals, along with the IT infrastructure, into the 110-story building. Approximately 650 firm employees were working in Tower One that fateful September day, on floors 54, 56, 57, 58, and 59. The IS department, headed by Karen, is housed in the company's Chicago offices.
 
Vital statistics

Name: Nancy Karen
Age: 54
Title: CIO
Company: Sidley Austin Brown and Wood, Chicago
First IT Job: Programmer, New York Telephone, 1969

Non-IT career aspirations: Classical musician, math professor, psychotherapist
Favorite CIO resource sites: v MSNBC and TechRepublic
Favorite non-work site:v Slate
Best advice received: "My manager at New York Telephone encouraged me to take risks. If I took only safe jobs, I would regret it later on."
Worst advice received: "Steer clear of technology. It's a man's field. You'll never go very far."
Favorite movie: v Casablanca
Favorite book: v The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav
Regrets: Waiting too long to get my MBA
Favorite hobby/recreation: Piano playing, theater, hiking, biking

 

Lives and data were top priorities
The evacuation of employees was first priority, recalled Karen. “Initially, I thought the damage would only be caused by a fire and, once it was put out, our employees would be able to return to their jobs,” she said. But minutes later she learned that Tower One had collapsed.

At this point, the IT focus expanded to saving the data that the 1,300-employee law firm had stored in both WTC towers. As soon as she heard about the buildings collapsing, Karen instructed her IS team to cut the power on the servers in Chicago to prevent data loss. Despite the initial chaos, the servers had remained operational during the morning. Communications didn't shut down until almost two hours later.

Karen and several other top firm executives then set up a "war room" where decisions would be made regarding the firm’s action plan.

“I was in charge of IT, the head of marketing managed communication, and the chairman of the management committee located everyone,” the CIO recalled. “Reaching our people was no simple feat. Many were traveling and had no idea of what was happening. Many were scattered throughout the Midwest.”

The company’s Web site proved an invaluable tool for tracking and communicating with firm staffers. Miraculously, the firm lost only one employee, a telephone operator who had been working on the 57th floor (other employees suffered cuts, bruises, and broken ankles), and one employee lost a spouse in the tragedy.

As employees groped their way down Tower One’s dark stairways to escape, many called the Chicago office using cell phones. “It took one employee 45 minutes to find his way down the smoke-filled, crowded staircase,” recalled Karen.

Putting technology in needed hands
The firm decided to close all offices except Chicago, which remained open around the clock. Karen and the war room team fielded calls for three days after the disaster, putting in 16- to 18-hour days, and the IS staff worked 24-hour shifts managing the network.

“My job was to think ahead and constantly plan as events changed,” explained Karen. “I had to provide appropriate technology for the war room team and conference bridges so employees had quick access to our Web site where news could be posted as soon as we learned it.”

The CIO also had to find creative ways of putting technology within employee reach. One solution was a 20-PC Internet café set up in the firm's midtown-Manhattan office conference room.

“One staff member then taught displaced workers how to log on and get their data,” she said. Two toll-free numbers were also established, one for general information and the other for troubleshooting employee technology problems.

As soon as emergency procedures were in place, Karen's IT team then focused on data integrity. A week earlier, Karen had all documents stored in the WTC offices shipped to backup locations in New Jersey, as a routine precautionary strategy following the relocation. Hours after the terrorist attacks, she had the tapes transported back to Chicago.

In just a short five months, the firm is still recovering and adjusting to the losses, and Karen said her memories of 9/11 will never fade, nor will the lessons it taught her.

“The disaster drove home the importance of having sophisticated backup systems for those ‘what if’ scenarios. You have to constantly question every assumption you make about your disaster-recovery strategy,” Karen said, but she added that no matter how much planning is done, "no one could have anticipated the magnitude of the impact of September 11."

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