A recent meeting of technology gurus downtown  seemed to say a lot about the strength of this economic sector. Billed as a “CIO forum,” the meeting targeted chief information officers of local companies with a program that featured information technology professionals from Wal-Mart, The Weather Channel Inc. and Entergy Corp.

BIZ: THE TECHNOLOGY EnGINEHeld by the Louisiana Technology Council, the program’s aim was to give attendees from smaller companies a chance to learn information strategies bigger firms are using. The discussion focused on a simple lesson: Be prepared by looking ahead.
Not surprisingly, much of the talk was about being prepared for natural disasters and other emergencies. In that regard, all three speakers discussed their company’s push toward “virtualization,” or the ability to manage operations from anywhere at any time, without being tethered to a single geographic location.

Brian Shield, chief information officer of The Weather Channel, said the channel now reaches 93 million households and provides not only global weather information but also localized reports thanks in part to some 8,000 computer servers scattered around the country. The ability to “plug into” that network from any point in the U.S. is crucial to The Weather Channel fulfilling it’s mission of “connecting content with consumers,” Shield said.

Chief Information Officer of Entergy, Ray Johnson, said the utility has stepped up its technology development in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Entergy has a major data center under construction well inland from the Gulf of Mexico in Little Rock, Ark., which Johnson said will help ensure the ability to maintain business continuity and hasten recovery in the event of a disaster.

Entergy also is speeding ahead with a “virtual office” concept it began developing several years ago. “We want to have the ability anytime, anywhere, with any device, to access all of our systems,” Johnson said.

Carolyn Walton, information systems vice president for Wal-Mart, spoke of the numerous times that her company has demonstrated its readiness to deal with disaster.

“Every day there’s an emergency somewhere in the world, so this is something we’ve had to become good at,” she said. “You never know when you’ll be called upon to route groceries or supplies or recovery materials – or people – to locations to be of help, as we did in this area following Katrina and Rita.”

Walton (who isn’t related to the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton) said Wal-Mart has “an excellent emergency operations center” that has grown around the company’s massive data storage and management network – a “data warehouse,” as she calls it. This storehouse of technology, she said, plays a crucial role in the company’s ability to deliver products quickly to the stores where they’re needed, when they’re needed.

When hurricanes approach, for instance, Wal-Mart managers have learned that they’ll see high demand not just for flashlights but also for batteries. And not just batteries to operate the flashlights but to keep video games running so kids will be happy.

Walton said other high-demand items range from the predictable, like toilet paper, to the quirky, like Kellogg’s Pop Tarts – in strawberry! – and beer. She says highly sophisticated information technology and data analysis enable Wal-Mart to understand and even predict such demands in detail. “Technology is central and core to our business and we add 400 to 500 new [software] developers every year to support our growth,” she said.

Mark Lewis, president of the Louisiana Technology Council, says the fact that out-of-state companies like Wal-Mart and The Weather Channel were willing to participate in the council’s event “speaks volumes” about how those on the “outside” view New Orleans. “I think it’s a great reflection on us when we have this quality of people who come down to New Orleans and want to help us,” he says.

Lewis says the well-attended CIO forum also reflects the growing strength of local technology companies.

“I’m seeing a lot more business activity in our member companies,” he says. He’s aware of a few companies stepping up their hiring plans to meet new business demands and he’s heard inklings that an out of state company or two may be looking to expand into the local area.

Part of the activity may be related to an ongoing desire on the part of many individuals and businesses to be of help in local economic recovery. Lewis says business tax incentives offered by the state and federal governments also are contributing.

Meanwhile, Lewis says, the local area is getting a boost from news from NASA. The space agency recently announced that its next-generation crew vehicle, called Orion, will be built by Lockheed Martin Corp. at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans starting next year. Two other components, the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, also will be manufactured at Michoud.

Those projects will bring good jobs and may also attract new subcontractors to the area. While the existing space shuttle program – for which Michoud has long produced the gigantic fuel tanks – will be fully retired in 2010, the new projects will help retain New Orleans’ association with the space program. That, says Lewis, will help keep the local area on the radar screens of technology businesses around the country.

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