AOL Dials-Up a Technological Transformation

Chimes of dial-up Internet echo behind AOL, but with a five-year plan to overhaul data centers and cloud services, James LaPlaine is augmenting the mass media heavyweight’s changes.

Long before US households discovered the wonders of the World Wide Web with a simple click of a mouse, AOL’s future chief information officer, James LaPlaine, was busy running a bulletin board system out of his childhood bedroom complete with the necessary second phone line installed.

“Before public Internet really caught on, this was the way to connect with other computers,” the Syracuse, New York, native says. “That opened up a whole other community of like-minded people.”

For LaPlaine, technology—particularly computer technology—has always been a source of fascination for as long as he can remember. In fact, when he departed for State University of New York at Oswego, he harbored no doubts that the field of computer science was his destination. But unlike fellow “technologists,” LaPlaine recognized the value of technology beyond enhancing system network capabilities or the intricacies of the latest software program.

It was a realization that LaPlaine says he had early on, first at a waste management company that migrated to a new IT system, and then during a summer job where he helped to develop the high school computer curriculum. It may have been a fairly routine IT role, but as a system administrator at a small software firm, he was proud to be part of a team that digitized maps for utility companies. He later helped develop a system to help digitize “truckloads” of files at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. At that time, before the world turned to tech, everything was done on paper.

As he got accustomed to professional IT, LaPlaine went on to manage, design, and implement large-scale computing environments for several Fortune 500 companies. That’s when he began to see technology as a vehicle for transforming businesses. “The drive I’ve always had is, ‘How do you find optimized efficiencies?’ I don’t like routine rote work. I like that problem-solving aspect. I love the people interaction. I love the design and how to build a system from scratch, and to help people,” he says.

At that time though, IT professionals were largely confined to a back office holding, or what some consider a reactionary role, where they were called upon only when lights started blinking or when a computer crashed. When an opportunity to work for AOL arose, LaPlaine saw it as the perfect time to effect change across the IT spectrum.

At the turn of the millennium, the global technology company was at the height of its dial-up phase, and had recently announced a merger with Time Warner Cable. As a senior technical manager, LaPlaine was tasked with building a web hosting business to support Time Warner divisions within AOL’s data centers. “We didn’t know at the time that it was the peak of the business with dial-up,” LaPlaine explains. “We were building a brand around web properties and brands. The marriage of that—to take content that Time Warner had and provide it to AOL consumers—was a technological feat in itself.”

“The Internet of 2000 was built for dial-up speed,” LaPlaine continues. “You couldn’t have very rich media because it would take forever to load. We had to do a lot of optimizing, scaling down images. From an infrastructure standpoint, network bandwidth had to expanded. We had to have new buildings to house the data centers.”

LaPlaine and the rest of the IT team’s efforts at AOL paid off. When the blockbuster Lord of the Rings hit movie theaters, AOL hosted all of the web properties for the film, including sites that played the movie trailer. Soon, AOL sites were also hosting major news sites, such as TIME, and broadcasting live events. It was the genesis of AOL, becoming not only a global tech company, but a multimedia one, as well. The AOL properties portfolio was growing, though LaPlaine adds he still played a role in the company’s more familiar conquests, such as dial-up, e-mail, and MapQuest. “After 2007, we also added advertising, which makes up a significant portion of our business,” he says. Today, AOL is a subsidiary of Verizon and holds such popular web properties as TechCrunch, MAKERS, and Huffington Post.

Despite his success, LaPlaine left AOL in 2010 shortly after the company broke its merger with Time Warner and became an independent corporation. When the company called him back a year later, LaPlaine was set on making IT an integral part of the business model. Now, the CIO is in his third year of an ambitious five-year IT initiative consisting of three pillars of transformation: data center strategy, cloud computing, and technology business management.

As AOL moves into a new realm of  using cloud providers, the company is compressing several of its data centers or selling them. He says shedding the infrastructure has significantly reduced AOL’s carbon footprint, as well as helped to drive other improvements, such as reconditioning older equipment, which has given the company the leverage to rid itself of technology-related debt and the room to scale. This added room is needed to drive global growth, especially as the demand for mobile access swells.

LaPlaine is an industry leader in technology business management, which uses metrics about the services that IT provides, the costs of those services, and the overall value that IT brings to a company. It also increases IT transparency, and puts IT into plain language so the C-suite can stop being overrun by tech jargon, and get on board with what LaPlaine says are strategic initiatives. Ultimately, the practice of technology business management  puts IT on equal ground. “It’s one thing to provide IT for any company, but it’s a challenge to provide IT to a tech company,” he says. “We needed to come together to solve more problems. That allows us to be the catalyst that can help the company transform.”

The initiative to bring IT from the back office to the executive table is also helping the IT industry to shed its negative stereotypes, including beyond the walls of AOL, where LaPlaine is on a mission to make tech accessible to the rest of the world. In addition to his blog that discusses technology and leadership, he serves on the executive technical advisory board for Intel Corporation, the Amazon Web Services CIO advisory council, and is a member of the Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Americas board of advisers.

But perhaps his most important side project is promoting the importance of STEM education, and empowering women and minorities through technology and leadership. “It feels like the right thing to do,” he says. “The long-term view is that relationships with schools help us, and encourages future tech professionals. It’s really exciting because we are so invested in that space ourselves.”

LaPlaine says his work circles back to using technology to connect with people. It’s just one of the reasons he enjoys heading IT at AOL. “There is a lot of opportunity in front of us,” he says, “but building a community where people contribute and comment is really cool.”