Climbing the Ladder as an Engineer
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Danner (BSCpE, '91) was recently appointed vice president - technology
for GE Cisco Industrial Networks.
In his 10-year career, Phillip Danner (B.S.Cp.E., '91), the
recently appointed vice president of technology for GE
Cisco, has successfully attacked every challenge - technical
or management - with a strong engineering problem-solving perspective.
As a software engineer at GE Fanuc, he helped develop and upgrade
industrial controllers used in life-critical operations. Later,
as a project manager working on CPU firmware, his approach to
coordinating technical teams on three continents earned awards
for completing projects ahead of schedule and also for delivering
projects on time with additional features. More recently, as
manager of the company's technical support centers, he improved
quality by 400 percent and revenue more than 90 percent. Now,
at GE Cisco, a one-year-old joint venture, he is leading the
creation of solutions for customers using industrial process
and Ethernet-based technologies.
In each situation, he has relied on a standard problem solving
approach. "Basically, I tend to identify the goals, then
discover the problems. If a process is broken, I fix it,"
he explained. His approach has been successful even when he ventured
into a world that is typically the reserve of MBAs and strategic
analysts - not computer engineers.
A Bad Process Problem
In his last assignment, for example, Danner took on the restructuring
of the three technical support centers for global GE Fanuc operations.
The technical support operation had a customer satisfaction rate
of less than 20 percent. The median time it took to resolve an
issue was 6.5 days. Morale was low, and staff members said they
were getting stale.
"We had several opportunities for improvement with our current
processes," Danner said. Not only was he responsible for
improving customer satisfaction, but also for profitability.
Moreover, he was to report weekly progress to the CEO. "It
is hard to show significant progress week to week, but I got
the team members to share the vision and support the timeline.
Also, the CEO was very engaged in our projects and supportive
of the effort," he commented. "I had a strong feeling
that if we focused on the customer and put quality first, that
good things would happen on the revenue side."
Danner's first action was to develop a knowledge base. "The
same questions were being asked repeatedly: 80 to 90 percent
of our callers were asking the same thing," he explained.
The problem in answering those questions, however, was the huge
diversity of GE Fanuc products. "Everybody was a specialist
in some group of products, but nobody could possibly know all
of them," he said. "That meant we were wasting time
trying to match the expert to the problem."
With an established knowledge base, Danner hoped that everybody
could become somewhat knowledgeable about most of the issues.
"It took about five weeks to reach a payoff where this was
saving us more than it cost." As the knowledge base evolved,
it was put on the web for easy customer access and a new automated
call display telephone system helped direct callers to the appropriate
Danner said the most impact was made on the operation when they
changed the core measurement. "We were measuring something
that many technical services operations measured - time to initial
response," he said. "We counted it if we received a
message and an expert called back for more information and left
a message on voice mail. Since you get what you measure, our
process had evolved to maximize initial response."
Danner started measuring solution time instead. "This was
a paradigm shift to the team. We had been measuring effort and
suddenly we switched to results. BAM! Now we could measure and
resolve different components and bottlenecks. When it turned
out that we were being held up by other groups in the company,
that was resolved also. Most importantly, everything we did was
focused on driving a metric that the customer could feel."
Within a year, the group's customer satisfaction had risen to
more than 95 percent; the median response time dropped from more
than 6 days to 40 minutes; 80 percent of questions were resolved
on the first call; and profitability improved more than 90 percent.
Danner said that his engineering skills made the difference in
this effort. "I was a manager," he said, "but
being able to understand the technical issues and having the
ability to analyze problems were key."
A Platinum Name Joint Venture
After his technical support success, Danner was appointed vice
president of technology for a new joint venture that GE and Cisco
formed last June.
GE Cisco Industrial Networks was established by its parent companies
to assess, design and build network infrastructures for manufacturing
plant floor and industrial environments. "Traditionally,
Ethernet has been used to network offices, while plant floor
information has been exchanged over proprietary networks,"
Danner explained. "Although fast and reliable when used
for plant floor communication, proprietary networks often cannot
communicate with office networks," he added. "With
our venture, we are making it possible for industrial concerns
to improve their information exchange and productivity."
Danner's role is to look at technologies in addition to those
offered by Cisco and GE. "Since we're a service company,
we can use whatever technology is necessary, regardless of who
makes it. My job is to look at technologies and put together
bundled solutions that will work."
He chose remote monitoring and diagnostics as an example. "Power
turbine manufacturers would like to pull data off turbines and
analyze it. Their specialists could then tell power companies
how to make changes to improve efficiency from 20 percent to
25 or even 40 percent." Information today is typically exchanged
through dial-up telephone lines, or not at all, he said.
Solutions could involve a virtual private network, line-of-site
radio modems, and encryption, along with industrial technology
such as switches that can withstand high temperatures and high
"The beauty of our joint venture is that GE brings the understanding
of the industrial equipment and Cisco that of the networks,"
Danner commented. "This job is very much back on the technology
According to Danner, the new venture is like working at a start-up
with deep pockets. "We are being asked to responsibly grow
the company and build capacity as we generate demand. With parents
of GE and Cisco, we know we will have the ability to ramp up
as we need to."
A Hokie Engineer Since Birth
Danner has enjoyed electronics technology his entire life. "I
knew since I was five or six that I was going to be an engineer,"
he said. "Then, when I got my first computer in the 5th
grade, I started gravitating toward the computer end of the field."
Danner also wanted to go to Virginia Tech since he was a child.
"I can't imagine having gone anywhere else. It offered such
a strong academic engineering background. I had UVa as a backup,
but I was going to go to Tech."
After his first year, Danner was selected as one of the first
three Bradley scholars. "I considered it an honor then,
and over time it has become even more meaningful to me. I like
to think they selected well."
His favorite course was the second microprocessor design course.
His first job at GE Fanuc after graduation was very much like
the course. "We were doing real-time embedded firmware and
you had to know the hardware."
He found he was better prepared for digital design work than
many other entry-level engineers. "There were really smart
people from other schools, but they had not had the hands-on
experiences I had. They had not programmed chips." Danner
said that he assumes that other computer engineering programs
have caught up to Tech in teamwork and hands-on efforts. "I'm
also assuming that Tech is finding other ways to lead the field
in computer engineering education."