As senior vice president and chief information officer powering corporate IT for Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, Richard Cox Jr. drives what has been described as “the next phase of the technology journey.”
In his C-suite role, he oversees corporate IT and business leadership on strategy, standards, and opportunities related to data analytics and business intelligence, development and support, security, and technical services for the $21 billion privately-held global conglomerate engaged in cable television and automotive services, among other areas. “I have always leveraged technology and innovation,” says Cox, a Liberty University graduate who holds an M.B.A. with a concentration in Management of Information Systems from Kennesaw State University. “It couldn’t have been a better fit because of what I considered to be my passion for technology and working for what I believe to be the best company here in Atlanta.”
The Atlanta native has been attracted to tech since playing and reassembling video games during his formative years. It was natural for him to hold a number of high-powered positions within the space, including his stints as vice president of customer experience for online travel service Orbitz Worldwide and president and COO for Jones International University, the first accredited online university based in Centennial, Colorado, (It closed in 2015). In 2013, he joined Cox Automotive handling several leadership roles over the years and playing a critical role in re-engineering operations and bolstering analytics at the Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book divisions.
In 2018, Cox was tapped by his former high school classmate, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to serve in the position as Chief Operating Officer in charge of the city’s agencies and departments. During his 15-month stint as her right hand while on loan from Cox, he gained a crash course in crisis management during his effective handling of the city’s massive cyberdisruption—just before Super Bowl LIII.
Find out what makes him such a business dynamo.
DRIVING CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE, INNOVATION, AND SCALE
How will you use your role to make Cox more competitive?
I think that this role will be incredibly important when you map out our direction and strategy over the next few years. There are three points, specifically, that I think are important. One is what I call the foundation, and it’s really focusing on the customer experience. That may sound, perhaps, like it’s not aligned with technology but at the end of the day, it’s really important that we create experiences that are both intuitive and really resonate with our employees and our customers. No. 2 is innovation. Whether it’s 5G, blockchain, AI, it is incumbent upon us to really understand the lay of the land as it relates to these innovative technologies and how we can make things easier for our employees and our customers. Last but not least, it’s going to be critically important that we leverage our technology to be able to scale the organization.
Our CEO, Alex Taylor, has very ambitious goals. We have a future focused on 2034. In order for us to reach those goals, it’s really going to be important for us to look at some acquisitions and to grow organically. When you look at both of those things, you have to have technology that not only leverages innovation but is also able to scale in big ways.
Data analytics will play a large role.
Absolutely. In fact, the analytics group, in particular, is near and dear to my heart. I led a team at a couple of other Cox businesses, Autotrader.com and Kelley Blue Book. I had responsibility for the data science and the analytics teams across those two businesses. One of the big learnings that I gained out of there is just the power inherent in data. Whether it’s just continuous improvement or AI, the answer is in the data. The way we think about the future, the businesses that we get involved with and the technology that we leverage—they’re all built on top of the data.
With customization of content through streaming services and other platforms, how does Cox pivot to stay competitive and gain consumers’ attention?
I’ve read many times over the years about the demise of cable. But what’s interesting is that cable companies, to some degree, have an advantage as it relates to the internet of things…connected homes. Even as you look at the opportunity within the business space, I think those are the areas that we see an opportunity for not just growth, but significant innovation in terms of what our businesses will be in the future. We expect that these types of services will grow exponentially over the next few years. I think our cable company is really poised to, not just take advantage of the opportunity, but to bring incredible value to those businesses and consumers for years to come.
SAVING THE CITY OF ATLANTA – AND THE SUPER BOWL
While you served as COO for the City of Atlanta, you faced one of the greatest challenges in your professional life — the largest ransomware attack ever on an American city. How did you manage this threat?
I’ll go so far to say, if not for that incident, I’m not sure I would have landed in the CIO role. I was forced to get really, really, smart and up to speed in terms of everything cyber. That being said, it started on my third day on the job. I got a call from the interim CIO saying, “Richard, no big deal, just want to give you a heads up but we have a small virus that we’re working on.” It was much more than a small virus. By the time I arrived at work, there were a few people waiting on me in my office, and I knew that was not good news. We identified pretty quickly that there was a malware attack. At that point, we didn’t know how pervasive the attack was across our networks and didn’t know the entry point.
We quickly organized the teams to be able to begin to identify how widespread things were. We identified a team to begin to map out manual processes. Although it was very early in the process, we knew pretty clearly that this was significant. Now, at that time, we didn’t know it would turn out to be the largest cyber incident for a municipality in US history but we knew that we would have to take action to be able to manually work through processes that in the past had been automated. The mayor and I were able to reach out and identify the best of the best in the space. Although a city doesn’t have the same resources as a private entity, what you do have is cooperation from the state and the federal level. We quickly engaged with Homeland Security. We quickly engaged with our local cyber experts. We were able to identify that it was, in fact, a malware attack.
The biggest decision that we had to make was would we pay the ransom? For a long time, it was not public that we didn’t pay. This was the call of the mayor, and she was adamant about the fact that we were not going to pay someone that stole from us. It ended up being one of the best decisions, and I say that for three reasons. No. 1 one, it ensured that we were ready and prepared for the Super Bowl. No. 2, it really created a focus on cyber that will serve the city for years to come. No. 3, the city was smart enough to have cyber insurance. With that, it was absolutely the right decision.
No one has been able to quantify what was saved. It’s almost infinite in terms of no data extracted or finances actually pilfered. The sky’s the limit in terms of how bad it could have been. The biggest thing—and I feel so good about it—is we had arguably the best-run Super Bowl that we have seen across the country. That is based on feedback from the NFL. We know definitively during that time period, a week leading up to the Super Bowl that scans of individuals trying to penetrate the network went up exponentially. So I’m absolutely convinced that it was the good work that we did in protecting the citizens of the city of Atlanta and millions of people that came during that Super Bowl period.
I imagine dealing with cyberattacks is now a part of the plan of most smart cities. In looking at the more expansive role that you played as COO, how will Atlanta’s application of digital technology serve as an exemplar for other cities in terms of connectivity for services and for quality of life?
I think about three things in terms of my engagement with the city. One is being a smart leader, one of the first things you do is find smart people to work with. Secondly, Atlanta is made up of companies that are really on the leading edge as it relates to everything needed for a smart city, and Cox is a part of that. In automotive, we are thinking through a world where there are autonomous vehicles. We are working with our local municipality to make sure that we’re thinking through infrastructure that will be needed in this new world. The third thing is we have here in Atlanta the North Avenue Corridor, which has been identified as a smart city quadrant where there are a number of tests that we’re doing, everything from smart lights to autonomous vehicle pilots. I think Atlanta, in particular, is really making sure that we are leading the way of how we think about our cities of the future.
DESIGNING A DIVERSE TECH PIPELINE
You served as President and COO of Jones International University. How did that experience shape your leadership style?
To be a part of an organization that was using technology to really impact education in a major way hit on what I’m made of. What I mean by that is I am a mission-driven leader that wants to make sure I’m helping the world do better. That is what drives me. It really shaped me as a leader in terms of how to bring an organization together, leverage technology. If you think about something as simple as pushing out opportunities so that people can learn in a way that resonates for them, in a time-space that works for them, versus traditionally how classes have been held. Just that change of thinking, that paradigm shift, is something that I’ve taken with me in every job since then.
Now that you’re in the C-suite of a major, multibillion-dollar corporation. Give me your insight in terms of what needs to be done to expand the pipeline of African American managers and those within the C-suite?
There are three thoughts that come to mind there. I think one, corporations have to open up opportunities. A lot of times, it’s not necessarily a gap in skills. It’s not necessarily a lack of qualified candidates, it’s just giving people an opportunity. I think we all get comfortable in our respective environments. I have a saying, “We’re all captive to our environments.” That goes for the person that grew up on my side of town or the person that lives in the million-dollar home. So we just have to open up opportunities to people that don’t look like us. I think that is No. 1. No. 2, I would encourage young people to really double down on emerging technology. In fact, I think you would agree, the things that we saw as new and cutting edge don’t last as long as they used to. They become table stakes pretty quickly.
So to the extent that we can encourage young people to look at the new and cutting-edge technology, not to become experts but to become experts on learning. That is the new skill set. You [must] have a mindset in terms of continuous improvement. The third thing is an imperative. If you simply look at the demographics here in the U.S. and look at the rise of Latinos in particular, [you realize] we will be a more diverse country. I think we have to make sure that we create environments where people can be their authentic and best selves. I’m just grateful to work at Cox because it allows me to do just that.
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