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Geeky or not? Let’s see how computer-literate Des Moines executives are


Even when he’s vacationing in Maine, Drake University’s David Maxwell is on his laptop, keeping up with the more than 100 e-mails he receives daily.

“It’s the only way I can go on vacation somewhat guilt-free,” said the 58-year-old university president. “And I would be very disheartened to find that Drake had functioned two weeks without me,” he added with a laugh.

With all the recent media coverage about Gov. Tom Vilsack’s admission that he doesn’t know how to send a response to an e-mail, the question arises: How tech-savvy are some of Des Moines’ highest-profile private-sector executives?

After contacting a handful of CEOs in various types of companies, the Business Record found a fairly broad range of computer ability, from geeky to newbie.

To their credit, each exec said they knew how to send and receive an e-mail. Those who professed minimal skills were quick to say they surrounded themselves with people well-versed in technology.

For our own little survey, the Business Record asked each CEO:

* Do you know how to send an e-mail?     * Do you open and read your own e-mail?

* Do you know how to send an attachment?

* Do you know how to search for information on the Internet using a search engine?

* Can you download a PDF file?

After answering yes to each of the above, Drake University’s Maxwell noted that he was the second person at Tufts University to get a computer, when he was dean of undergraduate studies in 1982.

“My wife refers to me as ‘gadget man,’ so I have a reputation for a love for technology,” he said.

His greatest technological achievement, he said, was recently installing a cable modem and wireless router so he and his wife could use their laptops on the one-acre island in central Maine where they vacation.

“I was very proud of that,” he said.   E-mail has been a “spectacular tool” to be more accessible on campus, Maxwell said.

“During the academic year, I can get a couple hundred of e-mails from students who know that I will answer them. So it’s been a very helpful tool. … You don’t want to mistake that for real face-to-face communication.”

For Tom Stanberry, recently named CEO of West Bancorp., computer technology is a comfortable area.

“I think I’m where I should be,” said the 49-year-old, after answering the above questions affirmatively. “I don’t profess to be an expert, but I am proficient. I can certainly converse with the people who are the experts, and have an understanding of what they’re talking about and make a business judgment based on what they have said we need.”

For extra credit, Stanberry noted that he’s wired a network in his house and used software with his kids.

Some corporations contacted by the Business Record, including Maytag Corp. and Meredith Publishing, either did not respond or declined to participate.

Barry Griswell, CEO of Principal Financial Group, didn’t respond personally, but his staff e-mailed a response.

“This is what we have to say about Barry’s and other senior executives’ e-mail usage,” a spokeswoman wrote:  “The Principal Financial Group has always prided itself in using state-of-the-art technology to meet customer needs. Accordingly, it’s natural that our employees are computer, Internet and e-mail literate. Barry Griswell and all our senior executives regularly read, compose and send e-mail, as well as search the Internet. Moreover, many of them, including Barry, remain connected when they are out of the office via Blackberry.”

Blackberry is a brand name of a popular hand-held, personal data device.

Blackberries may only be useful for putting on cereal for William “Bill” Knapp. The chairman emeritus of Knapp Properties said his knowledge of computers is minimal.

“The way I look at this new technology is that I’ve been lucky to be able to afford to hire people who know how to do this,” said Knapp, who is 77. “It’s something that we use, but it’s not something that I’m up to snuff on. It’s not something that I do on a day-to-day basis.”

Knapp said he does use e-mail to write to family members who live out of town. “The main thing I know how to do is send and receive an e-mail, and read the New York Times (online),” he said.


Executives and managers generally fall into one of three categories as computer users, according to Deb Plumb, general manager and partner of New Horizons Computer Learning Center.

“I would say probably 35 percent of the people out there …. count on someone else to know the technology and do it for them,” she said. There’s another 50 percent who know only what they need to know, and they’re satisfied with that. And maybe about 15 percent have a general interest in it and have kind of made a hobby out of it, and they enjoy it at work as well.

“I think it’s that 50 percent that worry me, because they pass that down to the working level, that you only need to know what you need to know,” Plumb added.

“In training, we’ll see managers say, ‘Cut this topic, cut that topic, because we aren’t using this yet.’ Or, there’s the feeling that ‘If I train them more than necessary, they might leave me.'”   From the employees’ perspective, Plumb more than once has heard: ‘I wish my boss would take this class; then I wouldn’t have to spend so much time showing them how to do it.’

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