Computers aren’t just things we sit in front of. They can also be the intelligence that enables service and fun no matter where we happen to be. Ask Chris Chang, vice president of Innovation and IT Strategy at Harrah’s Entertainment. He is applying his passion for IT to enriching customer experiences at the company’s 50 casinos and resorts.
Imagine a bar table you can use to order drinks, communicate with the cuties at another table or watch YouTube videos with hand gestures. Chang and his team have already implemented these and other innovations at the iBar at the Vegas Rio All-Suites Hotel and the Xhibition Bar at Harrah’s Atlantic City Resort.
Other innovations Chang’s team has created are an iPhone app that lets you play customized slot games and log into your rewards points account, and slot machines that double as a sophisticated Star Trek video game. It’s smart enough to let you leave for a swim or some shopping, then come back to any machine and resume precisely where you left off, with all your medals safely saved.
“This is an exciting pilot for us,” says Chang. “It creates new gaming-related benefits for our Total Rewards customers and builds excitement for our guests on the casino floor.”
Chang joined Harrah’s in 2005 as part of its Executive Associate program. In 2007 he started up its Innovation Team to identify, trial and propagate new technologies to enhance the guest experience.
“I’ve always had passion about the intersection of technology, business applications, and entrepreneurialism,” he recalls. “I jumped at the opportunity to form up and lead the group.”
The Team’s mission has given Chang the kind of challenges he craves.
“The best part of my job is that I can see and feel the impact of my work at our casino resorts,” he says. “My best days are when I get to see customers and employees react positively to a solution that we’re testing. I can’t imagine many other businesses where an employee has an opportunity to get such a visceral feeling for how technology can influence a customer’s experience.”
Chang’s enthusiasm for nifty ways to engage customers is limited only by the need to prioritize projects to avoid overextending the team’s resources. “It’s so tempting, at times, to get enamored with different technologies and want to pursue evaluating and piloting them all,” he says. “There are simply so many interesting concepts and solutions that we would love to evaluate and test.”
Being so intensely committed to his work, Chang appreciates the company’s meritocratic culture which rewards him based on his results. Even more important to him is the way Harrah’s fosters diversity of thought and ideas.
“By virtue of our geographic footprint with 50 resorts worldwide, this diversity is endemic within the company,” he notes. “That diversity of thinking, of new ideas and of perspectives stimulates me and many of my colleagues every day.”
Harrah’s data-driven evaluation process was a discipline Chang has learned to apply to temper his enthusiasm for new projects. But at the end of the day, the potential for game-changing innovations remains paramount.
“Early on we struggled with how to look at innovation projects and our innate desire to apply a return-on-investment (ROI) on all activity,” he recalls. “But there are some projects we pursue that simply are not possible yet to quantify in terms of ROI, where we believe there is value but do not know the specific amount or data. These projects can become key building blocks for us in the future.”
Chang’s team is focusing on new ways of engaging customers through various touchpoints and devices ranging from the guest’s cell phone to digital signage placed around the property. “We have initiatives that will give customers the personal touch that they desire from us while maximizing our leverage of technology that makes these experiences possible.”
Chris Chang’s parents were students from Taiwan who met while at graduate school in Houston. His father received his PhD in electrical engineering and his mother was an economist. Chris and his older sister were born in Texas. Their father’s work in the oil and gas and defense industries forced them to move around the Southwest and the West, and Chris spent his formative years in Tulsa and Dallas.
He and his sisters are the products of an unusual Asian family culture. His parents were always attentive and broad-minded about raising well-rounded kids. Unlike with so many Asian American children, the elder Changs urged them to enjoy more leisure time with friends and to avoid studying too much.
“My father’s patient, deliberate approach always calmed me when things got stressful or tense,” Chang recalls, “and his worldly perspective gave me new ways to think about a problem or situation.”
But the person who ended up being the role model at a crucial stage of his life was his sister.
“As children, I followed her everywhere and always wanted to be like her, sometimes to her annoyance,” he recalls. “But as we entered adulthood she taught me to pursue my dreams and not to worry about what others thought. While I was at MIT, she took a big leap herself by thrusting her Harvard education and high-octane consulting job aside to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a pastry chef. Rather than caving into the concerns and objections of many of those around her, she jumped headfirst and applied the same passion into her new career. She has become very successful with her own bakeries and restaurants in Boston.”
Her example came at a time when Chang was wrestling with the decision to commit five or more years of schooling to complete a PhD program. “Talking with her and understanding her motivations for making the career jump are what helped convince me to forego my PhD studies and instead find a job that could leverage my passion for technology and yet still allow me to apply it in a more practical commercial setting.”
Chris Chang received a BS and an MS in electrical engineering from MIT.
“When I first got there, I was amazed at all of the different technologies and theories that I studied in my courses,” he recalls. “I especially enjoyed my signal processing classes, and eventually became a teaching assistant for one of the graduate courses in digital signal processing. But I also enjoyed talking to professors and classmates about the practical uses and adoption of technology. I marveled at why a powerful computing platform like NeXT struggled to gain adoption while companies like Gateway were growing so rapidly.”
Chang began interning at Monitor Company, a strategy consulting firm, during the school years. It fed a desire to learn how companies could use technology to compete more effectively.
Upon graduation in 1995 he joined Monitor in Cambridge and spent five years as a consultant there, working on a wide range of cases and projects in a variety of industries. He liked projects where technology played a key strategic role and also where financial analysis and modeling was required. During his last couple of years at Monitor, he moved to the Bay Area and helped form Monitor Ventures to help startups build in exchange for equity. In 2000 Chang moved to Denver to join a small software company and ran its strategy and product management for five years.
He was immediately attracted to the Harrah’s opportunity when he came across it in 2005. “Harrah’s is a unique company in just how strategically it views technology and how intertwined technology is with the business and its core CRM (customer relationship management) practices. I also was excited by a couple of key technology initiatives.”
For Asian Americans entering IT Chang passes on the advice he got from one of his MIT professors to not only invest time in learning how to program but to also spend time understanding the end-users and business practicalities.
“My professor admonished me at times for spending too much time just coding or getting through problem sets, and not enough time understanding the context around what I was being asked to do and why I was being asked to do it.
“So, I often tell students to be sure to round out their programming skills and fundamental principles with a solid grounding of the real-world environment, how businesses work, how customers think, and how technology can help improve or enable better experiences.”
“I am married to my college sweetheart, Kathy Chiu,” Chang says when asked to describe his marital status. “She and I met our freshman year and started dating our sophomore year, when she was my next-door neighbor in my dorm. We both were in the electrical engineering program, and I always turned to her whenever I ran into a particularly challenging problem in our problem sets. She was always the one who could solve the toughest problems.” After dating for 7 years the couple married between Kathy’s first and second years at Stanford Business School. They live in Las Vegas with an energetic 6-year old son named Cameron.