“If you believe that you can be or should be the world’s authority on all innovation and technology, you are setting yourself up for failure.”Phil McKoy


Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a drive with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences. Today we take a ride with Phil McKoy CIO of Aimia.


In this Episode:

2:57 The changing role of the CIO

4:34 Staying relevant as a technology leader

6:11 Knowing what technology and methodology

8:34 Getting great technology talent

11:09 Advise to your 25 year old self

13:17 Becoming a tech leader

14:28 Getting closer to the business

16:23 Change in beliefs from years past

17:53 Leading in a different way

18:44 Working your way out of your job

21:42 Family and kids

24:45 Balancing and family

25:25 Fishing from a Kayak – TARPON 140 ANGLER

26:43 Solace

28:31 Being a corporate athlete

30:13 Morning routine

31:09 Staying connected and getting information

32:03 Influential Books –

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins

Total Leadership by Stewart Friedman

Produced by Jeff Martin CEO of Collective Genius

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The Interview:

Phil McKoy: Here’s one the funny part though that I firmly, firmly believe in is that my job is to work my way out of my job.

Jeff Martin: Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a drive with leading technology executives, dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences. Today we take a ride with Phil McKoy, the CIO of Aimia, and discuss a variety of topics from the changing role of the CIO, staying relevant, advice for up and coming tech leaders, balance, and fishing from a kayak.

Phil McKoy: How are you?

Jeff Martin: Good. How are you doing?

Phil McKoy: I’m good.

Jeff Martin: Good to see you. You might be warm in that jacket.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: I don’t know.

Phil McKoy: No.

Jeff Martin: You look warm.

Phil McKoy: I’m good.

Jeff Martin: All right. Let’s go for a ride. Thanks for meeting me.

Phil McKoy: No problem on that side of the road.

Jeff Martin: So we’re going to go quick over the [unintelligible 0:01:25] Coffee. I’ve been trying to explore all the cappuccinos in town, and —

Phil McKoy: Is that a particular good one?

Jeff Martin: That’s what I’ve heard.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: So I want to try it out, so hopefully we’ll be able to have enough time to make it over there and back, and along the way, we’re going to have some questions.

Phil McKoy: It’s cool, perfect. That works.

Jeff Martin: So we met – I think it’s been a couple of years now – so we met when you were leading technology over at Target.com.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Since that time, you changed gears and positions and now you’re the CIO over at Aimia. How’s that a great change been for you?

Phil McKoy: It’s been a great change. You know it’s a much smaller company, and there is so much that goes with that around team, function, culture, decision making. It’s not that one is bad, one is good.

Jeff Martin: It’s different.

Phil McKoy: It’s different. For me right now, from where I am in my life and my career, it’s a welcome change.

Jeff Martin: How do you see the role like you went from leading a dot com to a CIO to a CIO role, how do you see the role of the CIO changing years passed?

Phil McKoy: Well, I think it’s a much more strategic role than I think it has been in the past. You know I think traditionally you hear any difference by organization certainly, but I think traditionally CIO role has been sort of this operational tactical support function if you will.

Jeff Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Phil McKoy: Cost-center if you will, and I think what’s changing and it’s really, really clear in the role that I am in, in the business that I am is that it’s as much a revenue driver as any other role in the organization. In organizations like mine, where a big part of what we do is sell not only loyalty services strategy but loyalty platforms, it becomes the core, the core tenet that we go to market with. It may not be how we make – that might not how we make money on, but it’s how we frame off all the other value-added services that we deliver to our clients. So for me as a CIO, for this CIO role, I’m at the table in any and all business roles or discussions, not just the operational questions that might come up from time to time. I think that’s fundamentally different than what CIO roles have been in the past.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. So how do the CIOs that are in that traditional landscape stay relevant or become relevant?

Phil McKoy: Build the business.

Jeff Martin: Build the business?

Phil McKoy: Yeah. I just think that that’s it. When I took this job, if you will, working at Target knowing the business is somewhat intuitive because its retail. There’s an intuitive understanding of retailers and demand because we are all shoppers. In this business, it was a bit tougher because understanding the nature of loyalty and how you make money selling and driving loyalty programs in the business that was priority number 1, and I actually spent more time with the client and business teams than I did with perhaps with my own technical teams of the first 90 days.The exciting thing that I could influence what we need to do differently in the IT teams and the technology teams if I didn’t understand what the business is trying to achieve. So that became priority number 1 was better figure out what the heck is going on here from a strategic standpoint, how we make money where technology factors, and how we make money, where the P&L teams see technology in their strategy and then you can go back and effectively lead because you understand what you’re trying to achieve.

Jeff Martin: With all the change in technology, which is changing business faster and faster —

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: How do you stay on top of or how do you know you’re using the right technology, the right methodologies?

Phil McKoy: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a really interesting question because as a CIO, I think that if you believe that you can be or you should be the world’s authority on all innovation and technology, you’re setting yourself up for failure, and so what I’ve done especially in this space is I read. I read a ton. I read market analysis whether it’s Forrester or Garter, you read competitive insights. I spend time with the sales teams when we win, when we lose just to get a sense of why we’re winning, why we’re losing, what’s the role that technology plays there. And so I used that sort of get insight on relevancy and where are we in terms of the overall technology curve, and then when it gets down to the specifics of technology whether it’s platforms, I’m not a deep, deep technical guy.
But I make sure I have those people on my team and then the key piece that I do is I listen to them and I give space to the engineers and the architects on my team to come talk to me, and I make their inputs, to make their input valuable, right? So those guys get to a point where they have a sense and a feeling that they can come talk to me. From that, that’s actually where I get some of the greatest insights. You know the 25-year-old on my team that is telling me about some technology that I frankly never heard of and why he thinks it’s cool. I can ask questions on, “Great! It’s cool. How is it going to make us more money?” And so I realized the limits of my ability to know-all be-all on the latest and greatest and make sure that I understand what the market is doing and have people on my team where I encourage them their inquisitiveness and leverage that to keep me informed.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. So really you’re using a team. So how did you get that 25-year-old on your team that loves technology, into technology, and they have all these different offers, all these different companies [unintelligible 0:08:20].

Phil McKoy: Show them that it matters. You call it what you want. I don’t actually know if people it’s a millennial thing. I don’t believe that to be true. I think people want to be in a place where their input and their voice is heard and it matters, and we haven’t done as much hiring as much as I could, which I would like to, a 25-year-old engineer, but as I looked across my team and I see – and that doesn’t have to be a 25-year-old engineer. It can be the architect that’s been on the team for 20 years that has a wealth of experience just wants to be heard, I made their voices matter. I give them visibility. I stand up for them in the tough moments where we have challenging conversations with our client teams, and I create an inherent sense of value that they’re part of plans of this company to make money, and people love that stuff, you know what I mean?

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Phil McKoy: These people, we work for a for-profit company, and that ability to tie those things together I think is very powerful for engaging your team.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. They want to feel like they’re making a difference.

Phil McKoy: Yeah, absolutely.

Jeff Martin: They want to be a part of that difference.

Phil McKoy: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely they do. Yeah.

Jeff Martin: So doing that probably helps

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: It’s not always an easy thing. Sometimes they have to do a small task that–

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: That task is part of a bigger task.

Phil McKoy: Yeah. But you know if they’re engaged, if your team is engaged, they will work through a lot of — I always say this to people when I say to a lot of people here in Aimia is just because someone is doing a really tough job that in and of itself doesn’t lead to disengagement because some of the hardest things I’ve ever done have been when I’ve been the most engaged. What it is its purpose? It’s connectivity. That’s what I think motivates people. You can get your team to do a whole, whole lot if there is a sense of purpose and connection to what you’re asking them to do.

Jeff Martin: Some developers and business technology type people love to just stay in the pocket and just want to work on technology, want to go, and want to do. Then there’s other people that that’s the first step to what they want and they’re more interested in the business. They’re more interested in management. They want to get that leadership role like you’ve been gone to.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: If you look back and you can give yourself advice back when you were 20 years old now.

Phil McKoy: Yeah, yeah.

Jeff Martin: What would you tell yourself to do that what you did that was correct?

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: What else you could have done?

Phil McKoy: Yeah, it’s a great question. For me, I wish I had become a [unintelligible 0:11:23] coder which is really interesting now because I grew up in Accenture, and I think Accenture had a very standard process, you start off. I remember going to St. Charles and learning C++. Then I learned a little COBOL along the way. There is this idea of you needed to be able to code, to have credibility, and broader understanding of what you are pitching to clients, and I get that. But the coding really only lasted for about 6 months to a year, and then you quickly move into these leadership roles. That was the Accenture formula and it worked. It was a good formula.
But I actually wished I could – I wish I could sling some code. I really do. I wish I were a better engineer than I am because I think you get to a place where I am now where my BS meter isn’t as fine-tuned as it was 5 years ago or yeah 10 years ago because technology has evolved as rapidly as it has. Yes, you can depend on your team but I want my BS meter to be probably more fine-tuned than it is right now, and so I wish I had a deeper engineering sense. I guess that’s what I would tell my 22-year-old self as maybe stick with the engineering a bit longer.

Jeff Martin: What do you think you did do well that guided you to where you’re at, that you did have that focus on that propelled you that maybe some others may out of?

Phil McKoy: I think a focus on the business I think that’s always been my eye. I think I focus on whatever we’re trying to achieve, not technology for technology’s sake. I’m never going to get into .NET Java argument with anyone, right? I focus on what are we trying to achieve and I think that focus has always helped me be a bridge, have the right perspective. Some of the biggest challenges that we all have as technology leaders as being able to have intelligent discussions with our business partners. I think that’s always been the strength of mine to be able to frame what we’re doing for technology clearly in the eyes of business objectives, whether it’s revenue, whether it’s cost, whether it’s efficiencies, whatever it might be, being able to always bring it back to that end-goal.

Jeff Martin: So from a tactical level, say we have someone in his mid 20s.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: They’re technologist.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Is it finding opportunities for them to ask those environments where they can ask those questions to the business? Is it networking, going to lunch with some of the business people? When it is it appropriate for them to do that if that’s not really part of their 9:00 to 5:00 job?
Phil McKoy: I think all the time. Know how you make money. I think it’s such a simple statement. You would be amazed how often I met with a team or team member like you know how we make money? I just asked this question at a leadership offsite yesterday. I said, “Do you think our team understands how we make money?” Because if you don’t understand what your business is, I don’t think you can ever be effective in supporting it because you may see innovations along the way. It’s going to be the first time in the depths of the team that’s going to be able to figure out some of the greatest innovations and to be able to connect you want to do ABC or you want to reduce costs. One of the ways you do that is to make a particular process or application run faster, and all of a sudden, you got a smart technologist, smart engineer who can say I can take X number of milliseconds out of this process and I’m going to do it because I know if I do that, I can cut time off. It’s worth X number of basis points the bottom line. Being able to make those connections I think is absolutely critical for folks that are out there, the technology professionals to advance their careers.

Jeff Martin: So kind of along the same lines of kind of looking back and also looking at as your current staff –

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Is there something maybe earlier in your career you had a belief about within business itself or technology itself the polar opposite now, that has changed?

Phil McKoy: I think earlier in my career, I focused a lot on costs and not as much on results. There’s this notion that because you can do something less expensively, that’s always a good thing because if you think about it, I grew up in Accenture and even in Target in a paradigm of shifting more and more work offshore and it involved standing up Target India. It’s not to say that that model doesn’t work. It absolutely does.

Jeff Martin: It has a place.

Phil McKoy: But I think I’ve become much more intentional around the decisions to focus on costs. As I spend more time in the space, you know you start getting into true TCO especially when you’re into business results that when the job varies slightly different than what you would have before.

Jeff Martin: What’s one thing that you do in a leadership role that might be a little bit different than other people?

Phil McKoy: I think I try to stretch the hell out of my team. It’s interesting because you have to find the talent that matches the way you lead. But I firmly believe that you got to give the people you work for as much rope as possible and as much guidance and as much coaching but I think autonomy and empowerment are two of the biggest tools that you can use in developing your talent, and I just firmly believe you got to do that. You have to be able to let your team run.

Jeff Martin: Then you’re supposed to say that you’re supposed to work your way out of a job?

Phil McKoy: Yeah, that too. I think you have to be to be —

Jeff Martin: Do you really believe that –

Phil McKoy: Absolutely.

Jeff Martin: That you start to work your way out of a job?

Phil McKoy: Yeah, absolutely because –

Jeff Martin: Is it scary for people, though? Don’t they want to keep their job?

Phil McKoy: It’s not scary for me because in the end like I don’t view myself as being at the end of my career like there is always something else that I want to do, and I think you have to be able to live a legacy of competence behind you as you are followed. I firmly believe. I mean I feel like I’ve heard people say this. I actually think one of the biggest tributes to good leaders are when you look at their progeny if you will. You hear this a lot in coaching like you hear this all the time in sports coaching like who are all the Bobby Knight disciplines or who are all the Krzyzewski disciples. I love that idea, this idea of do you develop people well enough that they go on to bigger and better things, and I think people should do that.

Jeff Martin: Who’s someone that did that for you?

Phil McKoy: Lots of people. I mean that’s actually I’ve been remarkably, remarkably, remarkably blessed. I was joking around that one my favorite bosses was Ken Kaiser. I think Ken absolutely, absolutely, absolutely did that for me of give me the rope to run, so I put Ken in that mix. Other people that I would put in that mix, as a partner I worked really closely with at Accenture, Mike [unintelligible 0:20:01] who was in the same way where just a lot of leeway, a lot of stretch. I’ve had these points in my career where you call those inflection points and more often than not it’s been there’s been a leader in place who has moved on to something else and it’s left a void that they have taken a flier on me to go fill. I try to embody that now. I think fliers on people all the time and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But I think if the people underneath you know that you trust them and that you’re willing to stretch them, that you’ll back them up when they make mistakes, it will do a whole more for you.

Jeff Martin: Excellent. Makes sense.

Phil McKoy: So…

Jeff Martin: Yeah, that’s the first time I’ve been to [unintelligible 0:21:05], but this is really good. I don’t want to do a cappuccino. It’s way too hot outside to do that right now.

Phil McKoy: Yeah, I couldn’t imagine.

Jeff Martin: So moving to something a little bit different, there’s something you and I have in common that not a lot of people have in common. We both have five kids.

Phil McKoy: Make them babies.

Jeff Martin: Make them babies.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: In today’s kind of world, you don’t really see that often.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: I would like to ask about to me they will say how do you guys do that, and typically my answer is not always successfully but we’re always trying.

Phil McKoy: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jeff Martin: How do you answer that question? Is that a question that you get asked?

Phil McKoy: I get asked a lot. I get asked a lot. The people always say how do you juggle everything. Yeah, in the first thing I always say, I’m nobody’s example of that balance. I do what works for me, right? And so if you wanted to look at me and say work-life balance, I don’t know what that is. For me, I look at do I have the time to tend to what’s important in my life and work is one of those things. It doesn’t float to the top of the list, but it’s one of those things, and so I am intentional about where I spend my time.
I’m intentional about things like I take my kids’ birthdays off from work, always have, always will. There have been times where once or twice where you run to a conflict and you figure out a way to juggle, but I set my boundaries and I stick to them. I let it have flow. So if I have a week where I’ve been traveling or something like that, I’ll take Friday off, pick up the kids from school, and I do things like I always have school calendars loaded into my work calendar, and so I might look and see a couple of weeks out. “Hey, my kids are off that day.” I’ll clear that day and do something because in the end I’m sure what I believe is my children aren’t going to remember whether or not I was an 8:00 to 5:00 dad or an 8:00 to 12:00 dad. I don’t think kids’ memories are around the specifics. I think kids’ memories are around the sense of did you make time to have experience this with me, and I make sure that I’m able to do that.
It’s hard. There are times when it’s challenging. But I would say the most important piece for me of being able to do that is my wife, it’s having someone at home. If she and I both worked, I don’t know if we’ll have five kids. I think it will be hard. So the divide and conquer of personal responsibilities or work responsibilities, we do want on a daily weekly basis to make sure that everything gets covered.

Jeff Martin: Do you guys find, your wife and you –

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Time to get away as well?

Phil McKoy: We do. We do. We try to. If I were to say if there is one thing that suffers, it’s probably that because Friday nights are really Friday nights rest. You get to the end of the week. She’s been busting her butt all week. I’ve been busting my butt all week, and we always say, “Well, let’s sit down or have a glass of wine, or watch a show, and at 10 o’clock we’re both asleep.”

Jeff Martin: That’s great.

Phil McKoy: Best-laid plans, but I would say probably the one that thing that probably had some suffering because she’s busy with five kids and I’m busy with my job.

Jeff Martin: I always look at it as not work-life balance, but I think there is work, there is family, and then there’s personal.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: lot of times, I think people group family and personal together but I think it’s very separate. I think people really need time for themselves.

Phil McKoy: I completely agree.

Jeff Martin: Is there some activity you do?

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Somewhere you go?

Phil McKoy: Yeah, I fish. I fish from a kayak.

Jeff Martin: Really?

Phil McKoy: Which is a very solitary thing to do, so I have a 14-foot fishing kayak. I throw it on top of my car. I fish the city lakes. I try to do lakes where there’s no boats.

Jeff Martin: Really?

Phil McKoy: And I fish the city lakes. I get up 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning and I go do that, and that is my solitary time.

Jeff Martin: Is that something you only do on the weekends, or you do it before work?

Phil McKoy: Only on the weekends now. I’ve toyed with this idea of could I ever do it after work or before work or something like that. Before work would be tough but after work, I’ve never done it. In all the years I’ve been kayak fishing, I have actually never gone and —

Jeff Martin: What kind of kayak do you have?

Phil McKoy: It’s a 14-foot Wilderness Systems Tarpon, and I rigged it up. I used the milk crate to build a rod holder, and I put a depth finder on it, the whole 9 yards, so that’s –

Jeff Martin: When you’re out there fishing, I think for we, as in any sort of business or any sort of area, I find that when they find that place of solitude.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: They start working again.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: They start thinking about work.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Do you think about our family and stuff but it seems like when people go and find their solitude, they tend to go right back to their office [crosstalk 0:26:44] aspect.
Phil McKoy: Yeah. I think that’s – I don’t and I think that’s why I enjoy it. It’s probably one of the few times that I don’t think about work. It really is mind clearing for me. That’s why I enjoy doing it. I mean I’m focused on the lure and the line, I just —

Jeff Martin: You focus on what you’re doing?

Phil McKoy: I focus on what I’m doing, and there are a lot of other things that I do that I also enjoy, that don’t give me the same I would guess clarity of mind that fishing does. I think part of it is the notion of fishing from a kayak and having to paddle like I think there is the physical nature of it combined with fishing I actually think helps versus if I were in a boat tooling around trawling. For me, it’s been nice. It’s been a nice respite from everything else that’s going on in my life.

Jeff Martin: For me, I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu and I don’t have time to think about anything but that.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Submission grappling or some of the —

Phil McKoy: Yeah. It consumes your mind.

Jeff Martin: But you need things to consume your mind.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: To have that separation.

Phil McKoy: I agree.

Jeff Martin: I think there’s a lot of people that are in the corporate world that act as athletes and there are corporate athletes, thinking in terms of that, do you spend a lot of time training in the role that you’re in or we’re in.
Phil McKoy: I do. I mean I think of it as a corporate act like for me, it’s all about skills, right? So in going from Target to this role, there are muscles here that I’m exercising, I never really got to exercise that at Target, so for example smaller company like I was never really involved in trying to figure out how we were going to get ready for earnings at Target. I was never ever involved in doing a monthly or quarterly business review with the executive committee so there is some of what I call broader leadership muscles that I’m able to develop in the role that I’m in now that I haven’t had an opportunity to develop them in the past. Some of that for me is very, very intentional because I know I haven’t had a chance to do it. If I’m going to round myself out, I seek out those opportunities. This idea of being an athlete, I think there’s athlete that are finding existing skills and then there’s athlete learning new ones and I’m more in the camp of athlete learning new ones and strategizing from that perspective that I am constantly trying to refine and become better at what’s already at my tool box.

Jeff Martin: In terms of structure, do you have like a morning routine?

Phil McKoy: Not so much per se. I mean I think I get up early. I check email first thing in the morning because it’s quiet in my house. If there is anything about morning routine —

Jeff Martin: Do you beat the kids out of bed?

Phil McKoy: Gosh, yeah! I beat everyone out of bed by far especially now in the summer. If I’m up at 5:00 AM, there may not be another soul up in the house before 7:30 and I’m usually up at 5:00 or 5:30. My morning routine is the silence, the catch-up. There are a lot of mornings where I’ll just go sit on the porch and thumb through email on my phone and get caught up and enjoy a moment of no one bothering me and that’s nice.

Jeff Martin: Where do you go for a stand up on a technology and trends what’s going on out there? Is there publications or podcasts, or things like that?

Phil McKoy: So, I’m a big Flipboard fan, and I think because it’s easy and I can do it very quickly on my iPad because there’s a series of —

Jeff Martin: For Flipboard, it’s the app that kind of like the RSS feed?

Phil McKoy: Yes, yes. So I still subscribe to a lot of digital and retail US feeds just because I find it interesting, and then now as I work for Aimia, I’m a much more focused on loyalty and the incentive market than I ever have before, but that one is easy for me. It’s hard for me to be a book reader just because I don’t have the time. I think it’s challenging but with my iPad, I can do it at night. I can do it in the morning. That’s been a good one for me.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. Are there books that you read that influenced you?

Phil McKoy: Good to Great.

Jeff Martin: Good to Great.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: What about Good to Great?

Phil McKoy: I think the simplicity of leadership. What struck me about Good to Great when I read it years ago now is the whole idea of superstar leadership or superstar companies versus simplicity of approach, the simplicity of style, the simplicity of strategy because I’m not a brainiac, right? I’m not going to be one of those guys who’s going to sit down for 4 hours and come back to you with the biggest, brightest, greatest strategy that’s out there. I’ll help my team come to that, and so that notion of leading on team, leading on simplicity and focusing on what you’re really good at, that’s always resonated with me.

Jeff Martin: I’m a big fan of that book, too. Reading that book, and doing what I do and looking at teams and looking at leadership, it all comes back to what I always believe is the answer is having the right people.

Phil McKoy: Yeah, I agree.

Jeff Martin: I always see my Venn diagram all three circles of people, but that book just really confirmed that.

Phil McKoy: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Me, too. I think it’s a great book. I think a lot of people like that book and visiting a lot of offices of people, I often see that book almost —

Phil McKoy: Yeah, yeah.

Jeff Martin: Almost in any case.

Phil McKoy: You know it’s funny, too, because there’s I’m trying to remember the name of the other one. Because I don’t read a whole lot of books, there’s not a whole lot of them that have resonated with me. That one resonated and I’m drawing a blank on there is another one. That was not just about work, but it was about how you balance the different tenets of your life and what the notion of balance is for you.

Jeff Martin: If you’ll look it up, I’ll show it in the show notes.

Phil McKoy: Okay.

Jeff Martin: Cool.

Phil McKoy: You got timing. That’s perfect. That’s great. Well, thank you. That was fun.

Jeff Martin: Yeah, yeah.

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