The Countless Roads to CIO

By Deborah Rothberg  |  Posted 2006-11-17

The Countless Roads to CIO

Its difficult to get 10 pages into a human resources magazine or two clicks into an IT workplace site without coming across the often-spoken-of-but-rarely-defined catch phrase "career path."

It can be even more enlightening to browse different descriptions of the term. From the "defined track a person follows in the pursuit of professional goals" to "a map to the place you know you want to be in when you retire," one could propose the argument that even those proselytizing the importance of career paths have limited understanding of the ways it shakes down in a real-life job market.

Among many IT professionals, though certainly not all, the ultimate career goal is to become the boss man, the main guy, the CIO. But how many CIOs knew this was what they wanted to be even 10 or 20 years ago, when they landed their first jobs as coders, data center operators or even accountants?

eWEEK asked 13 CIOs to talk about how theyve gotten where they are today. We asked how many job titles and positions theyd held in IT before becoming CIO, if they changed jobs as a result of a predestined career path or because their previous jobs no longer interested them, and if theyd always dreamed of being CIOs.

13 percent of CIOs plan to increase their IT staff in the fourth quarter of 2006. Click here to read more.

Their answers may surprise you. Nearly half didnt even start in IT, or ever aspire to be CIOs until later down the road. The majority of them have held more than eight different titles along the way, many even more. Finally, all but a couple didnt speak to a clearly defined "career path" but a series of decisions made by gut instinct, as well as following offers they couldnt refuse. As their stories will attest, no two of them traveled identical paths.

From management trainer to VP of application systems

June Drewry, CIO of the Warren, N.J.-based Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, didnt launch her career in IT but in management training, although it didnt take her long to shift her focus to technology. In her career progression, shes held 16 positions at eight different companies, from management training to senior project management, DBA to manager of DBAs and vice president of application systems. Before taking her current CIO position, she was CIO at two other companies, one on the enterprise side, one global.

While often shunned by job advisors, Drewry found some of her lateral moves the most agreeable.

"I never looked more than one position up and often found challenge in lateral moves. My goal was never position but was to keep growing, learning and delivering more value to the corporation," said Drewry.

While many of her early job moves were in the interest of career progression, there were often specific reasons leading to her departure, from companies going out of business to companies moving headquarters and changing management to a company that had a significant value system change that left her feeling out of alignment with its perspective.

"As I matured and served in higher-level positions, the reasoning changed. … Some were better companies," said Drewry.

Drewry realizes that every decision to move is inherently difficult and based on a range of situation-specific factors. "The only common thread was that, every time, the next move offered me more opportunity to have an impact and grow personally."

From CPA to application development

Kathleen Ameche, former CIO of the Chicago-based Tribune Company, never considered the CIO position as she began her career as an accountant. But, computers piqued her interest as they began to take hold in business, leading her to jump to the consulting side at Deloitte & Touche. Ameches been in technology ever since.

"I never had the CIO position in mind. I was always apprehensive working in industry because I thought I wouldnt be challenged enough," said Ameche.

Yet, six moves later—from the directorial side of consulting to application development and director of the Y2K project management office at the Tribune Company—Ameche was CIO. While Ameche says that she never had a carved-out career path in mind, she also feels fortunate that shes never made a lateral move.

"It was always for a more challenging position that became available. Im one of those believers that having a career strategy is good, but I dont believe in making it too rigid—life holds too many options and if I had stayed in accounting, I would have missed some tremendous opportunities.

Next Page: Reaching for the top.


From engineer to VP of advance technologies

From an entry-level engineer on an outsourcing contract to the vice president for advanced technologies at his company, Mark Slaga, the CIO/chief technology officer for Hauppauge, N.Y.s Dimension Data North America, an IT services and solutions provider, has always worked in IT.

The decisions he made as he switched from position to position—10 in total—on his way up to the CIO level reflect this, as he has changed jobs to get a wider exposure to different customer environments, focused on Cisco networking and was ushered through a series of promotions that landed him his CIO title.

"My earlier years were focused on being the most senior technical resource I could be," said Slaga, leading him to focus on achieving certifications like the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert).

Click here to read about the rising value of non-certified technology skills.

But, despite his achievement, Slaga continues to set his sights higher.

"Since I moved into management, the CIO role was one of my goals. But my ultimate goal is CEO."

From consultant to SAP project manager

Craig Berry, senior vice president of IT and CIO for the Plano, Texas-based PLM provider UGS, never planned to become a CIO, describing it as one of those things that happen within ones career.

"Ive made only one, conscious move in my career, and that was to leave a consulting role that I loved, but which happened to require too much travel (old story). I still feel, however, that I am in a consulting role. I am still the same analyst," said Berry.

In his years in IT, Berry had held positions including an intelligence systems analyst, senior consulting manager, SAP project manager and an enterprise applications director.

"Basically, I started as a programmer/analyst, grew as a package interface analyst, became certified as an SAP configuration analyst, and then took on application and IT management roles. But I have always remained an analyst at heart," said Berry.

Berry feels that every IT role requires some analytical skills.

"I believe that this is the soul of everyone who is dedicated and successful within in the IT profession… I am still most gratified when we resolve a longstanding business challenge by taking an analytical or collaborative approach—and then never giving up on the solution."

From computer intern to foreign CTO

Before achieving his current position as CIO of Penske, the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., truck rental company, and president of SIM (Society for Information Management), Stephen Pickett held different technology positions, from a college intern computer operator to a systems and then operations programmer. Before becoming the vice president of IT at his company, the last position he held before assuming the CIO role, he even worked in a foreign country as a CTO.

Although he set off to be a mechanical engineering major in college, once he switched to a computer curriculum, every job hes held has been in IT and he hasnt looked back.

"I started in IT before the title CIO existed, but the evolution of the IT job to process orientation, indicative of the CIO role, played well with my skill set," said Pickett.

Pickett says hes accepted promotions and sought out new positions as they excited him.

"The key reason for my progression has always been to do something that allows me to positively impact the performance of a company."

From desktop support to running a technology division

James Boyce, CIO of PRC, a customer service outsourcing company based in Plantation, Fla., started his IT career 16 years ago, taking care of the operational duties and desktop support on a sales floor at Ticketmaster. Later, Boyce moved on to managing their contact center, implementing a fancy new software program called Microsoft Office. After moving up Ticketmasters ladder to become its technology director, he left for PRC a decade ago.

"Spending so long at one company is rare, but it helped me get ready for my future as a CIO," said Boyce, who said he never thought 16 years ago hed end up still working in technology, much less be a CIO, until he changed companies.

"1996 was the pivotal year for my career as thats when I woke up and realized that my job changed from running contact centers that use technology to running an entire technology division. Once I realized that I not only enjoyed technology, but also was pretty good at it, I knew it was time to jump in all the way … The opportunity to be CIO of PRC was a challenge that I couldnt resist," said Boyce.

Next Page: Trusting your gut.


From analytics to retention marketing

As executive vice president and CIO of VistaPrint, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based supplier of graphic design and customized print solutions, Wendy Cebula oversees capabilities development, software quality assurance and technology operations for the company. But, until recently she never even thought about becoming a CIO.

"Certainly my profile—both because of my background and age and gender—is not typical of a CIO," Cebula said.

With a background in econometrics and analytics, Cebula feels she was led to a career path where she became a bridge between business units, technology and finance. Holding titles such as database analyst, director of retention marketing and analytics, and vice president of capabilities development, Cebula says shes always been focused on the data and details behind decisions.

"In each role, as I became more involved with developing new technology-enabled capabilities, Ive loved the challenge of applying data and technology to solving problems—especially managing the conceptualization and delivery of those solutions and most importantly, enjoying the rush of seeing the business value that those capabilities generate. I love the closed-loop feedback mechanism."

From consultant to director of IT strategy

Frank Norman, CIO and executive vice president of ActiveHealth Management, a New York-based health management services company, held 12 different positions on his way up the ladder. From multiple technology-focused consulting jobs to running IT strategy at his current company, Norman has spent his entire career in IT.

Despite all of his years in IT consulting, he knew he would eventually move in the direction of becoming a CIO.

"Ive always noticed that there arent many consultants with gray hair, so I always knew Id be switching to the CIO track at some point. It wasnt until the Aetna offer that I could really see a light at the end of the tunnel," said Norman.

Normans career path was rooted primarily in his gut instincts, leading himself into areas that he suspected would bring him success.

Ive always had a pretty good knack for anticipating where technology is headed, although Im usually five years ahead of myself. So, I try to get myself positioned in the industries and technologies that are going to grow. Everything else follows."

From electrical engineer to automation technology

Robert Rosen, CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md., as well as the former president of Share, the IBM enterprise user group, started his IT career as an electronic engineer in the reliability testing branch of his company. After using CAD-E software as an analysis tool, Rosen moved to make this software available to all of the engineers in his lab.

He held six different IT positions before making it to CIO—systems programmer, chief of the CAD/CAM systems group, manager of the CAD/CAM systems group, chief of user services and networking, chief of the automation technology division, and finally a director reporting directly to the CIO—but he didnt always have the CIO position in mind as he moved along his career path.

"It was just the next logical step in the progression," Rosen explained. But, after he reached the directorial level, reporting to the CIO, he started looking for his own CIO position.

At each step, he followed what he felt was a natural path.

"They were all career progressions or jumps to areas where there were potential better opportunities and because I was recruited," said Rosen.

From IT to marketing and back again

Tony Young, vice president and CIO of Informatica, a Redwood City, Calif.-based provider of enterprise data integration software and services, has held 10 jobs in his IT career, from IT programmer to engineer, project manager, section manager and director of product management.

Although Young started his career in IT, after going back to school to get an MBA, he switched to a marketing career for two years. "I enjoyed my career in marketing, but decided to go back to my roots in IT as I enjoyed the technology," Young said.

Young said he always wanted to be CIO, but the title didnt even exist early in his career.

"I was always business-oriented and wanted to run a business. A little later in my career, I understood that a CIO truly runs a business within a business so I was able to meet both of my career desires with this role."

Young considers himself a conscientious architect of his career path but not completely dependant on it.

"Knowing myself, I like to solve problems and enjoy new challenges. I looked for opportunities that could blend these elements together. Ive also looked at companies and that would provide some diversity in my experience. …In each of the career changes I made, the primary reason has been because I didnt see substantial problems that remained for me to solve," said Young.

Next Page: Being in the right place at the right time.


From geography to CIO to college dean

Dr. Virginia Hetrick, former CIO for the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of Archaeology, and the associate dean for network and communications management at the Long Beach campus of DeVry Universitys Keller Graduate School of Management, didnt start her career in IT.

"My academic training was in geography, culminating with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. My particular areas of interest changed several times while I was in school, but ultimately I found the area of computational science the most interesting. This is the application of [IT] to solving problems faced in research," said Hetrick.

Along the road, she held positions from IT activities committee chair, research scientist, and developer of a data management system, and ran a project that partnered the University of Florida with IBM and NASA in solving practical analysis problems.

"My path to CIO was literally a result of being in the right place at the right time. In truth, when I started working, probably no one in any industry was a CIO. As best as I can remember, the individual who today would be called a CIO was then referred to as the head computer guy or our IT manager. The first revelation along this path was when the idea that data and information were different beasts came along," said Hetrick.

However, Hetrick tries to reinforce the idea of the evolution of positions within IT to her students.

"When they come to school, most only have their first job after graduation in mind. Theyre not giving much thought to their second or 10th. We want them to see the realities of progression through various IT fields and their respective positions. Some lead to CIO, some dont. Most paths will take them from company to company, sometimes creating a full circle back to an earlier employer. Unless taking an entrepreneurial path from the start, it is very rare that an IT person remains with the same company for his or her entire career," said Hetrick.

From application programmer to IT director

James Johnson, CIO of the Richmond-based Performance Fibers, a producer of industrial polyester, started out as a mainframe applications programmer at Merrill Lynch, supporting their brokerage applications. Johnson was promoted to IT specialist and then left for business school. After business school, he was a manager/consultant at Renaissance Worldwide. From there, he held various positions as an IT leader and director at Honeywell International before becoming CIO at Performance Fibers.

While Johnson has always worked in IT, he says he doesnt define himself as an "IT guy."

"I look at myself as a business professional who understands IT versus the other way around. Having a good feeling for the business and the value that can be derived by leveraging IT assets has always been my focus. It helps align my projects to the critical needs of my business counterparts versus being a one-off IT effort."

He began to focus on the CIO level as he matured in his IT career.

"I find that the CIO role gives me the opportunity to marry my business acumen and technical aptitude and get the best out of both. While in college, I received very good advice from a manager at Merrill Lynch. He advised me to change my major from Computer Science to Economics because I could always be trained in the technical area by Merrill Lynch, but having a solid understanding of business would be critical over the course of my career. Im glad I listened to him," said Johnson.

From programming analyst to consulting partner

Ken Auman, vice president and CIO of The Hartford Financial Services Groups property-casualty operations, heading a staff of five CIOs, has always worked in IT. Happiest working with people, Auman doesnt consider himself a career planner.

"There are people who carefully plan out their careers, but Im not one of them. I plan aspects of my personal life … but in my work life Ive tended to focus on the bumper of the car in front of me, rather than on the long road ahead. I hadnt planned it, but the skills I learned along the way just naturally led to CIO," said Auman.

Yet, he considers each move—from programmer analyst to IT consulting partner to moving to his present company because it was his favorite client—part of his career progression.

"Compensation is always a factor, since it enabled me to travel to exotic places and enjoy some unique experiences, and now to provide for my family. For the most part, though, Ive actively sought out the opportunities to work with people Ive most respected so I could learn from them," said Auman.

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