CIOs who took an alternative route to the top

A high school physics teacher. A hockey coach and referee. An intern at the National Science Foundation.

What do these seemingly disparate positions have in common? They were all early career choices for CIOs and CTOs who are now successfully immersed in IT strategy and technology leadership at major institutions, including a university, a commercial real estate company and a telecommunications start-up.
road not taken

Instead of following the traditional trajectory to a C-level tech position — a computer science or engineering degree, followed by years of help desk work, programming and project management — these tech leaders took an alternative route to the top IT spot.

Whether the itinerary was deliberate or unplanned, their early experiences off the beaten high-tech path provided invaluable communication, business and people skills that they believe helped separate them from the rest of the IT pack.

Rick King, chief technology officer at Thomson Reuters Professional, credits his years spent as a teacher, a coach and a hockey referee for giving him people skills that he finds are a key differentiator.

“Most people in technology or business don’t approach things from a people point of view, but rather look at things from a revenue or cost perspective. It’s this prism of looking at people and wanting to make them succeed that makes me different,” he contends.

King and others who took a meandering path to the top of IT say that their unlikely career choices provided perspective and management expertise that made them more agile leaders and better problem solvers, not to mention that it better positioned them to serve as that proverbial bridge between technology and the business.

In fact, an alternative career path might eventually become the “new normal” for CIOs. While many first-generation CIOs “accidentally” fell into the emerging position in the 1980s when they were singled out as the resident technology expert, the second generation actively charted a direct course to a CIO title, usually by pursuing an MBA while doing stints in different functional areas of the business.

Today, it’s entirely likely for a vice president who specializes in logistics, customer service or the sales organization to nab the CIO slot without actually clocking any real time in IT.

“It’s totally possible for someone’s first job in the IT organization to be CIO,” notes Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates LLC, an executive search firm specializing in IT executive placement. She says it reflects a broader trend of the CIO role beginning to emphasize process re-engineering.

“As this becomes more about process than technology, an IT background is not as relevant as a background in business,” she explains. “That’s why you’re finding people falling into the CIO role from all kinds of diverse backgrounds.”

Nontraditional credentials like teaching experience or marketing and communications expertise can be considered assets in organizations that have a well-established brain trust of technical knowledge, Heller says. These companies can afford the luxury of a CIO versed in extracurricular skills.

Shops where technical know-how is at a premium will continue to be most attracted to a CIO with a strong technology-centric résumé. Yet even then, nontraditional skills can command great value. “If a [background that’s] off the beaten path has you doing something with teaching or communications that helps you relate to people, that will make you a better CIO,” Heller says.

With that in the mind, here’s a look at four individuals whose nontraditional paths to the CIO office gave them a fresh take on how the job gets done. (And check out one tech consultant’s nontechie career path too.)

Coaching leads to the corner office

Name: Rick King, 54
Title: CTO
Company: Thomson Reuters Professional

Career trajectory: He chalks it up to a love of order, but from a very early age, Rick King wanted to be a school superintendent. He set out on that path, teaching math for nearly 10 years at Essex Junction High School in Essex Junction, Vt., in addition to taking on some administration roles, coaching sports and serving as a referee for high school and college hockey.

When a computer programming teacher left, King was tapped to take over his classes, and what started out as a simple challenge to master new technology blossomed into a passion, overtaking any of King’s superintendent aspirations. Swept up by his newfound love of technology, King took a chance and joined the sales team at Wicat Systems Inc., an educational software company he had been working with at the school.

There, King immersed himself in hands-on technical training and learned all he could about IT and R&D. He eventually took over those departments before moving on to Thomson 10 years ago, where, as CTO, he’s now in charge of product development and IT.

Take-away: King’s years spent coaching and refereeing were instrumental to his success as a CTO, he says, because they helped him become adept at negotiating conflicts and building consensus around a common point of view. “I know how to bring issues up, make sure the right voices are heard and listen carefully to help make decisions,” he says.

“How many times do you sit in a meeting and the issues have to do with disagreement about technology choice or issues with team or individual performance?” he adds. Rather than setting a hard-and-fast line on how the group should proceed, King instead coaches team members toward agreement on a common course.

Liberal arts major excels in health care IT

Name: Sue Schade, 57
Title: Vice president and CIO
Company: Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Career trajectory: Sue Schade still isn’t sure whether it was the politically charged, post-Vietnam climate of the early 1970s or her inborn rebel streak that shaped her early education and career choices. Though nursing and teaching were key areas of interests, Schade found herself searching for something different, a quest that led her to an alternative program at the University of Minnesota, where she put together a curriculum focusing on alternative education, women’s studies and broadcasting.

With that undergraduate degree under her belt, Schade took a job with Northwestern Bell in the billing office, which at the time was considered primarily a female role, she says.

Schade quickly realized that her male colleagues working on the installation and repair side commanded higher pay, so she passed a physical skills test (climbing ladders and so forth) and became one of two females working on a 20-person crew.

It was there that Schade became interested in programming. She signed up for a technical course that taught coding in seven languages.

Her first health care IT job was in 1984 at a nonprofit that merged with another organization to become Advocate Health Care. Schade rounded out the IT field experience she gained at Advocate by going to back school at night to get an MBA with a concentration in health management from Benedictine University. She’s been at the CIO helm at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for over 10 years.

Take-away: Schade says her predisposition to question authority has been a help — not a hindrance — in her journey to CIO. “I’m always looking for how to change things, how to improve things, and I don’t accept the status quo,” she says. “Health care and IT are constantly changing, and I think being open to that change has helped push me along when trying to lead an IT group that listens to customers and brings forward new solutions.”

Schade’s determination to push forward even with a dearth of female role models helped her succeed in what was once a male-dominated field. Now, believing it’s her responsibility to pay it forward, she serves in formal and informal mentoring roles for women in IT within her organization. “It’s really all about making choices that work for you,” she says. “I feel strongly about sharing my story and helping other young women get there.”
Public school teacher turns to high tech

Name: Craig Cuyar, 42
Title: Global CIO
Company: Cushman & Wakefield Inc.

Career trajectory: Having always excelled at math and science, Craig Cuyar started out studying to be an engineer at Pennsylvania State University, but he quickly realized that he liked interacting with people too much to pursue a career that he felt would tie him to a desk and a computer.

At an adviser’s suggestion, Cuyar switched gears to education, and after graduation he took a job as a high school physics and math teacher in Altoona, Pa., for three years. Given Cuyar’s background and interests, the school recruited him to take a leave of absence from teaching to help build out an advanced technology center specializing in software development and computer courseware that would cater to high schools in the district.

It was during that tenure, Cuyar says, that he honed the skills that would be essential for his CIO career — setting strategic vision, developing computer-based training modules, negotiating with key suppliers and handling basic program management.

Thanks to some local press about the center, Cuyar’s work caught the attention of a health care provider, which recruited him to oversee a similar project as CIO. From there, Cuyar went on to serve as CIO for several companies across different industries, including advertising and, most recently, commercial and residential real estate.

Over the years, Cuyar also kept a hand in his studies, getting master’s and doctorate degrees in education in addition to an MBA in finance. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member for various academic institutions, mentors graduate students enrolled in Columbia University’s Masters of Technology Management program and sits on the executive board of the New Jersey chapter of the Society for Information Management.

Take-away: Cuyar credits his teaching background as his key differentiator as a CIO, bolstering his ability to respond quickly and address questions — even those that come out of left field. “I’m used to walking into a setting where I’m not sure how the audience will react,” he explains. “With teaching, you need to think through a curriculum and make sure your audience is understanding and learning. Being a CIO is not that different.”

Another important lesson teaching imparted to his work as CIO: that learning is a lifelong process. “You always have to be open and adept at learning,” Cuyar says. “As CIO, I’ve moved into three different industries, and my ability to learn quickly and understand what makes the organization tick is an asset. The other fundamentals of IT leadership are fairly constant across industries.”
Air Force man touches down as university CIO

Name: Jim Bottum, 62
Title: CIO
Company: Clemson University

Career trajectory: Jim Bottum will admit it was serendipity that brought him to the CIO role. After a couple of years as an Air Force forward air controller in Vietnam, Bottum got his bachelor’s degree in government at Florida State University and was moving on to a law degree when on a whim he was persuaded by a friend to take a government entrance exam.

To his surprise, the test landed him a government management internship at the National Science Foundation, which in turn led to a 10-year career in program management, working on some of the first large-scale supercomputing facilities and on NSFnet, a precursor to the commercial Internet.

In recognition for his role in helping to build supercomputing facilities at five major universities, Bottum was approached in 2001 by Purdue University to be its first-ever CIO.

He made the leap, overseeing the integration of six IT organizations and building out a strategic plan for both centralized and distributed services. Bottum left in 2006 for his current post as Clemson University’s CIO.

Take-away: Despite the diversity of his experiences, Bottum says a common theme is his desire to be first at trying something new. That drive, honed by the training he got first in Vietnam and then at the NSF, has fostered an ability to attack problems with an open mind, he says. He believes his nontraditional background definitely is an asset. “I’m not the traditional CIO candidate. I didn’t grow up in the glass house, I wasn’t a COBOL programmer who transitioned to FORTRAN — I didn’t go through all that stuff,” he says. “People say I have a way of explaining complicated, technical stuff in everyday terms, and that’s what they appreciate.”

One tech consultant’s nontechie career path

At one time or another, nearly every CIO considers quitting corporate life to hang out a consulting shingle, tapping his or her years of experience to advise IT colleagues on technology strategy and deployment.

But how about becoming just such a strategic adviser to CIOs without ever spending a formal day in the CIO post?

That’s exactly the path that Judy Arteche-Carr took to become executive director of Arteche Global Group, a consulting firm that caters to CIOs and CEOs of global companies.

Arteche-Carr, who spent her early years in various marketing, communications and advertising roles, parlayed an MBA into a series of finance-related jobs at corporate giants as Salomon Brothers (Citigroup) and JPMorgan Chase, then took high-level consulting jobs at EDS and Unisys. All along the way, Arteche-Carr honed program and risk management skills, not to mention getting a crash course in technology and IT strategy at EDS and Unisys.

With years of consulting on the business side under her belt, Arteche-Carr decided three years ago to starting a consulting business advising CIOs on business strategies, global sourcing, emerging technologies and program/project management — all areas with which she had seen organizations struggle.

Having the ability to provide clients with a 360-degree view, not just a focus on technology, is what Arteche-Carr believes sets her apart from the legions of other IT consultants. “I can give them the advantage of seeing problems and issues from different perspectives, not only considering the technical issue at hand,” Arteche-Carr says. “I think that gives me credibility.”

In addition to her consulting business, Arteche-Carr teaches global IT at graduate and undergraduate levels at Fordham University’s Business School, serves on the board of CIOs Without Borders and is chairman of the New York chapter of SIM.

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