IT leader talks loss, and rebuilding a technical career

The only thing constant is change, yet we find that easier to accept change in our technical work rather than in our careers. I had the great fortune to sit down with Senior IT leader, Treasurer of the Calgary Chapter of the CIO Association of Canada, Paul Parzen to talk about what it is like to lose, accept the loss, and become ready to rebuild in a technical career. I’m humbled to be able to share his story and I hope it helps others who find themselves in similar circumstances later in their careers. 

Paul, tell me about your role before the change

I joined Jupiter Resources very early in its start-up life cycle, I was the seventh or eighth person joining the organization and I was there six and a half years later when the company was sold to a competitor.  I was responsible and accountable for all aspects of Information and Technology right from its day one creation and rightfully proud of the team we assembled and capabilities we had developed.  The last couple of years we had been working on some exciting things.  Advanced analytics, 3-D visualizations, and introducing Internet of Things devices into our Operations Technology (OT) platform were just some of the innovative things we were working on.  I loved every minute of working there and my team felt the same way.  It’s not an exaggeration to say we were fully committed to the long term success of the organization.

It all changed very abruptly when the company was sold to a competitor at the end of 2020.  As often happens in the Oil and Gas industry, the acquiring company is interested in the oil and gas in the ground and the hardware on the surface that extracts it.  Information technology was traditionally seen as ancillary, and the systems of the acquiree are integrated into the new model of the acquiror.  That process is accepted, and, as they say, to the victor go the spoils.

As you began to grieve this loss, what have you learned?

For several months, my team and I had been working very hard on preparing the assets in our charge for the new company to take over.  This, in addition to our regular day jobs of keeping all the systems running and supporting operations.  Like everyone in the company, we had committed to being exceptionally professional, making it a point of pride to hand everything over in the best condition it could be.

One evening, after a particularly challenging week, I was unwinding and decompressing, recounting the issues we ran into.  My wife stopped me dead in my tracks when she pointed out that I was acting very angry.  It was a moment of clarity!  I’d been doing my job in a professional manner as I worked through the transition, but she made a point of reflecting my demeanor and language as I unburdened myself.  It suddenly dawned on me; I was angry!  I was losing my work community, the presence of those people who I cared for and about, through no fault of my own.  I was watching my team be dismantled and the hard work and achievements be “binned”.  You bet I was angry!  

As many of us do, when the job gets busy and the challenges come fast and furious, we “knuckle down” and focus on getting it done.  It took an honest conversation with my better half to remind me I’m still human and need to work through the emotions of change.  

I had to go through the grieving process to come to terms with the loss.  I found having open conversations with not only my team, but others in the company was very therapeutic in coming to terms with my own emotions.  Celebrating, as best we could, given the pandemic, the many achievements.  It was not just about the capabilities we delivered, but that we made people’s work lives better.  

What was your proudest achievement at your former workplace?

Reflecting on my time with Jupiter, one of my proudest achievements was creating the Information and Technology team.  I count it as a privilege to have worked with and lead such an outstanding group of professionals.

I consistently heard remarks from the leadership team that we had the best team they had ever worked with.  Proactive, innovative, and “getting it done” were comments I often received.  Working in collaboration with everyone toward the key objectives was a consistent approach for all the team members.

I’m convinced the diversity of the team was one of the keys to its success.  Half of the team were visible minorities and women.  These strong men and women were able to bring diverse skills and view points to solve challenging business problems.  

Another key was trust and respect across the team.  Everyone trusted each other to do their part to deliver what the business needed.  We became a family.

I remember a particularly challenging time when we had to respond to a significant security breach.  We had fallen victim to a zero-day vulnerability and the “bad guys” managed to get in to our network.  As you can imagine, it was a highly stressful time; lots of uncertainty and concern over the extent of damage.  As time went on, stress built, and conversations became terse.  Everyone focused on dealing with and recovering from the breach.  Once it was dealt with, we had to have some heart-to-heart conversations about how we responded to the situation and stress.  We grew and improved from those learnings.  However, if it were not for the trust and commitment to each other, we would not have been as successful at having those tough conversations.

That combination of extremely talented individuals, a high degree of trust and mutual support across the team is what allowed us to achieve outstanding results.

Knowing what you know now, what do you suggest to others to help them also make a successful transition?

In thinking about making a transition to another industry, I’ve had several conversations going along the lines of “…you have spent too long in one industry, what can you possibly know about <insert industry here>?”  

Over the course of my professional career, I’ve had the privilege to work in about a dozen industries.  Based on my experience, 80 per cent of business processes look exactly the same across industries.  Procure to pay is the same no matter the industry.  You want to factor your receivables?  It’s the same process whether you are in forestry or manufacturing.

There will always be that “secret sauce” for any given business where they are able focus their energy and drive value.  Even within industries, it happens between companies as well.  Every organization has its unique value proposition.  That is what makes it special to work in industry, helping organizations get the most from their unique strategy.

I remember a conversation very early in my career as a young manager.  The COO of an organization I had recently joined pulled me aside and said “Paul, you have to understand, this business is completely unique.  There is nothing like it.  Everything we do is completely unique!”  This person went on to make sure I understood to practice caution about bringing ideas forward.  The implication of the conversation was that unless those ideas came from the same industry, they likely were not going to be particularly good.

Being a lot younger, a little “wet behind the ears”, and being that it was the COO, I did not say anything, though perhaps I should have.  I did walk away from that conversation thinking the COO was completely wrong.  It took a while to figure out where that discussion came from.  It was fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  Fear that I might challenge long held beliefs about how things were done.  I understand it now.  Fear is a powerful emotion and a great inhibitor to change.  Helping people understand “the art of the possible” has gone a long way to reducing the anxiety of change.

As I look back on that conversation, I wonder how much more improved the outcomes could have been if the COO had embraced that uncertainty and explored the possible.

That experience has cemented a lesson for me: long held beliefs about how things should operate must be challenged.  By doing so, the achievements will be astounding.  Since that early career I’ve had the outstanding fortune to work for an organization with a culture that embraced uncertainty and continuously challenged assumptions.  The achievements were incredible! 

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Helen Knight
Helen Knight
Helen Wetherley Knight’s passion for IT ignited when she learned to program at the age of 9. Now with over 20 year’s experience as visionary and strategist, Helen leads award-winning significant and meaningful technology transformations across Canada. Extensive work experience and unending thirst for knowledge (MBA, PMP, Prosci) are the backbone of her ability to influence, design, solve problems and implement effective strategic change. Helen works extensively in the nonprofit space, advising organizations large and small on how best to realize the promise of technology. In her spare time Helen runs as a support hub for nonprofits wanting to learn better ways to work, and is the President of the Calgary Chapter of the CIO Association of Canada.

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