Can you take us briefly through the career path that led you to CIO?
I actually graduated with an MA in liberal arts and taught writing several years at USC, and I NEVER thought about a career in technology. We were living in LA and one day my husband encouraged me to apply for a systems analyst job in aerospace. Around that time, the company I had applied to was looking for liberal arts people because they needed people who could work with end users, and liberal arts people had already shown that they could do this work. Consequently, the company hired me.
I began in this systems analyst job, moved into software programming to learn the technology at closer range, and then into project management. From there, I became an IT training director and finally an IT director before I became a CIO and Vice President. Company opportunities for female advancement in IT were hard to come by when I first started my career—so I decided to "promote myself" by applying for more responsible positions in other companies.
I also advanced my career by volunteering for projects that had either failed, or that others were afraid of—and I was fortunate to find ways to make the projects work.
A recent article in the Huffington Post said that in 2013, only 8% of CIOs are female. Why do you think the number is so low?
I am surprised that the number has remained so low, especially when you think of companies like IBM and HP that either have or have had female leadership. The reason I'm surprised is that I can remember (when I first became a CIO) being the only woman in a room full of 200+ CIOs at a conference. Today when I sit in these settings, I notice that the mix of the crowd is about one-third female and two-thirds male. IT remains a male-dominated discipline, as are most scientific and technical fields—so I imagine that it might still be natural for many organizations to look for male leadership.
So have there been roadblocks to your advancing in IT as a female? Advantages?
I would say mostly roadblocks—because I seldom was considered to head up major projects or areas of responsibility in organizations I was employed by—which then forced me to change jobs fairly often so I could get these opportunities by self-promoting myself.
There are advantages, too, especially once you become the CIO. From a team- and consensus-building standpoint, it is easier to forge alliances to make things happen on projects and key initiatives as a woman because you are somehow viewed as a lessor threat by your male counterparts in C-level management and even by your IT staff.
Got any war stories you can share?
There are a few!—But I'll share two. In one case, I was hired as an IT director (I was later promoted to CIO) and one of my key technical managers asked to see me in my office. He shut the door behind him and proceeded to tell me that he had never worked for a woman before, and that he wasn't happy about it. I told him that I understood, but unfortunately, I couldn't do much about it, either! We both shared a laugh. This ended up breaking the ice, and we became fast friends and co-workers for many years.
In another case, I attended a manufacturing software presentation at a hotel that was given by a major technology company. I was a CIO (and also the VP of Manufacturing) but I was the only woman in the room. To make things worse, I arrived five minutes late because I had gotten caught in traffic. When the presenter saw me enter the room at the back, he assumed I was with the hotel staff and asked me if I could get the coffee, so I did. Afterwards, I handed him my business card. When he realized I was actually a CIO/Manufacturing VP who was considering buying his six-figure software, he got embarassed.
What element of your job have you seen as being the most important in the last 15 years?
What do you see being the most important aspect going forward? I think—being able to deliver value to the business and also to clients (I was also a VP in a commercial software company)—and also to help people advance their careers and build their self-confidence. I absolutely love IT and technology, and feel privileged to have made my career in this field. Going forward, delivering value and making a difference will continue to be important, although technologies will change. And in the final analysis, technologies only matter if they transform businesses and people, and make life better.
For more on the role of the CIO and the evolution of the IT department, see our Special Feature, The battle for the soul of IT.
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.