I’ve gotten a lot of questions from TechRepublic members about the best ways to direct their careers. There is the inevitable certification vs. degree debate as well as questions about experience vs. education.

Since each situation is unique, there is no clear answer across the board. What I’ve decided to do in the coming weeks, however, is feature personal stories from top IT pros as to how they got into IT and succeeded at it. I hope you’ll find these stories useful in making your own career moves.

This week, our featured guest is Tom Gainer, Senior Vice President and CIO of FirstBank Southwest.

Here is Tom’s story

I grew up in Southern California. After high school I joined the Marines and did a tour in Vietnam. After spending three years in the Marines I came out still not certain of what I wanted to do with my life. For the next several years I worked in a variety of jobs, including selling vacuums.

By chance a school friend of mine called me one day since he knew I was still looking for “the” job. It turns out his sister was a regional manager for a Thrift and Loan, and the company was opening a new branch in the city next to where I lived and they were going to be hiring. So I contacted his sister and was hired as a trainee by the company. I started at the bottom in collections, repossessions, and payments. From there I was trained as a loan officer and cashier and after a few years, became an assistant branch manager.

After several years there I was offered a position as a trainee with a large commercial bank in the same city in California. Once again I started at the bottom and worked my way up to a branch manager. For the next 10 or so years I moved to a couple of different banks and a credit union that were larger in asset size and which presented me a more rounded background in business and banking. During this time, I attended college at night and obtained my AA degree and I attended classes at the American Institute of Banking off-campus locations.

In the mid 1980s I took a job in a product group with a company who was a third-party data processing provider who later sold out to Fiserv. Shortly after the reorganization, I was asked if I would take the EFT product group, which at the time, consisted of myself and two others. Over the next 8 years my origination grew, through mergers and such to over 100, and my role changed to one of a business line manager. My responsibilities included product management/development, sales, operations, data center operations, help desk, settlement, vendor management, regulatory issues, etc. This position was the first that really exposed me to the back office operations and the world of the data center. It was the place where I learned what it meant to be contacted in the middle of the night when new code did not work, when reports did not balance, when the networks crashed, when the main frames went down, and end of day did not settle and on and on.

From the early 1990s until the present, I have held a variety of jobs inside and outside of banking, but never outside of operations and technology. These roles have included client services manager, CTO for a start up, SVP of Operations and Technology for a midsize bank, a consultant, and several other similar types of roles. But the common thread among all of these has been my involvement in the business and technology side of each of the companies I have worked for. I have found that my initial grounding in business laid the foundation for me to smoothly enter technology and operations and to blend all of these skills together to meet the challenges of today’s business world.

Over the years I believe my success has been a direct result of many factors, including surrounding myself with good people; allowing them to be creative; teaching and mentoring; asking questions; doing research; recognition; listening; supporting; running interference; financial and other rewards; planning; and delivering. I have also been successful because I understand business, not just banking, but business. I know how to write a business plan, prepare a budget, work with vendors, build a spread sheet, control cost, write a report, figure ROI, and know how to convey technology issues into simple and easy to understand language for the board and other C-level staff, as well as line staff.

But most of all, I have learned that you must foster a partnership environment with the business groups. You must understand what they need to have to be successful. You need to understand what drives them forward. You need to understand the direction of the company, the time lines, the deliverables, the challenges, and ultimately you need to understand your customers, who pay your salary by buying your products and or services.