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A senior IT executive on how she worked her way up from the bottom of one of the world's largest organizations.
By Pam Parisian, CIO, AT&T Services
I started pretty much at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy — as the Assistant to the Assistant of a District Manager. In the nearly 35 years since then, all of them spent at AT&T and its predecessors, I’ve worked my way up to a position of tremendous responsibility and exciting opportunities.
Along the way, I’ve learned a few things: Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Take some risks by volunteering for big and uncertain challenges. If such challenges start to feel overwhelming, take things one step at a time. But my career hasn’t been all about learning valuable lessons. I’ve also had a great time!
Where the Action Is
And why wouldn’t I have a great time?!
My field is exciting and constantly changing — I don’t think any other part of our organization has seen as much change during my tenure as information technology — and it puts me and my team at the center of the action.
At AT&T, almost everything we do depends on IT. We’re supporting some of the most crucial processes the company relies on to do business and succeed. Our technology runs everything in retail stores from digital signage to point-of-sale systems on reps’ tablets. We’re constantly working to improve the customer experience through new, innovative technology, such as incorporating mobile self-service options that blur the line between physical and digital. We’re among the first to know when a new product or service is in the pipeline because we work hand-in-hand with marketing. We work with the customer care function to empower the systems that help them not only answer questions faster but predict why customers are calling, so we can address their issues proactively. We work with our analytics team to help them visualize what the data is telling us, so we can adjust our business strategies in real time. Plus we’re working side by side with human resources, finance, and supply chain… the list goes on.
It’s hard to imagine any organization that doesn’t rely on IT this way. In short, there really is no more exciting place to work than technology.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Of course you have to like diving into the action and confronting a task. Which actually is a pretty good approach in general, whether the context is state-of-the art technology — or musty file folders.
As I said, I started out as the assistant to an assistant. I have a vivid memory of my boss leading me to a dark stuffy room with microfiche film strewn everywhere. The files were hard to read and they tended to stick to each other. Filing them was no easy task. But that’s how we stored our customer records. I remember thinking, as my boss opened that door, “If this is what they need me to do, I’m going to whip this room into shape like nobody’s business.”
That’s how I’ve approached every task I’ve ever been asked to do. The folks who succeed in IT aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and leave things better than when they found them. It’s how we learn and figure out how to make things better for our business clients and our customers. I rose through the ranks by not being afraid to take on the dirty work — indeed, whatever work came my way — and doing it to the best of my ability.
And I always looked for things that needed to be changed but weren’t because everyone was too busy doing their jobs. I was, too, but finding ways to improve efficiency or reduce cost or grow revenues is always worthwhile.
Be Willing to Take Chances
My managers gave me more responsibility until eventually I reported directly to that district manager, running the team responsible for not only filing customer records but for creating them. As I progressed in my career, I was recommended for a job in Atlanta in a new business called “cellular.”
I didn’t know much about it. And a couple of my superiors advised me against taking the position. It was losing money hand over fist and would never be a profitable business, they said. But to me, it sounded thrilling. And I really wanted one of those cool car phones! (At the time, I had a Pontiac Trans Am with a T-top and a hatchback. As there was no trunk in which you could hide the phone, I had this big metal box sitting in the back of the car, with a lot of wires running up to the antenna mounted on top.)
I made the move and never looked back. And it was thrilling. I remember working on Thanksgiving that first year because we had some project that we were determined to get done. We had 100,000 subscribers — mostly pager customers. But we were on fire.
I had responsibility for their billing, ordering, credit, and reporting systems. Our goals were to reduce activation times, get bills out, and support an increasing amount of data. It was a challenge. There was not a lot of structure. So I took it one day at a time. Sometimes when I went home, I’d immediately collapse on my bed and fall asleep. I was exhausted, but it was exhilarating. People should always be on the lookout for an interesting challenge, even when it’s not entirely clear what it will involve. You never know where such a path may lead.
Take It One Step at a Time
“What’s hard by the yard is a cinch by the inch.” That was one of my mother’s favorite sayings. It’s always stuck with me. And it’s an approach I have used often in my job and my career. When I confront a challenge that is big and unknown, seemingly beyond my ability to handle, I feel a mixture of excitement and anxiety. So I break it down into incremental steps – inches, if you will – that I can take. Over time, those inches add up to a complete response. What’s more, breaking it down enables you to make adjustments along the way.
When I was promoted into my first position with a big area of responsibility, I just kept telling myself: “I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here. I can’t see the end. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. But I’m going to take it one step at a time and keep going in the direction my gut tells me to go.” Sometimes you’ll take three steps forward and two steps back. But it’s progress.
Love Your Job
Bring a positive attitude to work every day: I’d say this is one of the most important pieces of advice I could give. Now I have 3,000 employees working on my team. I oversee people providing software technology and support that has a significant impact on our business, our business partners, and AT&T as a whole. I’m proof that a career in IT can be exciting and rewarding. There is plenty of room to grow. But you not only need to be willing to get your hands dirty – you have to love doing it.
I think that one of the reasons I love what I do is that I have an ownership attitude. I own whatever I’m asked to do, all the way back to that messy microfiche room. I think people inherently want to have pride in their work and own the outcome. At the end of the day, I’m not going to point my finger and say, “We didn’t get the job done because of so-and-so or because of some other circumstance.” That just doesn’t fly in IT. The only person I can point to is myself. The flip side is, whether it’s me or a member of my team, we own what we’re working on and we’re excited about the results. What are we doing that we’re going to take to the bank?
So whether you work in IT or somewhere else, my advice is simple. Give it your best effort, no matter what the job is. Volunteer to take on new challenges, because you never know who is going to notice your work or where it may lead. Take every opportunity to learn and grow; if you can do more, ask for more. When it feels like you may have taken on too much, simply move forward a step at a time. Bring a positive attitude to work every day.
If you do these things, you’ll have more than a job; you’ll have a career you love.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)