Putting the IT in Inevitable | Straight Talk

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A lifelong interest in technology helped this industry leader check into the C-suite.

My dad, who worked in technology, started taking me to work with him on the weekends when I was only about five years old. He let me do everything from using punch cards to hanging tapes and running the impact printer – things that most people in technology today have never even seen. Growing up with technology from such an early age meant I was never afraid of it and always thought of it as a possible career path.

By the time I was in college, my dad had become a CIO, and that influenced my decision to follow that career path. So beginning early in my career, I was strategic about picking jobs and opportunities that would lead me on that path. I started out in operations, running a data center and dealing with things like outages and backups. From there, I worked my way through all the different fields of technology, from development and operations to program management, software testing, and security, moving from manager to leadership roles as I went along.

I didn't recognize for a long time that there were very few women in leadership roles in technology or that I was doing anything special – perhaps because I grew up essentially following in my dad's footsteps. But now that I'm aware of that, I realize I have an opportunity to help pave the way for more women.

No one route to success for women

Women who want to become IT leaders need to think about how they might navigate their careers, because they often don't start off as hardcore computer scientists or engineers the way many men do.

I have two female direct reports who have taken very different career paths. One started her career as a technology consultant. Another direct report started out at Oracle and then went to AT&T before coming here. But both are now vice presidents. One of our female directors started in finance, where she was a subject matter expert on our financial systems. She could have stayed on the finance ladder, but because she knew where all the data was and how it all connected, she migrated into leading our financial data warehouse and data analytics, which is highly technical.

Sometimes businesspeople need to get more technology exposure to grow their careers, and sometimes technologists need to move into business for a while, maybe in a product management role, to move to the next level of leadership. I like to remind people that sometimes the opportunities aren't where you're sitting today.

On mentoring

One of my proudest mentorship experiences involved a leader at a previous employer who wasn't perceived as successful. I asked for a couple of months to work with him, because I thought he was brilliant. We worked out a plan, not to improve his skills, but to help him rebrand himself within the organization. It took just a few months to turn his reputation around, and he's still at the organization today. It was a win/win for him and the organization.

I'm an informal mentor to several people and also active in several formal mentorship programs within IHG, through Columbia University, and through Women in Technology here in Atlanta. I typically ask to mentor women through those programs because, as I said, I feel I can help pave the way for future women leaders.


Building the hotel of the future

I spent 15 years in financial services, so moving to the hospitality industry was a big change. I had to learn a completely new business while at the same time strengthening many of our technology capabilities. I've spent a lot of time on stabilizing the technology stack in addition to building a service-oriented architecture for agility while making sure we have the right talent and the right strategic suppliers.

Today, a guest who wants two towels and a hair dryer delivered to their room has to call the front desk and then wait. In the future, I can see them placing the request on the IHG mobile app and being able to see the status of the request, from the moment housekeeping gets it to the moment someone delivers it to the room. In order to get there, we have to move a heavily on-premise IT infrastructure into the cloud and focus on using data analytics and artificial intelligence to personalize the experience to each guest.

Our goal ten years from now is a frictionless customer experience that starts in the space where guests are just starting to think about a vacation or business trip and ends after their stay. We also want to create a frictionless experience for the hotel operator so that guests' mobile devices can automatically let hotel staff know right away who just walked into the lobby, their loyalty program status, how to greet them, what to offer them, which room they've reserved, and so forth. We want to make it so the front desk operator doesn't have to think about anything except providing a great guest experience.

The Takeaways 

An aspiring CIO needs to make strategic choices about both technology and business jobs to prepare for the executive suite.

A background in computer science or engineering isn't necessary to rise to an IT leadership position; people skills and comfort with data are.

A challenge facing IT leaders in non-technology industries is moving predominantly on-premise IT infrastructure into the cloud so they can begin to modernize existing systems and introduce new ones.