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There are many avenues to the executive level. The stories we hear most often are usually the most dramatic: the tech billionaire college dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg or the rags-to-riches bootstrap CEOs like former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns or Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
The truth usually falls somewhere in between, with many C-suite executives climbing the ranks from within after holding a variety of senior positions. Of the incoming CEOs at S&P 500 companies in 2018, 73% were promoted from within.
One story that is not told very often is that of C-level people who started off as IT professionals. It’s a story we wanted to tell as a blueprint for high-achieving IT folks, who may not always see a career path towards a seat at the executive table.
Here is a look at seven IT pros and the paths they took to the C suite:
1. Jody Davids, Senior Vice President and Global CIO at PepsiCo
A bit of paycheck envy turned out to be just the thing Jody Davids needed to launch her tech career. During her first office job as an executive assistant at General Electric’s nuclear energy business group, she realized she could make a lot more money if she didn’t just support the IT employees, but was one of them. So she signed up for the company’s after-hours training program, learned Fortran, and landed a GE programming job. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. Following the Three Mile Island accident, nervous energy companies laid off a lot of people and Davids was among them.
Her story, though, has a very happy ending. She landed a programming job at Apple in 1982, then moved over to the IT side in support of HR and finance. Working at Apple during its wild and wooly early years taught her valuable lessons about rapid growth and cost containment. But after 15 years, she realized it wasn’t the place to accomplish her early goal of becoming the CIO of a Fortune 200 company. So she left to build up her resume as Nike’s IT director. Davids credits working for two dynamic, but very different, company founders (Apple’s Steve Jobs and Nike’s Phil Knight) with learning the importance of maintaining her own leadership style.
She’s since been a CIO four times over — with Cardinal Health, Best Buy, Agrium and PepsiCo. Her advice for anyone who wants to follow a similar career path is to have clear goals and pursue them boldly.
2. Charlie Feld, founder and CEO of the Feld Group Institute
Charlie Feld could be considered one of the founding fathers of the modern Chief Information Officer role. Today, as the CEO of the Feld Group Institute, he spends his time training the next batch of IT employees to become leaders.
Leadership and IT are two things Feld knows well, although it wasn’t always that way. When he started working at IBM in 1966 as a systems engineer, he’d never seen a computer in person. That would be a harder feat to pull off today, but the newness of the tech field, and IBM’s fast growth, created unique opportunities. Feld was put in charge of the company’s Frito-Lay account, and after spending 15 years at IBM, he left to become Frito Lay’s CIO. It was there he discovered his love for the early, messy days of leading an IT department. So rather than take another CIO role, he started The Feld Group, a temp-CIO-for-hire company that saw him taking turns at the tech helms of major companies like Delta Airlines and BNSF Railway. The Feld Group was acquired in 2003, but with his current venture, Feld is back sharing his IT knowledge.
3. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
Satya Nadella once had dreams of being a professional cricket player, but he chose to pursue his love of technology instead. After immigrating to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in computer science, he landed his first job on the tech staff at Sun Microsystems in 1990. Two years later, he came to Microsoft as a program manager, and where one of his biggest pre-CEO accomplishments was helping move the company to cloud computing.
Since being named Microsoft’s third CEO in 2014, he’s made major changes, including a shift to embracing relationships with competitors like Apple, Salesforce, and IBM. The strategy seems to be working. At the end of 2018, Microsoft became the most valuable company in the world, leapfrogging over Amazon and Google, and taking the top spot from Apple.
4. Gerri Martin-Flickinger, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Starbucks
Somewhat surprisingly, when Gerri Martin-Flickinger became the CTO of Starbucks in 2015, she was the first person to hold the title. Since taking the role, she’s led the company through major tech transformations like mobile ordering and pay and voice ordering. Martin-Flickinger thinks of herself as a “career CIO,” having spent 30 years heading up IT departments for big name companies like Adobe (where she led their major pivot to the cloud), VeriSign, and McAfee. And while it’s been a long time since she was outside the C-suite, Martin-Flickinger spent more than 12 years in senior tech positions at the oil and energy company Chevron, including as a process consultant to the Chevron’s executive staff. That gave her early access to some of the company’s top leaders. She credits that big-company experience with preparing her for her CIO roles down the road.
5. Steve Neff, Head of Asset Management at Fidelity Investments
Steve Neff is a good example of how today’s top leaders aren’t just business people who happen to be tech-savvy, but often, tech people who happen to have a head for business. Neff isn’t the first person with a tech background to head up Fidelity Investment’s asset management division, and he probably won’t be the last. The job caps off a long career he’s built combining technology and finance.
He started from day one as an advisory systems engineer at IBM, supporting the company’s banking customers. He then managed their systems team. After 12 years, Neff jumped to Wall Street investment firm, Salomon Brothers, at the urging of a former IBM colleague who worked there. He credits two years working in London for an early global perspective that prepared him to be a leader in an increasingly global business world.
Neff, whose Fidelity roles have included CIO and Head of Technology and Global Services, thinks that the data-driven, early technology-adopting finance world is a perfect fit for tech enthusiasts.
6. Ted Colbert, CIO and senior vice president of Information Technology & Data Analytics, Boeing
Boeing CIO Ted Colbert’s love for technology began at a young age when he got a Commodore 64. In college, he double majored in science and industrial and systems engineering, and cut his teeth in IT at Ford Motor Company. There, he worked in roles that included infrastructure engineering, portfolio management, and program management for the CIO office. His last and longest role at Ford was as manager of Global Support Operations, tasked with everything from desktop hardware to the help desk.
Like many IT people who make it to the C suite, Colbert sought out roles that combined tech with business strategy. After leaving Ford, he went to Citi, where one of his major accomplishments was delivering a tool that tracked global requests for the engineering teams. He arrived at Boeing in 2009, and became CIO in 2016, now overseeing a department of more than 6,500 IT and analytics employees. (This might explain why he wakes up at 4 a.m. every day.)
7. Manuel Bernal, Head of Technology at Greylock Partners
Full disclosure that Manuel works for our investors, Greylock (and is the host of the IT Kit podcast we co-sponsor) but that doesn’t mean he’s disqualified from this list. Manuel spent more than a decade directing IT for great companies like Symantec, One Medical, Lookout and Thumbtack, before “jumping to the other side” and working for one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms as the Senior Director of Technology.
In his current role at Greylock, Manuel evaluates and assists internal tech teams as they scale the business, while hoping to delight employees. His deep vertical experience in IT helped him transition to helping companies horizontally across Greylock’s portfolio of companies.
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