IT career success and advice: An interview with Marilyn Smith

This is the first of an interview series that I will be intermittently including in my “Your IT Career” blog. The rationale for this series is that who better to ask for career advice, than those who have reached the top position within our IT profession.

In each of these interviews I ask two questions:

1. How did you get to your level of professional success? 2. What advice could you give my readers to enhance their professional careers?

To begin this new series, I had the great honor and pleasure of interviewing Marilyn Smith, the former CIO of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Throughout her impressive career, she also held CIO and/or very senior executive positions inside and outside IT for financial services giants such as John Hancock, Liberty Mutual, and Hanover Insurance.

Question #1: How did you get to your level of professional success?

Ms. Smith answered this question with a combination of personal observations and philosophies. She began by saying that she was always willing to do the hard jobs that others were not willing to do. Over her career this has included challenges such as:

• Stepping in to save projects that were headed toward failure prior to her taking on the leadership role • Widening her professional experience and perspective by being willing to step outside her comfort zone as opportunity and necessity required • Moving from IT into an executive business role and then back into IT with a user’s perspective of the IT function

In additional to a willingness to take on professional challenges, she also described the true importance as an IT professional:

• To strive to do your very best to support the business goals of the internal clients you serve, not just as a service provider, but as a business partner in the success of the overall organization. • To strive to maximize the internal efficiency of IT. This not only adds to the credibility and cost effectiveness of the IT function, it also provides great value to the overall organization being served.

From a personal philosophical perspective, she also stressed the importance and value of a: • Diversity of professional experience • Taking jobs that best match your skills and abilities • Being open to learning and doing new things • Building strong, long lasting, professional relationships based on respect and trust • The power of synchronicity, related to opportunistic career advancement • Running your life and profession with passion, not fear

Question #2: What advice could you give my readers to enhance their professional careers?

When asked this second question, Ms. Smith provided a number of insightful suggestions. These suggestions, not surprisingly, were very consistent with the professional philosophies previously mentioned, that helped guide her professional life. Her suggestions were:

• Volunteer for hard projects. Your reputation will be built on the challenges you are willing to take on and the quality of results you achieve. • If possible, exit and then return to IT. Your time working outside of IT will enhance your perspective on how to best serve your internal clients and also position you to be a business partner, rather than a service provider to other business areas. • Be willing to go outside your comfort zone to learn new things, gain a diversity of experience, and grow professionally. • Know that a diversity of experience helps your ability to communicate with those both inside and outside of IT. • Work in an industry that matches your skill, abilities, and interests. • Form and maintain long-lasting professional relationships.

In closing, if I may impart a personal observation; I believe that other reasons that helped propel Ms. Smith, and also will help propel you, to the highest ranks of our profession is her consistency of philosophy and action, high personal energy level, and an obvious passion for her chosen profession.

If you have any questions about your career in IT, please email me at or find me on Twitter at @EricPBloom.

Until next time, work hard, work smart, and continue to grow.

Read more of Eric Bloom's Your IT Career blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricPBloom. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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