This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Nicole Nitowski is a member of Pathways, which is a proven leadership development program, designed to prepare VPs, IT directors and manager for the many challenges they will face as future CIOs and IT executives. The program recognizes the individual needs of each participant and provides custom offerings for advancing skills specifically in leadership development and business strategy. The Pathways program was created by the CIO Executive Council, which is a global community comprised of hundreds of the world's leading CIOs who together form the most unbiased and reality-tested peer-advisory resource available to the profession.
There was never a glass ceiling for Nicole Nitowski, Senior Director of the Project Management Office at the Association of American Medical Colleges. She never let anything stand in her way. Leveraging the CIO Executive Council's Pathways program, she was able to become part of an all-women mentor group. "Grab every opportunity that's offered to you" is her advice to anyone looking to get into the business. Starting out in biology but moving quickly to healthcare information technology, Nicole had plenty of opportunities, simply because she took that strategy to heart, worked the "Old Boy's Network" (which apparently works for women too), and never looked back.
Name: Nicole Nitowski
Current position: Senior Director, Project Management Office, Association of American Medical Colleges
Hometown: Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania
Years in the Industry: 17
Biggest high school achievement: Graduated number 10 in my high school class.
Something most people don't know about me: 5am to 8am is my "me" time. I get up every morning and work out before going to work.
Ask me to do anything but . . . Go camping
Favorite non-work pastime: Hanging out with my two daughters and husband.
Favorite technology: Wi-Fi - the fact that you can be online on your laptop, any time, anywhere.
What I'm reading now: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
Best thing about working in D.C.: Accessibility. Great places to go for lunch and shopping.
Worst thing about working in D.C.: The commute
Ideal vacation: The beach in the Caribbean
Tell me about the CIO Executive Council and how their Pathways program was able to help you in your career.
With the Pathways program, you're part of a mentor group. I'm actually part of the first all-women mentor group that Pathways started, and that's been very helpful through sharing different topics and having discussions with a small peer group about what we all face in our roles. Being that it's an all-women group, we also talk about things that don't often get talked about in a mixed group setting, so that's been great.
Give me an example. What do women talk about in that setting?
Work-life balance is a big topic. I have a fabulous husband who is a great teammate, but I think a lot of women, when you walk in through your front door after you get home from work, it doesn't matter what your title is at work. You're Mom and Wife, and Nurse, and Chef, and a whole bunch of other titles as well. Sometimes these career jobs have a lot of long hours, and balancing all that is challenging. That's a big topic. Another big topic is your personal brand, and how you want to be perceived and how to establish that good personal brand in the workplace.
Compared to other industries, would you say that the IT business is fairly open in relation to women in executive roles? Or are there obstacles that you continue to face?
I feel it's fairly open and that I've been given equal opportunity. It's never really been an issue for me, but I understand from other women that they sometimes feel that way.
Let's start at the beginning. When you were in high school, did you have any designs for getting into a technology career?
Strangely, no. I actually always thought I was going to get into medicine for as far back as I could remember.
So you got your biology degree, then went to Johns Hopkins for a business and management technology master's. What led to the decision to switch from biology and medicine, to business and management?
Every job I've had since my undergrad degree had something to do with healthcare, medicine, and IT. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to go back into medicine. When I decided that I didn't want to do that, I decided to get some higher education, and that helped me formulate that decision. I wanted to stay in healthcare IT.
There are a lot of new IT initiatives throughout the healthcare industry regarding modernization, including initiatives for electronic health records. It would seem that there will be a lot of new opportunities for IT careers in the healthcare industry as a result, don't you think?
I would definitely agree with you, particularly since a lot of the Recovery Act funds are triggering compliance issues, and speeding up the move to electronic medical records. Just like any other industry, IT is everywhere. No business can function without it, and medicine is no different. The world is our oyster in that regard.
Would you say that students coming through today who are going into the healthcare industry have a higher expectation in terms of what technology will be available to them?
I think that's true for the up and coming generation, and they're looking for more access to information, on a more immediate basis. When I was in school I didn't have a laptop. Now they carry it to class, along with an iPhone and everything. I didn't have a cell phone in college. It's such a different world. Whether it's medical school or not, students now are really dependent on it.
Those students are going to go out and instead of expecting to visit a patient and take longhand notes by the bedside, they're expecting to have an iPad in front of them.
Possibly. There's a lot of technology that would support that, and everybody can't come up to speed at the same rate. There are also a lot of budgetary concerns out there.
What was the first job you had right out of college?
I was working at Geisinger Health Systems, a large health care system in rural Pennsylvania. I was working in their radiology department at the time, and they were in the preliminary steps of installing a radiology information system. I was working in the film library and helping them on business analysis. It was about helping them with the business processes of how a doctor at the time would come to the window in the film library, and say he needed X-rays of a patient. They would fill out a paper form, and the folks in that department would have a three-ring binder. They would look to see if it was in one of the file rooms on that floor, and they had physical x-ray films at the time. If it happened to be on another floor, they told the person requesting the film that it's in another location and they would get it sent to them via another office. They had a software program they were developing to enter all the data, so they could start having an archive. I worked there about a year.
What was next after that?
Next, I went to work for the Maryland Hospital Association, I got hired as a health data analyst. It was a small association, and they represented all the hospitals and health systems in the state of Maryland. I was there four years and was given a lot of opportunities. There was a great CIO there who really believed in giving young self-starters opportunities to do a lot of things. By the time I left there, I was director of product development for a software application we developed in-house. What's interesting about that, was I had the opportunity to be part of the for-profit arm of Maryland Hospital Association, and this product was put into that for-profit arm. I was allowed to go out and do my "dog and pony show" across the country, and see if we could expand the market base outside of the state of Maryland. We caught the attention of the dotcoms at the time, and ended up selling the product line and the customer base to a dotcom. I ended up taking that opportunity to work for myself for a time as an independent contractor, back in the late 90s when the dotcom era was really hot.
Ah yes, that was a fun time.
In the one-year time span when I was doing that, the product line got bought out by another dotcom, and I went to work for them to help them set up and implement two data centers, from which they would deliver the applications.
Is that dotcom still around today?
Nope, they're out of business.
As most of them are. When did you go to work for the Association of American Medical Colleges?
That was in 2000, so I've been here a little over ten years now.
What led to the decision to go to the AAMC, and how did that opportunity come up?
I didn't have a master plan or anything. It was more a matter of using the "Old Boy's Network". The COO at the dotcom I was working for knew somebody here at AAMC, and they were trying to get me to work for them. I was talking with the people at the dotcom and said I wanted to get back to DC and be closer to my family, they said "Hey, I know a guy, we have this great young woman." That's how I got my foot in the door.
When you first joined, what role did you have?
I was project manager. They were re-engineering a set of systems for something called the National Resident Matching Program. Some of that system was on a mainframe, and some of the processes were handled by mail, on paper. We were building web-based software to solve all those problems and change the business process to be more modern. At the time, they were still kind of behind the times.
You're in the project management office. Tell me what that's like. I imagine you're always involved in something new and different?
All the time. We've got handfuls of projects going on at any given time. And I'm in charge of the project portfolio management aspect as well, and I head up one of our IT governance groups called the IT Council, which is a body that prioritizes and makes decisions about what projects we do and where we should be spending our IT initiatives.
What is the biggest challenge of being involved in project management? Or to put it another way, what keeps you up at night?
Probably the supply and demand aspect. There's so much demand for the IT staff to manage the progress. The other unique aspect is that we're modernizing our technical infrastructure, and it's a very new world for a lot of folks.
You have a PMP designation, what is that? And how important is it to have that designation?
That's the Project Management Professional certification, awarded by the Project Management Institute. It's an invaluable certification to have when you're in the project management discipline. All of our project managers here are PMP-certified. You know, anybody can go and take a test, but it's not about that to me. To me, it's about giving a common vocabulary, a common set of themes so we're all talking about the same thing.
Is that certification something you would get prior to going into a project management career, or after you're already in that role?
You have to demonstrate some education and some on-the-job experience to sit for the exam. There's a preliminary certification called the CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management) you can get before that, and after you're in the workforce a couple years and have managed a couple of projects, you can sit for the exam.
What's your favorite part of the job you have now?
The variety of strategic initiatives that I'm exposed to. Pretty much everything new that's happening has something to do with IT and cuts through the PMO, so that's pretty exciting. That allows me to also be involved in resource planning and forecasting. It all relates to how you manage your portfolio, and which new and exciting project we're going to work on next.
What's next for you? Any plans for the future?
I do hope to move into a CIO type job, that's in my five year plan.
In closing, what advice would you have for others who want to come into a higher-level role in IT and project management?
Grab every opportunity that's offered to you. You have to be strong and look at the face of challenge or face something you might not know exactly how to do. To me, going into an unchartered territory is an opportunity for you to shine and make your mark. Some people might think it's nerve-wracking to be in a position where you can't pick up something that somebody else has already done. But since no one else has done it before you, you get to write the history book and you should take advantage of that whenever you can.
Any advice in particular for women who want to advance into a role like that?
I think a lot of it is about goal setting. Don't let the fact that you're a woman stop you from anything. I think that some people still think there's a glass ceiling. I really don't. I think if you do your job and dedicate yourself, you have a shot at anything and the world is your oyster.