How I Got Here: John J. Higginson, Vice President of Software Development, FTD

This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.

John Higginson started his IT career as an eleven year old, building his own systems at home. He has since practiced IT as a hardware and software support specialist and as a software developer and project manager, eventually finding himself in executive IT management at FTD. Along the way, Higginson never abandoned his IT technical heritage of devising technical solutions that work - only now he oversees a worldwide operation that delivers critical technology so that florists and other FTD business users have the "right stuff" as they help the rest of us "say it with flowers."


Name: John J. Higginson

Current position: Vice President of Software Development, FTD

Age: 40

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Years in the Industry: 18

Education: Northern Illinois University. B. A., The John Marshall Law School. M. S. IT and Privacy Law

How I got here in 10 words or less: A love of technology and making the most of opportunities.

Something most people don't know about me: People here at FTD know this, but I'm in a band with some co-workers and we've played some company events. No one has come knocking with a recording contract, though.

Role models: Robert F. Kennedy, Nicholas Negroponte (founder of MIT's Media Lab and the OLPC project)

Philosophy: Technology only has value if it is rooted in the needs of the business. You can accomplish much if you don't care who gets the credit. The user experience matters. Confront reality - unlike wine, no problem gets better with age.

Favorite technology: Right now, it's eInk. It's possible to see how early devices using this technology (like Amazon's Kindle) will change paper use and printing in an office. And, as an avid reader, it's a lot easier to carry 10 digital books than 10 physical ones. Of all time, I'd have to say the Internet. It's touched virtually every aspect of how we live and work.

What I'm reading now: The by Randy Pausch.
Last Lecture

How did you start your career? I have always been interested in technology, and I first began working with computers when I was eleven years old. A friend of my father's had one of the first PCs and an early version of a Star Trek game on it. I was hooked. I quickly worked my way through all the computer courses offered by my high school and when I went to college, rather than repeat classes I figured I already knew, I wound up majoring in English--but quickly found myself helping roommates who were MIS majors. My first job out of school was as a software and network support engineer for a software company helping insurance agents. I then worked in a large systems group, supporting enterprise customers. This allowed me to fully understand all of the nuts and bolts of IT, how it all fit together, and how people used it. Eventually, I wound up as a developer, a development manager, and finally head of technology for that company.

How did you get introduced to FTD? I had worked for another company for fourteen years and when it was sold, I took time off to go to graduate school. I was three weeks away from graduating with my Master's degree when a friend called me about the opportunity at FTD. I interviewed and they hired me. My friend said FTD was a neat organization, and he was right.

What were some of the skills that you think made you an attractive candidate for FTD florists? First and foremost, were communication skills. Like many companies, FTD was looking for someone who was able to cross boundaries within the organizations and work with different audiences. They wanted someone who could listen and understand how the business worked - and then translate this into technology solutions. This is a big part of what I do. I visit florists and spend a great deal of time with customers. We talk about what is going on in the business, and how technology can be adapted to aid their work.

Does this require you to leave the technology to your staff while you interface with business managers? An IT executive must also have technology skills and knowledge. At this level, you have a lot of diverse responsibilities. You have to be abreast of emerging technology trends, and you have to have an eye for spotting the right technologies to help the business. You also have to have a good sense of whether something is feasible or not. I'm fairly savvy about the technology and I'll push when I think the team is missing something, walking them through some pretty technical details of a potential solution. As an IT executive, it is ultimately up to you to look at your overall IT architecture and the platform choices that you make. All of it must make sense technologically, financially and from the standpoint of the business.

In your early career, you quickly got involved with technology at the software and hardware technician levels. Do you ever miss that "hands on" relationship, now that you are an upper level IT executive? I had the "hands on" part of technology very early in my career, and I quickly "grew up" through a series of technical and management roles. I recognized as I got into higher levels of management, that a big part of the job was working with people and figuring out technology solutions for the business. The broad scope of my position allows me to see all of the fruits of our labor and what they bring to the company, which is very rewarding. It also allows me to work with many different products.

Do I miss technical trouble-shooting and software development? I would have to say "no" because I am having so much fun in a management role! Although there are days when I miss being a software developer on a team, where you get that feeling of camaraderie in the nuts and bolts technical issues … I still pull up a chair now and then and sit with people on the teams to keep a finger on the pulse of projects to see how they are going. I tinker a lot with new technologies as well. I've written software for my fantasy baseball league in four different languages over the years just to experiment with new ideas.

What is your personal highlight from working at FTD? There are many of them. We recently installed our Mercury X release. The FTD Mercury system is our software to automate florists. This release started life as literally a sheet of paper -- a lot of great ideas -- and took the efforts of a lot of dedicated people here to realize it. We put a stake in the ground and said that we would have a new way of handling business for our florists, that we would make their day-to-day work easier with the software. We unveiled the system at our annual "Top Member" event, which was held in Mexico, and showed the florists all of these great workflow and service tools.

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