Glory days: How high school shaped nine IT leaders

Is the child father to the man? Or is the woman a reaction to the child she was? Maybe each of us is the result of a combination of straight lines and U-turns on our life's journey.

We asked nine IT leaders to reflect on their high school selves and how their younger personas affected the adults they've become and the careers they've forged. Their insights are surprising, funny, tender and wise.

Bogdan Butoi

  • CTO, Animas Corp.
  • Class of 1990, Computer Sciences High School, Bucharest, Romania
My high school self: I was a combination of a rebel and a nerd. I grew up in Romania, and I rebelled against some of the things we were forced to learn in high school that didn't apply to real life.

For instance, I was once thrown out of an economics class because I told the professor that capital gains were superior to the communist belief in value gains. I told her I preferred to have extra money than extra products on the shelf.

At the same time, I was always writing code in the computer lab between classes. There was a large group of us, and we even spent summers at school working on the computers. Both my parents were in technology, so I got exposed at an early age.

Others would have voted me most likely to... Become president or go to jail.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: While the rebel part calmed down a little bit, it still helps me challenge the status quo and the processes people take for granted. I always challenge people when they say, "This is how you have to do it."

At the same time, I've learned to approach people in a politically correct way, especially when I sense their blood pressure going up. If I could go back to that economics class, I'd know how to rephrase my arguments without being thrown out.

Advice to young people who view themselves as I did: Don't get molded by the so-called standard. We all have qualities from early childhood that sometimes we try to change because we feel we'll be labeled or rejected by society. I see a lot of students who think, "I shouldn't do this because it's not cool," so they try to live two lives between the image they project and what they really are. In the long term, having this dual personality hurts.

Kevin Bott  

  • Senior vice president and CIO, Ryder System Inc.
  • Class of 1972, Liberty High School, Youngstown, Ohio
My high school self: I was in two categories -- I was definitely a jock, but at the same time, I was in the audiovisual club. Nobody even thought about computers, but we did have AV, which was the closest you could get to technology.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Go on cruise control. I was definitely an underperformer, and I didn't take a book home with me my whole senior year of high school but still got a B average. There was nothing outside of sports that I had passion for.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: I grew up in a family where we were always told we'd go to college. It was 1972, when there was all the craziness with Vietnam. So I cruised through my undergrad years without much interest in anything, but I ended up graduating, and my future father-in-law told me to get an MBA. I was a biophysics major, so the MBA program was easy compared to that. I went on from there into a doctoral program. Once I was exposed to technology, I really enjoyed it -- I'd finally found something I liked, and I flourished once I got into it.

Advice to young people who view themselves as I did: Stay in school, get good grades, and go to college if you can afford it. And do what you like; if you hate your job, you'll be unhappy. There's a huge variety of roles in technology. You don't have to be a programmer.

Ron Bonig

  • Vice president and CIO, The George Washington University
  • Class of 1965, LaSalle High School, Cumberland, Md.
My high school self: I always worked after school, so I couldn't practice on a regular sports team. But I was always involved in scouting, all the way to Eagle Scout, and then to the national scout honors and service society. My outdoor time was spent with the scouts program -- hunting, fishing, camping -- and the woods were literally my backyard. In those days, scouting led to getting involved in leadership programs and learning to tackle new challenges.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Argue before the Supreme Court. I had a reputation -- both in class and with my parents -- for debating everything, and I was involved in student government.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: I went to a Christian Brothers high school where we were encouraged to question everything, whether the subject was literature, science or religion. I was extroverted anyway, and I went to a school that helped drive it further. It formed the basic core of my personality, not to question things in a nasty sense but in a scientific, "Why does it have to be that way?" approach.

Someone who's willing to take on new things and challenge the status quo makes a good CIO, because you need to question things -- like why are we going with Linux or trying voice over IP. You need to question assumptions not to be obnoxious but to see whether there are holes in the reasoning.

Advice to young people who view themselves as I did: Concentrate on working in teams. Very little these days gets done solo, whether it's research or engineering. You have to be able to let go and not always be in charge of your own fate.

Mary Leonardo Patry

  • Former vice president, IT transformation, American Red Cross
  • Class of 1971, West High School, Rockford, Ill.
My high school self: I was considered somewhat offbeat. I was a painter and a sculptor, so I always had some smudge of paint or wood chip somewhere on my clothing.

At the same time, I was also analytical; I tended to correlate things that others might not have, and my art tended toward geometric or Cubist-style paintings and works that had perspective. I was a Picasso, Escher and Van Gogh fan, never a Monet type.

I got kicked out of typing because I goofed around too much. It bored me to tears! I literally talked my way into getting a passing grade by doing some graphics work for the teacher. I guess that shows I had some negotiation skills.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Run an art commune.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: I've always had the tendency to think out of the box and take advantage of my creativity to solve problems. In fact, one reason I got into IT was because I was told I couldn't.

After high school, I worked at a local manufacturing firm, and someone asked if I'd like to work in data processing. My first day on the job, the supervisor said, "I'm not taking her; she's a girl." As a result, I really had to prove myself. So I made a game out of how to improve the batch processes and get more jobs through.

Later, I was in charge of figuring out what was wrong with code and fixing it. I definitely needed to use my creative and analytical skills because there was very little guidance.

As part of my job today, I have users walk me through their experience, and that really helps me visualize how it's used and what should change. I still see myself as an artist more than an IT person.

Advice to young people who view themselves as I did: You don't have to be a geek or into gizmos to have a rich, rewarding career in technology. In my early years, I purposely hired music majors because of the right brain/left brain interconnection. There are such wonderful rewards in IT, both financially as well as creatively.

Douglas Menefee

  • CIO, The Schumacher Group
  • Class of 1987, Lafayette High School, Lafayette, La.

My high school self: I was a 90-pound, nerdy metalhead. I struggled greatly in high school and had a small group of great friends who helped me get through the days of structured education. To paraphrase Pink Floyd , I was "a lost soul swimming in a fish bowl."

As a dyslexic, I struggled through high school and was greatly embarrassed by scoring a 17 on the ACT. My teachers passed me because of my "potential." I was a C student on a good day when it came to taking written tests.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Have the cops show up at my parties. (Don't tell my mom.)

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: One of the things I reflect the most on about high school is that I had long hair at a time when "preppy" was in, and I was raised in a small, conservative town that just didn't get long hair. This rebellious part of my life helped me recognize that I needed to pursue what was right for me, not others.

After high school, I flunked out of a semester of college, worked on an oil rig for three months, then joined the military. Needless to say, I lost the long hair. I became a flight medic and was activated for Desert Storm. While in Saudi Arabia, I had a series of SCUD missiles shot down over my head. It was then and there that I had a life-changing moment and made a commitment to myself to pursue the things that inspired me and to focus on personal leadership development.

Because of my dyslexia, computers became my salvation. I type faster than I write, and spell check helps with my disability, and the virtual world empowered me to connect with thousands of people.

Advice for young people who view themselves as I did: You get to reinvent yourself hundreds of times throughout your life. Focus on your inner self, never let anyone tell you that you can't accomplish something, and cast your net wide when it comes to pursuing a career. Get involved with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to be exposed to diversity, leadership and healthy choices.

Karen Graham

  • Vice president and CIO, Cooper University Hospital
  • Class of 1982, Cherry Hill West High School, Cherry Hill, N.J.
My high school self: Is there a category for "mutt"? I had friends in all different cliques, due to my varied interests, which included sports, ceramics and stage crew.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Travel the world.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: Upon graduating from high school, I was unsure as to whether college was the right choice for me at that time. While shoe shopping in Haddonfield, N.J., I saw a sign that said, "See the world and earn your degree," so I enlisted in the Navy and, at age 19, found myself living in Sicily. Needless to say, I did not buy the shoes that I was looking for.

Advice for young people who view themselves as I did: Do what you love and follow your passion, not the crowd.

Mike Collison

  • Director of IS operations,Auto Warehousing Co.
  • Class of 1986, Jefferson High School, Lafayette, Ind.
My high school self: Definitely a nerd and a square peg. I didn't fit into any group. I was a serious introvert, so while I had two really good friends, I didn't make new friends easily or quickly.

In my junior year, they started offering PC-based computer courses, and I jumped into those. My parents got me a Commodore 64, and I could do rudimentary programming on it, as well as make my own adventure games and rudimentary graphics, through self-teaching.

I discovered I had a knack for it. But I wasn't sure that was where I wanted to go, because I was just cruising through high school. My dad finally asked me, with a sense of frustration, what I was going to do with my life, and to placate him, I said I liked computers.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Not know what I wanted out of life.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: I still have a deep love for video games, and I still have introvert tendencies. I have to force myself to do things that make me uncomfortable on an almost daily basis.

But I'm a completely different person from what I was then. I ended up in situations and jobs that caused me to get way outside my comfort zone repeatedly. The more I was thrust into those situations, the farther I got from the person I was in high school. Doing the tasks I do now would have shut me down back then.

There are things -- public speaking, for one -- that still terrify me, but I end up muscling through those things and move forward.

Advice for young people who view themselves as I did: Think about what you want out of life and try the best you can to get there. You need to overcome any fear you have of going out and doing it. A lot of kids today are showered with things their parents didn't have, so they're very comfortable. But you can't wait for things to just fall in your lap.

Eberhard Haag

  • Senior vice president and general manager, Amadeus IT Group SA
  • Class of 1977, University of Stuttgart
My high school self: I had a lot of friends and was very active in sports. I was also very interested in everything related to math and mathematical technique. I was not so interested in languages or humanistic stuff. I moved very quickly to the mathematics high school, where we had special training in math and physics.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Keep playing sports and be a party animal.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: It was a fairly straight path. When I got to university, I studied informatics and business economics. It was clear that I needed to study both to see the influence that technology can bring to business.

But I also tried to combine it with having a huge amount of fun. I was the only student to have a key to the computer center, so I was always there to open the door, and I'd help people finish their stuff and look for mistakes they'd made. I was well known on campus, so when there was a party, I was always invited.

Over summer breaks and during vacation, I always tried to take a job somewhere, and I would use some of the money to take a vacation and some for the next season at school. This also helped me understand how companies work, because you're always working on very low budget.

Advice to young people who view themselves as I did: Enjoy the time in high school. It's when you can enjoy a lot of free time and live your dreams.

Sujit Sinha

  • Senior director, IT strategy and architecture,Motorola Inc.
  • Class of 1979, University Breckinridge School (part of Morehead State University), Morehead, Ky.
My high school self: My school was small, with just 500 people, kindergarten through 12th grade. It was part of a university, and our teachers were often Ph.D.s or actual college professors.

I would probably fall into the nerd/geek category, but I did a lot of sports too, so I guess I was a nerd/jock. I played tennis and was one of the top players in the state.

From another viewpoint, this was during the days of "the preppy," and we were into nonconformity, so you could almost say I was also a rebel. Then we realized we were conforming by being nonconformists, so we called ourselves "free-conformists." It was a fun school.

I also liked physics and math a lot and got some awards in those areas. In one English literature course, I had to do a book report on H.G. Wells, and I wrote it from a technology perspective on whether the technology described would actually work today.

Others would have voted me most likely to...: Become a nuclear physicist and glow in the dark.

How my high school persona helped form the person I am today: I'm now in charge of IT architecture, which is the geekiest part of IT, even though I'm not the most techie IT person. I did mechanical engineering for my undergraduate degree and also got a master's in mechanical engineering.

I'm very interested in how things work. With physics, you can throw something in the air and watch how it lands and describe the equation. But software doesn't follow the laws of Newtonian physics. It can work one day and not the next.

Advice for young people who view themselves as I did: To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. You'll learn there's a lot you can do, and you can make career changes. I've made quite a few. So decide what you want to for now, because things will change over time. You always have to be adaptable.

This story, "Glory days: How high school shaped nine IT leaders" was originally published by Computerworld.

Top 10 Hot Internet of Things Startups
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies