This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Eric Ottaway didn't start out as an IT'er-but he quickly discovered that getting experience in IT and how it could help business not only would build his IT skills, but would ultimately pave the way to a General Manager's position at the Brooklyn Brewery. Ottaway credits his work in IT as a "door opener" to understanding key drivers behind business processes that enable him today as a General Manager to run a highly effective brewery operation.
How did you start your career? I began my career in a management consulting practice in Boston, with a background in Economics and Political Science. This is where I had my first IT experience. In one project, I was working with a client that provided hospice care services, and we found that the main impediment to their operations was that their IT infrastructure didn't match up well with their business. At the time, a lot of folks were moving away from mainframes, so I spent two years on a project team redesigning their entire system and working with outside software developers to develop a customized solution using what was then cutting edge client-server technology. I became interested in how technology enables business processes.
Name: Eric Ottaway
Current position: Chief Operating Officer and General Manager, Brooklyn Brewery
Hometown: Montclair, New Jersey
Years in the Industry: 12
Favorite job: This one, because there's something different every day
Education: Yale University, BA in Economics and Political Science; Harvard Business School, MBA
Favorite non-work past times: Cycling, skiing, traveling, coaching my kids' soccer/lacrosse teams
Something most people don't know about me: I grew up in Africa and the Middle East
Role models: My grandfather, who built a very successful chain of newspapers
Philosophy: I'm not sure if you would call him a philosopher, but I've been very impressed by Malcolm Gladwell's recent books- The Tipping Point and Blink.
Favorite technology: The iPod. Beautiful, simple, functional and powerful.
What I'm reading now: The Omnivore's Dilemma about where our food really comes from, and Salt, a look at how an ingredient we take for granted affected the growth of civilization over the last 4000 years.
How did you get introduced to Brooklyn Brewery? I was graduating from Harvard Business School, and wanted to get into something entrepreneurial. At that time, my path crossed with the owners of Brooklyn Brewery. They wanted to expand their operation to the Boston area, and I wanted to stay in Boston. I became the General Manager of their Boston branch.
What were some of the skills that you think made you an attractive candidate? My education and consulting background had given me a broad exposure to all the different aspects of business as well as to technology. I was also in an area that the Brewery was planning to expand to. I think this combination made me an attractive candidate.
What have you learned about working in a brewery that surprised you the most? I never realized how much the brewing business is based on relationships. Distributors, retailers and even fellow brewers all share information and are very supportive of each other. If a brewer runs short of ingredients, his competitors often will share. We even share knowledge about brewing methods.
Your background was in general business. How did you get involved with IT? I realized that the effective use of IT could improve our business processes and reduce our costs. I continue to be personally involved with IT at the brewery because I know it is a great way to make our operation more efficient.
How do you manage splitting time between IT and general business management? I manage IT by outsourcing it. I focus on the key technology questions for the business and how they can favorably impact us, and the rest I outsource. In this way, I focus on what I do best, and let the experts handle the rest.
How would you advise people who would like to follow a career path similar to yours? The key lesson to be learned is to not get wrapped up in technology for technology's sake. Spend your time studying how technology can enable important business processes that will improve the company, but don't put technology first, put the business first. Learn how to talk to both IT technicians and non-technical business managers. Take a lot of time to understand the business needs of the company, and figure out how IT can best support those needs. If you're designing a new system, spend as much time as you can interviewing all of the people who use the system and watching every business function that the system executes. This is a good way to thoroughly understand the business from the inside out, and make sure you apply the right amount of technology.
Do you get to sample the new beers? That's one of the best parts of the job! We have informal tastings at the brewery every time a new beer comes out. This is a very dynamic industry, and I'll be very happy to stay here the rest of my career to be part of it.