July 07, 2010, 9:04 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Carol Carr 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.
Carol Carr knows the value of mentoring programs. Already having embarked on a solid career path with the Big Four accounting firms and then moving to Direct Energy, she learned about the Pathways program, developed by the CIO Executive Council, through Direct Energy's own CIO. The program is designed to encourage professional development in several areas, focusing specifically on leadership, business, and technology; and it starts with a self- and peer-assessment that helps you identify your strengths and opportunities.
Carol took a lot out of the program and today enjoys mentoring others within her company.
You're Director of Change Management at Direct Energy. What does "Change Management" mean?
I lead two different PMOs (Project Management Offices). One is for the core IS organization, or for any projects that impact our infrastructure, whether it's data center, network, servers, anything that's telecom or video conferencing related. The other PMO is anything that touches our corporate system.
Sounds like it keeps you very busy.
It does. I also do a lot of the strategic work and financial planning work, because of the financial background I have.
What kind of degree did you get that put you on this path?
I went to Wilfrid Laurier and got a Bachelor's of Business Administration, and then I became a chartered accountant. That's really what I went to school for.
What was the first thing out of the gate you did after you graduated?
I worked for Ernst & Young. When I was at Wilfrid Laurier, I was in the co-op program, so by the time I graduated I had already had about 12 months of work experience with the Big Four accounting firms. I worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and then when I went full time, I went to Ernst & Young in their audit practice.
You got a position in your field right out of college, but did you have any off-the-wall jobs along the way?
My first job ever was working at McDonald's. That was a big thing in my family. Everybody had to work at McDonald's and get their one-year pin to teach us discipline and proper work ethics.
So did that do the job for you?
Absolutely. It teaches you humility, first of all. Also, it's just a disciplined approach to work.
What was the hardest thing about working in the fast food business?
Keeping a smile on your face for the duration of the day. We would do a six to eight hour shift starting at 6am, and it's hard to keep that smile going all day.
How did you first get acquainted with Direct Energy?
I've been here about six and a half years now. When I worked at Ernst & Young, I was pulled into an advisory practice, and the bread and butter in that practice was energy companies. I was poached through a recruiter to come to Direct Energy and join their internal audit practice, and I became manager of that team. Within about a year, I was offered the Director role, since they found out that I had been doing that anyway.
Tell me about the Pathways program and how you got associated with that.
Kumud Kalia was the CIO at Direct Energy, and he's always been an avid supporter, and quite involved in the CIO Executive Counsel. Pathways is one of the programs that teaches you things you wouldn't otherwise learn. It also relies on the experience, knowledge, and soft skills -- and a lot of the CIOs in the Executive Counsel teach those soft skills, and provide opportunities for up-and-coming CIOs or executives to really hone in on those skills. Kumud had introduced a program to the VPs of IS at Direct Energy, and I learned about the value of the mentorship program and I quickly jumped in.
With Pathways, there is a big mentoring element to that. Is that something you will be involved in yourself at some point?
Absolutely. I do that already for quite a few people in the office here. I'll probably do that more formally in a couple of years once I reach the next level.
As Director of Change Management now, what's the most surprising thing you've encountered?
I didn't expect there to be such a heavy financial component to the Project Management world. From the outside looking in, you just look at IS as technology, and you don't see the business thought behind it. Now that I'm on the other side of the fence, I see how it all fits together. Typically, business users look at IS, and it's out of sight, out of mind. They take for granted all these things that are done for them automatically. Now that I'm on this side of the fence, you can really see the transparencies there, the amount of effort, the skill set of the people, the amount of information that people know, because technology moves more quickly than anybody can learn. It's surprising that it takes all of these people to make these things so simple for the business user.
What is your favorite part of the job?
For me, it's drawing the linkage and the insights between a lot of these operational technology processes, and determining the financial impact, or how it's going to impact the organization. Which is really the way we look at things here anyway -- the financial impact. Once you start peeling back the layers of the onion, there's a lot of technical decisions that are being made to get us there, so it's really all connecting the dots, so to speak.
So do you have to have a really strong technical background?
Or, just be a very logical thinker with the ability to dig down and get the details.
And your least favorite part of the job would be?
The politics. I spend most of my time trying to sell technology solutions, or a technical direction, to non-technical people. What you have to do is change the way you're thinking, or the way information is being presented to you. Flip it on its head to present it to a business. But I spend more time managing the emotion behind the politics.
So you're trying to get internal buy-in for technical projects from people in a non-technical role?
Absolutely. It's non-technical people that are typically the decision-makers.
How do you go about doing that?
We just went through that yesterday for a document management system. The way you do that is you convert things in terms of things they are going to understand. For example, we were trying to explain storage and the cost of organic storage, and how it is going to grow over time. So what we did is, we converted that to paper, and said, let's look at what if we converted these items to paper. We had a picture of paper stacked up along the 401, which is a major highway in Canada, and it really was the equivalent of stacking all those papers side by side between two cities that are very far apart from each other. We showed that picture, and said, "now try to imagine finding one thin g in that stack of paper." That was a sell.
So what's next in store for you? Where do you go from here?
What I would be looking for is something that's going to leverage the experience I've had in this area, in the technology space, and leading these types of teams and initiatives. And I want to make use of my experience in finance and in aggregation. So, a very integrated role with a strategic flair to it.
What kind of advice do you give people that you are either formally or informally mentoring in your office? What do you tell them to do to succeed in their own careers?
I tell them to seize the opportunities in front of them. See what they are, or see what they could become and what they could do with the opportunity, rather than what it looks like on paper. None of the opportunities that brought me here set out in the way they were initially intended. They always turned out much better, and I developed a lot of credibility along the way. I don't think there's any part of me that thought jumping from Operations to IS would have made me a more strategic thinker. Nobody would think that, but it does.
What advice would you have for somebody that hasn't started their career yet?
Not to close doors, and not to hold themselves into one functional area or one career path. I think the smartest thing I did was get a broad education that was adaptable. Yes, I have a specialized skill set behind me, which is accounting, but what I had was an education that was broad enough that I could apply this financial skill set in multiple situations.