January 06, 2011, 2:28 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Mike Rosello 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.
From college straight into the corporate world, Mike Rosello, Senior Technology Executive, Retail Services business of Alliance Data Corp. has been successful in growing his career into his current position. Along the way, he's had plenty of opportunities and fascinating experiences. Remarkably, he went to work for his current employer in response to a basic posting -- no networking or insider connections!
Let's start with college. What's your educational background?
I did my Bachelor's Degree in Finance, and I did my Masters Degree in Information Technology. For the finance degree, I thought I wanted to be a businessman. I was a 401K administrator my first year out of college for a company in New York, but some of my friends were working in the IT industry. They kept telling me how interesting and fun their jobs were, and I was sitting there pushing papers. I really didn't want to stay there long, so I stayed for a year and asked to be transferred to the IT department into a help desk position.
So the financial sector wasn't doing it for you?
No. If I had gone to an Ivy League school and moved into Wall Street right out of undergrad, it would have been a different story, but I went to a state school in Upstate NY and stayed in upstate, and took more of a traditional, entry-level finance job. So it just wasn’t challenging enough for me.
Was the IT job more challenging?
Yes. I went to the help desk to try to learn IT, without knowing anything about IT at all. I found that to be a very active job, and I said, "This is the field. Let's see what this is all about." Then, I changed companies and went to IBM, where you're thrown into incredible experiences right out of the gate. Through their tuition reimbursement program, I got my Masters at Rochester Institute of Technology at night, which took over three years to complete. So I was learning on the job, and going to school at the same time. It was a very challenging three years.
It sounds like a busy time. How did you manage work and school at the same time?
I did half of the program with distance learning, and half on-site. The classes I did on-site were more group-oriented. I was learning in classroom, and applying what I was learning on the job, literally the next day. Everything I was doing in school, I was going back to work and doing some aspect of that for real customers. That really keeps your involvement and interest in finishing the program.
How did the distance learning work out? Some people are resistant to that because it lacks the personal connection.
I did the distance learning because of my job, where I was on call 24/7. I could have been in a lab somewhere fixing a server, and then while I was waiting, I could be doing homework. I did the distance learning for the flexibility. You have to be pretty self-motivated to do distance learning. You have to clearly know what it is you want to do, and what you want to accomplish out of the process to get the most out of it. You can coast through the program and do the minimum, with the least amount of interaction with your classmates, or you can really try to leverage it. Even in the distance learning program, you have mandatory phone conferences, you can do video, you can have chat rooms that are available 24/7 with your classmates. There are a lot of avenues to communicate with people, but it's up to your discretion how much you want to get involved. It's a very self-motivated type of program.
So the distance learning model isn't nearly as isolating as some people may think.
Definitely not isolating. You can get as much as you want out of it.
What did you do once you completed the Masters program?
As I was doing that, I was with IBM for six years. I learned a lot more about the IT industry, and didn't necessarily want to be an engineer forever. I decided to move into the architecture and managerial ranks. I didn't want to be siloed with what I was doing -- I wanted to touch it all, so I moved into architecture and strategy. I went into an infrastructure design job, and then I did a jump from a hardcore engineering role into a consulting role. The consulting role gave me more opportunities in architectural strategy. Then from the consulting role, I went into pure management of IT groups. I went to JP Morgan Chase, and now I'm at Alliance Data. I just kept moving up to this role, with more responsibility with every role I've taken. My current job has every component of the technology stack, from day-to-day operations to strategy and innovation that I always wanted.
How did the opportunity at Alliance Data come up?
The opportunity I am at in Alliance Data right now isn't the opportunity I started with here. I started at Alliance Data as the Director or Architecture and Infrastructure. Just recently, I was promoted to Senior Technology Executive. That's a new title and new role. It didn't exist. We created it, and it pulled in many more components of our operations under my organization. It doubled the amount of teams I'm responsible for, and it has a larger strategy and innovation role.
So when you first went to Alliance Data, it was just in response to a posting they had made?
Yes. I was actively looking for more responsibility, whether internally at my previous company, or externally. I was very close to signing with a different organization, and I was already through my fourth interview at that company and there was an offer on the table. I had just started the interviewing process at Alliance Data, and had only gone through a phone screen and one in-person. So I was much further along towards signing on as chief architect with another company, but something struck me about this organization regarding where they were with their technology, where they wanted to go, and some of the opportunities I was going to have, the executive buy-in, and the support I was going to get there. It struck me that this might be a better fit for me. So far, two years in, it's been everything and then some.
What's next on your agenda?
I have the job that I wanted to have, that I've been training for the past seven years. I have a lot of room to grow into this role and master it. Once I “think” I have done that, depending on where I am in my life personally and professionally, ten years out, I would like to teach at the college level.
In your present career, what is the most surprising thing about your present position?
I was offered by our outsourcing partner the opportunity to go to Japan where they are headquartered, and have meetings with their senior leadership team in Japan. I went in May, so that was a big surprise.
Did you learn some Japanese language before you went?
No, but I certainly learned about some foods that I probably won't try again. I learned that dinner time in Japan is a very lengthy event. It is at least a 10 to 12 course meal that lasts two or three hours. My dinner at home lasts about 10 minutes before my kids start going wild, and I usually eat standing up!
What's your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is still a split between leadership and individual contributor. There are still many components of my job that I have to get into the weeds and leverage my technology skill set and my engineering background, versus my leadership and strategy background. That's unique at this level to have that. I think you get that a little more in a smaller or mid-size company than you do in a very large organization.
Do you prefer working for a smaller organization or a larger one?
I like the mid-to-larger size organizations. You have to deliver in an organization this size every day. You're really out there, and people are expecting you to deliver. Unlike an organization with 100,000 associates, you can change jobs often, there's a little more opportunity internally especially if that company has a Global presence. You can start over in the event you might have made a mistake. A very visible mistake in an organization this size could linger around a little longer.
Is there a least favorite part of the job?
My least favorite part of the job, or any job, is coming to the decision that it's time to manage someone out. It just doesn't sit well. I try to give people as many chances as I can, but eventually you have to do what's right for the business.
Tell me about the Pathways program and your involvement in it.
The Pathways program was nice. The biggest thing I got was the mentoring portion of the program. My mentor was very knowledgeable and insightful. I had noticed that during most of our sessions, I seemed to be doing most of the talking, which was fine. It seemed like my background and experiences was a little different than the rest of the group. I had the urge to get into a program that matched my skills a little more than that one. We have a personal coach who is part of the program, and I meet one-on-one with a personal coach, which is really good because I'm starting to get into real-life situations, and the one-on-one dialog with an experienced individual is a next level up in the Pathways program. So that's been really beneficial to me.
What was your motivation for becoming involved with the Pathways program?
Some of the things I was acquiring in my role were more of a strategic, innovative type of responsibility, rather than production support. I started going to more conferences, starting to expand my network more. It was the number one program where you really have an opportunity to talk to hundreds of CIOs and CTOs, and run ideas or circumstances by them. There really isn't another program that has that kind of option.
Is there an opportunity for you to become a mentor?
I would love to.
For my last question, do you have any parting advice for other people who would like to advance into a strategic management role such as yours?
I see a lot of people making changes to their careers prematurely for the wrong reasons. If you're really career-oriented and not job-oriented, you have to have a plan. It's okay to change, just make sure that your change is going in the right directions. I've made multiple changes, but they were the right moves. But I made some mistakes along the way and miscalculated a couple times. Stick to the plan and don't leave somewhere in haste, or burn bridges. Seek alternatives internally first, and if you really feel those aren't going to be of value to you and you have to go outside to get them, just make sure it's still following your plan.