At BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas, recent college graduates are recruited into a management training program, which includes rotating through various assignments across the freight transportation company. "We spend time educating people in what BNSF is about and how we operate," says CIO Jo-ann Olsovsky. "It's not something you learn overnight. We're trying to accelerate the learning curve."
Olsovsky says teaching participants about BNSF's culture is one of the key goals. "While going through all of their assignments, people learn that BNSF is an operations-oriented company. That's the culture. We move freight," she says. "In an operations culture, what gets rewarded are those things that deal with operations, like dealing with a crisis," she says. As an IT professional, "you have to figure out a company's culture and decide if it's for you," she adds. "It's a way to shortcut your way to rewards. One area where I see people miss steps is not understanding the culture of the company they're in."
Time Your Moves
Jim Clementson, director of technology at Providence Health, likens the points on a career plan to steppingstones across a stream. Their ultimate purpose is to help you get to the other side, but it's best to take them one at a time.
"You can't think too far out. It's more important to be flexible enough in the three-to-five-year time frame," he advises. "Don't say, '20 years from now, I want to be a CIO,' because then, that's all you're looking for." It's more important to be open to a wide range of roles that could broaden your knowledge and help you acquire experience that will serve you well over the long term, he says.
In his own career, Clementson moved from a software developer role at Arco Alaska to the company's service center, which in turn "opened doors into the infrastructure realm," he says. He ended up leading a Mac-to-PC migration project. After that, he went back to software development for a while, and then moved into the healthcare industry. There, his experience with the Arco migration project helped him land a leadership role on an electronic medical record project, and that led to his current role as director of delivery for infrastructure.
"It's all about looking at what's available and adjusting things and stretching yourself," he says. "You have to be comfortable and willing to move into the opportunities that are out there."
Olsovsky says 18 months to two years is a good benchmark. By then, you understand the role and it's time to make the next move, she says.