March 09, 2010, 12:11 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Anybody with a Liberal Arts degree has no doubt suffered the scorn of their more career-oriented classmates, and has been asked more than once, “What do you think you’re going to do with a degree like that?” Dave Bogan, CIO of outsourcing giant CSC, who himself has a degree in American Literature and Theology, addresses this issue. Dave has special insight into the value of such a degree in the business and IT worlds. Dave tells us that the narrowly-focused IT background, while useful, will ultimately place limitations on a career-oriented professional, and he credits his own Liberal Arts education with helping him to achieve his current status.
You have a Liberal Arts background?
Yes, my undergraduate degree is in American Literature and Theology.
That sure prepares you for a good career in technology.
Especially the theology part. The power of prayer helps you a lot when you’re trying to do IT stuff.
What was your original goal with the literature and theology degrees?
Originally I was looking at two different things. One was to go into the seminary and become a minister, and the other was to become a teacher. At the time, this was in the late ‘70s, I applied to 32 different schools and got one interview. Then I applied to 16 publishing houses for editorial jobs and got nothing. And I said, hmm, perhaps there’s something wrong here. As it happened, I had had an interest in computers in high school and in college, but just as something to mess around with, not thinking about it from a career perspective. I talked to a couple folks and I actually ended up going to Control Data Institute and took a six month training course and learned programming. The main draw of schools like that is they have a placement service. I got placed with a small consulting company that was just starting out, it was called Computer Partners, in Boston. And I started working for them in ‘79 as a programmer and as a consultant and pretty quickly progressed into some other more sophisticated technical areas. Then in 1986 Computer Partners was purchased by CSC.
To put this in time perspective, what year was it when you got your degree?
I got my degree in ‘77. I started working in the IT business in ‘79.
At that time there wasn’t really much in the way of full-fledged four year computer science degrees.
Things like that didn’t exist at that time. Most of my contemporaries were history majors, music majors, English majors, who all wanted to make some money, and at that time the IT industry was very different than it is today. It was wide open. Pretty much anybody could get involved. The need for any kind of degree was not a part of the requirement, because the programs didn’t exist. Now that changed relatively quickly, but certainly at that time it wasn’t a necessity at all.
So how do you get to be a CIO with that literature degree?
The thing that helped me most was going into a consulting business as opposed to going to work in the IT department of a company. As a consultant I got exposed to many different organizations and different problems. Part of the training and part of the process was being able to recognize commonality of issues and be able to see connections between things. I think in the consulting business you get exposed to that a lot more quickly and a lot more easily than you might at a single organization. During the first part of my career, I was mostly doing technology consulting, database design work, performance engineering, and teaching classes in various technologies. I got exposure to standing up in front of people, to be able to articulate things. That process gave me a good basis to move into technology management roles. I had one particular consulting assignment for a client in Canada, where I was more or less the acting CTO, and that got me interested in looking for roles like that within CSC. Shortly after I finished that engagement, I became the CIO for the consulting business at CSC for about seven years, and then moved on to become the CTO for CSC as a whole. Then the outsourcing unit presented me with an opportunity to do something very different, so I took them up on it, and that has morphed into the role I have today, which is the CIO for CSC’s outsourcing business on a worldwide basis.
Today, most people that go into IT have more of a pure tech background. What in Liberal Arts makes for a good background for somebody going into the IT business?
At the level of a CIO, part of your world is understanding technology. You’re not a practitioner any more, and a great deal of your job is communicating. It might involve persuading people, informing people, or simply educating people. And a Liberal Arts background gives you those basic skills that apply in any situation, and particularly when your role revolves around communicating ideas to people. When an employee gets an email from one of the IT guys, one of two results will happen: Either you’ll tick them off because you’re telling them something they don’t really understand or don’t want to do, or you’re giving them something they need. That builds credibility. Oftentimes technical people get caught up in the technical issues they’re trying to solve, and not so much what that problem means to their audience and the people who ultimately have to use the technology they provide. The Liberal Arts background gives you a better appreciation for how people think, how they react to things, and how they interpret things. That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect is dealing with lots of different things. In college, I might be studying Shakespeare, Process Theology, and Linear Equations. One of the things I learned was how to make connections between subjects that don’t appear to have connections on the surface. What CIOs do is gather lots of information from various directions, and create connections between them. Then you can actually create some change in an organization that directly impacts people. That nonlinear thinking is not something I see coming out of technology schools. Kids with computer science degrees tend not to think in those kinds of terms. They tend to be regimented in what they do. And that’s okay at a certain level, but at another level, you need to be able to cross a lot of boundaries that a pure technical background isn’t going to give you the skills to do.
In your position do you see a lot of IT guys coming in that don’t have that communication skill?
I would say 95% of them. It’s very rare that I find someone who is skillful in communicating and is also an IT resource.
That’s a problem in the IT business, what’s the solution to that?
I think part of it is a question of whether you value it or not. Some organizations do not. But if you do value it, you have to look at the hiring process. If you’re looking at college graduates, you don’t necessarily always go for the most technically skilled people. Look for someone who is more well-rounded. Look for people who have a variety of skills or have shown initiative to get involved in a variety of areas. Chances are they’re going to be more adaptable in a changing environment than somebody who has a very strict technology focus.
Do you think it’s still possible today for somebody to go into the IT business without getting the IT degree?
I do, sure. In fact, I know there have been some studies done about productivity of hires. And they’ve looked at the highly technical people and their billability, in other words, how often are you able to make them productive, versus a more generalized or liberal background candidate. These studies have shown that the people with the more general background tend to be more billable than the highly technical people, which is a bit counterintuitive, but it goes back to the subject of adaptability. If you’re looking for somebody who can adapt to new roles very quickly, then the more general background makes that easier than the straight technical background. Technical training is not really the biggest part of being successful in an IT organization. That’s the nuts and bolts. The understanding, the thinking process, being able to think logically and coherently are really the base skills.
What is the most surprising thing to you about your present career?
The most surprising thing is that I ended up where I ended up. If I were to transport myself back to being age 24, I would have had no concept that this is what I’d be doing in my fifties. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me. I guess another thing that’s surprising to me is the amount of freedom that I’ve had throughout my career. I’ve been able to sort of make my own career and reinvent myself multiple times.
What was one of your favorite personal highlights? The most interesting project you ever worked on?
There are two that come to mind. One was for a shoe company that hired us to create a new distribution system for them to automate their distribution center for loading shoes onto trucks. And this was in 1990, and so many of the things that people take for granted today in terms of messaging, high speed automated systems and things like that, didn’t exist. They asked us to automate their warehouse using what was at the time a 286 PC. As a case of shoes came into the distribution center, it went through a bar code scanner, and the amount of time between when the box was scanned and it reached the diversion lane was 135 seconds, so whatever decision we were going to make about what happened to that box had to happen in 135 milliseconds, and this was on a 286 computer. This was a very interesting problem. The other one was an assignment I did in Canada. That was probably one of the best assignments I had in learning how to be an executive. We were hired to reinvent their IT organization. But when we arrived, we were told, yeah, we want you to reinvent the IT department, but you also have to cut it in half. So we became the hatchet men for the CIO of this company.
What’s your least favorite part of your current job?
The least favorite part of my job is dealing with money and budgets and constantly having to look at funding and cost cutting and those kinds of things.
What about your favorite part of the job?
Probably my favorite thing is getting to talk to people, getting to listen to people, present ideas, have someone come and say, we could make a difference if we did this. And then being able to take those ideas and make them into reality. That’s the most fun of what I do today and it’s the most gratifying. You see people really blossom and demonstrate their skill, and you make a difference.