How We Overcame Cultural Bias & Built the “Best IT Shop in the Nation”

Leadership Voices Column_VMware RADIUSWith many “firsts” in my career, my transition to CIO without an IT background in a male-dominated field was met with skepticism.

Yet, I was still “me”—a curious, determined and dedicated leader with 25 years of experience at Arizona Federal Credit Union. I knew what our organization didn’t like from IT, and had a strong idea of what IT could be. As with many other roles previously held, I didn’t pretend to know it all before I actually did it.  Having the questions was more important than having or assuming an answer.

Amy Hysell, executive vice president and CIO, Arizona Federal Credit Union

Amy Hysell, executive vice president and CIO, Arizona Federal Credit Union

“That’s Cute, Trying to Be a CIO”

Stepping into the role, I knew our business, knew how to serve people and knew being a leader with a can-do attitude could transform our IT shop. Admittedly, it was tough at first. Reactions from my then-business partners and team members included comments about how I was of no value to them. Since I don’t know their jobs, so making our operations more reliable was impossible. One of the most memorable comments came from a business partner: “That’s cute, trying to be a CIO.”

Their candor and honesty was valued, because it led to discussions around their declarations. While I may not have known how to build a server, I did know how to be of service to our members and to our internal teams. I know what good service looks like. I know the business. I’d learn whatever I needed to learn to make the right decisions. It was then that I made the declaration that we would be the best IT shop in the nation.

Of note, I had the best mentor and leader anyone—man or woman—could hope for in their career backing me. Our CEO fosters diversity, values being genuine and gives you opportunity with all the support you need. His leadership greatly influenced my own style, most notably the bandwidth he allows, the diversity he encourages and doing the right things for the right reasons—but never at an employee’s expense.

Doing the Work

My personal goal was to learn every acronym, networking 101 and all the applications supporting IT. I also focused on fostering new relationships with key business partners. My goal: six months to learn enough to make decisions about the transformations we needed to make. Every night, I learned something new. This also took providing a challenge to my team members to learn about the business they served. It worked, and my knowledge increased to the extent my peers starting referring to me as “geeked out.”

As a result, we transformed our network within 12 months and never looked back—only forward to what that meant in service to our members and staff.

Every time I was met with a challenge, I recited my mantra: ‘We are the best IT shop in the nation, and what would the best do?’

As a follow-up, I’d often ask, “What are you afraid of?” Because if I could understand their concerns, we could mutually find a way to alleviate them.

Our Transformation to the Best IT Shop in the Nation

It’s hard to believe three years passed since I took our financial services business on its journey to replace our network infrastructure. We were a traditional IT shop with:

  • Hardware-based routing
  • A combination of virtual and physical servers
  • Old firewalls that relied on perimeter defenses, and
  • A “buy the current solution and tack it on to what we were using” mentality

Taking a holistic approach, we replaced our entire infrastructure in a 12-month project. We completely rebuilt from the ground up to achieve the following:

  • Always-on IT services in a fully redundant environment
  • 100% virtualized
  • Next-generation firewalls
  • Internally managed, software-defined network

Can you imagine every single application in your organization micro-segmented? You don’t have to imagine it. You can make it happen. We did.

Nearly 60 internal applications are micro-segmented. We have the power to monitor external and third-party applications. In the financial services industry, protecting our customer’s data is critical. Micro-segmentation delivers another layer of defense only a small percentage of companies achieve.

We just finished that project with internal talent using our new tools. If we need to move that server, the rules follow the application—not the hardware.

Moreover, our culture has changed. We are now a complete service organization that has adopted my mantra: “We are the best IT shop in the nation.” We act in ways that challenge ourselves to be the best.

At the End of the Day, Leadership Is Leadership

In a world of so few women CIOs (and often that 1 percent in the room), was I different than any other CIO? I still don’t know. But shortly thereafter my transition to CIO, I read a Forbes article, “Five Reasons Why There are More Women CIOs than CEOs or CFOs.” It resonated with me about traits many female CIOs share:

  • We tend to be autodidacts (learn what we need to do) and don’t come from an IT background.
  • We have more customer-facing experience outside of IT.
  • We’ve advanced with few female role models.
  • We are talent magnets.
  • Many of us have emerged from financial or supply chain backgrounds.

After reading the article, I thought the author had studied me! I don’t like to make a big deal out of being a woman CIO, because I am still Amy at the end of the day.

However, I do occasionally celebrate myself and the small percentage of others who have crossed traditional lines, leading empathetically and knowing firsthand how the business needs to be served in order to make it better.

Putting It All Together

When you lead through challenges, hold confidence in your strengths but never forget you are in service as a leader, you see the human beings in front of you. Only then can you maintain their dignity (even if you must part ways), change their roles to leverage strengths and understand what is important to them.

In the end, I am in service to our members, who deserve reliability, redundancy and security in scalable solutions that prepare us for future opportunities. And ultimately, isn’t that what all CIOs are challenged to deliver for our businesses?

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