On October 24th, students from Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems visited the IBM TJ Watson Research Center for an eye-opening field trip into the world of research and tech.
The audience in attendance included faculty, undergraduate and graduate students. One of these students attending was Charlotte Coffin, a senior majoring in computer science, who is currently working on her honors thesis titled, “An Introduction to Quantum Computing using the Number Guessing Game on QISKit.” QISKit is IBM’s open source platform for quantum computing, so the trip was particularly useful for Charlotte!
During the trip, students learned about the types of research taking place at IBM and identified potential research collaboration opportunities. IBM’s researchers discussed technological topics including quantum computing, blockchain, IoT wearables, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics.
Students spent the day in Thinklabs, research rooms, and with IBM professionals who introduced them to the real-world version of what they are studying at Pace University. For many students, getting an inside look at a company like IBM was a glimpse at the future.
Tianyu Wang, a PhD Computer Science student nearing graduation, noted that the trip was “a really great experience.”
“The researchers at the Research Center work on speech recognition, machine learning, natural language understanding, and information retrieval products, among others,” said Tianyu. “I particularly appreciated witnessing the collaborative working environment. The company supports various researchers that work in both small and large teams. I can see the researchers had a great time doing their work; most [of] them were absolutely top-notch and super-accessible and friendly.”
Tianyu, along with the rest of the group in attendance, also had the chance to see an innovative project in the works by IBM: artificial intelligence generating movie trailers.
“An example of a recent artificial intelligence research project is generating movie trailers automatically using machine learning algorithms,” Tianyu explained. “After training a couple of movies with label data, the program can generate a trailer automatically, within one day. This approach saves the cost of producing a trailer. Through this example, I could certainly see the real implementation of supervised learning solutions, and how artificial intelligence can impact the business.”
Andreea Cotoranu, Assistant Dean of Academic Innovation at Pace University, highlighted how grateful she and her students were for the field trip opportunity.
“The Seidenberg School is grateful for its dedicated adjunct faculty, especially Professor Stephan Barabasi, as well as for the passionate and generous team at the IBM Research Center for continuing to facilitate collaboration and discussion on key research topics and promote continued learning within the Seidenberg faculty and student body,” she said.
The IBM trip was another fantastic learning experience provided by the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. Keep your eyes peeled for future events with major technology companies!
There was an exciting lineup at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems on both the New York City and Westchester campuses during Fall 2018: the Tech Leadership Series! The speakers at the events ranged from the Seidenberg School’s benefactor himself – Ivan Seidenberg – to the chief information officer at Cadillac, Lesley Ma. Students had the opportunity to hear from industry professionals over the duration of the semester. Here’s a recap ICYMI:
Jeff Coffin, “Embedded Linux: What the Heck is it?”
On Oct. 25, Jeff Coffin spoke at the New York City campus at 163 William Street. The Software and Systems Engineer at AJA Video Systems, Inc. appeared in conversation with his daughter, Seidenberg student Charlotte Coffin, to chat about embedded linux (and what the heck it is). Students had the opportunity to speak with Jeff about his many years of experience in the technology industry and network with him as well.
Ivan Seidenberg, “Verizon Untethered: An Insider’s Story of Innovation and Disruption”
Peggy Yao, Tech Collective Lunch & Learn: Mindfulness for Professional & Personal Success
On Wednesday, November 14, the Westchester campus hosted the third segment of the leadership series at Goldstein Academic Center. Special guest, Peggy Yao, spoke about mindfulness at the Seidenberg Tech Collective meeting. Mindfulness is a topic not often associated with the technology industry. Students were able to learn tips for a more mindful outlook, network with Peggy, and – as always – enjoy lunch on us.
Lesley Ma, Global Chief Information Officer for Cadillac
On Tuesday, November 27, the Global Chief Information Officer (CIO) for Cadillac at General Motors, Lesley Ma, spoke at the New York City campus. Lesley shared her experiences as a leader at a global firm and fielded questions from students about her career so far. Students received plenty of tips and advice about marketing themselves for cool opportunities and got to network with an industry superstar. We were so excited to present our students with this great opportunity to network and learn from an industry leader.
Merin Joseph, WESTMED Practice Partners and WESTMED Medical Group
The next event in the series was on November 28 at the Westchester campus. Series speaker, Merin Joseph, gave insider experience from her position as Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at WESTMED Practice Partners and WESTMED Medical Group. Students joined in on this event to get networking experience and tips on how to succeed in their chosen fields. Merin shared a wealth of knowledge earned throughout an exciting career.
Daniel Barchi, Chief Information Officer for New York-Presbyterian Hospital
On Wednesday, December 12, the Chief Information Officer of NewYork-Presbyterian, Daniel Barchi, spoke on the New York City campus for a discussion and networking session with students. We were happy to present our students with this great opportunity to network and learn from an industry leader in the medical and technological fields. Daniel gave a frank and fascinating recounting of his experience as a leader in a dynamic industry, including some exciting stories about narrowly avoided crises.
Did you attend any of our events? We’d love to hear what you thought – and if you have any suggestions on who to invite next, give us a shout in the comments or on social media!
On Wednesday, November 14, Peggy Yao, the first Mandarin-speaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher in the Tri-State area, is coming to the Westchester campus for a Tech Collective Lunch and Learn on “Mindfulness for Professional and Personal Success.” Peggy will be on campus to meet students and impact our School’s community in a positive way.
Yao, an alumna of the Pace University, attended several classes in Pace University’s Lubin School of Business Masters of Business Administration program from 1979 to 1981. She used her learning experiences to grow a lifelong dedication to community service and charity. As an MSBR teacher in Chinese schools and senior centers, local libraries, and the Tzu-Chi Foundation—of which she is an active member—Yao has served the community with her approach on growing stronger personal physical and mental health.
This event comes at a perfect time as the stressful season of midterms has just finished up. Students will have the opportunity to dive into a conversation about mindfulness and mental health with Yao over food provided by the School.
The event will take place at 12:00pm on the third floor at the Goldstein Academic Center. Students will have the opportunity to network and chat with Yao in the Seidenberg lounge.
Helen Altshuler is a Seidenberg alumna (BS in Computer Science ’97) of whom we are particularly proud. Not only does she have a fascinating life story, but years of hard work have enabled her to progress to a position of thought leader today. Recent articles have described her as one of the top female “engineering leaders closing the gender gap in NYC tech” (builtinnyc.com), despite her status as a noteworthy woman in tech being quite unintentional and unexpected on Helen’s part! She’s also a member of the Seidenberg Advisory Board, so we get to enjoy her presence frequently.
As a senior engineering leader at Google, Helen is responsible for managing a multi-year transformation program in Google Cloud, and an Open Source platform called Bazel. Prior to Google, Helen was the CTO at the fintech startup PeerIQ, where she built data and engineering teams, created a cloud based analytics platform for peer to peer lending, and sold it to key institutional clients. She started her career as a software engineer at JP Morgan, after obtaining a CS degree at Pace University. She grew into technical leadership and Executive Director roles, becoming responsible for technology delivery in Credit Risk, Big Data and Analytics.
Helen is passionate about talent development and is a frequent hackathon mentor/judge, women in tech guest speaker, and Girls Who Code facilitator. She actively promotes diversity and STEM initiatives at Pace University as a member of Pace Women in Business Steering Committee.
I visited Helen at Google the day after a snowstorm in NYC. When I emailed her to check we were still on, she responded that, yes, “the city is open and so are we” – my first glimpse of a woman with extraordinary work ethic.
Not long after we sat down, Helen began to describe her life. Born in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), Helen didn’t experience the same societal norms concerning gender as in the USA. “Women leaders were everywhere!” she said, listing the Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, India’s first and only female prime minister Indira Gandhi, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
She moved with her family to the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, where limited opportunities and discrimination caused them to come to America as refugees.
“I came here for the opportunities that weren’t available to me in my country – nothing was going to stop me from doing that,” Helen says. “I also came here as a woman, from somewhere where I wasn’t restricted by anything.”
One would expect that coming from a background of gender equality to a place where society treats the sexes with discrepancies ranging from subtle to outrageous would be quite the culture shock. However, Helen’s experience was different. Her background had escalated her to the point where her interactions with people were based on them as individual personalities. “I feel like I had blinders on; those blinders helped me. I never saw men and women at work – I saw people and colleagues who were there to work together.”
In fact, Helen never even thought of herself as a “woman in tech” until, 10 years into her tech career, she was invited to speak at a women in tech panel for the first time. Technology was just something she did, like everybody else she worked with. It was something she had always done.
“Since I was the only child, my father wanted to raise me to be as technical as I could be,” Helen explains. That said, when she first moved here she was interested in doing art but a swift reality check made her change her mind. “I walked down Broadway seeing artists selling their work for nothing and I couldn’t do that as an immigrant. I needed a make a living!”
She started the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science here at Pace University in 1993. This was around the time the world wide web was really becoming worldwide, and the internet was rolling out and developing faster than ever. What was it like being in the middle of that frenzy?
“Everything was moving so fast at that point that I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. I was an intern at Marsh & McLennan (insurance company) through Pace’s co-op program, and HTML and CGI had just become popular. My boss bought a book called HTML for Dummies and put it on my
desk and said ‘hey, we need an intranet site’ – it was a continuation from my studies at Pace. It was pretty organic; my job was all about building technology and this was a new thing to build.
“Pace had IRC chat before the world wide web. The amazing thing was that only the computer science students at other universities had access at the time. We had mainframes that allowed us to connect with CS students across the world; I chatted with students in Canada, Israel, Russia – it’s how I met my husband who was at Polytech. It brought us together through our curiosity about technology. It was a way to get perspective from different tech students. Later on, more students from other disciplines got on, but for a while it was just us tech students.”
After she graduated, Helen started out as a software engineer and grew her career from there. She learned that progress was good and that taking opportunities was a way to move on to bigger and better things. “But don’t move up so quickly that you have to play catch up for the rest of your career,” she warns. Even in her senior position now, Helen is an advocate of gaining and maintaining technical knowledge. It isn’t fun moving into a new position where you feel lacking in the knowledge department – in the long run, progressing too soon can hold you back.
One should never shy away from progress, on the other hand. Helen’s list of recommendations for corporate career growth is short and simple:
Become a domain expert
Align yourself to your manager’s success
If you see an opportunity, raise your hand
If you’re tapped on the shoulder, go for it
… but resist the temptation to move up too quickly before building your domain expertise
But what if opportunities don’t seem to come your way? Women in particular can find it difficult to say yes to progress, even when offered to them – and when it’s not? Many struggle to start conversations and end up waiting for a promotion that either won’t come or comes much later than it should, whereas if they had asked for it they could have received it sooner.
“Sometimes women rely on their managers to appreciate them,” Helen says, echoing a sentiment expressed by another of our alumna, Kim Perdikou.
Kim, who graduated in 1993, said in a previous interview: “I had this very wrong belief that if you worked really hard your boss would recognize it and you’d eventually get a job doing what you really should be doing. That is utter rubbish.”
Interestingly, another Seidenberg friend who recently spoke at our LST Honoree Speaker Series (which Helen introduced), Judy Spitz, told a story about advancement as a woman: “Once, early in my career, I got called into the senior executive’s office and he said ‘I want to give you this job’. I said to him ‘I’m not sure that I’m qualified for that job’. He looked at me like I had three heads. I’m not sure he’d ever had anyone in that office he’d offered a promotion to who said no, thanks.”
Imposter syndrome and plain societal conditioning are big problems for many women in technology – and in other fields. As someone with experience having these conversations and self-advocating, Helen has some advice.
“Bring your data with you,” she says. Your manager can’t deny your good work if you bring along proof. “Sometimes, you need to put your foot forward, show your data, and negotiate.”
Negotiating doesn’t have to be confrontational, either. “You don’t want to go too aggressive; it can affect your self-worth. When I came to Google, I took a leap of faith – I did not negotiate aggressively, because I looked at this opportunity as a longer term career path rather than just the next job.”
The notion of women in technology being a movement and of being a woman in technology herself took a hold on Helen. It was also what spurred her interest in board memberships. When I asked her why she joined the Seidenberg advisory board, she replied that she’d always been curious about it.
“I attended a women’s leadership panel where they stressed the importance of being on boards. It’s important to establish yourself as a thought leader – that helps with a broader perspective and gets you recognized within your industry. Women on boards is kind of the same thing as women CEOs and other high positions – there just needs to be more of it!”
Being on the board means bringing unique ideas with her to the Seidenberg School. “I started teaching through my son’s school Girls Who Code program, and started thinking about when I first came to New York, wanting to be an artist. I want to create a web design & developmente program at Pace. There is a benefit to combining the arts and sciences school and the computer science school. There are coding boot camps for Web Design and Development, but they fall short in giving CS fundamentals, impacting the quality of front end engineers on the market. Pace is uniquely positioned to do it, with the perfect combination of art and computing.”
Working with Girls Who Code (GWC), a national not-for-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology, has created a reciprocal relationship for Helen. She started working with GWC around the same time she started at Google – late summer, 2016. “That’s usually how it is for me: when you start something new, you try to put yourself on a path that’s going to change your life to some extent.”
Helen teaches web design and development, which was what inspired her thought process about potentially combining art and computing in a program at Pace. In fact, her participation with GWC, Seidenberg, and her work at Google are mutually beneficial: “The logical connection between Google, GWC, and Seidenberg, is that learning one helps the other. I had to re-learn some HTML and CSS for GWC, then one of the first things I had to do at Google was update a roadmap page on our website using those same skills.”
“Similarly, I bring suitable Google concepts, like material design and design sprints, to GWC and other programs. What I learn here, I apply in class, and what I learn in class I can sometimes apply at Google as well!”
Despite having been with Google for less than a year, Helen has, as she put it, “drank the Kool-Aid.” The company’s focus on community meant a focus on integration at the beginning. “I learned that newcomers to Google get to wear a stylish hat complete with a propeller on top and are referred to as “Nooglers” for the first six months.”
Working at the coveted Google company means Helen knows a thing or two about career paths. So what’s her best advice for tech students? And what about getting beyond the infamous Google interview?
“You need to build your domain expertise. In technology, that expertise manifests itself in two areas. One, which is the most important in interviews, is hardcore tech skills. You need to know your algorithms, etc, and it helps you do well in interviews. The second one is, I meet a lot of students who want to be managers. They should be more thoughtful about their longer-term career plans. You can’t manage until you understand your domain well. A lot of women are drawn to technical leadership – you need to be a domain expert first, which could take 4+ years of coding before you can move on.”
“Camille Fournier [a technical thought leader and former chief technology officer of Rent the Runway], said that she worked as a software engineer for 10 years and achieved mastery; at that point, she could apply herself to any technology, even if she was out of practice.
“At Google, you are constantly pushed in technical directions. Even as a leader, I’m expected to code – and I welcome that extra reinforcement. On the other hand, where I achieved mastery is in systems design and scalability, and understanding how to process data and work with data at scale. That’s what Google is all about and that’s what you learn, and it’s also important in the fintech sector. You want to keep your systems working under different conditions. Those are the skills that help you get a job in any industry. No matter what systems you work on, they need to scale and they need to be reliable.
“A lot of my interview at Google had to do with understanding of scaling large and complex systems. Google has billions of users; how do you keep that data usable? When you click on an email, how do you get it to load instantly instead of in 10 minutes? I may not achieve mastery on the pure coding front, but I certainly achieved it on systems design/scalability front.”
Having domain expertise is something that can only be achieved after years of practice. Anyone can get into casual coding, but it’s the hours you put in that really count. Helen is clearly someone who has put the hours in. “I try to tie in everything extracurricular that I do directly to work or to family,” she says. “I do hackathons with my son, coding camps with my daughter.”
And all of that is against the backdrop of NYC. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I like having lots of options to explore with my kids. When the kids were little, I took them to celebrate every international holiday – Chinatown for Chinese New Year, Little India for Independence Day, so we could celebrate international culture.”
Diversity is one of the things that makes New York great. It’s a city of hard workers, a landscape that is reflected within the walls of the Seidenberg School as students rush from class to internship to workshop to co-op job to networking event.
Recently, the New York Times ranked Pace University #2 nationwide for the upward mobility of our students. Students who come through our doors from less privileged backgrounds end up graduating and going on to great things. When Helen moved here in 1993 with $3000 to her name and the determination to make a good life for herself and family, she exemplified that quintessentially New York attitude – and ours.
The third and final of our LST Honoree Speaker Series – a chain of interviews with previous winners of our prestigious Leadership and Service in Technology award – took place on Wednesday April 19, 2017, and featured Pace University alumnus and Seidenberg advisory board member Mike Zbranak interviewing the incredibly charismatic Austin A. Adams.
Austin was recognized for his leadership and service in technology in 2006 at one of the highest-grossing iterations of our annual fundraisers in its history. We were delighted to welcome both Austin and Mike back through our doors and they were equally as happy to join us.
“We are capping what has been an absolutely stellar series on financial technology throughout the year,” said Dr. Jonathan Hill, Dean of the Seidenberg School. “We are in the presence of two legends in the financial technology industry. We are honored to have with us Mr Austin A. Adams and Mike Zbranak.”
Austin A. Adams retired in 2006 as Executive Vice President and Corporate Chief Information Officer at JPMorgan Chase where he was a member of the 13-person Operating Committee and managed 28,000 employees and a $7bn budget. Currently, Austin serves on the board of several companies, including Spectra Energy Corp., CommScope, and Keycorp. “I welcome the opportunity to be here,” Austin remarked. “I really like the model here, so when I was given the invitation to come here I welcomed it.”
Moderator of the discussion, Mike Zbranak is the Managing Director and Deputy Chief Information Officer of Chase Consumer & Community Banking at JPMorgan Chase.
In front of a room packed with students, staff and faculty, and other members of our Pace community, Austin said one of the things that is always music to our ears: “I think you’re in the right industry.”
He continued: “The IT role needs new minds, new thoughts, and I commend you for that.”
It was time for the discussion to get underway, which Mike kicked off by asking Austin what drew him into technology.
“There are several things you’ll never see on my resume,” Austin replied. “I was a failed college professor and a failed professional golfer. I got into technology almost by mistake. I was a senior manager in a bank and one group I managed was technology.”
It was through this exposure that Austin began to see how important technology was to a company. He now touts it as one of the most, if not the most, important departments in any business. The long-standing problem, however, has been that businesses still refuse to see IT departments as anything other than an unfortunate necessity, here to fix computers so the real work can get done.
“IT was the backroom – where you process things, keep your mouth shut, process reports for the next day. I wanted the business to look at us in IT and say ‘we’re partners’.”
He spoke about business orientation bias, which is what a business’ motivations are based on what it is trying to do, how it is trying to make money and serve its customers. Typically, technology does not factor very much into these plans. However, by understanding the business’ motivations, the technology department could start taking steps towards contributing meaningful work that would get it recognized as integral to a better business.
“I used to talk about our group as being partners of choice and leaders of change,” Austin said. “Being a leader of change, it’s really an art form.”
Referring to the students in the room, he said: “Technology and you as a tech pro have an opportunity to leader change. You may not get your name on it, or get your name recognized in the WST or within the company, but there is no job family in any company that I’m aware of that knows as much about the company as the IT department. You possess all the meaningful information in the company.
“Focusing on the business, understand where the business is going, and you’re a leader behind the scenes.”
Mike added: “When you’re in IT, you are the integrators of everything. When people are coming to you and talking about what they want, you get business knowledge that other people don’t have. You can become a change agent. I hire about 700 college grads a year into our training program and do touch points about what people are learning. I always want them to opine or put up suggestions about what’s going on. I’ve noticed that people fresh from school are open to adding suggestions than people 10 years in. I learn more from those sessions than I do from my whole team.”
The conversation continued towards different types of change, namely keeping up if not getting ahead in an ever-changing world. Mike spoke about his observations during the start of his career at JP Morgan.
“When I went to school here and started working at JP Morgan on Broad Street, there were 11 Money Center Banks. They dominated the financial landscape at the time. You weren’t allowed to bank across state lines. Out of those 11 banks that ran everything, only two are left. All the rest were taken over or absorbed into other banks. Austin, you engineer these massive bank acquisitions or mergers. I’m talking about programs, think about a project you have worked on, you’re talking thousands of people, you’re really betting the bank. How do you sell the board on that?”
Austin said: “People think about innovation as being too much like a buzzword. Meaningful innovation in a company is a lot of very small steps taken by a lot of people. A lot of it is about mindsets, and really good programming. If you have any kind of skill set in the world of program management, there will be a need forever for people who can coordinate between areas in business. Really good technology people look at what the business opportunity is and they can make it happen. Thinking about innovation, think about your position as an IT professional to make those small steps.”
Much of innovation can be found in consolidation. Mike spoke at length about his experiences coming into businesses and finding far too many processes, programs, and options when just a few would suffice. At JP Morgan, the business was so customer-focused that there were 970 services when Mike took over – Amex had three. When Mike asked his new team what they could reduce their services by and nobody responded, he told them “we’re going to have 10.” By consolidating hundreds of services into just 10, the business began to operate far more smoothly.
Austin agreed, saying that the biggest missed opportunity he’d had at JP Morgan was that the technology team failed to communicate the cost of complexity, or the value of simplicity. “You’ll see complexity in organizations that really doesn’t need to be there unless someone’s willing to make tough discussions. If you have a simpler environment and one way of doing something, you can increase your productivity and your profit.”
Innovation can be looked at as efficiency; it adds effectiveness. Innovation can be a life-changing moment, but it’s also incremental because it’s made up of small improvements. For example, Craigslist was an innovative site when it was created, but then people took what Craigslist was offering – goods and services – and made apps from it. Uber exists as a combination of existing taxi businesses and the ordering online concept.
“At some time in your career, you’re going to see pieces of information that’s going to show that something needs to be done better,” Austin said.
Mike agree, adding that the need to move quickly can be a challenge in traditionally slow moving business. “I think about how fast opportunity comes and go. I take my phone and look up the mobile app for Chase. We have a digital wallet now – I was talking about it nine years ago. After years of meetings and mergers, we didn’t talk about it enough – then Apple came and ate our lunch. Then, instead of being something innovative, it becomes something you have to have because everybody else has it.”
Austin and Mike then discussed the importance of having trained cybersecurity professionals entering the fintech space. “The one thing any board is worrying about is cyber,” Austin said. “Five of six panels (at a conference) ended up talking about cybersecurity. Four were scared to death because they don’t know what to do about it.”
Finally, Austin shared three things he has observed over the last few decades in his guide for how to accelerate your career. Here are his three opportunities:
Peer feedback. Work in any company, and your boss only has so much time to give you feedback. If you quickly get your head around creating dialog with a peer of yours so you can say “Jack, I want to succeed and I want the company to succeed; I’d like to get constructive criticism from you. I’ll buy you a beer every few weeks if you’ll sit down with me and give me feedback. Most people won’t do it, but some will and you’ll get extraordinary feedback. We are never in reality the way we see ourselves. Getting that outside perspective is crucial.
You’re going to work with people who have skills and knowledge that you want to develop. Mike is one of the best technologists I know, but when he was new to a senior CI role he worked on developing his skill. If you go to people who have the skills you want to develop and ask for 15 minutes for them to explain how they got to where they are, most will say yes. This is a real way to accelerate your learning process.
Think hard about what an extra hour a week would do for you if you spent it learning about the company. It may be more fun to spend the time at leisure, but if you spend an hour or so spending your discretionary time learning about your profession and the business it will help you get so far.
After the discussion between Mike and Austin, there was a brief Q&A session followed by time for the students to chat with our guests in person. We’d like to extend a massive thank you to Mike Zbranak and Austin A. Adams for taking the time to visit us and look forward to seeing you at the LST Awards and in the future!
The second of our LST Honoree Speaker Series took place on our Westchester campus. Butcher Suite was looking mighty full as a crowd of Pace students, staff, faculty, and our alumni and friends at IBM stopped by to listen to our spotlight day’s speaker, Nick Donofrio.
Similar to the previous LST Honoree speaker event with Judy Spitz, the format was interview style, with Seidenberg student Christian Nahshal (BS in Information Technology ’17) taking the stage alongside our guest. What followed was a fascinating conversation, where our 2013 LST Honoree, Nicholas Donofrio, shared his incredible insights, experiences, and wisdom.
Nick Donofrio led IBM’s technology and innovation strategies from 1997 until his retirement in October 2008. He spent the early part of his career in integrated circuit and chip development as a designer of logic and memory chips. In the years that followed, he advanced and succeeded in numerous technical management positions and, later, executive positions in several of IBM’s product divisions. Notably, he was vice chairman of the IBM International Foundation and chairman of the Board of Governors for the IBM Academy of Technology.
One of the first things Nick spoke about was what he gained from doing co-op assignments with IBM while he was at college. “I can’t say enough about co-op assignments, this idea of work study,” he said. One of the best things about doing relevant work while studying is that it helps cement theoretical learning with practical training.
As an engineer, it was useful to Nick to combine the two as it helped him learn to find solutions for specific problems. “You need to be more problem-based in the way you learn and the way you think, because that’s what engineers are.”
Nick also spoke about how important it was to get and maintain technical skills. Even though the higher up the ladder you go the fewer technical skills you typically use, it’s important to try to stay technical as long as you can.
He also introduced the concepts T-shaped and I-shaped personalities, and the importance of practicing the behaviors and traits of a T-shaped person. An I-shaped person is one that is an expert in one area and does not (and therefore cannot) solve problems outside of their field. However, if one takes the time to advance their knowledge in related areas, they spread their field of expertise – become T-shaped – and can apply a broader range of knowledge to solve different problems.
Expanding your area of knowledge also means you can connect two disparate ideas and create new things. “When you intersect things that don’t normally, or never have been intersected, you become an innovator,” said Nick. “It also allows you to explore the gaps,” finding new ideas within existing areas of knowledge.
“How do you bring that into a leadership aspect?” asked Christian, bringing the conversation around to Nick’s experiences in executive positions.
“Focus on how value is created, where, and how it is created,” Nick said. A good leader should see the strengths and weaknesses of their staff and assign them tasks and roles that allow them to work to their greatest strengths, individually and within the team.
He also spoke about how important it is to be honest. “Transparency, openness, collaboration,” Nick said. If something goes wrong, it is always better to be upfront about it so a solution can be figured out sooner. “We’re going to find out the truth in the end anyway. Because that’s how it works. You may as well tell me now that you screwed up, that the project is 6 months late, that you’re not going to deliver, you might as well tell me NOW so I can help you.”
He shared a saying he likes to use: “You be forthright, I will be forthcoming. Tell me the truth; I will get you the resources.”
Christian then asked about what Nick considers to be one of the most important successes of his life.
“The impact I have had on the lives of people and the impact they’ve had on me,” Nick replied, explaining that the opportunities he has had to help other people have had a powerful effect on him, particularly the ability to lend an empathetic ear or be a sounding board. “To know the answer, but to know to listen is a very important gift.”
Nick is also a big advocate of paying it forward: “I want you to remember what I did for you and do something for somebody else. Too often, sadly, that does not happen. People get where they want to be, and the first thing they do is to lock the door. Don’t be that person.”
Several members of the audience then got to ask questions, which Nick happily answered, including a question about his experiences working with Steve Jobs. He described the kind of innovative thinking that enabled Steve Jobs to get to where he did: “Steve Jobs would solve your problems a different way. That’s what innovators do. He understand workflow better than anyone – that was what his gift was – and he would start with the problem. Any time he started with the answer he was wrong. He didn’t really create anything, he just studied it from the end user perspective.”
Another student asked “What qualities do you have that make you a T-shaped person?”
“You have to know your limits and your abilities, but that doesn’t mean you stop asking the questions,” Nick responded, and went on to recommend reading up on the Medici family who were around in Renaissance Florence. They were a very rich and powerful family who brought around the beginning of the industrial revolution. “They were T-shaped,” Nick said. “They thought about combining this craft with that craft,” which exemplifies the king of T-shaped thinking described above.
Bringing his point a little closer to the present day, Nick spoke about his time as a manager at IBM. “I didn’t know how to do a lot of things at IBM, but I would teach people how to teach themselves. T-shaped people are enablers, open, collaborative, multi-disciplined, global thinkers. They enable others to be better.”
There was a final question – what was Nick’s favorite project?
“Probably the most embarrassing and the most rewarding,” Nick said. “When I became a manager back in the early 70s. I managed a group as the lead circuit designer. We were all friends. After a year, we had an opinion survey. For every group in IBM, you had the best and the worst. The best got rewarded by the chairman and the worst… we never heard from them again!”
When the survey results rolled around, Nick was dismayed to learn that he’d received a 1.2 out of 5 – from a team of people he considered his close friends. However, the more time he spent ruminating on his management style, the more he realized that perhaps he hadn’t been the best manager he could be. In fact, as his background had been doing the same job as the rest of the team, he realized that he’d spent the last year continuing to do that job, a job that wasn’t his any more.
“Now IBM wants me to go into a meeting with them and ‘find out why they think you’re a jerk, but you can’t outright ask them as the survey is anonymous’. I went into the meeting and told them, I am so sorry, I obviously let you all down. I know I must have been a jerk the last year, it’s clear to me that I was trying to do your job instead of my job. It’s clear to me that I may be fired. It’s also clear to me that if you’ll have me, I will change. I will be more collaborative, more open, the manager you want me to be. I will be a manager, not a circuit designer. To a person, they all agreed to keep me on.”
As luck would have it for Nick, there was one other person in the entire company with a score of 1.0, so Nick got to keep his job (it was decidedly unlucky for the other guy, though!)
“So my advice is that if you’re going to be bad, be bad early in your career!”
Following the Q&A, Nick stayed behind to chat with students and meet the community. We would like to thank Nick for spending an incredible couple of hours with us and for sharing the amazing stories and lessons he has learned over the years.
We hope to have you back soon! As Dr. Jonathan Hill, Dean of Seidenberg School remarked, “There is a reason why this gentleman fills a room.”