Interview with Cora Carmody, CIO & SVP, Jacobs International
Cora Carmody serves as the CIO and Senior Vice President for Global Information at Jacobs International – an engineering, architecture, and construction firm. Carmody began her career at Litton PRC, ultimately working her way up to CIO, and worked for Science Applications International Corp. as SVP and CIO. 2013, Carmody was the first recipient of ComputerWorld’s “Engaging Youth in IT Award” for her work developing “Technology Goddesses,” a program that has provided 3,000 girl scouts with IT/STEM education. Carmody holds a BA and MA in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University. BT: Could you describe the trajectory of your career path and explain how it has led you to where you are today? CC: I would have to say it was equal parts luck, work, and an open mind. I studied pure math as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I decided to attend because I played lacrosse in junior high and high school, and the University offered a program in which I could get a bachelors and masters in mathematics at the same time. Mostly, I studied pure math because I enjoyed it. I left college with a master’s degree in 1978 and I hadn’t given my future career much thought, but had two job offers. One was to be a code breaker for the NSA. The other was to program computers, which seemed very interesting as I had never touched a computer before. Ultimately, the programming job took me to California to work on a fascinating project: digital imagery exportation for the US Air Force. The programming company took a gamble on me because I didn’t have any programming experience, which meant I self-taught as soon as I got started. However, I found a passion for computer science that I didn’t realize I even had. Things worked out very well for the company I was with; but for me, I discovered a personal passion. This was the luck part – someone took a chance on me, even though I didn’t have relevant experience. The other achievement they saw on my resume, which was very short at the time, was the fact that I was a co-captain of both the lacrosse and field hockey teams senior year of college, and I had girls scout leadership experience. That was why I was hired without any experience – and the job worked out – so I continued to work hard, learn fast, and put my all into the work I had. Because it was a passion, I had no problem working all day and night on a project like that. I continued improve and used my leadership skills so I could manage others as well. BT: You mentioned that you had a “little bit of luck” that helped you get your first job. Is there any advice you could give undergraduates to find themselves more exposed to those serendipitous opportunities? CC: If I hadn’t gone to the campus career center and started looking that way, I wouldn’t have found the company and the company wouldn’t have found me. They say, “chance favors a prepared mind” – I knew I had to work and I went in with an open mind. Even though I had never used computers, I figured I would give it a go. Now, there are a lot of opportunities to study courses that didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate. I think one of the most important pursuits for anyone to study is how to be a program manager. Anytime you do more than one step, you could look at it as a small project. Any project – whether it’s completing an essay or a more substantial academic project – takes planning and organization skills. A phenomenal book is “Getting Things Done” [by David Allen] and talks about activity management. That’s something undergraduates can do to improve their abilities as an undergraduate and after college. BT: Shifting the conversation to innovation – as your jobs at Jacobs has a lot to do with that field – in what areas of your work is innovation most important? Where is it most critical that we innovate? CC: Innovation can be a loaded term because a lot of people engage in innovation without labeling it “innovation.” One of the most important leadership principles I embrace is called “challenge the process of doing business as usual.” The function of a CIO of information technology is to try it all. Specifically, to reinvent business processes, whether they’re personal business processes like responding to your client or larger processes like supply chain or operating a plant. I think the most important part is to recognize and challenge the process that we’ve always done one way or thought “this has worked in the past.” Instead, we must keep an open mind. We innovate by trying to do things differently while working side by side with our business partners on finding better ways to do that. You can cast business processes in cement, but that’s not what we want. Innovation in the business process is based on finding new technologies to apply. BT: What are some of the behind-the-scenes innovations that you and your company have developed that aren’t the typical paths one would expect from a PR firm, where innovation is technology that’s obvious to the general public? CC: Our company has been around since 1947 and one of the most preserved values of our company is that we’re relationship-based, so we believe in people. We believe the way we all can achieve success is through our relationships. With that as a backdrop, our CEO urged us a couple years ago to put in an internal business relationship network, or an internal social network. His rationale when we were putting together the capital request was that we should embrace our relationship-based values. Some people believe that when you do only business, innovation tends to lack. Instead, we’re people first, and engineers second. We implemented an internal social network and made it clear the appropriate use of the network is not strictly 9-5 business or engineering topics, but growing together through finding the commonalities between us. We can talk about the way you tie your ties in Canada versus Scotland. We can find commonality in our hobbies like motorcycling, photography, and movies. There’s a lot of chatter like that as well as collaborating on the key projects. We’re a global company, and it’s phenomenal to see how fast relationships grow with somebody you’ve never even met face-to-face. These relationships are also close, personal relationships; not just formal, straight-laced, business relationships. We’ve given the company something they never knew they needed and now can’t live without. If you think about it, that’s common to a lot of innovation. Somebody once invented the paperclip, or the post-it; things we didn’t even know we had a need for. Now we can’t imagine our lives without those. BT: It’s interesting that you bring that up. In one of the meetings we had this summer, someone mentioned that management innovation will be the future of innovation, not innovation in the rudimentary sense. With this program, you seem like you’re ahead of the ballgame. CC: Thank you. It’s amusing, or surprising, to be ahead of the ballgame when communication feels like the oldest concept in the creation of mankind. Nobody gets things done by themselves. The pyramids didn’t just build themselves. Somebody had a program in mind; that was the innovation that took thousands of people a long time, but somebody was organized enough to actually run the project. BT: Shifting the conversation to the skills gap, do you think undergraduates today are more focused on their postgraduate pursuits than they were in the past? As in, are they more career-oriented as they go through their undergraduate experience? CC: I believe they are. From what I can tell, there is a growing population that is more focused on careers, but there is still a population that is studying what they enjoy without knowing how it will apply. BT: Right. Do you think it’s positive or negative that students have shifted their focus for their four years in college? CC: I could argue both sides of that. My daughter is studying IT and supply chain management. She knows that those majors will help build a good career. My oldest son is finalizing his doctorate this year in the plasma-based creation of fusion for his physics degree. He is starting to think about what he is going to do with that doctorate, but that wasn’t what drove him to study that. His passion for physics drove it. I think we need both focuses. BT: I guess that’s the tough part: making sure those interests in academics align well with a career path after college. CC: That’s right. At the end of the day, we all still need to feed ourselves. BT: Exactly. Could you offer a summary of the program “technology goddesses” and offer an explanation for the lack of a full representation of women in the technology fields? CC: I lucked into studying computer science years ago. It was a passion – it wasn’t a field that I would have studied otherwise. I continued to notice the women in my profession and at my level haven’t materially changed for decades. In fact, the women with computer science degrees and technology degrees peaked in the early ‘80s and haven’t grown much. Math has picked up a little, but technology and engineering haven’t. I’ve started studying the situation with George Mason University. Twelve years ago, I started an organization called “the technology goddesses” to fix a few of the problems. For example, there’s a lot of investment in STEM at high levels, but not at the lowest level. I believe we must start much earlier – ideally elementary school – to capture somebody’s interest and hold on to it. Up to 66% of 4th graders said they liked math. The drop off by high school was substantial. Another key issue is the lack of female role models. We started a program that provides technology education to girl scouts as young as preschool, though we have boys as well. We teach them methods to learn technology, program management, organization, teamwork, and how to love technology. We try to make it cool to be a geek. One major obstacle is the drop off for participation in science, technology, and scout organizations by high school. We started this initiative to try to preserve kids’ interest in these topics. We view the retention rate of students as a measure of success, and two students who began with us in seventh grade are now out of college and working at Jacobs. BT: That seems like incredible work that is making a meaningful difference. In the coming years, and maybe decades, where do you see this trend going? Do you think programs like yours are helping encourage equality? Do you think that we’ll be closer to a solution in ten years, or the resolution is still farther away? CC: I would love to say that it’ll be within ten years, but the change is occurring at a glacial pace. There are a lot of things that need to change. Firstly, a lot of corporations donate money to the high school level and beyond. We need more businesses and organizations to bring it down at younger levels. We need more companies to portray that they’re open to working in the community in that way. It’s sad that we had a peak in degrees in the early ‘80s and we still haven’t grown back. I have taken a much longer view of change than most organizations. I’m happy to see the results and that Jacobs is starting to support an elementary school in Houston in a lower socio-economic district. We hope to make a positive impact on the children’s future and their earning potential. It’s not just hardcore technology and engineering; we also want kids to be more STEM-literate people. If you think about how our lives have changed between the ‘50s and today, you need more STEM-literacy to live in today’s world. BT: That’s exciting and it seems like a long-term solution; the focus can’t just been on the high school world because a lot of kids have already dropped out of key interests. If you had one piece of advice to give to students of our generation, what would it be? CC: Try a lot of things so you can find the thing that you love. I tried computers and discovered that I loved them. Don’t forget the basics of time and program management. If you don’t enjoy what you do, it really doesn’t matter how successful you are: you’ll just be miserable. Take a path that seems like it will take you where you want to go, but also be open to other paths that may give you ideas for things you can that you never dreamed about. Be open, give a lot of things a chance, and be organized and disciplined in your work. BT: What can business leaders, like yourself, learn from our generation? CC: We need to adapt to a new typical workplace. One thing I love about the generation coming out of school now is that they are more engaged in community service. This was not the case when I got out of school. We were focused on working and having a family. The newer generations are more interested in finding ways to contribute to their community and society at large – which is phenomenal. I think businesses can help harness that care for the cause and organizations that we’ve talked about. I think that will make corporations more attractive to young people. BT: Is that a change that is going to happen bottom-up, from this new flow of students coming out of college who work for corporations? Or will this require management from the top pushing policies down? CC: If you look at corporations it usually comes from above. The management has to learn from the incoming employees, and satisfy needs for social engagement. In order to change that, CEO’s of companies must recognize community contributions as a need. Actually, one reason females aren’t in STEM-related jobs is smart girls typically go into medicine and law, because they see a greater impact on society. Corporations should posture themselves to sustain community involvement and position technologies as things that make life better for future generations.

  • Richard

    I agree. A wise businessman in the Caribbean named Sir Kyffin Simpson always said that the key to success is progression and humility, and clearly he’s done very well for himself as a self made man!

  • John Andrews

    The Airgain IPO launches this week, and they’re a one-brand company.

    Some investors don’t think it’s a good stock though:

    http://seekingalpha.com/article/3997291-risky-signals-antenna-maker-airgain-launches-ipo

  • Cincinnati World Cinema

    Well said, Joe, and worth rereading on a regular basis! Another advantage of small-to-midsize city living is pace and competition. Living in NYC, LA and SF entailed a hectic pace, hallmarked by capital S striving, as one realized there were a ton of others doing what I do. Spending so much time in one’s car in SoCal meant much less time for quality pursuits and pleasures. A smaller pond with relaxed pace allows one to savor life and special moments.


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