Tracy Austin ensures smooth IT operations at Kellogg
A childhood experience with diversity gave her an appreciation of different races and ethnicities, and she's brought that to her work as a manager
'In today's environment, you don't necessarily have to be technical to be successful," believes Tracy Austin. "You have to be business savvy. You have to be able to describe business situations in layman's terms."
Austin is director of IT controls and service management for Kellogg Company (Battle Creek, MI). With sales of $13 billion, Kellogg is a leading producer of cereal and convenience foods.
Austin's team, based in Oak Brook, IL and Queretaro, Mexico, manages the changes that impact Kellogg's IT infrastructure, application services and more. "Our area is not well known," Austin admits. "We pretty much work behind the scenes. Basically, we take the risk out of day-to-day operations."
Perfection is the goal
Her group's responsibilities are wide. "We have developers working on one of our nutritional labels. What if one of them makes a programming error that accidentally gets the wrong number on that label? That affects our packaging and, in turn, affects what gets out into our business community," she says. "Our job is to ensure that all the controls have been met and that we have tested everything to death."
Because her duties cut across the entire IT organization, her days are unpredictable. "I could be in a meeting with the infrastructure team discussing their plans for this weekend. Maybe they're replacing a wireless router. What are the risks? What time are they doing this? Is there a production line running at that time and, if so, how will it be affected?"
As the process owner for Kellogg's global IT catalog for employees and contractors, Austin also oversees service management. She led the team that installed the first global IT service desk and catalog in six countries and six languages, increasing customer satisfaction and lowering IT operations costs. She and her IT team received Hewlett Packard's customer excellence award in 2011 for that work.
Austin is also responsible for Kellogg's Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, which ensures that a company's fiduciary responsibilities and accountabilities are well-defined.
It takes a village
Austin characterizes herself as a director who cares about people, both personally and professionally. "My team has to move on short notice, including nights and weekends. I realize that can be a sacrifice for them and their families." She likes to acknowledge good work and sets aside time in her staff meetings to go around the table and give kudos for a job well done.
Austin is from Oklahoma City, OK. "I grew up in a very spiritual environment," she says. "I believe that it takes a village to raise an individual and I had that.
"One of my earliest experiences with people from different races and ethnicities came through a relationship my church had with a white church. The white church invited three African American teenagers from our choir to go on a cross-country singing tour with them. It was an eye-opening and very enlightening experience," she says. "It was a chance to learn from, and share with, people who didn't look like me."
Austin, who grew up with a love of fashion, aspired to be a retail buyer for a large department store. She went to Bishop College (Dallas, TX), an HBCU, where she earned a BA in business management in 1981.
But her enthusiasm for retail faded as her interest in computers grew. "Computers interested me from the inside out," she says. "I enjoyed learning about what was inside, the guts, down to the circuit board and the memory chips. I figured I would have to do a career change." Austin earned an associates degree in electronic engineering from the Elkins Institute (Dallas, TX) in 1983. She went on to earn IBM, Novell and other certifications.
Getting started in computers
Over the next ten years, Austin worked for a doctor, computerizing his patients' medical information, then for Tandy Corporation (Fort Worth, TX), the owner of Radio Shack, teaching customers how to use computers. Soon after, she joined Southwestern Medical Center (SWMC, Dallas, TX) as its computer trainer.
Training got to be "a little old" for Austin, who wanted to get more involved with computers, servers and networks. At SWMC, she moved into desktop services. "I pulled cable, I was under desks, and I loaded software," she recalls enthusiastically. "That's when the technical side really started bubbling up and infrastructure tasks started falling into place.
"Back in the 1980s, there weren't many female technicians. I got a job with Sentrex in Dallas, TX, a technology service company. This was around 1988, and I was their first female technician." Later, she joined Bank of America's help desk, but then she got a call from a recruiter inviting her to interview at Kellogg.
She joined Kellogg in 1993 as a client service manager in information services. Austin negotiated Kellogg's first desktop support outsourcing contract with Dataserv (St. Louis, MO). Her work caught the attention of a former Kellogg employee who had recently joined Johnson & Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ). She brought Austin to J&J in 1997.
Austin came in as an IT business consultant and technology services manager; she was promoted to IT client services manager, then manager of information technology. She managed a global help desk as well as IT mergers and acquisitions, and implemented a global program management office (PMO) to evaluate the effectiveness of infrastructure initiatives.
But in 2007, Austin was laid off. "I was on the bench for two years," she says. "I understood it from a business perspective but it was still painful."
Fresh start, new opportunities
Luckily, she had left Kellogg on good terms, and rejoined the company in 2009. She is a member of Women of Kellogg (WOK), the Kellogg African American Employee Resource Group (KAARG), the national Network of Executive Women (NEW), and the Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF). Through KAARG, she helped sponsor the first Black History program in Kellogg's IT department.
Looking ahead, she hopes to capitalize on her strength in developing people. "With the new generation coming on board, there are a lot of things I can teach from a career development standpoint. Because I've had a wide range of experience as a trainer, in hands-on technology and now the governance piece of IT, I can translate that to others."
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