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Focus on diversity

Women make IT their own

Information technology can be an exciting career. These dynamic women, several of them VP/CIOs, made it work for them

"IT turns complex tasks into a few seconds of processing. It is very inspiring." - Prudence Kuai, WellPoint


Noreen E. Cohen-White is a national 
technology leader at Deloitte & Touche.

Noreen E. Cohen-White is a national technology leader at Deloitte & Touche.

At Sandia, Joselyne Gallegos heads a group working on satellite system data.

At Sandia, Joselyne Gallegos heads a group working on satellite system data.

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT, www.ncwit.org), women made up 54 percent of the U.S. professional workforce in 2004. But only 25 percent of the professional IT workforce was female, and women barely exceeded 11 percent of corporate officers in the top technology companies.

In graduate CS studies, women in IT are hovering below 25 percent of students, notes NCWIT's communications director Jenny Slade, compared with more than half the students in grad-level law and medicine.

Is this a lurking prejudice against women, the resurgence of the glass ceiling? NCWIT thinks not. The lack of women is more likely due to poor public relations for an IT career.

"Especially at the entry level," Slade notes, "IT has an image as the domain of solitary 'pale males.'" This makes some young women feel they would prefer other career tracks.

But IT can offer a very worthwhile career for women. Slade wants to enliven the way CS is taught and change the workplace to attract women. These steps, she believes, would help women and men as well. "It would be great to have a creative and innovative workforce that is broadly representative of the diversity within our country," Slade reflects.

But while the pundits ponder, plenty of dynamic women are taking up IT and making it work for them. Some started with tech degrees; some have come to technology from other directions.

Kristin Kirkconnell is VP/CIO at AGL Resources
Kristin Kirkconnell

Kristin Kirkconnell

Kristin Kirkconnell is VP and CIO at AGL Resources (Atlanta, GA). AGL is an Atlanta-based energy services holding company for six natural-gas utilities in six different states and affiliated companies in three more states.

Kirkconnell is responsible for enhancing the technology platform across AGL and building a model for future growth. "It's an ongoing challenge that I look forward to each day," she says.

When she received her BSCS from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA) she went straight into IT. That was twenty-two years ago. "I loved the analytics and problem solving of IT," she says. "Throughout my career I've been interested in technology's ability to drive organizational and business-change processes."

She spent the first thirteen years of her career as an IT consultant, working in areas ranging from programming to developing sophisticated simulation models.

"Early in my career I got involved with relational databases," she notes. "From there I developed financial and logistic systems in relational formats and moved on to management roles."

She worked in Rockville, MD for the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD, Washington, DC), first as director of data strategy and then as VP for technology services. She remembers fondly the time they replaced an old mainframe legacy system with an automated, interactive Web-based system. "It's a classic example of how the marriage of business processes and innovative technology solutions can transform the work we do," she says.

She moved on to BellSouth, where she was CIO for consumer and interconnect services. And then she joined AGL.

"I remember my first meeting as an officer of a company. I was the only woman there," she says. "Today I go into an officers meeting and a good percentage of us are women.

"I never in my life felt that I couldn't do anything that a man could do," Kirkconnell declares. "I'm a single mother raising my young daughter, and I bring into the business world skills I learned from parenting, like compassion, understanding, tolerance and patience.

"I see wonderful changes," she adds. "More men are coming into the office asking for time off for parenting. I think we're moving to a culture where diversity of thought is cherished because it makes us tick."

Weyerhaeuser's Susan Mersereau is SVP of IT and CIO
Susan Mersereau

Susan Mersereau

SVP of IT and CIO Susan Mersereau is part of the senior management team at forest products company Weyerhaeuser (Federal Way, WA). She works "to define the company's direction, key strategies and organizational alignment around our current portfolio." Her CIO post makes her accountable for the IT that supports all the company's global businesses. That, she says, adds up to about 34,000 desktops and PCs and all the communications networks that hook them together.

"I am an inveterate learner," Mersereau says. "That has probably defined me in all the different roles in my IT career." Mersereau has a BA in history and German literature from Scripps College (Claremont, CA), and a 1972 MA in education and history with a focus on economics from the University of Chicago (Chicago, IL).

Her first job was at Weyerhaeuser, and she spent a dozen years working her way up from program manager to director of telecom, then VP of IT. In 1986 she completed the advanced executive program at Stanford's grad school.

She also has an MS in organizational psychology and organizational systems, which taught her "more about how organizations can create the structure, processes and behavioral change needed to support IS."

From '86 to '94 she worked in organizational change and development. She became VP of business services and quality, then joined Weyerhaeuser's business ops group as VP of organizational effectiveness.

A few years ago the CEO asked her to move back into IT. "We were into a major acquisition and expansion and he wanted me to be a global CIO and a senior manager of the company," she explains.

Mersereau was the first woman appointed to a senior management position with Weyerhaeuser. But since she's been on the senior management team, she says, "We've brought in another woman as a senior officer. We also have two women directors, and I've seen a number of female VPs in the last few years. I've also seen much more focus on women in the lower levels of the pipeline."

Having women at the top levels, she says, "has a really positive effect on gender equity. By sitting at the table we can raise the issue."

Prudence Kuai is a VP of IT and CIO at WellPoint
Prudence Kuai

Prudence Kuai

Prudence Kuai is VP of IT and CIO for the Medicare, Medicaid and specialty products division of WellPoint Inc in Thousand Oaks, CA. WellPoint Health Networks (Indianapolis, IN) merged with Anthem Inc in 2004 to become WellPoint Inc, the largest health benefits company in the nation.

Kuai is responsible for all IT-related services in her business division, including strategic technology planning, business process automation, day-to-day system performance and availability to the company's business ops.

Diversity at WellPoint, she says, "comes all the way from the top. We have a balance of men and women on our board, in our senior management, and among our officers throughout the company."

She believes that healthcare is especially attractive to women. "It's a nurturing business," she says.

Kuai grew up in Taiwan and came to the U.S. for grad school. She received an MS in math with a minor in CS in 1979 from the University of Texas.

Her idea was to stay in school and become a professor, but after a summer internship at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, "I abandoned my education career and got into IT," she says.

"IT can automate business processes and turn complex tasks into a few seconds of computer processing with high accuracy. It is very inspiring."

And, since IT in the healthcare arena is not as far advanced as it is in finance or manufacturing, "There's a great opportunity to make a big difference."

After college Kuai started with the hospital where she'd interned, then worked at FHP Healthcare (Costa Mesa, CA) for nine years. "I had a job rotation where I supported every function in IT. You name it, I worked in that function."

She also had great mentors, and took the initiative when she saw the opportunity. "It's all possible; the sky's the limit," she says.

She joined WellPoint in 1998. Throughout her career, Kuai says, she's regarded IT in any large corporation as a support function and one that enables the business to be both strategic and efficient. "I'm proud that I've always been able to establish strong business partnerships and provide the best customer service," she says.

Noreen E. Cohen-White: tech leader at Deloitte
Noreen E. Cohen-White

Noreen E. Cohen-White

As a national technology leader at professional services firm Deloitte & Touche (Chicago, IL), Noreen E. Cohen-White manages the firm's U.S. customer relationship management (CRM) technology implementation. She also manages a suite of technology products that support the firm's U.S. marketing and business development.

"I've enjoyed a career filled with challenging projects, continuous advancement, and the opportunity to work with some very talented people," she says.

Deloitte & Touche is the U.S. member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. Cohen-White started as an intern in the call center in 1995 and moved on to managing software development projects, then to large, complex technology products. "I became pretty proficient at IT program management and the roles just kept changing," she says.

Years ago, when Deloitte decided to re-platform its knowledge management solution for consulting, Cohen-White led the team that developed the search function in the new global portal. Then she became manager of the global portal for Deloitte Consulting. "Everything related to the portal crossed my desk in one way or another," she recalls.

With the global portal stabilized, she helped lead the U.S. CRM implementation. "It was an important initiative for the firm," she says. "The CRM product gave us a single place for account and opportunity management, and firm-wide sales pipeline visibility."

Cohen-White began her career with a 1992 BA in political science from City College of New York, and went on to a 1997 MBA from Belmont College (Nashville, TN). "I was preparing to go to law school, but the internship at Deloitte was an opportunity for me to see what technology was all about. I loved it and stayed on," she says.

Symantec's Angella Wilger directs product development IT
Angella Wilger

Angella Wilger

When info security company Symantec (Cupertino, CA) recently merged with Veritas, Angella Wilger was appointed senior director of IT, supporting product development engineering IT. At Symantec's Springfield, OR site, she manages the teams that deliver software to the company's product engineers.

"It's fast-paced, high pressure and fascinating," she says.

Before that, Wilger directed IT Americas for Symantec for a year. "I worked with our finance, marketing and sales business customers on their IT needs, and supported helpdesk for Canada, the U.S. and South America."

Before joining Symantec Wilger was at AT&T; Wireless for fourteen years. "I started as a business analyst, worked into project management and IT, directed an Oracle implementation and helped finish off a PeopleSoft implementation," she recalls.

She spent three years in ops, which was about 95 percent men, she says. "The representation of women in the development organization was a little more balanced. Sometimes I've directed all-men or all-women teams, but the mixed teams always seem to create the best energy, with different ways of thinking through problems."

When AT&T; Wireless HQ was relocated after its acquisition by Cingular, she decided to move to Symantec.

"I've been fortunate to be in growing companies. My managers and mentors always urged me to take the next challenge, or make a lateral move to round out skills and learn new things," she says.

At one point she took a nine-month class on leadership with the Society for Information Management, and continued on to a year with the Leadership Development Roundtable. "It really helped me acquire the skills to manage a larger team," she says. "Learning along with other IT pros was a tremendous opportunity."

Wilger started out with a 1983 business degree with a concentration in international finance from California State University-Fullerton. After a stint owning and operating a bridal store, she moved into finance jobs. "When I had the opportunity to work with IT, I jumped at it," she says.

Joselyne Gallegos is a tech manager at Sandia
Joselyne Gallegos

Joselyne Gallegos

At Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), Joselyne Gallegos heads up a software development group working on a large-scale real-time system to collect and process data from U.S. satellite systems. Her job includes project management, development and delivery, technical guidance and product and personnel management.

Gallegos has a 1987 BS in math and CS from the University of California-Los Angeles and a 1988 MSCS from the University of New Mexico. Sandia sponsored the MS through its "one-year-on-campus" program. "I was paid to go to school and guaranteed a job when I completed the program," Gallegos says happily.

"I love software development, and I feel a lot of satisfaction and pride that I am contributing to systems that have a compelling national impact."

For her first five years at Sandia Gallegos worked on software development for a satellite ground station. Then she moved into cryptographic apps and info surety, leading a cooperative R&D; project with an industry partner. The work involved info protection for computerized medical records. She went on to principal investigator for two more R&D; projects.

"Soft skills training courses in leadership, management and interpersonal skills have been important to my career," she says. She's also continuing her education in software engineering, info surety and other technical areas.

"As a mother of two young daughters," Gallegos says, "I know the challenges women face to stay in the professional world. But my workplace is very supportive and my husband's understanding and sacrifices have been tremendous.

"There's never a perfect balance between family and work," she fears. "You juggle and try not to drop any balls. It can be gut-wrenching on both ends."

Sandia, Gallegos notes, has a good representation of women and minorities in its workforce. "I've hired a lot of top-notch computer scientists and software engineers, a lot of them women and minorities."

Gallegos is involved with diversity efforts at Sandia, UCLA and recently with the National Center for Women and Information Technology. "I hope we can increase underrepresented enrollments in engineering, especially at the graduate level," she says.

Pam Jenkins manages product assurance for SWIFT
Pam Jenkins

Pam Jenkins

Pam Jenkins manages the product assurance and certification group at the Manassas, VA technology center of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). SWIFT is a financial-industry-owned co-op that supplies secure, standardized messaging services and interface software to almost 8,000 financial institutions in 200 countries. Its HQ is in Brussels.

Jenkins' IT test group is "the last stop before the software goes to production," she explains. She works to move her group from the tedium of manual testing, asking them to "write more code and get things as automated as they can." Her group is very committed, she says. "Working at SWIFT has been a wonderful experience."

Jenkins received a 1984 BS with a major in CS and math from Mary Washington College (Fredericksburg, VA) and a 2000 MBA from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA). "I love the engineering and math in IT," she says. "I appreciate the fact that there are right and wrong answers that determine whether it works or it doesn't work."

But she also likes to interact with people. "I'm very interested in how management supports and motivates people to achieve a common goal," she notes.

Jenkins began her career with ten years at IBM. "I had a lot of project and program manager opportunities that gave me a broad view of how IT supports business," she says. "I moved to SWIFT because I was interested in a smaller, international company where I could make a bigger impact."

She started at SWIFT as an assistant programmer on a customer support system. "But the lead programmer left very soon after I started, so I became the owner of the job and stayed in that role for two years."

Next she went into business analysis with a new service SWIFT was starting up. Then she worked as a tech problem manager in ops. She became a technology manager, interfacing with software vendors. That led to a job in which she managed the configuration group for all software releases. The acceptance task group is the latest in her portfolio of IT management roles.

"From day one at SWIFT, when I was the only female programmer in my group, I've never felt I was treated differently, and I've had many opportunities to learn and grow," she reflects. "There are so many really smart people here, and when you prove that you know what you're doing you earn respect."

Marianne Moffett: IT apps supervisor for Primavera
Marianne Moffett

Marianne Moffett

Primavera Systems (Bala Cynwyd, PA) provides collaborative resource, project and portfolio management software solutions for businesses. Marianne Moffett is business apps supervisor in the IT department.

"I bring people and their processes together with technology," she says. "I work with the users to automate and streamline their business processes." She also gets into data quality, apps deployment and enhancement, performance tuning and optimization, maintenance and admin.

Moffett graduated from Delaware County Community College and started at Primavera as a data entry clerk in 1989. She went to Saint Joseph's University (Philadelphia, PA) in the evening for her BSIT. "I'm very proud of doing that," she says. "I was fortunate that my directors recognized my interest and helped me achieve my career goals."

BS in hand, Moffett became a systems analyst. Her work with databases, she says, "piqued my interest in relational data." She also did a lot of reporting for the user community, giving people the information they needed to make the right decisions. "I get the best of IT, working with technology and with people," she says.

"I love empowering people to do their jobs better, to be more effective and efficient. I like to gather requirements from the user community, implement the right technology and then bring the people, the processes and the technology together to do something really great."

"Having empathy toward a user situation is key, whether it's a technical issue or a new business need. You need to make sure people are trained and the solution is working for them."

Becky Blalock is CIO at Southern Company
Becky Blalock

Becky Blalock

A job at the top of the IT organization caps Becky Blalock's high-powered career in IT management for Southern Company (Atlanta, GA).

Blalock is SVP and CIO of Southern, which is made up of five regulated electric utilities plus natural gas, communications, competitive wholesale generation and nuclear plant businesses. "We provide all the IT support for 26,000 employees and the 120,000 square mile territory our energy company serves," she says.

She joined Georgia Power, the largest operating subsidiary of Southern, as an accounting management trainee after receiving a degree in business admin from the State University of West Georgia in 1978. Since then, she's earned a 1984 MBA in finance from Mercer University (Atlanta, GA), completed a program for management development at Harvard in 1994, and had a year-long fellowship with the International Women's Foundation in 2000.

At Georgia Power, Blalock moved from accounting management trainee to financial analyst to project manager in economic development. "It was a big turn in my career to get some different experience. In the long run I think that move was very important to my success with the company."

Next she was a lobbyist at the Public Service Commission, where her technical knowledge and regulatory relationships grew. She went on to manager of the company's community and economic development department, which, she says, "was named one of the top ten economic development groups in the world."

She got "great firsthand mentoring" in a brief stint as exec assistant to Georgia Power's CEO. Next she became regional CIO for Georgia Power and Savannah Electric, and was named director of Georgia Power corporate communications, then VP of community and economic development before becoming Southern Company's CIO.

"I've worked with incredibly talented people and on great teams, and I've had wonderful support in my career at Southern by people who believed in me," Blalock says. She hopes she's blazing the trail for many more women. "I was the first mother to be named a VP at Georgia Power," she says with a smile.

Today Blalock has five regional CIOs on her senior leadership team. Three are female, one a black man and one a white man.


Emily Blumenfeld is a freelance writer in north-central New Jersey.

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