African American techies combine IT with business to make great careers
Whether planning an IT career from the start or entering the field indirectly, black IT pros have found success in every industry
“It’s very important for any career to be open to trying and learning new things. You’ll make some mistakes, but you’ll build new skills that you can leverage for your next opportunity.” – Joy Nyman, Altria
By Monique Rizer
Last year President Obama appointed the nation’s first chief technology officer. That, says Viola Maxwell-Thompson, executive director of the Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), is “a clear indication of the importance IT is playing in the world. There are nuances to how information needs to be disseminated and displayed. African Americans have that knowledge, we have that experience; we should be a part of that effort.”
Thompson is clearly in a position to know. ITSMF is a national organization dedicated to fostering upper-level executive talent among black IT pros. It offers opportunities for executive career development through mentoring, networking and other programs.
Breaking new ground
Inspired by predecessors, Thompson has broken new ground. She was the first African American female partner in the U.S. management consulting practice of global corporation Ernst & Young, and the first African American female partner in the firm’s Chicago office. After more than twenty years of experience in IT, Thompson concludes that representation of African Americans at the executive level in IT is lagging compared with other industries, though she has seen improvements in middle management.
Thompson herself is passionate about encouraging students to explore IT careers, and ITSMF is helping build the pipeline with its college summits. Thompson hopes that building awareness of the opportunities in the field will lead more students to choose careers in IT.
“They look at all the cool gadgets and that is piquing their interest,” she says. “But they wonder if their jobs will be outsourced and they don’t see a large number of people of color climbing the ladder.
“We’re trying to encourage students to look at IT as a career, not a job, and learn about the business side as well. Look at the underlying objective, and you’ll be more valuable to your company: as we get that message out we’ll see more retention and advancement.”
In addition to ITSMF’s college-level work, it’s helping IT professionals reach higher levels in corporate America through an executive protégé mentoring program and a C-level Leadership Academy.
Many of the IT pros in this article started out in business, and moved into information technology as the industry started to bloom. Others studied IT in college. All have found success in diverse industries.
Nate Stewart develops software for entrepreneurial Bloomberg
Nate Stewart enjoys the speed of business at Bloomberg (New York, NY), the financial software, news and data giant. “I like the short period of time between realizing a business need and producing a product for clients,” he says.
Stewart earned a BSCS at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and joined Bloomberg after graduation in 2007. His work serves customers of the Bloomberg Professional Service, the company’s core product, which provides access to realtime financial market data, news, trades and analysis. One of his current projects will allow bond traders to analyze future scenarios.
“I was pretty ignorant of this industry before I got here,” he says. “I knew there was financial software but the level of analytics the firm provides just blew me away!”
In college Stewart interned twice at Bloomberg and once with Microsoft (Redmond, WA). The eighteen-month Microsoft development cycle was too slow for his taste; the hive of activity at Bloomberg was more his style. “My internships also gave me a chance to see what Bloomberg culture is like,” he says.
Bloomberg culture is unique, explains Elana Weinstein, who heads up diversity efforts at the company.
“Bloomberg is fast-paced, high-energy and entrepreneurial,” she says. “We don’t have titles or offices; we work shoulder to shoulder in an open environment that encourages interaction, communication, collaboration and teamwork.”
The firm’s 11,500 employees “share uncommon intellectual curiosity, drive and commitment to excellence,” Weinstein continues. “We work in more than 135 offices around the world, speak many languages and represent dozens of ethnicities. We bring diverse educational backgrounds, work experience and perspectives to our roles. The focus here is on building a career rather than climbing a ladder; there is very little hierarchy.”
Exceptional performers are recognized and rewarded regardless of experience or tenure, Weinstein concludes. “The sky is the limit for those who have the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and motivation to contribute to the company’s success.”
Justin Roebuck: technical consulting at Compuware
Justin Roebuck found his way to technology through business. Understanding them both led to his career with Compuware (Detroit, MI), a software provider and consultant for large corporations.
“The technical side is like putting a puzzle together; I enjoy that part. But I can also meet with our client’s CIO and show how to use IT to resolve a business issue or maximize ROI. That’s where my real focus is,” he says.
Roebuck earned a 1993 BS in management from Southern Illinois University and a 1998 MBA from DePaul Kellstadt Graduate School of Business (Chicago, IL). He’s also a certified project management professional. During his first post-MBA job, with Accenture, he learned several programming languages to better serve his clients.
In 2001 Roebuck, his wife and their twin son and daughter moved to Detroit, MI to be closer to their families. Roebuck had several short consulting jobs with Fortune 500 companies before joining Compuware in 2007.
In his current role he helps businesses make strategic technology investments. He’s working on a project to help executives of a client company make decisions on server retirements and purchases. He’s also involved in an assessment for a physicians group at a local university.
Roebuck sees his ethnic background as an asset that can help bring business to Compuware. He’s active in his local community and is president of the African American employee resource group at Compuware. He’s also VP of finance for the Detroit chapter of BDPA. “As an African American I can open channels that may not be available otherwise because of my connections with my community, my church and the city of Detroit,” he says.
Laura Fornier, EVP, CFO and treasurer, notes that Roebuck exemplifies the employee-driven diversity culture at Compuware. “Having a diverse workforce means that employees feel comfortable communicating varying points of view,” she says. “This in turn provides our company with a larger pool of ideas and experience.
“Our organization can draw from that pool to more effectively meet business strategy needs and the needs of customers. To support our diversity efforts we have strong employee-initiated resource groups created around an aspect of common social identity. These groups help us attract and retain talented employees, support community initiatives and identify and foster business opportunities.”
Alicia Bisnauth supports advanced wireless technology at InterDigital
If you own a cell phone, you have a piece of technology by InterDigital (King of Prussia, PA). The company’s innovations, making wireless phone connections faster and more efficient in today’s multimedia environment, are embedded in every mobile phone on the market.
Alicia Bisnauth supports the engineers developing this technology. “What they are doing is fascinating,” she says happily.
Bisnauth is an applications admin at InterDigital’s Melville, NY office. She has a 2005 BSCIS from the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University (Brookville, NY).
Internships helped her find a direction within IS. She joined a small consulting team working on SQL databases, and followed that with a summer at Long Island Blood Services (Westbury, NY) working on network-level backend admin.
Her 2004 summer internship was with InterDigital. When the summer was over her IT manager asked her to return, and that led to her current job. She was recently promoted to apps admin, after several years as an assistant apps admin.
Now Bisnauth works on a variety of projects. She helped design a database for the engineering group, and takes care of admin and maintenance of that software. She also works on SharePoint to provide a website infrastructure that supports business collaboration, process and content management.
“It’s a great learning experience,” she says. “InterDigital offers training courses to help you move forward in your career; it’s very valuable. We have a lot of diversity at InterDigital,” Bisnauth notes.
Janet Point is EVP of communications and investor relations, and the company’s diversity director. She takes the discussion a step farther. “InterDigital strives to foster a diverse and stimulating environment where creative, intelligent and ambitious people can achieve their professional and personal goals,” Point explains. “We support an entrepreneurial culture with solid resources, structure and stability to make a big impact on the future of wireless communications.
“Everyone contributes directly to the company’s strategic goals and bottom line. We believe we are much stronger as a company as a result of the richness of our diversity.”
Alison Oshodi leads international apps at Robert Half International
Alison Oshodi is director of international applications at Robert Half International (Menlo Park, CA), the professional staffing firm. She is responsible for supporting business applications outside North America.
Oshodi earned a 1980 BS in business management from the University of Maryland-College Park. She started her career as a directory compilations clerk for a telecom company that’s now part of AT&T (Dallas, TX). When the company wanted to automate the process of gathering yellow pages information it hired developers, but that move didn’t work out.
“The results didn’t support the business process,” Oshodi recalls. “So they decided to go the other way around. They tested several of us for technical aptitude and trained us to be programmers.”
Oshodi later transitioned to the new IT department and remained with the telecom company for eighteen years. “I only took BASIC in college, so I didn’t even know I was good at this,” she says with a smile.
She was transferred to California in 1989, and became a systems designer and then a business process manager. “I stayed in the IT department, but I focused on using technology to change business processes,” she says. She has spent a little over sixteen years in a variety of management roles in the IT department.
After AT&T Oshodi became director of the professional services group at a small firm that produced software used by collection agencies. In 1999 she joined a dot-com as director of enterprise apps. She was responsible for forming a team that would implement an ERP system that could be accessed by people in Europe, Asia and Australia. “I really enjoyed my time at the dot-com,” she says. “Coming from a large company as I did, it gave me an entrepreneurial viewpoint. It was small and everything moved really fast.”
When the company began to downsize in 2003 she transitioned to Robert Half International (RHI), where she’s now director of international applications, based in Pleasanton, CA.
She started as a manager responsible for a team of developers, business analysts and supervisors. Then she took an assignment overseas. For two years she worked in England as a senior manager building a team to support RHI’s expanding international region. “My job was to deliver front office and back office technology solutions.”
She returned to the U.S. in 2008 and became director of international apps. “I still have the international team, but I also have global responsibility for our platforms used for document management, business intelligence and reporting, collaboration and automated business process management,” she says. Oshodi oversees forty people in California and Europe.
Working overseas brought new meaning to diversity for Oshodi. “Even though we all spoke English, communication was very different,” she says. “You learn that certain words have double meanings and can have negative meanings; that kind of awareness is important, but the rest is really ingrained through experience.”
Ranelle Dunnam, RHI diversity and inclusion senior manager, says, “We value an environment that respects differences, and leveraging these differences allows us to be competitive in an ever-changing global market. We believe our differences, supported by an inclusive environment, will continue to make RHI an employer of choice.”
Sharon Hutchins: learning and moving on at Intuit
Sharon Hutchins is director of IT workforce productivity services at Intuit (Fredericksburg, VA), which makes TurboTax, QuickBooks, Quicken and other popular financial software. Hutchins spent many years in business before moving to the IT side of the house. “I always held very technical, detail-oriented jobs,” she says. “Those skills helped me make the transition.”
Hutchins has a 1989 BS in business management from the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. She spent several years doing accounting and payroll services in the education field, and was also a school-board trustee. “That gave me a good understanding of managing large systems and budgets and negotiations,” she says. “When I think about my career in IT, it’s all of those things: knowing how to work with a wide range of stakeholders, plus having good analytical ability.”
Hutchins joined Intuit in 1997, supporting QuickBooks as director of payroll tax operations. After five years she transitioned to a quality management role and became a Six Sigma grand master black belt, the highest level of the business process-improvement training program. “As a process excellence leader I got a broad understanding of IT processes, which prepared me for this role,” she explains.
As director of IT workforce productivity services Hutchins oversees all the company’s collaboration tools, from BlackBerrys to exchange servers to the company’s hi-def studios. She also oversees helpdesk services and desktop security management, with thirty fulltime technical staff members and forty-five outsourced people.
Hutchins is on the executive diversity council at Intuit, and is part of the leadership team for the company’s African American network. “We believe there’s a strong business case for diversity in the workforce,” she says. “Our customers are from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds, everyone from baby boomers to ‘mompreneurs’ to recent immigrants. We believe a diverse group of employees that understands our customers helps us better serve them.
“We need to get more minorities to understand what IT is really about,” she adds. “There are a lot of people like me, with skills that can transfer into this field, and there’s a whole array of sub-careers you can build into IT.”
Fast-paced finance at Goldman Sachs
Although finance wasn’t a career he had considered in college, today Gavin Leo-Rhynie is a VP of IT at Goldman Sachs (New York, NY), the global investment banking, securities and investment management firm. He started in telecom as a software developer, but “The pace of development there was very slow, and I wanted more challenging projects,” he recalls.
Leo-Rhynie has a 1993 BSCS and a BA in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. When telecom didn’t work out he interviewed with Goldman Sachs and liked what he learned.
“Many people don’t think about technology careers in finance, but the finance industry uses a tremendous amount of technology. Our businesses are global and we need to analyze and transfer lots of information very quickly. There are opportunities for software developers, network engineers and other IT professionals to solve very interesting problems,” he says. “I was really impressed with the people at Goldman; they knew both technology and their business and had a lot of passion.”
He joined Goldman Sachs in 1994, and his first project was building a system for trade processing and confirmation. “I was given responsibility pretty much from the first day I arrived,” he recalls with pleasure.
Leo-Rhynie enjoys working with his internal clients for the entire life cycle of projects. One of his projects involved building a system to match internal trades executed among different traders and salespeople within the firm. “The trading, sales and operations teams were all heavily involved in helping to design the system and provided constant feedback,” he remembers.
In 1999 he was sent to London in his first management role, leading the currencies, trading and sales technology team. “That was extremely rewarding and challenging personally, and very exciting seeing another part of the business and another office,” he says.
He returned to the States in 2003 to work on systems for the firm’s interest rate products business; the next year he was put in charge of a small team of technologists building and enhancing the core trade management systems. He’s still in that job today, now with twenty-four people on his team in New York, London, Bangalore and Tokyo. “Having a diverse set of teammates really helps you come up with creative solutions to solve some of the problems.”
Goldman Sachs has a number of affinity groups, and Leo-Rhynie participates in the Technology Black Network’s recruiting, technical career development and mentoring.
In a quote on the firm’s website, Lloyd Blankfein, chair and CEO, says, “Diversity is at the very core of Goldman Sachs’ ability to serve our clients well and maximize return for our shareholders. Diversity supports and strengthens the firm’s culture, and reinforces our reputation as the employer of choice in our industry and beyond.”
Don Williams is a senior manager in IT/retail systems at Vanguard
The last two CIOs at Vanguard (Valley Forge, PA), the investment management company, came from the business side of the house. “Anyone who wants to be a leader at Vanguard has to have a real breadth of experience,” says Don Williams, a senior manager in the IT/retail systems department. “We build our leaders from the inside.”
Williams has had that exposure over the past ten years, participating in technical projects as well as business ops. He holds a 1996 BSCS from Hampton University (Hampton, VA), and before graduation he served for seven years in the Navy, the last three while in ROTC at Hampton.
In 1996 Williams joined the engineering leadership development program at Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, MD). He worked on classified contracts for all the military services. Then a friend and mentor at Lockheed went on to work for Vanguard, and Williams joined her there in 1999.
Starting in technical operations, Williams developed monitoring solutions for the company’s IT infrastructure. “We are not a brick and mortar business so our website is everything,” he notes.
He went on to a project manager role in tech ops, then moved to Vanguard’s institutional department, which manages employee retirement funds for various companies and organizations. He worked as a project manager, integrating third-party apps and developing user interfaces.
He was promoted to manager, with the job of converting the company’s voice response units for phone users. “That was a huge activity,” he recalls. “We basically rewrote the automated phone channel that shareholders use to access and administer their 401(k)s.
Next Williams was offered a spot at Vanguard’s center for excellence; he became a Six Sigma black belt while attending grad school full time and earning a master of engineering in technology management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and engineering department. One of his Six Sigma projects was finding ways to reduce the costs of his company’s mail operations.
Today Williams is in retail systems, working on a project to help the company comply with new IRS rules. “That’s how Vanguard develops people,” he says. “We are expected to use the breadth of experience we gain in business as well as IT; I definitely wear both hats!”
F. William McNabb, Vanguard chair and CEO, says, “For us truly to be great as a company in terms of both serving our clients and as a place to work, we need highly engaged and very effective crew members. Engagement happens when everyone feels deeply valued, and the broader our diversity, the greater our effectiveness will be. There is true power in having the widest possible array of perspectives.”
La Monte Thompson leads service management for FHLBSF
La Monte Thompson started his career in banking, and currently leads service management for the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA), a wholesale bank. He’s had many interesting experiences in a range of industries along the way.
He began with a 1978 accounting degree from California State University-East Bay (Hayward, CA), working as a computer operator there while going to college. “After graduation the accounting market was really tough so I decided to stay with computers,” he says.
After a few years with his original company Thompson joined Citibank (New York, NY) as a computer ops manager. In 1991 he moved to the former PeopleSoft. Two years later he was hired by Charles Schwab (San Francisco, CA), responsible for national systems integration projects. During this time he earned a MSCE, Cisco and ITIL certifications and more. Then he worked for a while as VP of network services for the consumer banking group of Wells Fargo (San Francisco, CA).
In 1998 Thompson rode the dot-com wave, signing on with a company that was later purchased by Motorola and establishing the company’s IT infrastructure and staff. He never thought of leaving, but when the business closed he decided to strike out on his own. In 2002 he started LME Networks, a consulting services company, doing networking and security consulting for small- to medium-sized business. He ran the company for several years and did all right, but was hoping for a broader platform for his work.
After a short stint as manager of platform services for a remittance and bill processing company, Thompson joined Babcock and Brown, a global investment firm, in 2007. The timing was unfortunate; layoffs began the following year.
Thompson believes his varied experiences have made him a valuable change agent, and that’s what he was hired for at FHLBSF in 2009. He’s now responsible for service improvements in IT, ensuring that the bank’s IT strategy is aligned with its business goals and plans for the future.
“I know change and I have great organization skills,” he says with a smile. “The fundamentals of IT don’t change but the business model does. Knowing how they relate is what I do very well.”
Gregory Fontenot, senior VP and director of HR at FHLBSF, believes “Diversity and inclusion are vital parts of our corporate culture. Each person’s unique perspective, shaped by background, life history and work experiences, is of value to the bank, and we believe the diversity of our employee population reflects the diversity of the customers and communities we serve.”
Herman Strahan is exec director at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Assn
Herman Strahan has environmental roots. He holds a 1972 BA in environmental science and a 1986 MBA from Governors State University (University Park, IL). His first job was with a government agency responsible for water quality, which put him on a taskforce researching a technology solution to data-tracking challenges. That started his career in IT.
“There are similarities in the fields of science and IT: they are more quantitative than qualitative,” he notes.
He moved to the Illinois department of professional regulation where he developed a long-range IT plan; then in 1981 he joined Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (Chicago, IL), one of thirty-nine BCBS companies nationwide. He started a project control office to oversee a range of IT projects, including a paperless claims process, and for eighteen years he worked with programmers, systems analysts and others to make sure projects were delivered on time and within budget.
“In healthcare there are customer service apps, provider service apps for doctors and hospitals, and financial apps,” he explains. “Over the course of my career I’ve had the opportunity to work on most of those. A lot of things were happening in technology, so it was very exciting.”
In 1999 Strahan left BCBS of Illinois to join a dot-com which would provide electronic transactions. After a year the dot-com bubble burst and he joined Eastman Kodak (Rochester, NY). “They developed equipment for MRIs and other imaging in the healthcare field, so I was able to leverage some of my previous experience in healthcare,” he says.
In 2004 he joined Life Times Health Care (Rochester, NY) as director of business apps, responsible for a 300-person technology group of programmers, analysts and project managers. In 2006 he moved to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association as director of technology for its bank, a repository for flex and similar accounts for “Blues” across the country; in 2008 he was promoted to his present job as executive director of enterprise project management for the group.
“My team works on large, complex projects for the enterprise, like new informatics systems across the plans and a new financial system for the federal employee plan,” he explains. He also provides guidance on new technology, and participates in mentoring, through the association’s mentor program and informally on his own.
William Colbourne, SVP for HR and administrative services for the association, says that “BCBS is committed to diversity. It seeks to recognize and support the diverse talents and cultural experiences of our employees, and to acknowledge the value of diversity in achieving our corporate goals. We foster a corporate culture that fully taps the potential of all employees.”
Joy Nyman is senior manager of info services at Altria Client Services
Joy Nyman built her career with the Altria group of companies. She earned a 1991 BACS at the White Plains, NY campus of Pace University (New York, NY) and a 1997 MBA from Iona College (New Rochelle, NY).
She joined the White Plains beverage division of Kraft (Northfield, IL) as a programmer analyst in 1991, following a year-long college internship. At the time Kraft was owned by Philip Morris Companies (Richmond, VA), and in 1998 Nyman moved over to Philip Morris USA, working in New York, NY as a team lead. “We had Macs, and our team focused on making sure software worked, doing testing and certification,” she explains. “That translated into three or four other roles for me at Kraft and Philip Morris.”
In 2004 the company relocated its HQ to Richmond. Nyman moved with the company to continue to enjoy “opportunities to move up, take on new challenges and work with various businesses,” she says.
In 2008 Nyman became senior manager, supporting business areas including legal, government affairs and corporate communications. She also supported enterprise tools like the corporate intranet and document repository tool. Her team grew to more than thirty people.
That year the IS and other support functions of Philip Morris were combined into Altria Client Services, a service organization supporting Altria and its operating companies: Philip Morris USA, John Middleton, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (Woodville, WA) and Philip Morris Capital Corp (Stanford, CT).
In 2009 Nyman moved back to support the field sales organization for Philip Morris USA, John Middleton and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco. “Our sales force has grown, and my role is to make sure the technology they use supports their role serving those operating companies,” she explains.
“Now there is also an account management component, and I have the challenge of building my team’s capabilities so they can look at new solutions, provide them in a timely manner and meet cost constraints.
“Sales is a very dynamic organization,” she adds.
Even after her long career in IT, Nyman doesn’t consider herself a typical techie. “IT was taking off when I went to college and it just looked like an exciting place so I went for it,” she says.
“This organization has offered tremendous support to build my leadership capability, and I’ve also tried to be open to new opportunities. It’s very important for any career to be open to trying and learning new things. You’ll make some mistakes, but you’ll build new skills that you can leverage for your next opportunity.”
IT specialist Jeffrey Dennis works on benefit systems for the OPM
Jeffrey Dennis is a senior IT specialist for benefit systems with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM, Washington, DC). He joined OPM in 1988 after teaching in New York City and DC school systems for two years.
Dennis has a 1986 BA in classic literature from Gettysburg College, but he’s been immersed in IT since high school.
“I’ve always enjoyed the programming and analytical skills needed in IT,” he says.
His move to OPM began his transition to the IT world. “The initial push was taking additional classes in computer technology,” he recalls. He joined the agency as a benefits specialist and management analyst for the retirement services division. In 1991 OPM offered him training through the IT department. He accepted, and “That really began my IT career,” he says.
As an IT specialist Dennis is primarily responsible for the mainframe apps that retirement services uses to compute retirement annuities for federal employees. He works on dental and vision apps administered by OPM and various other systems. Sometimes he’s called on to manage teams, and he oversees other programmers and works with customers as needed.
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