Laraine Rodgers

The serial CIO talks about understanding the value of thankless jobs, learning from mistakes and being the only woman in the room -- repeatedly.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

When Laraine Rodgers was growing up in the 1950s, her parents liked to say that she would "never starve," because of her drive and determination. Indeed, few women, or men, can equal her track record over more than four decades in IT. At the age of 17, armed with a keen mind and a gritty determination but no experience and no college degree, she landed a job as a computer programmer at a time when those jobs routinely went to men. She went on to become the CIO at Xerox U.S., a senior vice president at Citibank, the CIO for the city of Phoenix and a director at American Express. Vice President Al Gore tapped her to help with his "reinventing government" effort in the 1990s. She now heads up the consulting firm that she founded.

Why did you get into IT? I was adopted, but I didn't find out until I was 16 and ready to graduate from high school. I was so angry at being lied to I threw away my merit scholarship and I refused to go to college. My mother and father said, "What are you going to do?" and I said, "I have no idea." But I later took a programmer aptitude test and I aced it, so I started in IT as a programmer. I started in the weeds.

What was your first IT job? It was 1965, and I was 17 years old and with only a high school degree. I walked the streets of New York looking for a job. I was told at AT&T I would be a telephone operator, but I reiterated my need to become a programmer. They laughed and said only men were programmers, [and] even if I had a college degree, the best I could hope for was a job as a computer operator.

But then I applied for a job at the New York Blood Center. As part of my job interview, I had to program on one punched card a routine to print every other line on a page. The computer had just 4K of magnetic-core memory. I used part of that fixed-core storage that was not used for anything else. My one-card Autocoder program for the IBM 1440 computer worked perfectly the first time. I coded it, keypunched it and ran it while being observed the entire time. My boss was quite a techie and was most happy.

We ran all our systems for the New York Blood Center on that computer, with only 4,000 characters of memory! The lesson I learned: Use all the tools available, and then some. The lesson still holds today.

Did you encounter any more gender bias over the years? When I applied for that first programming job, I was vetted for my "behaviors" by a programmer already working there who saw me in class at IBM. He said I seemed to be OK, could answer and ask tough questions, and did not try to flirt with the guys in the class, where I was the only woman out of 26 students.

One year later, I found out I was being grossly underpaid. I went to the HR director and told her. She insisted it was OK because a) the other programmer was a man, b) he had a family (he was actually single), and c) he needed money to date! It did not add up. She would not consider my request, based on performance, to be paid equally. I gave my two weeks' notice and happily moved forward. I loved my first job; I gave and learned a lot. But fair is fair.

I have seen many instances over the decades where similar inequities occurred. I addressed each one on a case-by-case basis, sometimes choosing to stay as there was more to be done and gained. Other times, I gracefully exited. We still have a gender issue, but that's not something a corporate policy, even backed up by legislation, can make right overnight.

What are some of the things that have helped you succeed over the years? I always volunteered for seemingly thankless jobs — challenging assignments that nobody wanted. It was, "If we hate something, if it's a mess, give it to Laraine."

Can you give an example? I saw a huge project fail at American Express in 1975, and it failed for a lot of reasons. At a meeting they said, "What do you think?" and they went around the room. I stood up and said I think we need to approach it X, Y and Z, and the VP pointed to me and said, "You are in charge." Nobody wanted the project, but they were pretty desperate. The project was ultimately phenomenally successful. It really launched me. It was a defining moment in my life.

The original project manager was a good guy, but he was afraid to take a risk, and he didn't look at the big picture. He was fanatical about what he knew, and he was smart, but he didn't listen. He said, "I know this technology is going to work," and I said, "You don't even know what you have to do yet, so how can you pick the technology?"

Have you ever failed? I was fired once. It was nobody's fault but my own. I took a position that was not a fit, and I knew it at the time. I did it for personal and not professional reasons; I wanted to be near my fiancé. What I learned was, make decisions for the right reasons. Every experience I've had — even the unhappy ones — have made an impact on me, and they mean a lot.

Do you ever give up? I am self-propelled, driven, excited about life, love to learn. I got my undergraduate degree at age 40, and my MBA at 42 — all working full time. I move forward always — not necessarily in a straight line, but always forward. I have been fired once, laid off twice and promoted over 27 times. I repackage myself regularly and keep moving forward. I perceive the possibilities. I am not hindered by obstacles. There are no obstacles. Some things just take longer.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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