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Trailblazer making an impact through IT

Becky Blalock spent 33 years with Southern Company, where she became senior vice president and CIO. She currently is the Managing Partner at Advisory Capital, a consulting firm providing strategic insight for companies involved in the energy, information technology, and medical industries. Blalock also is author of the bestselling book DARE: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage, and Career for Women in Charge. She serves on several public boards, including Hannon Armstrong and Aspen Aerogels, and is an adviser in several private equity ventures.

Read the full article on page S18 of the CIO of the Year / Birmingham Business Journal.

Q: What led you down the career path of being a CIO? I’m somebody who you would call an accidental CIO. I was asked by our CEO to take a developmental assignment as a regional CIO. At the time, it was kind of frightening because I didn’t know that much about IT, and I told him that. What he told me was that this job is not so much about technology as it is about information. So he said for me to keep focused on whether the technology that people are talking about actually help

s deliver business value, and to make sure we are deploying the things that will add the most value.

Q: What was your reaction to this new role? Every job I’d been in before that in my career, I got bored pretty easy. I’d go in, learn the job, and then move on to the next thing. I never got bored in IT. Še reason for that is because it’s a constant challenge. I really loved it. So after I got into this developmental assignment as a lower-level CIO, I had the opportunity to go into many different things across Southern Company. I found it very rewarding. I don’t think there’s any place where you can make a bigger impact on the company than in IT.

Q: What advice would you give to people entering the CIO field? One of the things that gives us a lot of courage is our relationships with other people. So look closely at who you are associated with. If you want to be a better tennis player, what do you do? You play tennis with somebody who is better than you. And if you want to be a better CIO, the best thing you can do is identify the best people who do this business and hang out with them. Because this is a business that’s still very much in its infancy. It’s not like accounting, which has been around in some form for thousands of years. IT is still new and it’s changing rapidly, and the only way you can keep up is to talk to other CIOs. Also talk to the people who supply the tools that CIOs use in their business, because they’re inside every company. It’s an incredible investment in yourself when you build these types of relationships, but you have to put the effort into doing that.

Q: What is your book Dare about? I wrote about my experiences. I was the first woman to hold many of the positions that I held at Southern Company. Too many times I would go to a meeting, and there would be 100 people in the room and maybe three women if you were lucky. Šat’s changed a lot. So through this book I wanted to give back to women and really to anyone who is aspiring to reach their full potential. It’s all about encouraging people to step outside their comfort zone. Too many times we want to stay in that comfort zone, but that’s actually the most dangerous place you can be. Because if you stay there, you will never reach your full potential. It’s those experiences outside our comfort zone that stretch and grow us. If you don’t stretch your comfort zone every day, it begins to shrink. Confidence is a learned skill, just like public speaking. And it’s built by ignoring that little voice in your head that says you can’t do something, and doing it anyway.

Q: Why can that be so difficult for people? Because we’re not programed to take risks. Šat’s how our ancestors survived, by not taking too many risks. Change is scary. But there are things you can do to help you be more comfortable taking risks. Še first thing is to be very clear about what you want to do. Šen once you do it the first time and get through it, you’re ready for the next challenge. So you have to constantly be putting yourself out there and not hold yourself back. If you’re not meeting new people and asking questions, you’re missing an opportunity to learn something. If you don’t take on tough, challenging assignments, then you’re going to miss getting the experience you might need. We don’t do these things because we’re so afraid of failure. But failure is really just feedback that teaches you what doesn’t work, so you can be successful on the next try. It’s not the technology that’s difficult about this job. IT people are really smart. Šey can figure that out. Še tough thing is the culture inside of companies that pushes back against change. People get very comfortable doing things the way they are used to doing them. And IT is all about going in there and changing things when you know it’s in the company’s best interest.

Q: What is the future of the CIO profession? We’re in the middle of a crisis right now, and IT has risen to the challenge. Še only thing that’s keeping many businesses up and running right now is the technology that is supplied to the organizations by the CIOs. So while this crisis has been very difficult, it’s also shined a light on how important IT is. Moving forward, IT will be even more central to how successful a company can be. If they are not transforming their business through applied technology, data analytics, business intelligence, robotics – basically everything that a CIO runs – that company is not going to be around for many more years. If you look at the Fortune 500 list that was created in 1955, only 10 percent of those companies are still around. And the pace of change for companies is accelerating. Most of the companies at the top of that list now are either technology companies or companies that do technology well. If you don’t do technology well, I don’t care what business you’re in, you’re not going to survive. So the CIO is much, much more central to the success of the company. It’s not some back-office function. Še CIO has to be out front working with the business to figure out the best way to apply the technology.


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