US DNA CIO Interview Ghada

Interview with Ghada Ijam, CIO at Amtrak
DNA of a CIO

Ghada Ijam is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak).  Ghada partners with the business executives to modernize, simplify and transform Amtrak through digital technology and data.  She drives the strategic planning and executive governance of the technology investment portfolio across Amtrak. Ghada is leading the centralization of IT resulting in aligning teams, people and functions to achieve a return of 20% of cost savings over a few years. She is also transforming the IT function to run like a business.

How long have you been a CIO/CTO (or other senior leader in IT)?
I have been in an executive leadership role within Amtrak IT since 2013, and in the CIO capacity since 2015.  My focus has been on leading IT to run like a business, be the strategic business advisor and deliver to the digitally connected enterprise strategy.
 
Have you always aspired to becoming a senior leader in IT?
Three years into my job as an IT professional I realized that a career in IT will allow me to grow broader knowledge and insight into the many lines of business (Finance, Operations, Marketing & Sales, HR, etc,).  I also realized that technology will continue to develop and challenge the traditional business processes and models.  Which meant that being a leader in IT will allow me to be part of the business transformation journey of the company.  The future was certainly exciting and full of opportunities.
 
Was IT always your career path?
Honestly, I stumbled into my IT career path.  My first job started with a 4 months bootcamp learning the basics of business analysis, programming, testing and project management of software projects.  After the bootcamp, the group I was part of through a 2 year rotation program to expose us to these disciplines.  I loved what I was doing and enjoyed the integration of business knowledge and technology to produce solutions.  At that point I decided to continue my career in IT.
 
Have you ever second guessed your career path?
One of my key strengths is the ability to develop a vision (a North Star) and planning to get there.  As we all know, there is no straight line career path, there are always twists and turns but my north star remained focused  on achieving the role of a CIO.  Therefore, I had good clarity on the end in mind and had no hesitation or second guessing.  It helped tremendously that I enjoyed the field of business technology and the variety of challenges that it offered.  
 
What’s your favorite part of your job?
There are many favorite parts of my job.  
 
Working with my business partners to develop strategies and plans that will deliver measurable results and business value is one of the primary reasons I enjoy the field I’m in.  These engagements involve collaboration with peers, deep understanding of the business, and a good knowledge of the technologies that can be applied to create a strategic advantage.  It also requires looking outside for industry peers, vendors, and competitors to get a fresh perspective.  It is the intersection of People, Process and Technology and that is what IT is all about.
 
As a leader the best part of the job is to see the team win.  When the team delivers solutions that improve the business results of the company (revenue, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and operational excellence) we win.  It is great to see team members excited about their achievements.  
 
Investing in people through coaching, mentoring and development is very gratifying, especially when I see employees advance in their careers, get promoted, and take on larger roles within the organization.  I also enjoy mentoring young professionals, it is my turn to give back to these young leaders the coaching and mentoring I was provided as I was growing up professionally.  It is an investment in the corporate leaders of tomorrow.
 
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along your career path?
I see obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth.  It is a chance to exercise mental and emotional muscles and grow new skills and knowledge.  With that mindset, anytime I face a challenge or a situation that others may see as an obstacle, I stay focused on the facts and maintain confidence in my abilities and skills to overcome hurdles.  These experiences provided me with lifelong lessons that helped me grow and I share this mindset and the lessons I learned with up and coming professionals.
 
How did you overcome this?
As mentioned above I see obstacles as opportunities.  Therefore, mentally I am always prepared to take that on as a challenge and a learning experience.   Each instance is unique but I always leverage emotional intelligence to understand the dynamics of the situation, rely on facts and data and use a network of mentors and peers that I can trust to guide me through and help me overcome obstacles.  
 
What technical skills are integral to the role?
It is a given that the CIO must understand the technical landscape and stay up to date on the latest technology trends which are coming at us faster than ever.  Technology runs many aspects of the business, and at times we are seeing technology disrupt traditional business model (e.g. Amazon vs. brick and mortar, Lyft vs. taxi services, AirBnB vs. hotels).  Many organizations are relying on CIO’s to drive the business transformation plan for the company. CIO’s sit in a unique spot where they see the whole business and can for example integrate the plans of marketing and operations, or finance and procurement.  Therefore, they well positioned to lead the business process transformation for an enterprise.  Therefore, technical knowledge, strategic thinking, business process planning become crucial skills for the CIO to leverage.
 
Financial and business acumen is key for a CIO who wants to be at the table partnering to deliver strategy and business outcomes.  CIO’s typically have large budgets given the proliferation of technology in every aspect of the business.  
 
In a world that is ever evolving and pushing the envelope, knowledge of information security technologies, processes and standards is critical as well.  Cyber security is top of mind for many boards and the CIO is accountable to the board of directors for the security of the enterprise. 
 
What soft skills/characteristics are integral to the role?
There are three types of CIOs in my mind: Functional, Transformational and Strategic CIO.  CIOs usually start as functional leaders focused on improving efficiencies and performance of the IT organization.  As the team and processes mature, many CIOs realize that the highest value from their role would be gained if they drive a transformational or strategic agenda.  These CIO’s become accountable to the business leaders and the CEO to deliver the business change and transformation through technology.   In order to drive that change they need:

  • Emotional intelligence to read the system, the people and the political dynamics as they work closely with the C-suite to facilitate and drive the transformation agenda
  • Communication and Marketing skills to articulate in business terms the technology offering and the value it is delivering for the company
  • Executive presence as they discuss the IT change agenda with business executives, board of directors, strategic partners and external forums
  • Vision and passion to inspire the teams that work within and with IT to deliver the technology initiatives and business transformation.

How important is it to be exposed to all areas of the business?
As we discussed above many organizations are using technology to enable business processes and results, therefore it is very important for the CIO and the IT teams to immerse themselves in the business and how the business runs and operates.  In order to be relevant and add value, CIOs must have business acumen which can be achieved by rotations into business roles or by visiting with the business teams and observing how they do their jobs / functions.   
 
Have you ever worked abroad?
I worked abroad early in my career, and traveled extensively which gave me an appreciation of the diversity of cultures, business practices and thought processes.  I managed global teams for many years.  These experiences fine-tuned and groomed my leadership skills.  What I learned, sometimes the hard way, that when working with global teams it is critical to create open communication lines between all team members.  Early on teams should incorporate cultural diversity aspects in how they operate and communicate.  
 
With the new technologies it is becoming much easier to collaborate and work in a global economy.  Holding meetings where you can see team member in other continents s is readily available and is very cost effective.  The ability to email, text and share videos, photos and documents and collaborate in real time is easier than ever.  
 
What is the one thing you have to have to be a CIO in your opinion?
As we discussed above there is no one skill that shapes the CIO of today, it is a toolkit of skills that is required.  However, what I observe to be a unique trait that differentiates the CIO from other C-Suite executives is our ability to connect the dots.  
 
As an example:  At Amtrak we are on a journey to transform the customer experience and allow a customer to start the online shopping for a train ticket using their mobile app and finish the transaction in the station with a station agent.  We want to allow the customer to pre-order food and amenities before they board.  The technology implementation is complex but easy relative to the operational impacts of this transaction.  Operationally we need to ensure that the station agents are aware of their new role, Food & Beverage can hold the right inventory to supply the food orders, and that we have the right amenities in the station and on the train.  Within the CIO organization we were able to make these connections and establish the right team makeup and governance bodies to drive this initiative.  
 
In your opinion, how important is networking?
Early on in my career, I had the privilege to sit at the table with C-Suite executives and what I observed is the fact that they have a broad network and tap into that network for a variety of reasons.  One reason could be to simply talk through a challenging situation and get an objective view, another could be to get a list of prospective candidates for a new role within the organization.  I saw the value of networking and embraced it.  I learned then that networking is important and nurturing that network is vital to keep it alive and rewarding.  I maintain active connections with my professional network, realizing that it is a two way street in interaction and offering help and support.  
 
Has networking played a role in you achieving your career objectives?

Through my network I was able to get benchmarks and insights on some of the challenging projects I was leading.  I was also able to find some of the best hires and recruits within the organization.  In addition, through networking I was able to connect with amazing colleagues in multiple industries and through that network I was able to transition to new roles in new industries, thus giving the breadth of perspective that I have which increases my value and contribution as a CIO and leader.
 
In your opinion, how important is social media for networking/helping one achieve their career goals?
Social media offers real time news, information and knowledge.  I rely on social media to get the news and updates in my professional field, as well as connect with my personal and professional network.  For example, I check my LinkedIn daily.  Through that channel we found great leaders and team members that joined Amtrak and the IT organization.  It is also a good source if professional and industry news.
 
Is there anything you would have done differently looking back at your career path?
I had and still enjoy a great career path and I am thankful for the family members, mentors, coaches and managers that support me as I continue on that journey.  
 
The one thing I would change, though, is setting more realistic expectation for myself.  For example, as I was growing in my career I had 2 young children one of which had a medical condition, a demanding job and a global team.  I delivered to each one these areas at 100% and did not miss a beat.  My job review rating was “exceeds expectations” and if you met my family and visited my home you would give me the same rating.  I was involved in the community and the extended family activities as well.  Based on what I learned, I coach young professional women that it is ok not to be “exceeds expectations” in every aspect of life.  My advice is to intentionally set a balanced bar for yourself; be deliberate about what area requires an “exceeds expectation” and balance the rest.  
 
Compared to five or 10 years ago, how would you say your role has evolved?
I am a business focused CIO.  I have a strategic view on not just how IT works but how my team and I can simplify, modernize and transform the way the company does business.  
 
I am more aware of the impact of open communication on team engagement and morale.  As CIO’s we are naturally introverted but as leaders we have to communicate and engage with the team.  
 
My business and company financial acumen is honed on the impacts to the balance sheet and profit and loss (P&L) statements and not just department budgets.
 
I spend more time coaching and mentoring young professionals as an investment in developing the future leaders.
 
What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to become a IT leader?
Apply yourself, learn the business not just the technology, create your network early on, be part of the team and engage in team activities, build your brand, always learn new things and enjoy a balanced life.
 
As an IT leader, what keeps you up at night?
 I am sure you heard the term: “every company is an IT company”.  This is driven by the proliferation of technology, cloud, mobile, IoT, etc.  We see that internally within the organization where every employee is an IT expert.  Wearing my strategic hat, the big question I have is what role will IT play in the future where every device is a connected thing with data and software?  How can the IT organization evolve from an operating model, skills, tools and governance to add value to the business at the right speed and cost.  
 
Like every CIO, protecting the enterprise from cybersecurity threats continues to be top of mind, given the big brands’ hacks that we saw in the recent history.
 
What are you doing to keep growing your career?
 Continuous learning is key to stay relevant as career professional and leader.  In addition to reading business, technical and social articles and books, I am pursuing an executive education certificate from Wharton.  I attend conferences to stay up to date on technical advancements,  
 
Networking continues to be a source of career enrichment.  Through the network I learn about what other companies in our industry are doing in terms of innovation and advancement.  I also learn about different business endeavors that may be relevant to the company or to my personal development.  Networking introduces me to leaders that offer unique view points and perspective on how to develop and grow ones career.  It also allows me to meet great people.
 
I recently joined the Goodwill of Greater Washington DC board of directors.  This experience will teach me about non-profit organization (a new business model).  It will also add new skills to my portfolio as I will be sitting on the other side of the table as a board member steering an organization.