The Path to CIO: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

“When I grow up, I want to be a CIO”, said no child...ever! Firefighter, police officer, doctor, just about anything...but not CIO! Steve Snyder, CIO of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in Boston, had a dream...a dream of being a pilot. His Path to CIO would take him on an adventure, several adventures actually, from the seven seas, the oil fields in Alaska, and metropolitan areas of Chicago, New York and Boston.

Path to CIOJust as Steve’s path to CIO wasn’t traditional, neither was our meeting. We met via, well, Twitter. Early in December of this year I received notification that I had a new follower. As with all new followers, I check out their profile and some of their tweets and make a decision to follow back or add them to one of my Twitter lists. Steve’s profile caught my attention...Technology Wrangler...sunglasses, ocean...I had to talk to this guy!

Rather than just a Follow Back...I sent a DM. What followed was a quick exchange, a voicemail, and a scheduled interview. Wham Bam! I had my next profile lined up!Path to CIO

Given Steve’s unique Path to CIO, I am going to take a different approach and have
Steve tell you his Path to CIO in more of a narrative, than a traditional interview.  

“Jeff, I love the concept of the series! What did I want to be growing up? Great question! All I ever wanted to be was a pilot. I thought it would be pretty cool!

When I was 18 or 19 I made the decision to enlist in the Navy. I walked into the recruiter’s office, looked him in the eye, told him I wanted to enlist, and told him I wanted to fly, I wanted to be a pilot. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said that’s great, we have a lot of opportunities in aviation.

I spent the next six years in a submarine as a sonar technician. Nothing says flying like being under a couple thousand feet of water following the Russians around! It was pretty cool though. I was on the USS Houston SSN-173. That was the fast attack sub they used in the filming of “The Hunt for Red October”.

I learned a lot during those six years. The lesson that really stuck with me and shaped my leadership style was the team mindset. In the Navy, on a sub, we were all a team. We either succeeded together… or we failed...TOGETHER!

Sailor to Civilian - The Path Continues

When I got out of the military, I returned to Oregon and became a Satellite System Technician for an audio distribution company based on satellite technology. At some point we caught the attention of Muzak and they bought us. Myself and two others started a home and business security alarm system company funded by Pacific Telecom Inc., Protection One. That grew...an was subsequently sold.  

My wife and I thought it would be cool to live in Alaska. So we flew up there and both left with jobs... that started in three weeks. We went home, packed up the kids and dog and moved to Alaska.

I was working on the North Slope, until BP bought Arco. I started a company called “Touch’n Go” (loved that name! since I finally got my pilots license while living in Alaska, did a whole bunch of Touch ‘n Go landings). I was a “jack of all trades” for companies that need IT leadership but not full time. I guess you could say, I was a fractional CIO before they called it that! We ended up doing a lot of IT support work overnight, after hours. You know, major conversions and things.

One of our clients was so pleased with our work, they started contracting us to do work35-intel-post-201614-stevekid for their clients. They were an owner’s rep in the construction industry. They would represent the owner’s interest in the projects to develop large commercial properties. We were called in to provide expertise in things like: how do you cable the IT systems in a rocket launching facility? or how do you tech enable a jail or an airport? It was fascinating work.

I started commuting from Anchorage to Chicago to do work for a company building “colo hotels” in the major NFL cities. I’d have to look, but we probably built one in Indianapolis! We also started building charter schools and even built some software to facilitate the building and opening of the schools.

If you think commuting from Anchorage to Chicago sounds bad...I started commuting from Anchorage to Boston. We were doing some BPO-work (business process outsourcing) on a project to scan all the permits issued by the city dating back to the 1700’s. The project was struggling and we were called in to get it back on the tracks.

Barnstorming Consultant Lands in Boston

About 14 years ago, I joined the Boston Convention Center as CIO. One of our biggest challenge when I started was our wireless capacity. We host a huge gaming convention every year. Every one of those attendees has two, three, four or five devices, all wireless, all bandwidth intensive. Wireless has to be bulletproof.  Additionally, since we can sometimes charge north of 100k for wired bandwidth for three days...the wired, managed network has to work flawlessly!! The team that supports these systems is the best in the industry, they have to be.  We tear our show network down every week and rebuild it for each show coming in. this includes separate VLANs for every client on the show floor and sometimes that can be more than 300.

Path to CIOSo, that’s kind of my story. My Path to CIO, took me from under the ocean, to flying the friendly skies of Alaska, to Chicago and here to Boston! I wouldn’t change a thing! In our first conversation, you asked about “lessons learned” and advice for aspiring CIOs. Let me focus on that a bit.

I got involved with the CIO Magazine Executive Council several years ago. Through that involvement, I started mentoring a group of aspiring IT leaders. I use my story and my lessons to help them grow in their careers. A couple of things have really struck me by working with this group. First, as I look back on my career, I learned from my failures. Sure, successes are important, but I learned more from my failures!

I think another aspect of my career that helps me today is my background in consulting. I was able to learn and understand the view of many different CIOs and business leaders. Coming up through the ranks of one or two companies can lead to a myopic view of how to solve problems. My broader view taught me the politics of getting things done. If you can make someone a hero, the job will get done, and you will become a hero as well.

I really see my job now as taking the 50 - 60 world class professionals on my team and helping them become even more awesome.

In some ways, my career was a comedy of errors, but it created a widening path, and I built upon the experiences to the benefit of my current employer. I like a project approach. Maybe that’s why I like IT so much. I like the diversity of having many projects all with a beginning and an end. It has helped me reach where I am today, a CIO and CTO and a defacto CISO. You learn through doing. I used to be petrified of public speaking, but I forced myself into it and still do. By sharing my experiences with the team and folks external to the organization, I have grown in my career.

Having a group of mentees is labor intensive. Each one needs and deserves individual attention and time. I feel like I learn so much through working with them. They represent many different sectors. One of the things I highlight for them is the same approach I use with my team. It’s my “policy of getting things down”. Don’t let anyone in your door without three solutions to the problem they are bringing to you: 1) what happens if we do nothing? 2) what is the unconstrained option (dollars and time are not issues)? and 3) what is the middle of the road option? It not only helps them think through the problem from all angles, it helps narrow the choices so we can decide and move one.

My advice to rising CIOs is pretty straight forward. You have reach outside your four walls. Building relationships with other IT and business leaders, will help you learn what works and what doesn’t. You learn to go to bat for each other. It’s key!

Technology is moving so fast. One person can NOT keep up. We need others so we can ALL keep up. It goes back to that teamwork thing, but in the broadest since. We don’t have to work for the same company to be on the same team.

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Teamwork! Succeeding together! Building a great team. These basic principles are what took Steve Snyder on his Path to CIO. I could have talked with Steve for hours. I encourage you to reach out to him on Twitter or LinkedIn, I guarantee your Path will be the richer for it!

Read more of the series, “The Path CIO: Profiles in Leadership”. The series explores the careers of CIOs from around the globe in a variety of industries. Each month we will feature the story of their journeys and answer the question, “How DID you become a CIO?” (Are you a CIO? Do you want to tell your story? If so, please reach out to me via the links in my profile!)

Published on Categories Business Leadership
Jeff Ton

About Jeff Ton

Throughout his career in business, Jeffrey Ton has developed and fine tuned his leadership skills to become a business focused leader who drives results. Extending the role of the CIO to encompass a strategic view of the business, he identifies innovative approaches to achieve the business objectives by leveraging technology where and when appropriate. Adept at building and leading teams, both in-line and cross-organizational, he has been a catalyst for change across the businesses he has served. Ton has industry expertise in information technology, non-profits, commercial real estate development, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, supply chain, green/clean technologies, finance, insurance and consulting. Expertise: • Strategic Planning – Business & Technology • Organization & Management Reengineering • Merger & Acquisition Integration • Divestiture Decoupling • Business & IT Alignment • Enterprise Architecture Strategy • C-level Relationships • International Staff Management & Acquisition • Global Enterprise Implementations • Fiscal Management • Governance & Risk Management • Business Process Optimization • Vendor Relationship Management • Outsourcing(Offshore/Near-shore) & In-sourcing • Technology Portfolio Management • Regulatory and Compliance Management • P&L Management Specialties: Architecture, infrastructure, applications, application development, telecom, e-Business strategy, web development, knowledge management, integration, EDI, SAP, business intelligence, outsourcing, insourcing, contract negotiation, commercial real estate development, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, supply chain, green/clean technologies, finance, insurance and consulting, keynote speaker on leadership, green and other topics, LEED AP BD+C. Read his blog on RiversofThought.net, Intel's IT Peer Network and LinkedIn.