“When I grow up, I want to be a CIO”, said no child...ever! Fireman, policeman, doctor, just about anything...but not CIO! For Tracy Kemp, CIO of Allegion, the Path to CIO started in the Big Sky Country of Montana. Her childhood is filled with stories that sound like they could have happened in the 1870’s instead of the 1970’s. From gold mining, lumberjacking, surviving off the land by fishing and hunting, to protecting the town folk from bears, her story reads like a dime novel from the old west.
I met Tracy when she joined the Indy CIO Network, a fantastic group of CIOs and IT leaders from around Indianapolis. We immediately realized we had some things in common, she grew up in Montana and I had an interest in (uh, obsession with)
Lewis and Clark. Before long we were exchanging stories about some of the most beautiful places on the planet. I knew her Path to CIO would be a little different than most!
Jeff: Tracy, thinking back to your childhood, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Tracy: You know, I can’t think of any one thing I wanted to be. I grew up in Montana as the younger of two daughters. My father was an entrepreneur, inventor, and outdoors-man. At one point he owned a lumber yard, at another point it was a gold mine and more recently he owned a rock quarry.
I spent my childhood working many traditionally male-dominated jobs: stacking lumber, driving a forklift, preparing metal to be welded, preparing samples for gold assays, etc. I worked hard to earn my father’s approval.
I learned many valuable lessons through these jobs but most importantly, I learned what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. One of the things I learned was that my passions were problem-solving, logical thinking, creativity and continuous improvement. These interests pointed me in the direction of math and science and eventually to a combined major in computer science and mathematics.
Jeff: A gold mine? Something else we share! My grandfather worked for the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota. THAT is a tough way to make a living! So, a love of math and science leading to studying computer science seems like a logical progression, but how did you first get interested in computers?
Tracy: During high school, several classes peaked my interest in computers. One class, in particular, was Introduction to Programming – no surprise there, logic and creativity in one. The other class, interestingly enough, was drafting. My dad had been a draftsman at one point in his life and through an interest in his designs, I gravitated to drawing and modeling. Using a drafting table, T-square and mechanical pencils, I drew models. As I progressed in the drafting class, my instructor asked me if I was interested in piloting a new computer aided design software package. I was in awe of the software and I was hooked!
Jeff: Isn’t it amazing how far CAD software has come? Building Information Modeling (BIM) software is incredible! Let’s shift gears a bit, you loved programming, you loved CAD, when did you take the leap into management?
Tracy: Early in my career, I made the decision to take an assignment as an IT Auditor. The experiences from this assignment were phenomenal. The global travel and broad view of the business were accelerated development opportunities. It gave me a foundation in business, systems controls and incredible experience with relationship building. This influenced my decision to get on the management career path.
My first supervisory position was one where I was able to dip my toe in the water and experience if it was something I’d want to do long term. What that experience illuminated for me was that my love of problem solving was easily applied with people and project challenges. I love all aspects of people development and mentoring. It really energizes me!
Jeff: When did you see that CIO office and think, man, I’d really like to do that someday?
Tracy: There wasn’t a particular moment when I knew I wanted to be become CIO. My approach has always been to continue growing, developing and taking on new challenges. With that approach, I have always had growth opportunities presented to me to consider. Some I took, some I didn’t. Although I didn’t have a particular moment personally, there was the moment when it was announced that we were spinning off part of our business and that I was going with that spin-off business AND, that, oh by the way, I was going to be the CIO. That was THE moment…“OK, THAT just happened.” And, then, the whirlwind of the spin-off activities began. The spin-off and the CIO role have been a wonderful growth experience.
Jeff: You mentioned early, you love to learn, you love to grow. What are some things you have learned as CIO that really stand out for you?
Tracy: I enjoy mentoring and developing others. I look for the unique talents that each person brings to a team and work to build high-performing teams. At the end of the day, as CIO, I’m not building a server or upgrading an application, I am building teams and hiring talent that can make all the difference in how well that type of work is done.
Creating an environment of trust and openness is important to me as I strive to work with employees that are engaged and love coming to work every day.
Jeff: Tracy, thank you so much for spending the time chatting today. I know you are incredibly busy. Before we go, can you share a story or two about growing up in Montana? I have no doubt it was pretty different than growing up in Indiana.
Tracy: (laughing) Well, I will say the old joke about having to walk uphill both ways to school wasn’t too far off. It snows a LOT in Montana. I can’t remember them closing the schools one time, you were just expected to get there!
I did have some interesting summer jobs, though. In high school, while on summer break I worked with my dad to make large grate covers for the department of state lands. The covers were put over old gold mines. I drilled holes, painted them and stacked them and loaded them on trucks with a fork lift.
Another summer, I worked at Frontier Town on McDonald Pass. It was an old western fort, gift shop and restaurant. Black bears were frequently lured to the area by the smell of the restaurant. I worked in the gift shop and it was my job to keep the bears away from the tourists by throwing rocks at them. The bears, I mean, not the tourists! http://www.helenahistory.org/frontier_town.htm
Oh, and when you live in Montana, you go to Alaska to “get away”! I have some great memories fishing for salmon and halibut in Alaska and traveling through Banff National Park.
Tracy Kemp, another great IT leader! I might have exaggerated a bit in the intro with the whole lumberjacking thing and all, but she really did chase bears away! A CIO, and a role model! A leader who truly believes her job is to develop her people.
The series, “The Path CIO” 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?” (If you have held the role of CIO and are interested in telling your story, please reach out to me via the links below!)