“When I grow up, I want to be a CIO”, said no child...ever! Fireman, policeman, doctor, just about anything...but not CIO! For Will Lassalle his dream of being a surgeon started with a game...a game of Operation. But like many, his first contact with a PC sent him down a new path...The Path to CIO.
Will and I first met (virtually) while doing the Transform IT show with Charles Araujo for Intel’s IT Peer Network. Recently we reconnected to chat about his path to CIO.
Jeff: So, Will, let me ask you...when you were a kid did you dream of being a CIO?
Will: When I think back to my childhood, up until the age of about 12, I wanted to be a surgeon. I was always a gifted and talented student. At the time growing up in the 80s about the only careers teachers and schools introduced you to was Doctor, Lawyer, Policeman, Teacher, etc. Pictures of these careers were strung along the classroom walls. Me? Since I was pretty good at the game Operation with very steady hands and wouldn’t let pressure get to me, I figured surgeon would be the way to go.
Jeff: When did this change for you?
Will: I was set on being a surgeon until, my father bought us a Tandy 1000TL in 1990. Up to that point, I had played a lot of video games on a Nintendo, Sega, Coleco, Arcades but my dad showed me video games on the computer and I was hooked. At this point I knew I loved computers and wanted to work in computers. I gave up on the dreams of being a surgeon (or playing in the NFL or NBA) and wanted to become a video game programmer.
In High School, a buddy of mine and I got in trouble and almost suspended for hacking the library computers. At this point I realized, I was really good with computers. But I also realized I did not want to use my skills to wreak havoc, I wanted to use my skills for positive purposes. I applied to colleges with the intent of going for a Computer Engineering degree, with the dream of landing a job with the FBI in computer forensics after college. I was accepted into Penn State, but life happened and my High School girlfriend became pregnant. I never started Penn State and instead began immediately working at 17, in what I knew best to support the situation...computers.
I was working for Circuit City. One of my co-workers left to venture out on his own and start his own company. During our time at Circuit City, he saw how talented I was with computers, servers and networking and offered my a position with his new firm. I worked as a systems admin/engineer and project manager with him for a few years before the company went belly-up and I went to work at Iron Mountain in a similar role.
Jeff: Traditionally, career paths in IT are categorized in one of two ways: technical vs. management. When did you take the step into the management world?
Will: I still am technical. I believe this this has been one of the biggest plusses in my management career. Other technical folk would always come to me for help and guidance. I naturally lead people and had a friendly helpful demeanor. Leading by example is key with me as well. So, my work ethic of getting to work early and not leaving till the job was done stood out to senior management as well.
I never said no. Senior managers would say, “OK Will, you’re the point person on this project” and I would go with the flow. Which lead to me being a hands on project manager mostly working on infrastructure projects. For me, getting into management was thrust upon me because I was a natural leader.
Jeff: As you progressed in your management career, what were the major influences on your management style and are their individuals that stand out for having a major impact on your leadership?
Will: I would say my management style is based upon a variation of the golden rule at that time in my career. I treated employees and others as I would want to be treated. And, just as important, I didn’t treat them in ways that I would not like to be treated. Meaning: no micro-managing, not being an asshole, not providing work life balance, or taking credit for other's work or ideas. In other words, I took my lessons from the worst managers I had and tried to do the complete opposite. It worked with mixed results but, it did help develop my own style later on in my career as I worked my way up.
Later on in my career, influences on my style on the path to CIO were my mentors Frank Wander and Charles Araujo, their respective books, conversations with them, and watching them work and present at events. I always call Frank “Your Favorite CIO’s, Favorite CIO”.
To this day I remain technical, too I make it a point to take at least two training courses a year, one in management and one in a technical subject. And, honestly, since computers are still my hobby, I like doing projects hands on sometimes as the technical person. As an example, most recently was an Office365 migration, where I did the entire project myself including the engineering and execution.
Jeff: What was that moment that you knew you wanted to be a CIO? Were there circumstances or individuals that led you to that point?
Will: The moment in my career I knew I wanted to become a CIO was a combination of a couple of things. First, I had reached point where I felt I could no longer learn or be led by the IT management I was under. The second thing that happened was in my personal life, I met the woman who eventually become my wife.
When I met this young lady, I knew she was the one I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. She was studying to become a lawyer and I was “Just an IT guy”. I can remember attending a wedding as her plus one. At our table, I was surrounded by doctors, lawyers, dentists and Wall Street Investors, and me? I was “just the IT guy”. I realized at that moment that I no longer wanted to be just an IT guy, but THE IT guy! This meant starting a journey to be a CIO.
I enrolled back in school and within four years had knocked out both my Bachelor's and MBA. I also married that girl and we have been married for 10 years this past February. While finishing my degrees, I also began marketing myself. Within my organization, I took on all kinds of projects and gained a reputation as a person that can deliver successfully. Externally, I leveraged social media using the hashtag #NextGreatCIO. Many self-development books encourage you to dress for success, instead I wrote, blogged, and tweeted for the job I wanted.
So, again for me, my wife unintentionally influenced me on my path to CIO as she sparked that fire burning in my belly to succeed.
Jeff: You most recent CIO gig was for North Star Resort in Green Bay. I am sure that was an interesting assignment and challenge, but what I really want to know is, what was it like to live in Packer-town?
Will: Green Bay is an amazingly friendly place. Packer fans are probably the friendliest fans of any sports team in the world. Before we moved to Green Bay, I traveled there many times. Every time I visited, everyone was so friendly to me. It really made the relocation there easier.
Friendly...except maybe that one time. I was still commuting between Jersey and Green Bay. When I landed, something seemed off. The people weren’t as friendly. No one said, “hi”. Even the staff at the car rental counter seemed very aloof. I wondered about this all the way to the casino. As I walked through the resort to the IT offices, no one would even look me in the eye.
I mentioned my concern to one of my staff. He looked at me and said, “uh, Will, you do realize you are wearing a New York Giants shirt, right?” In my rush to the airport, I had not even realized it! I grabbed a sweater and put it on over the shirt. Magically, the midwestern hospitality returned immediately!
Of course, during the football season, at the Casino, at my kids school, everywhere in town, any time the Packers play, it's considered Packer day and everyone dresses in Packer gear. Everyone that is, except me. I come to work in a Giants Jersey. Yes, everyone busts my chops, but I just smile and remind them the Giants own Lambeau Field in January!
Speaking of Lambeau Field...it’s a great stadium with lots of history. I have had the opportunity to visit several times IT shows and expos while out in Wisconsin. I would recommend anyone visiting the area to schedule a visit Lambeau...take a tour or watch a game (but, not in January when the Giants are in town). It truly is an amazing place.
Jeff: Ok, Will. One last question. Your tagline in LinkedIn describes you as a "Digital Transformation Expert". Tell me a bit about how that came about in your career and what you think that means for the future of IT and your future as an IT leader.
I’ve always been a futurist technologist. Seeing the forest for the trees. Change is inevitable and in Information Technology it's quite possibly the only constant. Digital transformation is not only about IT, but business transformation, as well. It’s really about preparing organizations for a digital economy.
Now what does that mean? Well, as a CIO that has worked in many organizations I have always been tasked with helping those organizations through their pain points, including keeping them up to date, not only on technologies, but on what their business should do to keep up with their customers.
So, as digital enabling technologies and processes come out like Social Media, Cloud Computing, IoT, Mobile, Big Data, Business Intelligence, Agile, DevOps, Automation, etc organizations that don’t keep up with the technologies or are not early adopters end up falling behind. As more time passes they fall further and further behind. My experience of helping various organizations through digital transformations has allowed me to understand and gain valuable experience. I now use that experience and understanding to help other organizations through their own digital transformation initiatives. This helps them to remain competitive and in many cases become disruptive in their own market segments.
Change is hard and requires change management. In a data driven economy, this leads to the need to be agile enough to keep up with the rapid pace of change.
Having this knowledge, combined with my knowledge of Security, Operations and Application development really helps me be a well rounded cross functional CIO that has no fear of ending up like the CIO acronym joke- Career Is Over.
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!)
Jeffrey Ton is the Executive Vice President of Product and Service Development for Bluelock. He is responsible for driving the company’s product strategy and service vision and strategy. Jeff focuses on the evolving IT landscape and the changing needs of our customers, together with the Bluelock team, ensures our products and services meet our client's needs and drives value in their organizations now and in the future
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Check out more of his posts on Intel's IT Peer Network
Read more from Jeff on Rivers of Thought
Also find him in People Development Magazine