ODOT CIO shares leadership lessons from 25-year information technology career
Ben Berry serves as ODOTs Chief Information Officer providing overall leadership, planning, development, and delivery of information technology services for ODOT and several other non-transportation organizations. Leading the second largest state agency in Oregon, Berry is responsible for systems supporting highways, bridges, rail service, right-of-way determinations, DMV and Motor Carrier Commercial Trucking inspections and licensing throughout the state.
Prior to ODOT, he was the Chief Technology Officer of Providence Health System supporting the Oregon service area that includes seven hospitals and 33 clinics. Berry has held executive and management positions in industries such as state and local government, healthcare, telecommunications, aerospace/defense and airport transportation. He received his MBA from UCLA and a BS degree in Life Science from the University of Portland.
In his own words, Berry shares lessons learned from his 25-year career in information systems.
At a young age, I had seen my dad work in the aerospace industry, when we lived in California. He was part of the Apollo space mission program. When I was 14 years old, I remember going to my father’s company open house. I was mesmerized at seeing row after row of huge tape-mounted devices – the tape drives used to feed the mainframe computer. They opened the doors up to an entire room that served as the computer. It was one of my first memories of being in the same room as a computer.
I watched my parents go to college. My sister and I sat in the car while they went to night school. Dad became president of an engineering society, and Mom was a school teacher. There was always the expectation that we will do well in school and go to college.
My family moved to Oregon when my dad took a VP position at a company that made military gear for the war effort in Vietnam. I only had nine credits to take during my senior year, so I finished early by taking classes at night school and during the summer. I went to Pepperdine University just to get back to California. I was there for one term, missed my family, and came back. That’s how I ended up at the University of Portland.
I started working part-time in telephone operations while a student at the University of Portland. My sister and I both worked at the same unit. That job eventually allowed me to work my way through college. Then I worked as a network services supervisor after I graduated.
I was a pre-med Life Sciences major. I did research for a couple of years at OHSU, in public health and dentistry. I went to dental school for a year and realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
With my education in life sciences, I wanted to develop computer applications in health care, and so I decided to go back to college and major in computer applications management. I worked for hospitals in Portland and the mid-west, which lead to working in another hospital position in Saudi Arabia, a country where my dad was working at the time.
In 1983, my first assignment was for two years at King Fahd National Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Eventually, the assignments that followed in Saudi were outside of health care: airport defense systems and the international airports. It was really an experience.
My apartment overlooked the desert, as far as the eye can see. I could see the Bedouins on the camels walking by. During my first few months while I pondered the desert landscape, I began to ask myself if this was really where I wanted to be. But, after 6-months, I got to know my staff, became more involved with my projects and ended up staying in Saudi for six years.
In the early ‘80s, American technology and management was king. That’s why they wanted us in the Middle East. That has turned around because of the wars we’ve fought in that area. We’re not as respected as we were. During my last assignment in Saudi in the 1990s, and just after the first Gulf War, I observed that things have changed. I could see the opinion of the Middle East turning against Western society.
I was working for Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, when it dawned upon me that the job I really wanted was to become a Chief Information Officer. I was drawn to the challenge of being able to command all resources that would add value to the business. The buck stopped with the CIO, who has responsibility for applications development, the IT infrastructure, and relationships with customers through teams and managers.
That’s when I landed a regional manager position in Saudi Arabia. When I came back from that assignment, I resolved that I was only going to apply to CXO-level positions.
The very first CXO-level job I landed was at the Oregon Employment Department. I was making more money overseas, but had to take a drop in salary to be able to get to the job classification that I wanted. It was the right move for the future.
Then, I got picked up as CIO for Multnomah County. After two years, I took on the CTO job at Providence Health Systems, where I stayed for six years, before coming to ODOT.
Getting the first assignment at the CXO level is often difficult. Employers ask: if you’ve never done it, how do we know you can do it? But once you land a position and prove that you can manage at that level, it’s often a lot easier to get your next assignment because now, you have a track record.
Excelling at ODOT
Under the ODOT information systems umbrella, we employ almost 300 information technology people, with a $127 million budget.
Our operations and structure at ODOT are unique and productive, because of how we have arranged relationships with our customers. We established “communities of interest” among our major lines of business. We embed all applications development managers within our customer locations.
What this approach does is it solidifies IT’s understanding of the business. We look just like the business. We work in the cubicle right next to our customers. When they have a need for technology, we’re in a better position to understand how to add value to the business.
I wear two hats for the state of Oregon: CIO for ODOT and as Chairman of the CIO Council, which is made up of about 30 other CIOs within the state of Oregon government. We have various enterprise initiatives, one of which has been the Data Center Consolidation Project. We have 12 data centers, and the goal is to consolidate into one. Thus far, we’ve consolidated the IT infrastructure needs of 11 agencies under the state data center.
I thrive as a manager under a more collaborative model of decision-making, where we use all the great minds in the team. We hire these people because they’re good people. We have members of our staff who are closest to the problem: they know the landmines and the bottlenecks. It’s only natural to involve them in decision making.
My team makes my job look easy. You hire the right people and empower them to do their job. As a manager, set the environment so they can succeed.
I tend to build relationships and work on developing trust to get the work done. I think my cultural upbringing has helped me become approachable, realistic, and down-to-earth.
I’m a fairly easy-going manager.
Serving the community
For the past two years, I have served as chairman of the board for the St. Andrew Nativity School in Portland. We have some 68 middle-school students who are vying for Catholic high school slot. We raise funds to send our students to school – it costs $12,000 a year to pay for education of each student.
The mission of the school has been well-received in the community. These kids are coming from poverty, most are being raised by single moms trying to make ends meet. Children qualify for government-sponsored meal programs. They come from families in difficult social situations and have adults in their lives who are addicted to alcohol and drugs. Our school almost seems like a refuge for them.
About 80% of our students are African American; 19% Hispanic; and 1% white. Often, when they start at St. Andrew’s, they are two years behind in their education level. By the time they get out, they have already caught up and two years ahead of the natural grade level. That’s how they get full scholarships to the Catholic high schools.
I’m also the vice chair for Lifeworks NW, a local agency that serves adults who are struggling with substance abuse. Serving on boards is a rewarding experience, because it helps me to give back to the community. It also places me in roles that I would never experience as a CIO – more on the business decision-making side.
It’s important for young people of color to see role models in the Information Technology (IT) industry. I enjoy going out to schools to talk to students of color about what a career in IT is all about. As a role model, I want to ensure students of color see me: The messaging is since I look just like them, then maybe this kind of career can be theirs as well!
I plan to widen this mentoring by presenting at this year’s LinuxWorld Tokyo 2007 conference!