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AT&T CIO built IT career by taking on 'least comfortable' roles

How do you build a CIO career? If you're F. Thaddeus Arroyo, AT&T CIO and 2014 winner of the MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award, forget about being a careerist. Arroyo tells SearchCIO Executive Editor Linda Tucci that the path to the top was "very long" and "divergent." Along the way he took many jobs that were "lateral" moves rather than promotions, because they allowed him to pick up new skills. And the roles in which he felt "least comfortable" were often the ones that spurred the greatest professional growth.

A math major at the University of Texas, Arlington, Arroyo earned an MBA while working full-time at his first job in IT at Southwestern Bell Telephone. In 1992, he joined Sabre Corp., where he held numerous positions, including senior vice president of information technology and senior vice president of product marketing and development. He joined Cingular Wireless in 2001 as CIO; in 2007 he was promoted to CIO at AT&T following the acquisition and rebranding of Cingular Wireless. At AT&T, Arroyo oversees information technology and digital properties across all business segments.

A 2011 SearchCIO Innovator, Arroyo has been recognized for his IT leadership by many industry publications. In this SearchCIO video shot at the busy (and noisy) MIT Symposium, he talked about his CIO path.

One of the questions we like to begin with is to ask how you got to where you are today. And, in your case, how you got from being a math major at the University of Texas to running IT operations and digital properties at AT&T.

SearchCIO Innovator Thaddeus Arroyo

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Thaddeus Arroyo: Well, first it was a very long path. And to a certain degree, I think, a path that had along the way a lot of divergent steps that really allowed me to build up my skill set that ultimately positioned me to serve the role I serve today. One of the first important points, though, after getting my undergraduate degree in mathematics and [beginning] my career, was to work in parallel to get my MBA. And I think that business and leadership rounding was essential to ultimately step up into leading a multi-billion dollar technical organization.

… at a time when a lot of IT specialists were not even thinking about the alignment between IT and business that closely.

Arroyo: Absolutely. But, for me, I really, early on, felt that rounding of the skill set would pay out someday, and it did. But, when I mentioned that there were many steps in getting there, one of the important common denominators to many of the roles that I took, was oriented around taking opportunities and stepping up to challenges where I felt the least comfortable. And most of those weren't promotions. In fact, the vast majority of those were lateral moves into new domains. And those are the ones that put me in position to drive the maximum personal growth.

So, it's really about being in that position of discomfort that created the growth, lateraling into new opportunities and then continuing to build skills. And, from each of those [came] subsequent opportunities that I could step into and drive the growth of my career across multiple industries, bringing me to where I am today.

So you did not take a sort of careerist approach, but took on the hardest jobs as a way to build your expertise and skill set.

Arroyo: And, in fact, taking positions that at the time I felt were not really in what would have been my traditional career path, but stepping up to areas and domains that at that point didn't seem as interesting [but] were the ones that really allowed me to create skills across multiple disciplines. [I learned] to support multiple lines of business and that created this base of capabilities that are critical to leading any technology organization.

Can you give one brief example of a job you took on that, on the face of it, didn't look like an upward move?

Arroyo: Absolutely, and it's an interesting one. I was in a role running international data networks for Sabre, at that point a department within American Airlines, and I really loved what I was doing. But, I had an opportunity to go run what was called then 'Strategic Infrastructure,' which was one of the early onsets of building the Unix systems. First, I hadn't really worked in that domain before, and Unix didn't seem that interesting when everything at that point in time that was really meaningful in that business was running on large, mainframe applications.

But, I had a chance early on then to move into what became one of the most important shifts, as we moved from mainframe to client server technologies -- to move out of the network and into the infrastructure. And that ultimately led to paths to applications and frankly running IT services for other businesses.

Let us know what you think of this story; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

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