A Journey to Leadership

When I was 9 years old, I walked into the new minted computer lab at my school and sat down at an Apple IIe computer. Those of you that grew up in the 1980s likely remember these well. Green monochrome screens, keyboards that made satisfying clicks as you typed and giant floppy disk drives off to the side that buzzed at you if you left them empty.

Inside those four walls of Arovista Elementary School is where I first developed my love of technology.

From that point on, learning as much as I could about these cool devices was my passion. I learned to program in AppleSoft BASIC by the end of the 3rd Grade, and taught myself how to program in C while in High School. I can still remember sitting in the backseat of my parent’s Ford Aerostar van during family vacations with one eye out the window and the other looking at my well worn “Learn C in 21 Days” book (spoiler alert: it took longer than 21 days!).

I didn’t know if I was going to start a software company, or if I was going to invent something that would change the world. All I knew is I wanted to make an impact through technology. I felt like the sky was the limit!

After college I began my career working at my new alma mater, UC Riverside. The dot com bubble had just burst, and I thought UCR wouldn’t be a bad place to spend a few years until a got a “real” job in the tech industry when the economy recovered.

I found I loved higher education. There was always a new technical challenge, and because of the smaller overall team size I could be involved in a wide variety of different projects. I made it my career aspiration to become Chief Technology Officer, because then I could be involved and have influence over all of the technical work! Imagine that!

Something happened to me however when I finally accomplished my goal of becoming CTO. I discovered that while I had “Technology” in my title, it wasn’t about technology anymore. What really mattered were the people. I couldn’t be the best technical person on my team, my job was now about encouraging and building up my team so that THEY could be the best technical people. That was true leadership.

Along the way I’ve learned a lot of leadership lessons as many of you have, but there are three that really resonate with me, personally.

1. What got you here, won’t get you there.

In IT, we have a habit of promoting people who are the best technically. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will be good managers, or even good leaders. In order to be truly successful you have to be comfortable reinventing yourself and be willing to move away from the doing.

2. Reframe what success looks like.

I’ve found that leadership is a long game. It can be a struggle to come from a technical role where success is easily defined: it either works or it doesn’t. People aren’t that easy, so reframing what it takes to feel successful is important. It’s going to take a lot longer!

3. Presence matters.

It was a shock to come in one day and find out that my team was worried because I had a frown on my face when I entered the building. I was still that same guy they knew before, right? No, I wasn’t. As a leader, your team watches everything you do: how you act in a meeting, how often you sit in your office and yes, whether you smiled that day coming in the door. Your presence can positively or negatively affect your teams ability to execute.

I still love writing code, building systems and learning new technologies. That will never go away, it’s exciting stuff! That inner 9 year old will always be there. I’ve just found a greater joy in working to build up the others on my team to feel the same way.

I’ve embraced leadership.

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