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A CIO by way of Jack Welch

I recently interviewed Carole Cotter, CIO of Lifespan Corp., a health care system affiliated with Brown Medical School in Providence. R.I. Cotter talked about how her IT department balances the need to know with patient privacy mandates. The cornerstone? Clear policies, clearly (and relentlessly) communicated. You can check out the interview here.

Whenever I meet with IT executives, I always ask about their career trajectories. In Cotter’s case, like so many other CIOs I meet, she did not set out to be the chief executive for IT. A love of math led her into programming, and from there she discovered a talent for not only IT but also management — and an aptitude for finance under one of business’s toughest bosses.

You can read Cotter’s recounting of how she earned her CIO stripes after the jump. And be sure to check out her perspective on security and privacy on Women CIOs are still a rare breed. How did you get into IT and come to be a CIO?

Cotter: Well, I majored in math in college and kind of gravitated to IT. I started out as a programmer and really liked the very deep technical aspects of programming, reading core dumps and analyzing how macros worked and that sort of thing. But I also liked being able to apply that work to a real life situation.

I guess my career grew the way most people’s careers do. I had some wonderful opportunities to try out different areas of skill. I found out I was a pretty good application software designer. And then I moved into a management position and found out I was pretty good at managing people working in technical areas.

Then I was working for a GE company in the time of Jack Welch. We were not No. 1 or No. 2. [A Welch rule.] I was in insurance at the time, and I had the wonderful — and I say this now; it did not seem so at the time — the wonderful experience of helping put the company out of business. That meant selling off the lines of business to other companies, because we had obligations to policy holders, and then when that was done, helping to sell off equipment, and to help employees find other positions. It was a great learning experience. That’s how I got into health care. When I was at GE, I enrolled in their financial management program. GE has a very special way of doing everything financial. It’s a two-and-half-year program. You keep your full-time job but you go to classes taught by GE professionals.

So I had done that program, and I had worked at financial systems while I was there, and when we were closing down this company, the CFO there had gone to this little healthcare company called Rhode Island Group Health Association (RIGHA) which was a brand new staff model HMO. He called me and said, ‘I am working here and this is a place where I think you will love the people and would love the work.’ I went there for an interview and I did fall in love with the people there, who were so committed to taking care of patients. It was an organization I knew I could believe in. It was small. Their IT staff was tiny and what they were trying to do was ambitious. I went there as a director of IT and had the opportunity to really get in on the ground floor of putting in a claims system and a pharmacy system and the very very beginnings of an electronic health information. I was fortunate to be able to hire some people that I had known at the GE company because they were real pros. We all just did everything, all of us did everything as a team, to just keep that system up and running. Then RIGHA ran into some difficult times financially and they were taken over by Harvard Community Health Plan.

To make a long story short, at Harvard Community Health Plan I was director of their insurance and financial systems at their main office and I kept my job at what became the New England division, which was the former Rhode Island Group Health Association. So I had two jobs, two bosses and I was a single parent. This was in the late 1980s, early 90’s.  There was a day when I dropped my son off to summer camp and drove up to Boston. The only problem was I dropped him off a week early. Talk about a wake up call. So the following Sunday I saw an ad in the paper for the director of information technology at the Miriam Hospital.

I applied, and I was offered the job. I got a team together, started to work with the physicians very closely to involve them in the team planning, and we did a terrific strategic plan for IT that was very well-received. We were ready to begin work on it and did start and then — I think I had been there 18 months —  in 1992, when the Miriam Hospital announced that it was merging with Rhode Island Hospital to form a new company called Lifespan. Talk about being at the right place at the right time! One of the benefits that the hospitals saw in merging was being able to combine their IT programs because both hospitals thought that IT was critical to the future and they thought they could do better by combining forces around IT. There was a CIO at Rhode Island Hospital, so we started to work together and we did a brand new strategic plan for the new corporation. I had just had the experience of doing the strategic plan at the Miriam and had learned a lot. I like doing planning, strategic planning in particular. I really did a lot of work on the plan and knew it inside out by the time I was finished.

About  this time, Lifespan decided to post the CIO job and do a national search. I applied and was fortunate enough to get the position. And Lifespan grew; we added more hospitals. I was able to recruit some wonderful staff from those hospitals. We had an open arms policy. In your IT career how many times do you find yourself in that position, where you’re at a new company, they’re willing to invest in a new plan and you get to execute?

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