Debbie Houser firmly believes that having a natural aptitude for something can open doors for you, but it’s your ability to learn and surpass expectations that truly allows you to excel in any role. Her own journey into the world of IT and her subsequent rise to a managerial position at GeoDecisions exemplify this principle.
Initially, Debbie Houser had aspirations of pursuing a career in the marketing field, a path commonly chosen by many women. However, a professor recognized her innate talent in computer science and convinced her to explore this field. This led her to complete her Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Information Systems, a journey that was notable for her being one of only three women among the sixty students in her class majoring in MIS. Soon after Debbie Houser earned her MBA in a similar field of study.
Debbie Houser’s academic achievements paved the way for her role as a Senior Developer at GeoDecisions. Over the course of the next 17 years with the company, Debbie Houser took on a variety of roles, including Development Manager, Director of Application Development, and ultimately Vice President.
Debbie Houser attributes her initial opportunity to step into a managerial role at GeoDecisions to the company’s recognition of her natural leadership ability. She certainly lived up to their expectations by skillfully managing her team. Her proficiency in emotional intelligence, efficient management of project budgets, and the remarkable feat of no budget overruns, resulting in record profits, showcased her capabilities. Moreover, Debbie Houser held the role of a certified scrum product owner and served as a scrum master, successfully implementing agile practices across numerous company projects.
Currently, Debbie Houser manages the digital banking team at PSECU, a credit union. Her decision to explore roles in different industries is a strategic move toward achieving her ultimate goal of becoming a CIO.
What makes Debbie Houser’s story unique is that it’s part of the CXO Ladder series, tracing the inspiring journey of an aspiring executive on the path to becoming a CIO. Her story is not just a tale of personal growth but an opportunity for others to relate, check off a few boxes on their own journeys, create new milestones, and learn from her experiences to avoid potential pitfalls.
Additionally, Debbie Houser actively mentors future female executives in the tech industry, guiding them as they work toward leadership roles. Her story is a source of inspiration and valuable insights, and you can explore it further below.
Describe your career progression from the start to where you are and what pivotal decisions, moves you made, circumstances, and other facts that facilitated your growth.
My journey into the IT world began in college. I always knew I wanted to be a business major, and I chose to focus on the marketing field as many women do. While taking an “Introduction to Computers” course the professor, who was a computer science professor, recommended to me that I change my major to computer science because of how naturally the class came to me. Having never considered computer science I was very unsure and mentioned how I always wanted to be a business major. He then told me about the Management Information Systems Concentration and the rest is history.
Without that one professor encouraging me into a field I had never considered I imagine my career would have turned out pretty differently. It also began my experiences as being one of “the onlys”. I was one of only 3 women out of 60 in the MIS major in my class. That theme continued for most of my career as I was generally the only woman in each role I held at most of my jobs.
For the first 8 years of my career, I had a handful of jobs as a software developer focused on web development mixed in with some management. It was not until I got a job as a senior developer at GeoDecisions that my career trajectory started to change. The leadership at GeoDecisions quickly recognized my ability to manage and lead. Within one year I was promoted to development manager, managing the largest project in the company. I continued to write web development code 50% of the time and managed the rest of the time. During this time, I asked to be made the project manager of this project and took over the budget as well. The budget had not been well managed up to this point and once I took over, the project was never unprofitable again. In fact, I managed the budget so tightly that I was able to reap record-breaking windfall profits on this project.
After 3 more years I was promoted to the Director of Application Development where I was able to continue successfully managing this large project but also having other responsibilities for the technology focus for all GeoDecisions. During this time, I became a certified scrum product owner and performed as the scrum master. I instituted agile practices across the company on many projects. After 10 years in the director position, I was promoted to Vice President. As VP, I got to work with the executive team to deal with all aspects of the business from financial strategy, HR, staffing, technology trends, operations, etc.
Recently I took a risk and am currently managing the digital banking team at PSECU. It was time to explore other industries to move closer to my goal of someday becoming a CIO.
One aspect I am proud of in my career is my involvement with an Employee Resource Group (ERG) at Gannett Fleming called Connected Women. This is a group devoted to supporting women in their career growth journeys. I have had so many wonderful opportunities in my career so far and I would like to help other women grow in their careers. Having a successful career for yourself is fantastic but watching someone else reach their goals and knowing you helped is better than any promotion in the world.
What are the key skills and qualifications that aspiring tech executives in the tech industry should focus on developing to enhance their career prospects?
There are several key skills aspiring tech executives in the tech industry should focus on.
- Leadership – Strong leadership skills are crucial for tech executives to inspire and motivate their teams. This includes the ability to set clear goals, provide direction, and create a positive and collaborative work culture.
- Team Building – Tech executives need to attract, retain, and develop top talent. Building diverse and high-performing teams requires strong hiring practices, mentorship, and professional development opportunities.
- Strategic Vision – Tech executives need to have a clear and forward-thinking strategic vision for their organizations. They must understand market trends, emerging technologies, and customer needs to develop a long-term plan that guides the company’s growth and innovation.
- Decision Making – Tech executives often face complex and high-stakes decisions. The ability to make informed and timely decisions based on data, intuition, and a deep understanding of the industry landscape is vital.
- Adaptability – The tech industry is constantly evolving. Successful tech executives must be adaptable and open to change, able to pivot strategies and operations as new opportunities and challenges arise.
- Technical Acumen – While tech executives may not need to be deeply technical, a solid understanding of the underlying technologies is important. This enables effective communication with technical teams, informed decision-making, and the ability to grasp the technical feasibility of projects.
- Communication – Tech executives must communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders, from technical teams to investors to customers. Strong communication skills help convey complex ideas, build relationships, and ensure alignment across the organization.
- Financial Management – An understanding of financial concepts, budgeting, and resource allocation is crucial. Tech executives need to manage financial resources wisely to drive growth and sustainability.
- Problem Solving – Tech executives often face complex challenges. Strong problem-solving skills, along with the ability to analyze situations from multiple angles, are necessary for finding effective solutions.
I could write a ton about each one of these skills, but the leadership section speaks to me the loudest. Outside of the technical skills needed for technology, the soft skills of leadership are of the utmost importance to becoming a true leader. I was lucky to have been introduced to emotional intelligence by a mentor and that became the turning point for my leadership skill growth. Learning about self-awareness allowed me to be constantly thinking about how I appeared to others. Then I was able to understand how others are motivated differently and I began changing my approach to get the most out of my team. These changes take a great deal of time and focus and over the years I have learned at least 3-4 different emotional intelligence models. By communicating with others in a way that they best understand and prefer allows the trust in a team to grow astronomically.
A small example of this was when I had a developer who was extremely detail-oriented. I used to ask him to explain an issue or provide a solution and he would write me back a huge email that took a lot of time to digest. It also took a lot of time to rewrite so that a normal non-technical human could understand it. This used to really bother me. Finally, after reading a book about feedback I told him how this issue was causing me a lot of re-work and frustration. After discussing the issue, he told me that he would still draft his giant emails because he needed to work through the issue and provide all the information. But then he would write an executive summary at the top. 10 out of 10 times I only needed the executive summary, but this small change allowed me to move past my frustration and learn how to really appreciate what an excellent employee this person was.
What are some key milestones or achievements that tech executives should aim for at various stages of their careers to demonstrate their growth and readiness for higher-level roles?
Tech executives should strive for specific milestones and achievements throughout their careers to demonstrate their growth and readiness for higher-level roles. These milestones can vary based on individual career paths and the specific company and industry context, but here are some general guidelines for different career stages:
- Technical Mastery: Build a strong foundation in a specific technical domain, becoming an expert in a particular technology, programming language, or area of specialization.
- Project Leadership: Successfully lead and deliver projects, demonstrating your ability to manage teams, timelines, and resources effectively.
- Problem-Solving: Develop a track record of solving complex technical challenges, showcasing your analytical and creative problem-solving skills.
- Continuous Learning: Pursue professional development, attend workshops, earn certifications, and stay up to date with industry trends.
- People Management: Transition into roles that involve managing and leading teams, highlighting your ability to motivate, mentor, and develop talent.
- Strategic Contributions: Contribute to the development and execution of strategic initiatives within your department or organization, aligning your work with broader company goals.
- Innovation: Lead the introduction of innovative solutions or technologies that drive efficiency, productivity, or new revenue streams.
- Thought Leadership: Publish articles, speak at conferences, or participate in panel discussions to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.
- Visionary Leadership: Develop and communicate a clear and compelling vision for your team, department, or business unit, aligning with the overall company strategy.
- Business Growth: Drive significant business growth through effective execution of strategies, expansion into new markets, or successful product launches.
- Change Management: Lead successful organizational changes, such as mergers, acquisitions, or large-scale technology transitions.
- Board or Advisory Roles: Participate in external advisory boards, demonstrating your industry expertise and expanding your influence beyond your organization.
- C-Suite Preparation: Gain exposure to C-level responsibilities, potentially by taking on roles like Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO), where you will have a broader organizational impact.
- Mentorship and Succession Planning: Develop a strong pipeline of future leaders through mentorship and succession planning initiatives.
How important is it for tech executives to actively seek out mentorship or coaching opportunities to advance their careers? What benefits can they derive from such relationships?
Mentorship is extremely important for anyone wanting to progress in their career. I had an amazing mentor at GeoDecisions who was always pushing me to ask questions about why something happened, why we should do something, or, how something could be done better next time, etc. The mentoring allowed me to grow as a leader because I was constantly learning new skills from that person. My mentor remains someone who I can talk to about any challenge occurring in whatever role I have at that time.
I offer mentoring services to newer managers whenever I can because I recognize how invaluable this was for my career. If you need a mentor, I suggest looking at people who are in careers that you would someday like to have. And then just ask them to be your mentor. These people could work in your current company or not. Mentorship does not have to be too formal but if you find someone willing to help you hold onto it.
In your experience, what role does professional networking play in the career progression of tech executives? How can tech executives effectively build and leverage their networks?
I have fallen short in the networking arena largely because of my 17-year tenure at GeoDecisions. I allowed myself to become complacent in this area and now feel that I need to start increasing the opportunities to network. Networking allows executives to reach out to their counterparts within their network and find out how others are dealing with problems. This network can also be important down the road when you find yourself looking for a new opportunity.
Are there any specific certifications, advanced degrees, or executive education programs that can significantly enhance the career prospects of tech executives in the tech industry? Which ones would you recommend?
Having an MBA really allowed me to get a solid base of the business world early on. Outside of an MBA I also think actively pursuing any kind of executive-level training is valuable. There are so many sources for this, but I found a virtual subscription through WOBI (World of Business Ideas) that offered an executive-level class about once a month. These classes would vary in marketing, talent strategy, strategic vision, leadership, etc. It is vitally important to learn about these topics from several sources so that you can take pieces from each one and determine which ones fit your leadership style.
For technology executives specifically, I think it can depend on what area of technology your role is focused on. There are unlimited conferences out there that can help leaders understand what technologies and technology strategies are popular. Gartner is always a good place to look if you are not sure where to look.
Can you share any examples of notable tech executives who have successfully transitioned from one role (e.g., CIO) to another (e.g., CEO) within the same organization or industry? What factors contributed to their success?
GeoDecisions is a division of Gannett Fleming which is a medium-sized engineering company whereas GeoDecisions is focused on Geospatial software consulting projects. One of the vice presidents within GeoDecisions was recognized for his exceptional leadership skills and earned the opportunity to become the Chief Technology Officer for Gannett Fleming. This was a pretty big leap as this man spent his career managing GIS-based projects and now, he is running the IT department for an engineering company. He has been remarkably successful at this transition and that success is attributed to not only his excellent leadership skills but also his passion for learning everything he can in the IT space. He knew he needed to be able to understand all the technology to gain the trust of his staff so he dove into learning everything he could about networking, security, cloud architecture, etc.
How important is it for tech executives to cultivate a personal brand and establish thought leadership within the industry? What are some effective ways for tech executives to showcase their expertise and gain visibility?
It is vitally important for any executive to cultivate your personal brand and establish thought leadership. There are many ways to accomplish this such as publishing articles, speaking at conferences, or participating in panel discussions.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring tech executives who are looking to accelerate their career progression and make a lasting impact in the tech industry?
Aspiring tech executives need to start by learning as much about technology as they can. Make sure you are passionate about your job. Then when you see something that could be fixed to improve the company, just do it. Obviously within reason here. But if you see a way that could improve a process for your boss, fix it and let them know what you did. Do not be afraid to toot your own horn, no one will do this for you. And finally, you need to ask for what you want. No one can read your mind so if you want that next step in your career tell your boss what you want and ask what you need to do to get there. You need to earn every promotion along the way, but I have learned that without asking for it, it will happen much more slowly or not at all.
Read more CXO Ladder stories like Debbie Houser’s:
A Career Fueled by Passion for Technology and Valuing Human Emotions
Path to CIO: Seeing the Big Picture of a Project for Its Success