Dr. Caterina Luppi joined the District of Columbia Bar, the largest unified bar of the United States counting over 108,000 members, as its Chief Information Officer in 2018. She has been leading the modernization and transformation of most of the Bar’s business systems and processes since then. Prior to this role, Dr. Luppi held the position of Chief Information Officer at the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Luppi holds a BSc in Physics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), and a PhD in Particle Physics from University “La Sapienza” in Rome (Italy).
We wanted to get her thoughts on her career, her journey to becoming a CIO, and advice for those who aspire to be a part of the C-suite in a technology role.
I consider myself an “accidental CIO”. In absence of a true calling in high school, I took a tortuous path to my current job and career. Classically trained, I had a knack for translating ancient Greek texts, but I quickly realized that it was hard to pay rent with that. So, I moved on, and since I was good in math and science, I decided to study physics. During and after my PhD I worked at CERN – the European Center for Nuclear Physics in Geneva (CH), but the long timelines of the projects in that research field made me understand that to be content, I need to have a direct line of sight between my efforts and the outcomes. While working at CERN I learned a lot about data and computing, therefore the move to IT was not a difficult one, although leaving the research field felt bittersweet at the beginning.In the hindsight, it was one of the best professional choices I made, and I never really looked back. I did not have a formal education in computer science, and that was liberating. Once I decided that was ok to shelf everything, I studied for so many years, I could be whatever I wanted to be. I have been working in IT for more than 25 years now. I worked as programmer, data analyst, security specialist, infrastructure specialist. I built applications and databases, configured servers and firewalls. I debugged code and analyzed network traffic. Everything I did helps me today to be a better CIO, because I know what is possible and what it takes. I know how all of it comes together.
- You enjoy a successful career; can you share a little about your education/academic journey? When did you realize that you wanted to work in the technology field?
This is a Sophie’s choice! I’m proud of many projects, for different reasons. Being the CIO of the first United Nations Agency to introduce a cloud-based ERP was a very interesting project. The Pan American Health Organization had been using a home-grown ERP for over 20 years when I introduced Workday in the organization. Also, at PAHO, we were the first International Agency to move to Office365. In that case, I’m proud of having navigated the legal and organizational roadblocks of these projects. More recently, with the American Psychiatric Organization, we moved our Association Management System to Salesforce. We were the largest Association to do so at that time, and it opened the path to many others.The “human factor” is always the most challenging aspect of my work, first because it is the most important, second because it is an art more than a science: there isn’t really a formula, a recipe for it. As CIO I must manage expectations, fears, reluctancy to change, personalities, training, and human resources.
- What has been your most rewarding career achievement and what have you found to be the most challenging part of being a CIO?
A fellow CIO jokingly complains that no other executive is expected to be comfortable in a range of tasks as wide as those of a CIO. The CIO is expected to know how to fix a printer and how to design the technology roadmap of the organization, be comfortable dealing with the micro to the macro picture of the business.CIOs need to build credibility by delivering basic operations (email, network, telephony), and then we have to leverage that credibility and trust to deliver complex multi-million-dollar projects. It does not matter if your complex ERP project was successful if the executive assistant of the CEO can’t get his Outlook to work.In general, a successful technology leader must:
- As a very experienced senior IT executive, a lot of people look up to you. What advice do you have for those who aspire to be a part of the C-suite in a technology role?
The responsibility that is common to all CIOs is being the translator between the technology and the business. To be a translator one must be fluent in both “languages”, which means that the CIO needs to have in-depth knowledge of a lot of subjects, something that is not required in most executive positions. A successful CIO needs to be a specialist-generalist, or a general-specialist.
- Deliver reliably on the basic services.
- Know the business as well as the business users do, and their business processes better.
- Know how the money in the organization moves, where the revenues come from, and where the expenses go.
- Know how to pick a team, in IT as well as for cross-functional projects.
- Know in detail what each team member does and how they contribute to the result.
I am not sure I’d consider the small percentage of women in technology executive roles as encouraging, and there is certainly more work to do. I also believe that our Capital Area – thanks to many government agencies and non-for-profit organizations - is an outlier, and women are even less represented in other parts of the nation. Many young women do not even have technology or science in their radar as a possible career, and that must change. In a world where celebrities are those one sees in the social media, it is hard to promote a role that is often pictured as goofy and quirky in movies and TV shows, and that requires hard work. This is unfortunate, since technology is probably one of the fields in which women have more chances to raise to the top, because results and outcomes are so much more important than how well connected you are.
- Are you encouraged by the growth of female tech execs? Do you think there is room for improvement?
I believe at this point we all suffer for the isolation and the stress of the situation. Some of my team members lost loved ones to the virus, others have complex logistics at home. We all learned to be a little more flexible and a little more open about our humanity. Said that, my organization – the D.C. Bar - transitioned quite seamlessly to the remote workplace. Of course, we had to suspend some of our in-person activities, but other than that we continue to operate as usual. The IT team did not miss a beat, and I’m incredibly proud of them. I’d dare saying that this experience improved the relationship between IT and the rest of the organization. One thing I certainly learned is that in this work environment communications need to be more deliberate, and we need to make sure nobody feels left out.
- How have you managed leading your teams and projects during the pandemic? What lessons have you learned?
- As a member of SIM, you are afforded access to tight-knit community of senior IT leaders from various industries. What have you found to be some really valuable and enjoyable benefits of SIM?
SIM’s events are always very interesting and a trove of information. The guests have incredible insight and real-life experience that applies to many industries. Some of the people I admire the most are members of SIM, and I know I can reach out to many of them if I’ve a question or need an opinion. It’s a great resource I’ve in my toolbox!