Profiles in tech
Meet Elizabeth Austin, Retired CIO and a co-founder of SIM Charlotte
How do you build a career that creates an impact?
Elizabeth Austin is a case study in just that. She has long been one of the Queen City’s most seasoned and respected technology leaders. As a co-founder of Charlotte chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM) — one of the largest SIM chapters in the country — she has helped build a thriving philanthropic organization that has contributed more than $500,000 to nonprofit organizations throughout the community.
Austin retired this year, leaving her latest CIO gig to the next in line and the future of SIM Charlotte to the next generation of leaders. In honor of her retirement — and to recognize the incredible work her vision made possible — we sat down with Austin to talk through her career and the years she’s spent building SIM into what it is today. The first surprise? Tech was not always part of Austin’s plan.
In fact, when asked if she intended to pursue a career in tech, her exact response is, “Oh lord no.” As a business major at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, she had to take a few coding classes, and she quickly learned she did not want to be a developer.
“That was not the way my mind worked,” she said.
At the same time, Austin was graduating when commercial software was coming onto the market. The companies making that software weren’t just looking for developers; they were looking for people who understood the business. Austin fit the bill. She went to work for Burroughs Corporation — one of the big three tech companies at the time — and began working in software sales, pre-sales and post-sale implementations.
She loved it, right from the start.
“I like to solve problems, and I like to learn things,” Austin said. “I am naturally shy and introverted, but when you're in those customer sales situations or helping someone get something implemented, you develop a relationship, and I always enjoyed the people aspect of the work.”
Austin spent seven years at Burroughs moving from Charlotte to Boston. She then went to work for Computer Solutions, Inc. Eventually, she made her way back to the Queen City and took a job as Vice President of IT Application Services at Family Dollar, where she worked for more than 15 years. It was during that time that Austin was part of a group that launched the Charlotte chapter of SIM, which held its first meeting in 2010.
From the start, the organization was intended to serve three purposes: to create networking opportunities for local technology leaders, to support leadership development, and to give back to the community they call home. Austin and her colleagues got to work immediately, creating a scholarship at UNCC’s College of Computer and Informatics and, a few years later, establishing an annual golf tournament to raise money for local technology nonprofits.
As SIM ramped up its support of local tech organizations, so, too, did Austin. Her son and his friends volunteered at summer camps designed to introduce young people to technology. And she worked with SMS Systems Maintenance Services to offer field trips to their Service Center for kids so they could get some hands-on time with computers.
“Our team created work areas to rotate the kids through. At one point, they set up stations where they had computers the kids could de-assemble to learn about the componentry and then put them back together,” Austin said. “It gave our employees an opportunity to do something creative and fun and to embrace that spirit of giving back. And it gave the kids the opportunity to see what kind of jobs you could have in technology.”
While the philanthropic component was a powerful draw for Austin, she valued the relationships just as much. She recalls one pivotal moment, just before Family Dollar was acquired, when Austin learned she was being transitioned out of her role. The news came on a Wednesday. Austin had a SIM quarterly meeting scheduled the next day, and she almost didn’t go. The job loss had come as a shock, and she found herself struggling to get dressed up and out the door.
But she went, and that night, she learned there were a number of people who she knew as CIOs or technology leaders who had also been through career transitions.
“It made me realize, this wasn’t just a network of people you knew in the industry; these were people you could trust. They were your people — people who believed in you,” Austin said. “Going to the meeting that night, I felt safety in numbers, and if they were able to come through it, I knew I was going to come through it.” This is the foundation of the SIM Members in Transition (MIT) program held monthly to support those in transition.
And she did. Austin went on to serve as CIO of Systems Maintenance Services and then Curvature. She also continued to build the Charlotte chapter of SIM, serving as Chapter President in 2015, and, in her last position, served as STEM Outreach advisor, allowing her to work more closely with the Charlotte-area nonprofits SIM supports.
“We now fund scholarships at UNCC, Johnson C. Smith University, Central Piedmont Community College and Winthrop University. We also support adult training at Techworks of Gaston County and Goodwill University. We support STEM camps and after-school programs. We’ve built a platform of STEM outreach that does everything from inspiring to educating to helping folks re-enter the market with newer skills or from an entirely different background,” Austin said. “I'm very proud of the work we've done, and it takes having good sponsors and having the commitment of the board and the membership to help support the community. It's a great group of folks. Not only are they excellent resources from a technology, knowledge and experience standpoint; but they all have a strong sense of service.”
Now, in the early days of her retirement, Austin is giving herself the “luxury” of some time off. She’s moving to the mountains, along with her parents, and beyond that, she’s not sure. She’s always seen herself teaching at some point, and that could very well be her next step.
In the meantime, her hopes for SIM in its next chapter are simple.
“Sustainability,” Austin said. “There's a heart to the chapter, and it’s important that this type of environment stays together and continues to support each other. Bigger and better would be the dream, but we must maintain the core, which is that camaraderie, that peer networking and that commitment to giving back. Let’s think about how we can do an even better job of giving back to the community and continuing to expand that.”