By Sara Peters, Enterprise Efficiency
15 August 2013
Steve Rubinow was programming mainframes in eighth grade. Yet it wasn’t until many years later that he considered a career in IT.
Rubinow is now CIO of Thomson Reuters, coming to the position via the acquisition of his former company, FX Alliance. Prior to FX Alliance, he was CIO of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE Euronext). He’s had a number of CIO positions in a variety of industries, but never one in any pharmaceutical or chemical company — not at Merck, Phizer, or DuPont.
That fact is surprising when you consider that he has a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD — all in chemistry.
Rubinow is something of a lifelong student, always looking to learn something new, and like many lifelong students he imagined he’d have a career in academia.
“When you get on that track,” he told me, “you know you need to get a PhD because it’s like the union card to get the best jobs. So you fall into this track like so many other students. You get your bachelors, then you get your masters, then you get your PhD, then you think about a post-doc position. And it was in the middle of that process that I did a checkpoint, and said to myself, now wait a second. Am I doing this because that’s what everyone does, or am I doing this because it’s the best for me? And that’s when I started to diverge a little bit.”
Out of the lab and into the office
He began thinking about walking off the university campus and into the corporate world — where the breadth of career possibilities was wider — and walking out of the chem lab and into the computer lab. His boyhood programming classes were not the only IT experience that he’d had. He had spent plenty of time programming during his chemistry studies. “In most of the sciences, computers are a big part of what you do,” said Rubinow. “Many of the things you need you have to build yourself because they don’t exist off the shelf.”
He had IT experience and a strong scientific background, but he didn’t know much about business. So he started to take business classes “just for the heck of it.” He enjoyed them far more than he expected — so much so that he continued to take business classes until he found himself with a full-fledged MBA degree.
Thus, when he left graduate school to take his first job, he wasn’t working in a lab. He was working in a bank, doing portfolio analysis and writing the programs that performed that analysis. That set him on the path to a career — a stellar career — in business IT.
Rubinow said, “If, when I was in graduate school in chemistry, anyone said to me that x years down the road I’d be running all the technology at the New York Stock Exchange, I’d have said, ‘Did you break into the cabinet with the special chemicals again? Because that makes no sense.'”
However, nobody did say such a thing. Because, like many people (too many people) these days, Rubinow didn’t have a senior professional looking out for him.
“I had no mentors,” he said. “There’s no one I can point to who coached me, encouraged me, helped me in that way.”
He credits some of his success to serendipity, and some to his own habit of being creatively proactive — seeking out and jumping on all opportunities and openings.
“And if I thought that I was on a slow trajectory — or even worse I was hitting a dead end — in my current job, I had no qualms about changing jobs,” Rubinow said. “Some people stay in a place for 20 years and hope for the best. I gave it a reasonable amount of time and if I saw it wasn’t going at the rate I wanted to, I went somewhere else where I could take a big step up and there was more promise there.”
From big picture to bigger picture
Every time that Rubinow has come into a CIO position, he’s been hired from outside the company. (That’s consistent with what our E2 radio guest, executive recruiter Martha Heller, said on Tuesday — that roughly 80 percent of CIOs are hired from outside the company, instead of promoted from within.) That varied experience, and his varied education, is essential to the CIO job, in Rubinow’s opinion, because one must be able to see the big picture and bring a new perspective to an organization’s challenges.
“If you’re a CIO you can’t afford to just be a great technologist or just to be a really astute business person,” said Rubinow. “You really have to understand the two.”
In fact early in his career Rubinow decided that he should know more about IT, since the lion’s share of his IT experience was in application programming. He wanted to know more about all the other ingredients that make up an IT environment — networks, datacenters, and security. Surprisingly, he went ahead and got a masters degree in computer science. (That’s five collegiate degrees, if you’re counting.)
As CIO, Rubinow aims to enter a business meeting as a business person and enter a technology meeting as a technology person. “If you can be sort of a Renaissance person in that sense,” he said, “it’s the best possible thing for yourself as an executive and a senior management person, and also for the company.”
One might ask, cheekily, does being a Renaissance person require you to have three degrees in chemistry?
“People sometimes say to me ‘Well you got a PhD in chemistry and you didn’t really use it, so don’t you feel like it wasn’t the best use of your time?'” said Rubinow. “And the thing I always say to that is, the analytical training and the scientific method and the discipline I learned over the years studying science, I use that every single day — personal life, professional life. So the skill set that I learned is invaluable to everything that I do.”
Advice for the CIOs of the future
Years ago Rubinow was dutifully following the well-traveled path to an academic career before he paused to reevaluate his journey. Similarly, if you’re dutifully following a path to the CIO role, pause to make sure that’s really what you want.
“If you love what you do, you spend a lot of time doing it,” said Rubinow, who can be found posting intriguing tech news on Twitter and Facebook at all hours of the night. “If it’s just a job, I don’t think you’ll be as good at it as you want, certainly you won’t enjoy it, and you won’t be as effective as you should be.”
Rubinow also advises that aspiring CIOs be self-motivated. Don’t wait around for the job to come to you. Don’t wait for your boss to offer you training and education — ask for them, or go out and get them yourself. Don’t be afraid to leave your company and make a job change.
And — whether you like it or not — you have to network. He doesn’t religiously follow the advice “never eat alone,” but he does try to seek out opportunities to network and meet new people as often as he can.
“It sounds crass,” he said. “It sounds like Madison Avenue advertising. But personally we’re each a brand and we should never take our brand for granted, because we should always be improving it.”
When he’s not busy advancing his organization’s business by clever uses of technology or earning advanced degrees in science, Rubinow enjoys climbing mountains. His next career might take him to the Himalayas.
“I’d love to take groups of people and guide them through the wilderness… which is kind of what I do at work!”
What do you think? Do you have the gumption to leave a position as soon as it seems like you’re on the wrong career trajectory? Do you prefer to eat lunch alone? Let us know in the comments below.