CIO career trajectory: Leaving chemistry for the ‘information business’

How Steve Rubinow of Thomson Reuters started as a university professor with a PhD in chemistry, and moved to a succession of business technology executive roles in food manufacturing, car rental and finance.

By Divina Paredes, CIO New Zealand
28 December 2013

RegSteve%20Rubinowardless of the industry, a CIO is essentially in the information business. Steve Rubinow, CIO at Thomson Reuters, concluded this after assessing his career path. Rubinow started as a university professor with a PhD in chemistry, and worked in a succession of business technology executive roles in food manufacturing, car rental and finance. “These are all totally different industries,” he says. “You know what? I am in the information business. What I do is make sure information gets from point A to point B. As we consume it, we store it properly. Those principles are very similar from industry to industry.” Rubinow decided to shift from the academe and hard sciences when he was in graduate school. “Everyone knew how to use a computer,” he says. “I thought that if I focused more on IT and less on chemistry, my career opportunities might be broader because every company uses information technology and not every company uses chemistry.” As a chemistry major, he studied the scientific method, advanced analysis and problem solving. “These are skills needed in every company, so I started to steer in that direction.”

There is always so much you can do to determine your career.”
Steve Rubinow, Thomson Reuters

A job that combined chemistry and IT, like working for a chemical or pharmaceutical company, was the objective. “Of course it did not work out that way,” says Rubinow. “I never worked for a chemistry company.” Rubinow regularly conducts a “skills inventory” of himself. “What can I offer a potential employer in terms of general skills? What is less in demand these days? What is most in demand? I am constantly in marketing mode, thinking of my personal brand,” he says. “I have been doing that for many, many years.”

“CIOs who don’t create their own personal brand will have one created for them by peers and users… and it may be less than flattering.”
Marcus Darbyshire, Gartner

An experience in graduate school cemented this perspective. He recalls his graduate adviser eating a peanut butter sandwich every day for lunch. When he asked why, the latter replied because it was what he wanted to do. “That started me thinking about other things I can do,” says Rubinow. Since then, every time he feels his job has reached a “plateau”, he seeks another challenge. “If I get too comfortable, it means I am not learning,” he explains. “Even if I could do this for the next 10 years, I need to go to the next level.”

If I get too comfortable, it means I am not learning.”
Steve Rubinow, Thomson Reuters

As to working across industries, Rubinow says the key is understanding the general principles that apply in each industry. “I will study and understand as much as I can appreciate in a short time. “From the first moment I walk in, I can certainly say I am knowledgeable, I can understand technology and how it might be applied in this particular situation.” Rubinow also has the advantage of providing “additional fresh perspective” to the executive team. “I am able to often present new ideas to what they are used to hearing.” Having experience in a raft of industries also worked in his favour in at least one of his jobs. “The company was looking for someone strong in many disciplines because the problems they had were multidimensional,” he says. There is always so much you can do to determine your career,” he says. “You can take the right courses, you can send letters to the right company – that is in your control. But then there is the serendipity factor – some people call it luck. “Part of the excitement is you don’t know where life will take you. Think where you want to go, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity – if it does not cost so much to explore, go and do it.” And talk to someone in the field, he adds. “It helps to run through scenarios to see whether it is worth pursuing.”

The leadership imperative
For Steve Rubinow, risk management is a “very important role of the CIO.” But, as he explains, it is not about risk avoidance or being risk averse. “I am a CIO that never says no. I say yes, but talk about the risks,” says Rubinow. “I don’t care what you are asking for except breaking the law – everything else is negotiable.” “Very few things change in the world more than technology,” he says. “You have to be on top of it all the time,” he explains. Whether technology or business leader, he says the CIO needs to be constantly pushing people to get them out of their comfort zone, get them to take on change.

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