MONICA DILLINGHAM PEMBERTON
CIO at National Association of College and University Business Officers
I like to read up on the latest technologies and meet up with fellow tech leaders to discuss challenges and how to solve them, as well as chatting about tech. Can you please provide a little introduction about yourself
I am the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), a nonprofit association in Washington, DC. NACUBO is a member organization serving chief business officers and their evolving challenges at higher education institutions across the country. As CTO, I set the technology strategy, lead all software development, system implementations, and infrastructure operations across the organization.
Monica advocates for women in technology on the Association Women Technology Champions Board of Directors. She also serves on the American Society of Association Executives, Technology Professionals Advisory Council. Most recently, she joined the Virginia Blacks in Technology board. Monica is passionate about supporting and advocating for women and people of color in their technology careers. Recognizing that the industry isn’t always supportive of women and having experienced those challenges in her career growth, she continues to push the critical narrative that STEM must be inclusive of everyone.
What has your journey to your position been like? What path have you taken?
My journey has been a winding road. I started in technology as a trainer at Lexis-Nexis. An unexpected conversation on an elevator led to an opportunity that would change my career course to technology. There was someone that opened the door and gave me a chance to pivot in that direction and I never looked back to acknowledge and thank that individual for taking a chance on me. I started on the hardware side and was the only woman on the team and the only person of color. This environment helped me build thick skin, resiliency, determination, and a competitive spirit. I was encouraged to continually challenge myself. I eventually ended up on the software applications side managing a team and that’s where I started to truly thrive. Working at a self-regulatory organization, Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB), I was able to try new technologies and receive several promotions over a 10-year timeframe. I then started working in the government at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in their threat credentialing area as an operations manager for network operations. That was a role that taught me how to advocate for myself and my team. When that contract ended, I moved over to the General Services Administration (GSA) as a senior technical project manager. That was a great experience on the challenges of getting technology projects done on time and on budget. A skill I needed to prepare me for the role future roles.
My journey has not been without personal challenges. Being an Afro-Latina has many challenges that are often overlooked and not discussed, yet real nonetheless. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, you must be very strategic about how you interact with your peers and earn respect. On more than one occasion, I have been considered the unicorn in the room - especially the further up I have progressed in my career journey. I have also had those that told me I would never make it to the C-suite. I often used that as a catalyst to propel myself forward and it truly paid off. I recognize that there were many people along the way that opened doors or advocated for me, and I could not have gotten here without those individuals. It is this very reason that I am passionate about advocating for more women and people of color to enter the technology field and to get promoted to move up in their careers. I am the person that will pick up the phone to have a conversation with anyone that needs encouragement, guidance, and a voice to their challenges in their journey.
Has it always been your vision to reach the position you’re at? Was your current role part of your vision to become a tech leader?
Yes, there was a time that I was going to give up. One conversation I had when I was an IT Director was life changing for me. During that conversation I was told by that person that giving up was not an option. There are other young women watching me and they need someone to open doors and forge a path for them. It was that conversation that helped me reset and set my vision for my journey forward. He told me to set my eye on the prize and to let nothing hinder my movement toward that goal. So, I put in the time, increased my networking, and became more vocal about the challenges of being a minority. All these things as well as having sponsorship along the way helped me get here as a Chief Technology Officer.
Have you had a role model or mentor that has helped you on your journey?
Yes! Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the former president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He truly saw me and took the time to have that conversation with me despite his busy schedule and put me in touch with a few other individuals in the CIO role encouraging me to aim to be a CIO. He said that is where I expect to see you in the future, in a C-suite role.
Early in my career there were two people, Matthew Stephenson and Michael Greelish who took a chance on me when they gave me a tech role with no experience. I don’t know where they are now, but I would like to thank them for taking that chance, mentoring and pushing me to challenge myself.
How do you see the role of the technology leader evolving over the next 5 years?You will have subject matter experts in specific areas of technology; however, I think that the technology leaders will need to continue to become more humanized. The demographic of those we serve is growing. Their needs are ever-changing and without the human aspect how can you meet those needs.
What skills do you think leaders of the future will need in order to thrive?
I think the essential skill needed will be soft skills. Technical skills can be taught and acquired but those soft skills are often a challenge for leaders. Empathy as a leader is essential as well as authenticity. We talk about bringing your whole self to a role. I believe these is some of the qualities that will be required in the future. I also think that a mentorship spirit is required. Leaders cannot do what they do without others and recognizing that and encouraging those individuals leads to success for the entire organization.
How do you keep current with new skills, technologies and personal development?
Network events and conferences are my primary source of keeping current as it relates to new technology. I then investigate and learn about that new technology so that I’m able to speak about it, implement it, or recommend whatever that new technology is. As far as skills are concerned, I am always challenging myself with those soft skills, whether it’s talking in front of people, being more purposeful in my interactions, listening to someone else’s experiences and point of view. I also set goals for myself. My latest goal has been to encourage more women, Black, and Latinos into the technology fields. Whether through mentorship, board roles, panel discussions, or networking.
What do you see as the next leap in technology that will impact your business or industry in particular?
I think that web3 and the metaverse are going to transform technology in the future. As for my business, it will change how students interact with technology which will change the technology that campuses will need to provide.
If you were mentoring a leader of the future, what advice or guidance would you give to help them on their way?
Resilience is key, setting goals, being yourself, and networking. I have had so many opportunities come my way through networking. It’s a skill that takes practice, once mastered the possibilities it can lead to are endless.
Is there anything in particular that you would still like to achieve in your career or what is the next step on your journey?
Yes, I would like to take on a larger CIO role that will continue to challenge me. I would also like to be known as a leader in the industry promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in technology and technology careers.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
For more humans to have empathy and grace towards others. This would lead to more harmony and peace in this world.
A big thank you to Monica Dillingham Pemberton from Freedom Holding Corp. for sharing his journey to date.
If you would like to gain more perspective from Tech Leaders and CIOs you can read some of our other interviews here.