Chief Information Officer at Saint Francis Ministries

Can you please provide a little introduction about yourself

I am presently holding the position of Chief Information Officer at Saint Francis Ministries, based in Salina, Kansas. With a career spanning over 16 years, I have a well-established reputation as a proficient Business Operations Leader. I am renowned for my expertise in formulating and executing high-impact IT strategies designed to elevate business outcomes. Over the course of my career, I have consistently demonstrated my adeptness in establishing and mobilizing IT functions, systems, and multidisciplinary operational teams, all while consistently achieving success even under demanding budgetary constraints and ambitious project timelines.

What has your journey to your position been like? What path have you taken?

My journey is not like that of many others; it's unique and shaped by a series of challenging experiences. I was raised in Salina, Kansas, amid the backdrop of a broken family. My parents' divorce resulted in custody being awarded to my mother and stepfather, both of whom were grappling with drug addiction. Unfortunately, I found myself on a perilous path at the age of 14, becoming ensnared in the cycle of drug addiction. I was taught how to buy and sell drugs at our kitchen table, and this dark lifestyle exposed me to gangs, firearms, and further drug-related troubles. It became the norm.

This tumultuous life led me down a turbulent road, and I had a brief stint in foster care. Interestingly, I was actually part of Saint Francis Ministries' outpatient treatment programs when I was just 15 years old. My adolescence was marked by being in and out of incarceration.

It wasn't until I reached young adulthood that a transformative opportunity presented itself: the chance to join a Christian program called Interchange Freedom Initiative (I.F.I.). This was a turning point in my life. Through this program, I was introduced to Biblical scripture and life principles, as well as the world of computers, eventually becoming an instructor in computer courses for fellow inmates. I seized this opportunity to grow and went on to earn a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology.

Upon my release, I remember vividly the days when I was earning a mere $7.25 per hour, laboring tirelessly to sweep floors at an old body shop in our town. My girlfriend, who later became my wife, and our 5-year-old son were facing financial hardships. It became abundantly clear that a significant change was needed. So, after much contemplation and prayer, I made a life-altering decision to pursue a career in the IT field.

In pursuit of this newfound goal, I stumbled upon a remarkable opportunity. I discovered a gentleman who was selling two boxes filled with used computer equipment for $50. Additionally, I just so happened to find an A+ certification book at a local bookstore, also priced at $50. It was at this point that I approached my wife, who revealed that we only had $100 in our bank account. In my heart, and in my spirit, I knew wholeheartedly that to begin a career in the IT field, it was going to require sacrifice. I took the $100 and utilized every penny to purchase the boxes of used computer parts and the A+ certification book.

For the next five months, I dedicated myself to the pursuit of understanding anything and everything I could surrounding the requirements of the A+ certification exam. I worked as hard as I could, working full-time during the day and devoting 3 to 4 hours each night to studying and applying what I had learned in our garage. We didn’t have enough money at the time to afford the cost of the A+ exam, so I took out a loan to cover the expense. I scheduled the A+ exam and, with focused determination, I finally achieved the A+ certification! Just a month later, I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as an IT consultant!

Fast forward 16 years, and I currently hold the position of Chief Information Officer for a prominent organization employing 1650+ individuals. I am the leader of a formidable team comprising over 30 skilled IT professionals. This team collaborates collectively, with each member working together to provide support to all employees. They do all of this while simultaneously uniting their efforts to align technology with the organization’s strategic objectives. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to collaborate with such a remarkable group of individuals.

Throughout my journey, I have lived by the principle that hard work, without exception, reaps its rewards. My life stands as a testament to this belief. I have witnessed firsthand the profound impact of unwavering dedication, tireless effort, and daring dreams.

So, to all those who dare to dream, I encourage you to work diligently, persist in the face of adversity, and remain resolute in your pursuit of greatness. Believe in the inherent power within you, for you were perfectly and wonderfully made, for it is through your dedication and discipline that you will etch your own unique chapter in history.

The rest, as they say, is history!

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?

As I mentioned earlier, my fascination with computers began during my teenage years. However, it was when I became a father in my young adult life, prior to my incarceration, that my perspective on the world shifted dramatically. This pivotal moment instilled in me a deep desire to provide a better life for my son and to achieve more for myself. It was during this time that I set my sights on the ambitious goal of eventually becoming a Chief Information Officer (CIO), with even loftier aspirations of someday taking on the role of a CEO.

My ultimate aim is to leverage my unique experiences and education to step into organizations facing challenges and steer them toward success as a CEO. Making a positive impact on people's lives is of utmost importance to me, and I am driven by the desire to achieve exactly that.

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Have you had a role model or mentor that has helped you on your journey?

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had several remarkable role models and mentors who have not only guided me but also become lifelong friends on my journey to becoming the person I am today. I am profoundly grateful to these individuals for seeing not just the person I was back then but also the potential in the man I could become.

During my time of incarceration, I had the privilege of meeting Curtis Hines, a true computer science wizard. Curtis challenged me to educate myself and encouraged me to think beyond the confines of my circumstances. He was the first person who told me that I could make something meaningful of my life. That encouragement was the spark I needed to begin my pursuit of a better future. In that same period, I crossed paths with several remarkable men who would go on to challenge and inspire me. These included Donald Raymond, Terry Engler (who would later officiate my wedding 18 years ago), Larry Furnish, Leo Miller, and one of the most demanding individuals I've ever known, John Penrose. Mr. Penrose seemed to challenge my misguided perspectives at every turn, never once letting up on me. However, his actions consistently backed up his words, and he tirelessly worked to help me become a better version of myself.

Later on, I had the privilege of meeting Bryan Hurlbut, who has been a friend for the past 16 years. He was the first person to hire me in the IT field. Our initial interview lasted an impressive 3 ½ hours. Bryan is not only an extraordinary human being but also a man of God, and I feel honored to have him as a mentor and friend. He challenged me at every step of the way, pushing me to rethink proposed solutions, improve my time-management skills, and learn from my failures. I affectionately gave Bryan the nickname "Yoda" because he possesses a unique gift for imparting wisdom to others. He has been a true blessing in my life.

My time at St. John's Military School introduced me to some outstanding individuals who would shape my life in profound ways. Dale Browning, an accomplished individual, was the first person to interview me for the IT Director position at the school. He not only encouraged me to keep pushing forward but also helped me realize my potential for achieving great things. Andy England, the first president I worked for at St. John's, provided me with the opportunity to build my first IT department from scratch. Little did I know at the time that this chance, his trust, and his encouraging words would stay with me throughout my career.

Another mentor who has played a significant role in my life is Marico Laselva, a third-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and my instructor for the past 13 years. Marico has generously shared his time and wisdom with me, offering invaluable guidance during some of the most challenging moments of my life. He has not only taught me the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but also what it means to be a black belt, and through his guidance, I have been able to make a positive impact on others' lives through Jiu-Jitsu.

Last but certainly not least, I must mention Colonel William J. Clark, United States Army retired. This extraordinary man has challenged me every day, humbling me when I was too proud and encouraging me to stand tall with pride when I was too humble. Colonel Clark has profoundly impacted my life in ways that are difficult to put into words. He exemplifies leadership as service and has operated in numerous capacities in my life – as an incredible leader, my boss, my mentor, and most importantly, as someone I am proud to call my friend. Colonel Clark has taught me the importance of integrity, the value of character, the significance of valuing all people, the impact of a positive attitude, and the power of a clean heart and a clear mind. Each of these qualities has shaped me into the person I am today.

Each of these exceptional individuals mentioned has been truly amazing, and I aspire to embody the qualities they have shown me. I owe a significant part of my journey and success to their selfless willingness to invest in my life.

How do you see the role of the technology leader evolving over the next 5 years?

From my perspective, it's crucial for technology leaders to prioritize the cultivation of robust relationships across various business divisions within the organization. Striving to gain a comprehensive understanding of the business from multiple perspectives is essential. Technology leaders, as well as individuals in the technology field in general, have a notable strength in problem-solving. However, this proficiency can sometimes result in the generation of multiple solutions that may not necessarily align with the organization's specific needs.

To address this challenge, technology leaders must bolster their business acumen to deliver customized solutions that precisely match the organization's unique requirements. Achieving this goal requires building strong relationships with other business leaders, embracing the organization's vision, and collaborating effectively with these leaders to strategically advance the organization.

What skills do you think leaders of the future will need in order to thrive?

As previously emphasized, it remains critical for technology leaders to nurture relationships with their peers in various business sectors while also expanding their business acumen. However, future leaders, in a broader sense, must adapt to the evolving needs of upcoming generations. I believe that a significant aspect of this adaptation involves empathizing with younger generations. Leaders who can excel in this area will be better equipped to effectively mentor and guide the emerging talent entering the workforce.

Also, the capacity for leaders to bridge the divide between those entering the workforce, those already established in their roles, and those transitioning out will be pivotal for the future success of any business. This ability to cultivate the skill of understanding people and connecting with individuals of all ages is an invaluable asset in today's dynamic workplace.

How do you keep current with new skills, technologies and personal development?

In terms of education, I am currently pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at Northcentral University. I also hold a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Information Systems, a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems and Management, and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from other esteemed universities.

As I mentioned earlier, my long-term goal is to step into a struggling organization as a CEO and help contribute to the transformational success of that business. However, I firmly believe in focusing on the present and achieving what's in front of me today. Right now, my primary objective is to become the best possible leader in my current role as a Chief Information Officer (CIO). This is why I have chosen to pursue a Doctorate program and attain certifications like the PMP, CSM, and ITIL Foundation. These certifications reflect my commitment to excellence and my dedication to becoming an expert in various facets of IT leadership and management.

What do you see as the next leap in technology that will impact your business or industry in particular?

I hold the belief that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionize the way organizations conduct their business. I envision the integration of AI as a valuable complement to the efforts of front-line staff in providing care for children and families. The implementation of AI will not only influence how data is collected but also how it is leveraged to make more informed decisions. This transformative approach will enable organizations to better focus on the specific needs of children and families, and it will provide enhanced tools for visually presenting this data to state partners, legislative leaders, and federal entities.

"Continuous learning not only keeps a leader informed but also promotes growth and adaptability."

If you were mentoring a leader of the future, what advice or guidance would you give to help them on their way?

I would advise a future leader to prioritize enhancing their empathetic and emotional intelligence skills. These qualities are instrumental in building strong relationships and effectively leading people. I would also strongly advocate for a commitment to education and the pursuit of further education. Continuous learning not only keeps a leader informed but also promotes growth and adaptability.

Effective communication is another critical aspect of leadership. The ability to articulate messages clearly and connect with different audiences greatly contributes to successful leadership. Lastly, I would emphasize the importance of leading with integrity and moral ethics. A future leader should set an example by embodying the values and behaviors they expect from their team, which in turn will foster a culture of trust and respect.

Is there anything in particular that you would still like to achieve in your career or what is the next step on your journey?

I touched upon this earlier, but I'd like to emphasize my commitment to continuous growth, gaining more experience, and further expanding my business knowledge. Completing my Doctorate degree is a priority for me, and I've developed a keen interest in cybersecurity, with the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) certification on my horizon. Additionally, I aspire to explore ways in which Saint Francis Ministries can harness technology to enhance the support and experiences of the children and families under our care.

I believe that all of these experiences will contribute to my growth as a Chief Information Officer (CIO). Over time, I envision an opportunity where I can step into an organization as a CEO and make an even more significant impact on the lives of individuals and communities.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

If I had the power to change one thing in the world, it would be to create a more empathetic world. I believe that each person has valuable contributions to offer, but our biases sometimes hinder us from embracing the opportunities for personal growth through understanding one another. In my opinion, an empathetic world would foster greater unity among people, this would bridge gaps and bring us all closer together rather than pushing us further apart.

A big thank you to John McDowell from Saint Francis Ministries 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.

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The CIO Circle Editor
Post by The CIO Circle Editor
May 22, 2024