Julie St. John starts her day early — very early. As Chief Information Officer for The Capital Group Companies, a global asset manager, she needs to be up by dawn to greet the financial markets. “The majority of my day is spent in meetings, because Capital is an input-driven, highly collaborative environment,” she explains. “My role is about business management, making sure technology meets the needs of the organization.”
Julie has always been highly motivated. She liked school and loved reading; learning came easily. She put herself through college, working as a waitress to cover her tuition and living expenses. “It was a time of great social change,” she recalls, “and University of Michigan was a wonderful place. I remember my days quite fondly. I made a lot of money in tips, and I took out a ton of student loans. I did what I loved and studied literature, along with political science.”
After graduation, she taught 7th grade English for a year, then took a variety of odd jobs to pay the bills. By chance, she landed at a mental health organization working on a research project backed by Stanford. She got the job because the hiring manager shared the same alma mater. “I had no qualifications whatsoever,” she admits. “It was a lucky break.”
Her boss turned out to be a thoughtful mentor who recognized Julie’s aptitude for math and business. “She encouraged me and let me go to school during my lunch break,” she recalls, “taking classes at Florida State to get the core business education.” After completing the business core, she went on to earn an MBA, attending classes at night and working during the day.
Post-MBA, Julie worked in consulting, doing hotel real estate feasibility studies, and loved it. “You’re analyzing supply and demand in the marketplace, and at the same time, I was getting paid to go to really cool resorts, because I was looking at the leisure industry.” Eventually, she decided to differentiate herself by sitting for the CPA exam. After passing the exam, she relocated to Washington D.C. to work for Arthur Young.
Working in accounting, Julie discovered a latent interest in technology. At the time, consultants were making their calculations on fourteen-column notepads. Financial software changed their way of doing business and Julie was eager to maximize that impact. Mastering software gave her an edge as a consultant, and she pushed herself to become a strong technologist. She moved on to Fannie Mae, where she ascended the ranks to the executive team, before ending up at the Capital Group where she is today.
“It’s a fun role,” she says. “I’m a very business-focused CIO, and I have a balance of business and technical skills. I get to do strategy and implementation, and like anyone in technology, I have to be a continuous learner.”
Julie is aware of being part of the generation that blazed a trail, often having found herself in the position of being the only woman in the room. She deliberately encourages flexibility, finding that working mothers will repay that flexibility with loyalty and productivity. “I’ve had working mothers on my team who would do some coding when they had to get up in the middle of the night. It works,” she says. She also advocates finding a company culture that works for you. “I really lucked out in finding the Capital Group. It’s an unusually supportive work environment, full of really smart people. It’s privately held, so we have a long-term focus. As CIO, that helps me set strategic long-term goals and work toward them.”
So what advice does Julie have to share? First off, she embraces mistakes. “If you’re in technology and you’re doing large scale work, not everything is going to go perfectly. This is just a fact. On any challenging technology project, it helps to have the humility to step back and say, this is not working and have the courage to take a different course. You need to be self aware and honest with yourself.”
She also advises serving on boards once you reach a certain level in your career, in order to gain more senior business experience. “Working on the board of 3Com, I learned a lot. When you’re in a senior-level position, training doesn’t really do it anymore. On a board, you’re exposed to CEOs and CFOs from other firms. In that sort of collegial environment, you learn a tremendous amount.”
Most of all, she advises cultivating personal integrity. “If I interview someone, I usually know they have street cred in terms of their technical skills, but I’m looking for ability to articulate a vision, humility, courage. I’m looking for personal attributes,” she says. “I want someone with ethics, someone who can work with other people. Technology has gotten so specialized, it’s really a team sport.”
Julie admits it’s a challenge to attract more women to technology, but she’s an ever-enthusiastic ambassador. “It’s a wonderful world for women,” she says. “Most of all, you need to do what you love, and be open to trying new things.”