By Peter High, published on Forbes
Jody Davids has been the chief information officer of four major companies: Cardinal Health, Best Buy, Agrium, and, since April of 2016, of PepsiCo. She had set the goal to be the CIO of a Fortune 200 company, and now she has done so multiple times over. She also set a goal of becoming a board-level CIO, and she accomplished that in January 2015, when she joined the board of the North Carolina-based healthcare company, Premier, Inc.
All of this is particularly remarkable given the fact that she started her career as an executive assistant at General Electric. It was during her time there when her ambition was awakened. She had an assignment that gave her exposure to the paygrades across the company, and she realized how much more she could pay if she joined the IT department. She would go on to do so, and enjoy stops at Apple and at Nike before accomplishing her goal of becoming a chief information officer. She describes her journey, key points along the way, the advice she has for fellow CIOs who wish to join boards, and much more in this conversation.
Peter High:You have been a CIO multiple times. You are currently at PepsiCo but were previously CIO at Agrium, at Best Buy, and at Cardinal Health. While you have been extraordinarily successful, your origins in IT are rather unconventional, as you began your career as an executive assistant. Could you dive into the details of some of those experiences, as well as your pathway into IT?
Jody Davids: My first office job was working as an executive admin for a group of IT people at General Electric’s nuclear energy business group. I was young at the time and was going to college at night as a music major. One of the tasks my boss assigned me revolved around looking at a page full of salaries and reconciling it with some other piece of paper. In that process, I noticed that all the people on the page were making significantly more money than I was. I began to get curious about what the people around me in IT were doing.
At the time, GE had a phenomenal after-hours training program for its employees. I took a class in Fortran which was taught by the one woman in this group of programmers. Apparently, I did okay, and they hired me for their next entry level Fortran programming position.
I was working in GE’s nuclear energy business group around the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident [which took place on March 28, 1979]. Three Mile Island was not our reactor, but you can imagine that the whole industry was sent into a tailspin, and eventually, I was laid off at GE. This turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because I emerged at Apple Computers as a programmer.
High: Can you talk a bit about Apple in its early days and your experience there?
Davids: I was there for fifteen years, from 1982 to 1997. I started as a programmer working on a product called the Apple III, which was later recalled from the market. I was then placed into an IT group that was supporting Finance and HR systems. It was a wild time to be there.
For me, that period was equivalent to working at three different companies. The early days, the first Steve Jobs days before he left, were the Wild West. We were running all our IT systems on a PDP-11/70, and he did not understand why we could not do it all on a Macintosh. There were no networks ready or anything around it yet. Those were interesting conversations in those early days.
That was the first stage of being there. I was growing in my craft as a programmer and then as a project manager, and then as a young manager. Jobs left in 1985, and we had John Sculley take over. Sculley was a ‘professional’ executive who helped us mature as an organization, get focused on process and on cost management, and generally focus on the things that large companies need to be more focused on.