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CIO Takes the Less-Traveled Path to IT Career Success

How many application development leaders do you know who want to move into IT infrastructure--thus committing what some would consider career suicide?

Here's one: Kevin Nelson of Guardian Life Insurance. Nelson had spent his entire career in applications development, but three years ago the infrastructure chief's job at Guardian opened up.

When executives had trouble finding candidates with the right cultural and skills fit, Nelson asked whether he could be promoted into the role. "Being the customer of the infrastructure team," Nelson says, "had given me insight to what services were expected and where improvements could be made."

Nelson's desire to move into the infrastructure position coincided with Guardian's decision to take a new, more customer-focused approach to IT infrastructure.

The infrastructure staff mainly focused on IT from a technical and cost perspective, whereas "in application development you have a different dimension--a third lens--and that's engineering the optimal customer experience," Nelson says.

"As soon as I found out the leadership really wanted to make infrastructure different, I connected our service offerings or actions directly to the end customer experience, and things really took off," Nelson says.

When Nelson got the promotion, he knew he was bound to hear snarky comments from the technical staff, such as, "He's from app dev. What does he know?" While he acknowledges that IT needs experts in certain technical areas, Nelson says that sometimes you also need "well-rounded people who know how to put subject-matter experts together to achieve different results."

When making the move to infrastructure, Nelson shunned any thoughts of failure. "If I concentrated on 'I'm going to fail,' then I'd fail. It was more about putting everything I have into it and having confidence to trust it would go well."

And go well it did. Nelson and his infrastructure team locked down the IT environment, built a resilient data center, and implemented the processes required for a mission-critical site. "What's really important to remember is that the team did all this," Nelson emphasizes.

Previously, Guardian hadn't had much cross-pollination of skills within the IT organization, but now they've embraced the practice, according to Nelson, because it brings a fresh perspective while preserving the company culture.

"Now we're seeing opportunities pop up where maybe that person doesn't have the specific experience required, but they have the skills needed to learn the position and it's those transferrable skills that will help them excel in their next position," he says.

Last year, Nelson was promoted to divisional CIO for two Guardian divisions. Could Nelson have gotten that promotion without his move to the infrastructure group? Perhaps, but Nelson says, "I'm really glad it worked out the way it did."

Kristen Lamoreaux is president and CEO of Lamoreaux Search, which finds IT professionals for hiring managers.

Read more about careers in CIO's Careers Drilldown.

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