#CareerHighlights - RG Conlee, Chief Innovation Officer

RG Conlee’s dad was a teacher and his mom was a cook. He describes his lifestyle growing up just north of blue-collar. Conlee grew up in Illinois and went to the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire to study to become a musician studying under famed jazz artist Dominique Spera. After graduation, Conlee started a career in music education, following in his father’s footsteps. He continued his career in education for 20 years during which he had successful music programs in Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. In addition, he was a pioneer in computers and music. In the mid 80s when the Apple IIe came out, he used his high school and college math and science skills to learn to program computers.  He created a music lab for a junior high students while teaching in Iowa and published curriculum for several music companies. Also, he founded and headed a non-profit private school with 215 students and opened a small computer business.

Conlee’s formal education was in music, but his self-learning in computers and computer science led to his career in corporate IT.  He gained motivation from his childhood activities. He said being a musician for the past 55 years taught him to constantly challenge himself  and push his work to the next level. Conlee also enjoyed sports, but he found his true passion in both music and technology. He sees himself as a front end person who looks toward the future and searches for what can be done better. He is an advocate for automation and seeing where it will take business. He said passion comes from having a personality that is motivated by always wanting to be better.

Q: What steps did you take to get your foot in the door as an IT Project Manager and then later climbed the ranks to CIO?

A: The first step was learning the trade. My formal training was in music and education. The other skills came from leveraging my HS education and building on it with self-instruction. My first break was winning a contract for developing a state level scheduling program for the Iowa High School Music Association. I had domain knowledge about music contests and at the time was the only one around that knew something about programming computers. After that, I started a small computer business that focused on business accounting. There were no accounting packages in those days for small businesses so I saw an opportunity to get in on the ground level so I worked with a friend who was an accountant and created some custom packages for several small businesses. In talking about this, it may seem like it was a short time, but the learning and building of the programming skills and becoming successful at delivering product took 10-12 years.  In 1998 I started looking at a job change away from the education market. After a lot of applications, I was able to get a job as a Y2k project manager with a contract firm called Mastech. The job was based in Lexington, KY. Y2K project managers were in short supply and high demand; even with my lack of credential in IT, the short supply allowed me to get a job and prove myself in the IT world.  I learned a lot in the 18 months that I was Y2K project manager…and was successful. It was Dec 1999 that I got the job at ACS as the development manager for the new BPO business.. From that point on, I continued to work hard, learn and consistently provide high performance. The overall keys from each of these steps were:

  1. To leverage either the formally trained skills or acquired soft skills to move to the next level
  2. Never stop learning
  3. Be willing to take risks and figure out ways to be successful
  4. Work hard and produce results

The early years from 1985-1999 were all about learning and doing. From 1999-present its been about continuing to learn and producing results in whatever position I have. My experience as a development manager for four years, as an operations manager for five years, and in innovation and IT upper management for nine years forced me to learn more, polish more, and produce more.

Overall the success has come from continually learning, as well as personal and professional discipline, along with a willingness to work as hard as it took to produce those results.

Q: Can you explain your day-to-day operations as a CIO?

A: The job of a Chief Innovation officer focuses on creating and delivering new products and services. That includes working with research labs to explore, create and develop new products all the way to hardening the product for use in commercial business. During part of my tenure I was also CTO (chief technology officer) for Xerox Services where I managed the operations of all the IT assets as well as had the day to day responsibilities of managing the new product development.

Business process outsourcing (BPO) is where Fortune 500 companies and other companies hire someone to do “back office” work; for example, data entry, mailroom work, etc. One task we have done at [Company] is take on 50 percent of claims processing for insurance companies. Although we are not the insurance company, we do the behind the scenes work, like data entry aforementioned.

The day to day work centers around managing teams of researchers, developers and business unit contacts to create, develop and deliver the new products and services. Much of the time is spent in meetings, calls and correspondence. There is a lot of travel involved and a lot of public speaking as well.

Q: What direction is the industry headed?

A: The BPO industry as a whole has largly exhausted all the offshoring locations they can utilize like India, Guatemala, and the Far East. Now companies are moving from outsourcing to automation and digital services. For example, call centers were insourced and then became outsourced. Now companies are moving to automated chat boxes and interactive voice response (IVR) systems. I am currently launching my own company that does this.

In the next five years, expect an influx of automation into the market. For those that are interested in these careers, prepare to have higher level skills for these higher level jobs.

Q: What skills are required to be where you are now?

A: First step, get a computer science degree and if possible an MBA. My job is highly technical but also very business centric. You need both. Besides the formal training, make sure you develop your communication and sales skills. Most important, be resilient. Don’t give up. Learn, learn, learn and be the best employee you can be every day. Also, you need to be willing to take some risks. Top positions often don’t come to those who are too conservative or fearful of failure.

Along the way, you need to keep making connections. What you know is only the start. Who you know is equally if not more important. Make sure that you support the people you work for and work with. Develop a great reputation.

Q: You held multiple positions in “innovation”. What would you say that word means to you and how does it influence you in your career?

A: In the course of innovation and creativity, the basis of innovation is asking questions like “how else can we do it?” or “what can be done differently?” If you are doing the same thing, the same way you did five years ago, you’re going out of business. Innovation means constantly pushing the envelope and looking at the world and the work in a new and fresh way.

I would say that creativity and innovation have been the core to my success. Helping our business become competitively differentiated was what created my success as CIO.  

Q: Is there a particular project/idea that was executed that you are especially proud of and why?

A: Tough question. In my education career, I completed numerous projects that I’m proud of and feel were a tremendous success. My education career overall was very successful and I’ve been able to see the impact on students throughout their lives. To put that in perspective, my first 7th graders turned 50 three years ago. Facebook allows me to watch their lives and see the impact firsthand. I was a successful band director, professional musician, and founder of a private school starting from the ground up. All were great highlights in my career.

In the IT/Innovation career, I’m very proud of being a significant contributor to the development of a Fortune 500 company and driving that significant growth with innovation. In particular, the transition to Xerox from ACS was a time when I was charged with connecting our businesses to research and building new technologies. That process took three years until it began to mature, but later became the example in the market to copy. In 2016, we received the PDMA Corporate Innovator of the Year award for our innovation practice.

By Noah Burton