Diva Tech Talk interviewed Teri Takai, former CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense; former CIO for both the state of California and state of Michigan; and automotive industry technology executive. Today, Teri is the Executive Director for The Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic.
Teri’s parents grew up on the U.S. West Coast where “in World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in (concentration) camps.” Her mother and father were fortunate. The University of Michigan entered the camps to help. “If you could get security clearance, you could (with $25 and one suitcase) take a train to Ann Arbor and get a job.” Wistfully, Teri said: “My dad wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. but didn’t feel that as a Japanese American, he could, so he decided to go into civil engineering.” However, the concentration camp, and move, disrupted his plan. Instead, he became a draftsman in the automotive industry, working for small automotive suppliers.
“I wasn’t interested in technology, at first, but I was good at math. It was the problem-solving,” Teri said. Valedictorian of her high school, she matriculated at the University of Michigan as a math major. A friend of her mother suggested she pursue computer programming. Teri devised an individualized curriculum of statistics, industrial engineering and more. Graduating with strong Fortran skills, she joined a small division of Ford Motor Company, focused on tractors, and developed a fascination for “the way technology impacted the business.” This inspired her to go back to school for a Ford-financed MBA. Teri worked in engineering, manufacturing and traveled internationally, staying for a decade, and enjoying promotions, many of which involved people management.
Teri feels fortunate that, prior to “diversity” being acknowledged as integral to progressive workplaces, she had a Ford boss who supported her taking a formal leave of absence to move to Germany, along with her husband, who was transferred as an engineer --- before Ford had a formal policy for working spouses. The leadership lesson Teri frequently shares is “what we need to do is follow our belief systems. Do what is right.”
At the end of 10 years in the tractor division, Teri got the opportunity to move to the mainstream side of Ford, as part of a consulting team working to build Ford Latin America. This opened her eyes to how people, from different cultures, might view her, as a colleague/leader. Teri did that job for 5 years, and then moved to a Ford thinktank directed to meeting the competitive threat of GM’s innovative Saturn division. “I am pretty good at getting things done. I am not necessarily your leader for ‘big picture’ strategies. I am focused on how you organize, bring people together and deliver a product.” As part of Ford’s software development, Teri worked on complex internal ERP and administration systems, a large supply chain initiative (CMMS), and then moved to the assembly division, managing plant floor systems. Then Ford gave her an overseas assignment, in the United Kingdom, where she led the development of a global purchasing system, which involved the expansion of a European-based purchasing system all over the world. Then Teri came back to the U.S. to Ford Credit, for a large system launch. Then she moved back into leading CMMS. Teri completed her 30 year career at Ford involved in the acquisition of Land Rover, and Volvo, and then in strategic planning. “My time at Ford was about delivery.”
Teri took a two-year position at EDS, because “I felt the wave of the future was not going to be big, internal IT organizations.” She learned the technology services business and had the chance to work directly with GM. Soon she was approached to join Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan cabinet. She became CIO and Director of the Michigan Department of Information Technology. “The governor said to me, now is the time for giving back, for public service,” Teri said. “I am forever grateful to her for that.” Teri inherited a single precedent-setting government organization that centralized all information technology staff for the state. She and Governor Granholm were “great colleagues; I understood her strategic planning initiative, and what she wanted to do.” Teri came to a deep understanding about the collaborative nature of government, and how to effect lasting change. She stayed for 5 years, then was approached by the State of California, which had been without a CIO for over 5 years. “Governor Schwarzenegger, at the time, had gotten advice, from tech companies, that California needed a CIO,” she said. She became that CIO, and created the Office of the CIO from scratch, fully operational, in a 3-year timeframe, simultaneously with the state’s budget crisis. While the learning curve was challenging, Teri grew through it, and “a number of women reached out to me, there; influential women in Sacramento.”
Toward the end of three years in California, “a friend of mine had become President Obama’s Chief Information Officer. He called and asked me to interview for Chief Information Officer for the Department of Defense.” Despite a lack of federal government experience, she was offered the job. “It was the hardest, most stressful, job I ever had. You have a role that is accountable to all men and women in uniform. Everything thing DoD did, for security and protection, was based on technology.” She worked for four different Cabinet Secretaries for Defense in her 3-year tenure interacting with other members of the cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“amazing leaders”).
Having left the Federal Government, Teri is now leading the Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic. “The overall role is to link technology companies with state and local government.” Teri personally guides key programs. “We do surveys, so cities, states and counties can compare themselves to each other, and get rankings/grades. We share best practices and celebrate!” Teri also provides advisory services for technology companies, in government and works with cybersecurity start-ups, to bring tech to the market.
Teri strongly believes her unique background, and skills, emanate from both success and failures. “Sprinkled through the good stuff was a lot of learning, mistakes, and setbacks. I learned, later in life than I should have, the importance of collaboration. It takes time to understand how important all the different viewpoints are.” Teri defines ultimate happiness as “having a mission in life and giving back.” Her advice to other evolving women leaders is: “Be patient with yourself, as you are going through your career.” Teri is proud that colleagues have called her “a survivor” because she learned from every obstacle. “Believe in yourself. Stay the course. Keep moving ahead.” And finally, “follow your intuition; do what feels right.”
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