Ep 30: Michelle Billingsley: Hands On Techie Turned CIO

Diva Tech Talk was honored to chat with Michelle Billingsley, Vice President and Chief Information Officer for nonprofit Blue Care Network. In her role, Michelle manages a team of 105 full-time IT professionals, supplemented by 150 consultants/contractors, and directs information technology operations and solution delivery to meet the dynamic business needs of Michigan’s largest HMO, serving over 800,000 members.

Michelle fell in love with technology early in life.  A high school science project in programming led her to “the love of solving problems and the love of programming.”  While obtaining her undergraduate degree at Western Michigan University in computer science, with a minor in math and business, she worked in the computer lab and taught computer classes.  “I find it fun and energizing,” she said.  “The people you get to meet and work with are funny, quirky, different and so intelligent.”

Post-college, Michelle began her career at National Tech Team, a large IT supplier and training company, where she delivered training in UNIX and C programming for automotive engineers and programmers. Then she went to Wayne State University in Detroit as a systems analyst, and obtained her Masters Degree in Education, Instructional Technology while working full-time, for 8 years, on university IT initiatives (and also “met my telecommunications administrator husband.”)  From there, eager to apply her skills to the business world, she went to a small healthcare company. “Healthcare, for years, has lagged behind in technology,” said Michelle.

She saw that gap as an opportunity, and worked for a small supplier of Medicaid programs.  “It was the best learning ever for the field because I did everything from write code for reporting to being a leader for the claims team to doing cabling for the networks to installing software.  It helped me to learn about a broad spectrum of the healthcare business. ”  

HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act) was taking hold then, and Michelle saw her next opportunity to become a consultant, “to help people be prepared to meet the HIPAA mandates.”  She went to Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan as a contractor, and was then offered a job.

“In my earlier days at Blue Cross, I used to say ‘oh, I’m only going to stay for a little while’…and here I am 14 years later!  Because there’s so much that goes on, I didn’t really need to go to another company to have different projects to work on.”

Michelle enthusiastically discussed the growing audience being served by BCN after passage of the Affordable Care Act.  “There have been changes in our business model.  We used to have more group business.  Now we have had a huge insurgence from the federally-funded marketplace of individuals. Serving them vs. serving our group customers has really changed our business, and our focus.  We are balancing both; serving our group customers and new individual customers, who are used to a more ‘retail’ environment…trying to continue to provide products that engage those members, that help them stay healthy, and help them think about their care, and control their cost of care.”

Michelle is excited about her career future in healthcare working with “disruptive” technologies.  She mentioned the impact of wearable devices, BIG data, telemedicine, cognitive predictive analytics and pharmaceuticals on the business. “All of those things are really starting to disrupt healthcare.  I would love to be a part of developing and leading projects, using disruptive technology, that helps in bringing the cost of U.S. healthcare way, way down to make it sustainable. The future is knowing how to keep you out of the ER or out of the doctor.”

Michelle’s personal leadership strengths include a strong goal orientation (“I like to see outcomes”); her ability to communicate her team’s impact and their accountability to them; and a strong, empathetic focus on “servant leadership.”   “I’m not here to tell everybody ‘we have to get this done,’ said Michelle.  “I’m here to facilitate and remove roadblocks for them.  I always made a rule, throughout my career, to never ask somebody to do something I wouldn’t personally do myself.”  She also cites balance and courageousness as a personal hallmark.  “As a woman, I was pregnant during one of my projects.  I powered through it. Balancing my career with being a mom, balancing my job responsibilities with my husband’s military career and deployments,” are all exemplary of that, to Michelle, since she continuously focused on her career simultaneously with her personal life.  “When you’ve worked on projects around-the-clock, when you’re pregnant and your husband is in Iraq,” she exclaims, “there is nothing scary. People say ‘this project’ is really hard’.  (I say) Bring it!”

Michelle’s advice for aspiring women technology leaders is:

  • Make your communications “relatable.” (“Remember how they hear you.  Forget acronyms; use analogies.”)

  • Be courageous, but recognize that part of courageousness is being vulnerable. (“You have to be able to accept help.”)

  • Have goals for yourself and for your family. (“Then you know what you are working for.”)

  • Build a broad network of people inside and outside your organization. (“You need it so that you have people you can reach out to as resources; you need a subset of it for feedback.”)

  • Get a mentor. (“My mentors have been invaluable for me.”)

  • Take risk with your career, it stretches you. (“Take on things that are really hard.  It’s sometimes scary, but it’s like riding a bike.  You get used to it.”)

Michelle Billingsley can be reached on Twitter @mebillingsley.   

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