Ep 35: Visionary Dr. Barbara Ciaramitaro: Be Strategic About Your Future

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview the versatile, and experienced Dr. Barbara Ciaramitaro, Chair of the Decision Science Department, and Director of the newly-expanded Cyber Security Center at Walsh College, in Michigan.  Walsh is a leading non-profit higher education institution offering fifteen business and technology degree programs, on both an undergraduate and Master’s level, as well as three business certificate programs (for credit) and 3 certification prep courses business and technology certifications. Walsh is the third largest graduate business school in Michigan based on total enrollment. Walsh is the first, in 2003, to have received the NSA’s (National Security Administration’s) official designation as an academic center of excellence in information assurance.  The college has also recently received an additional NSA designation as a center of academic excellence in cyber defense.  “A lot of folks are not aware that Walsh has a very long leadership position in the area of cyber defense,” Barbara says.

Fascinated by science as a child, Barbara was born too soon to have computers as part of her early academic experience. “They were not even on the horizon,” she says.   After graduating with her undergraduate degree from Wayne State University, she was thoroughly exposed to the rapidly changing technology landscape, in her early 20’s. She had taken her first job at law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC, and was tapped to be part of the firm’s team to evaluate and introduce new systems.  She remembers her “ah ha” moment.  “I can picture myself walking around downtown, and in my head I said: technology!  This is the world I want to be a part of.”  She moved to another law firm, Plunkett Cooney, after a decade, and while working there, obtained her Master’s Degree in software engineering from Central Michigan University.   At Plunkett, she became Chief Technology Officer, and led the firm in selecting and successfully implementing their first state-of-the-art litigation support and database systems.  From there, she moved to another large firm, Miller Canfield, to help introduce their newest systems too.

“Then General Motors found me,” Barbara laughs. She became the GM executive aligned with the internal legal department, tasked with overseeing the development of a unique legal technology system, eventually awarded three patents and worth approximately $60 million.  She oversaw all the activities undertaken by IS&S (Information Systems and Support) to support this, and was responsible for managing and selecting the external IT vendors.  “It was a very demanding time,” Barbara says.  “But I am so glad I went through it.”

Never idle, Barbara was also teaching part-time, while she worked at GM, to test her aptitude for an educational career.  She decided to go back and get her PhD at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, as part of her evolving career plan.  “I tell my students that you have to be strategic about your future,” Barbara says. “There are so many opportunities.  You need to prepare yourself for the next one, even if you don’t know what it is right now.”  From her own experience, Barbara counsels everyone to follow their passions, and “the opportunities will open up for you.”

Following her own advice, Barbara move to full-time academia after leaving GM. She says “I was at in 2007; and in 2009, Ferris State University asked me to come and develop courses in information security.  In 20014, Walsh asked me to come back, to redesign both the undergrad and graduate program, and really create some world class programs in technology and cybersecurity.  And I am pretty proud to say that we have some remarkable programs there.”  The greatest majority of Walsh students are working adults. On both an undergraduate and graduate level, the college has three separate courses in cyber security. In the winter of 2016, the college also released a new cyber security concentration for its graduate degree; is also a standalone technology certificate program; and is integrated in all technology courses offered. Walsh is also “the only educational institution that made it a point,” Barbara says, “of mapping our courses to the NSA guidelines, and also to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requirements.”  Barb is very proud that Walsh has alumni at every Fortune 500 company based in Michigan.

Along the way, Barbara has learned many lessons:

  • Speak the language of business, and directly to your business audience.  “This is something that my technology students struggle with.”

  • Have patience.  “GM taught me patience. Sometimes it took me six months to a year to get us where we wanted to go.”   Through that, she learned to build rapport with her collaborators to drive progress.

  • Stay on top of things when it comes to technology innovation, and new developments.  It is essential to your career.

  • As a woman, she also counsels that you need to realize that you may have been brought up under “different rules.”  In your career, “you may have to learn new and different ways in terms of thinking about the environment and it may not come naturally for you.  So to achieve leadership you have to spend a lot of time learning from and examining others.”

Throughout her challenging career, Barbara has come to realize some of her own personal strengths:  persistence, the ability to continuously learn and be open to change, giving her own ego a “back seat” and allowing others the chance to shine.  All of these have enabled her to grow as a leader.  “When you are leading people to adopt something new,” she says as an example, “you need to give them time to grieve the loss.  That was something I had never thought about, before.”

As woman in the tech field, Barbara says “I was always aware that I was one of the few there, leading the charge. I grew up with the mantra that I had to be better than the men around me in order to be accepted. Know more, learn more, speak better, be better. I think that’s a horrible burden, but that’s what I felt I needed to do.”  Feeling that along the way, she says that bringing more women into the world of technology is one of her passions “because we need that.”  Her advice to emerging women leaders includes some simple but profound admonitions. “Remain curious,” she says.  “Always look for new answers, new ways of doing things, new technologies.  Be courageous since it’s not easy being a woman in the field of technology.  And be true to yourself. Your personal integrity is the only thing you are going to carry with you through your entire life.”

Barb is feeling very fulfilled these days.  “I really love to see people succeed. When I left GM, it was about service.  And it is very satisfying to work with students and see them achieve their dreams.”

Dr. Barbara Ciaramitaro can be reached via email at ciara2@walshcollege.edu.

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