Ep 37: Jennifer Pfaff: Running with her Career in Focus

Diva Tech Talk interviewed Jennifer Pfaff, a woman with a rich history of technology leadership accomplishments.  Jennifer is now the Director of Store IT Services for Domino’s (www.dominos.com), a company averaging $2.3 billion in annual revenue, ranking as the 2nd largest franchisor of pizza retail outlets in the world.

Jennifer did not originally intend to pursue information technology as a career.  She initially envisioned her future as an electrical engineer designing cochlear implants to improve the hearing of those with damaged inner ears, since she suffered an auditory loss at a young age. (“Listening and really hearing someone is very, very important” is one of the key lessons that Jennifer learned from her disability). But while at the University of Arizona, she interviewed engineers at a research facility in Los Angeles, and quickly came to the decision that electrical engineering was not her life’s mission. She changed to a double major in Business, with a concentration in  MIS and Operations Managmement; and took her first job in Battle Creek, Mi. at the headquarters for Kellogg Company (NYSE: K) in the information technology department, subsequently moving into sales there “to learn how we really did our business.” She then managed a Kellogg sales territory that encompassed Montana, Washington State, and Idaho, before returning to Michigan to the automotive industry as a consultant with Ernst & Young.  From that sales stint, she learned “You have to understand your customer.  You have to put yourself in their shoes.  You have to gain trust of the people you are talking to.  It’s about understanding what he or she needs to learn from you.  It’s not all about the technology.”

Coming back to Michigan, “I worked for all three of the Big 3 U.S. automotive companies either directly or through consulting,” Jennifer said. “Early on, I discovered that my passion was in the project side of IT.”  One of her favorite early projects, a breakthrough personalized car owner website for Ford, is very characteristic of the rest of her career.  Jennifer and her team began the project with few requirements or resources, but a very aggressive development timeline. “We had to come together as a group. We didn’t know what the site was going to look like.  We didn’t know how we were going to deliver it. We didn’t know what the technology was going to be to deliver it.  All we knew was that we had a deadline, and a very eager customer.”  In Jennifer’s view the amorphous nature of the project and the quick timeline “drove creativity.”  Crediting her “fantastic team,” this shaped a crucial career philosophy for Jennifer: “If you have the opportunity to try something new, out of your comfort zone, with high visibility” do it!

Jennifer’s next challenge came when she went to another Fortune 500 company, Jacobs Engineering (www.jacobs.com), an international technical and engineering professional services firm, with over 80,000 employees, and 127 offices all over the globe.  Jacobs is one of the top 100 contractors to the U.S. Federal Government, and Jennifer led their global technology project office, managing a worldwide team on several continents. There, through several projects -- including one that was the creation of a structured representation of the $10 billion company’s total enterprise architecture, globally -- she and her team “learned to take a leap,” and move swiftly and fearlessly toward large project goals.

From Jacobs, Jennifer migrated to her current technology role at Domino’s. Among other things, her team is working on strengthening and securing the online, ordering and transaction system that allows consumers to place orders.  She has also just joined Domino’s product strategy group, where she will be helping to roll out new digital innovations for Domino’s franchisees and consumers.  “We’re a technology company who just happens to make pizza,” she exclaimed! Among other exciting developments she described Domino’s web-based “Pizza Tracker” that allows consumers to track orders, in real time online, and coupled that with other innovative solutions that save consumer ordering preferences, to speed up transactions and service.   

Jennifer is clearly strongly enjoying her new role at Domino’s and is looking forward to going to “Pizza Class” very soon, so that she experiences the business from the ground up.  At work, Jennifer also stresses developing an unofficial learning culture in the corporation.  “I look for opportunities for taking team members in my group to meetings.  I offer intern spots on my team.  I make sure I provide coaching and mentoring too.”  Her advice to our audience is that, through observation and questions, leaders ensure that everyone have the chance to speak up and “have a voice.”   According to Jennifer, the culture of Domino’s is “if you work hard, good things happen.”

In assessing her own personal strengths, Jennifer said “I think I can apply ‘big picture’ vision, and take it right down to execution.”  Comparing it to running (a sport she avidly pursues), Jennifer said “focusing, driving forward, getting to the end goal” are characteristic of what she loves to do.  “And I think having a passion for learning and listening to customers or team members” also contributes to Jennifer’s success.   She is very grateful that “I have had the opportunity to model leadership skills from some of the top leaders in the IT world,” through her community involvement in The Michigan Council of Women in Technology (www.mcwt.org).  “I could practice my management and senior leadership skills” by doing extensive volunteer work, over 13 years, at that nonprofit.

Speaking of work/life balance, Jennifer says “You can have it all, but maybe not at the same time.  Don’t compare yourself to everyone else. Keep in mind what’s important for you; and do whatever works for you.”  One of the things that helps keep her balanced and focused is daily running. She has run 6 marathons and carries the lessons from the running experience into real life.  From the creativity perspective, Jennifer also mentions she is a “crazy knitter.”  She also said: “You can find leadership lessons in places where you least expect them, if you are really open and looking around, in whatever industry you are in” citing unexpected advice and counseling she received from customers along the way, and an unofficial mentor she was fortunate enough to meet through her community involvement.

Jennifer’s 3 pieces of cogent advice for aspiring women leaders and girls in tech is:

  1. “As you are building your brand, focus on what you do best, make sure that you give some thought to what else it is that you think you want to do, in the future.”  (And try those other things!)

  2. For all students, “take as much math as you possibly can. It teaches you to think.”

  3. And “If you think broadly, give things a go and you are willing to try things, good things will happen.  Be ready; be flexible.”

Domino’s is hiring in the technology arena, in strategic planning, and in general, and Jennifer urges anyone interested to contact their Human Resources Department. Jennifer Pfaff can be reached via email at jen.pfaff@dominos.com, and on Twitter at @jenpfaff1.

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