Ep 38: Julie Christ: Digital Disrupter Building Life-Long Client Relationships

Diva Tech Talk interviewed veteran tech professional, Julie Christ, Founder and CEO of TechSmart Solutions.  Julie originally thought she would be an Emergency Room doctor, but was challenged by chemistry in high school.  One of eight siblings, she was, then encouraged by an older brother-in-law to consider a technology career because “it was new and cool.”   So, Julie graduated from the University of Michigan, with a computer science degree, and a business minor, then a relatively new degree program.

“It was pretty leading edge,” said Julie.  “Throughout my career, I would be the only female in a room of 40-50 people.  It was a differentiator for me.  It never inhibited me; it never bothered me. I just knew that I would be remembered!”   As a woman with a long career in tech, Julie said it saddens her that the percentage of women graduating in computer science curricula has significantly dropped since she was at her university. “I definitely look out for opportunities to bring females forward,” Julie said. “Because it’s really about empowerment.  It gives you that opportunity to earn an income that gives you a very nice lifestyle.  I think it’s important to coach and mentor women to pursue tech.”

Julie’s first job was as a business analyst at Compuware (www.compuware.com) in the 1980’s.  In that role, she said “You were working with your customer to understand what their needs are from a tech perspective.”   Julie’s first customer was behemoth General Motors (www.gm.com).  “We built training for a corporate graphics system. It was one of those defining experiences.  I embraced it.” Julie soon had other automotive companies, like Ford Tractor, and Ford Marketing (www.ford.com).  “That work was ‘bleeding edge’ for the time.  We created a marketing solution, and sent out disks, back in the day, to direct consumers.   That has become my niche, working closely with advertising and marketing teams. Those groups have funding, and more often than not, they are doing leading, ‘bleeding edge’ work, which is my passion!”

Julie then had the opportunity to move overseas, and lived in London, U.K. for a year working for Little Caesar’s.  When she returned to the U.S., she continued with Little Caesar’s (www.littlecaesars.com) in their corporate headquarters as a technical project manager. She also assumed complete responsibility for that private company’s gamut of financial systems.  “It was really an honor to be able to do that for them,” she said.  “They’re very successful and very loyal to their people.  So, it was a great experience to be part of their organization.”  

Julie left Little Caesar’s to seek futuristic tech challenges, and commenced the consulting segment of her career, working for EDS (www.eds.com), where she underwent rigorous leadership training.  “I had a team of 45 working for me, and that was really, really fun.  That aligned with Y2K work; everyone was so worried that the world was going to crash, and, of course, it turned out to be nothing.”  Then Julie moved, for the next 5 years, to $9 billion automotive supplier, Meritor, where she is proud to have had a career of “firsts”, and was part of “some amazing projects!”  As one example, “we were the first organization, that I know of, creating applications for mobile phones.

On a Blackberry, we could provide inventory numbers to the V.P.’s, of Operations, so they could walk into a plant and say ‘Hey. This number is too high; or we need to ensure that we have enough coverage for this product line.’”  A director at Meritor, Julie was responsible for web infrastructure and development, with a direct-reporting 20-person team; and she also created an offshore resource center, in Bangalore, India. “At that time, we were one of the first organizations to be doing that.”

Julie thinks of herself as a “generalist.”  She said “I like building things or fixing things. The apps we created at Arvin Meritor, for example, saved the company millions of dollars.   At that time, many suppliers were filing for bankruptcy; we did not.   We were able to move through that time, partially because of the savings our team was able to create for the organization.”  Continuing her love for the automotive industry, Julie went, subsequently, to Volkswagen, under the aegis of Compuware, to launch VW.com (“which was a significant project, re-launched in a very tight timeframe, in multiple time zones and multiple countries, with no issues.”).   

Then, she migrated to R.L. Polk (www.rlpolk.com), a supplier of market research and data for the automotive industry.  “I purposely took the role as a Director of Sales Operations,” she said, “because I wanted to learn how to get more integrated into a sales solution.”  Her team was over 150 people, and the role comprised “a lot of travel, and the opportunity to coach and mentor.”   

Leaving R.L. Polk, Julie became an entrepreneur, founding TechSmart in 2008, with a fundamental mission of providing overall company solutions (“whether that’s a technical solution, or a business solution”).  Her client base includes organizations in hospitality, municipal government area, food services, banking as well as several core automotive customers. “When I spend time with clients, they ask me back, because they see the value that I bring.  And I treat people with respect and regard, which I think is ‘where it’s all at’ in life, right?”

Throughout her career, Julie has always enjoyed the mentoring role. “My gifts are being able to build relationships, and help people through whatever situation they are in.”   To Julie, her consulting practice doesn’t just cover the analysis of infrastructure and business processes. “It’s also at the individual level.  If you can help an individual become more high-performing, the business wins.”

Julie’s key leadership strengths include her energy/drive, her adeptness at mentoring, her skill as a business diagnostician, and her ability to form “life-long relationships with my clients.”   She exclaimed “I have had people tell me life-long secrets that they’ve told no one else. And I feel very honored that someone would trust me.”  She foresees her ongoing life’s mission as being involved with leading edge technology, which helps her “keep my brain sharp and interesting” and helps her serve TechSmart’s growing client base “when there’s a gap or a situation we need to solve”, by looking at “the bigger picture” and figuring out “what other technologies can we use going down the path.”  Julie sees artificial intelligence and machine-based learning as being two of the most promising emerging technologies today.

In terms of overcoming challenges, Julie views the latest U.S. recession, layoffs in which she has had to participate, and managing the survivors of layoffs as some of her most educational periods.   Her leadership lessons for other women/girls in tech include:

  • Deploy kindness – “treat people the way you want to be treated.”

  • Recognize diversity – “to me it’s about the fact that each one of us has gifts; if you can figure out the gifts that a person has, the individual wins, the team wins, and the organization wins.”

  • Be humane and human.   But DON’T over-apologize, because that will lead people to question your credibility.  In terms of women professionals, Julie said “It’s our own ‘glass ceiling’….”

  • Make sure you have mentors.  “Look for people who have alignments to what you think makes up a good leader.”

To achieve balance in her life, Julie has a philosophy that “life is like an isosceles triangle.”   She emphasizes personal health and self-care, but she acknowledges that “life is not always an equal triangle.”  

Julie’s only daughter is currently working for a Massachusetts-based start-up.  And as a single mother, Julie mentioned that it is “about finding the joy in everything you do.  Just enjoy the moment where you are at.”

On an ongoing basis, Julie is involved in a CIO online “chat” devoted to emerging technologies and she can be followed on Twitter at @DigitalDisruptr.  She can also be reached via email at juliechrist@techsmartsolutions.co.

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