Ep 54: Rita Barrios: Managing Massive Projects a Byte at A Time

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Dr. Rita Barrios, Chair for the Department of CyberSecurity & Information Systems, and Associate Professor, at the University of Detroit, Mercy (http://www.udmercy.edu/). The program graduates approximately 150 trained technology professionals each year. “When I first started, we only had 15 students,” Rita said. But her efforts have expanded the department to 10 times that size, over the last 3 years.  She accomplished that in a one-to-one sales role: “Hitting the pavement.  Going to high schools, and having ‘visit days’; talking with associated schools; passing out the business card at churches, and baseball games.”

In talking about her personal development, Rita said “My Dad was always my biggest supporter.” (She fondly thought of him, a military professional, when the hashtag #HeForShe recently prevailed in social media).  The 7th child of 8 siblings in her “very strict” family, Rita admitted that she was “a little on the geeky side” in her high school years.  She entered the Detroit College of Business, now a part of Davenport University (https://www.davenport.edu/ ‎), specializing in accounting, but decided on information systems as a second major, on the advice of an academic counselor. “I liked programming, and even the punch cards,” she laughed.  Rita soon dropped the accounting focus, and concentrated on her growing love of software and technology.  “I grew up in the field,” Rita simply stated. In her junior year she got married, and gave birth to a daughter during her senior year of college.  

Rita’s several internships during that senior year (when her daughter was 6 months old) were at the Grand Trunk Western Railroad (gtw.railfan.net/), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian National Railway (https://www.cn.ca/).  After graduation, she became a full-time employee of the railroad, as a junior programmer.  Grand Trunk’s IT department was eventually bought by Compuware (www.compuware.com), and Rita was immediately promoted from junior programmer to project manager (“a huge leap”).  “As a young person coming out of college, you are taught about project management but you really have no experience,” Rita said, “managing humans, time, resources, and all the moving parts of a project.”

Rita’s first large challenge was a two-year international EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) project among three cross-border entities, automating the manifest for U.S. Customs to enable trains to cross borders without stopping. With no experience, Rita “just sort of figured it out.  I read a lot of books; I found a lot of people to help me; I asked a ton of questions. I was on the ‘bleeding edge’ of that, sitting on the board with the American Association of Railroads, and U.S. Customs.”  She credited her immediate management for empowering the leap into this next phase of her career. “My immediate supervisors were so good at lifting me up, and just throwing me into situations; letting me flounder, but letting me figure it out.  Anything we needed, they made sure we had.”  The secret to success was Rita’s penchant for digging into the details rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the undertaking. “You don’t look at the mass of the project.  You look at what I need to get done today; what I need to get done tomorrow. I took it a bite (byte) at a time!”

Rita’s next step was as a Compuware contractor to Ford Credit (https://www.ford.com/finance) to maintain their legacy information systems as they rebuilt IT infrastructure. “I was only supposed to be there for a year, but I ended up being at Ford Credit for 14 years,” she said, operating under a variety of senior leadership teams and going from programmer to database analyst (DBA) to senior DBA, on both mainframe software and server software.  “We were a well-oiled machine,” she said. “Everybody knew their jobs, their roles, each other. There was trust.  If you could have the ‘poster child’ of a team, that would be it.” Rita continues to have a very strong admiration for mainframe implementations. “It has power and capabilities that I cannot get with a server-side system.”

During this timeframe, Rita obtained her Masters of Science in Information Systems, Software Assurance at the University of Detroit, Mercy; then later completed her PhD in information science, with a focus on security assurance and cybersecurity at Nova Southeastern University (http://www.nova.edu/), an innovator in online advanced education.

“An opportunity came where I could move to academia,” Rita said.  “Me being me, I said ‘sure, why not?’ That’s how I landed at Detroit, Mercy.”  Additionally, she received certifications from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg University, School of Public Health in data specialization, and a certificate in criminal justice and law enforcement from the FBI Detroit Citizens Academy.

A single mom for the last 14 years, (“there was no child support; there was nothing; it was all on me”) Rita is justifiably proud of her two children. “I have a daughter, 26, now working on her PhD in Material Engineering. And I have a son, 19, going into digital media and graphics arts.”   She acknowledged her influence on her progeny: “When you put a high value on education, and following your path, that is what you end up with. My daughter is a rocket scientist, who works for NASA and just had her first project launched to the International Space Station.  And my son is a fantastic artist.  He is already building Websites and Webpages, way beyond what I think I could ever do.”

Rita is very excited about her own cybersecurity field. “We teach is how to do investigations, how to do digital forensics/hacking. We cannot teach somebody how to protect the system, until we teach how it is broken into.  We partner with the Criminal Justice Program because you cannot have a crime without some digital piece to it, these days, and look at it from the criminal point of view. We also partner with the law school, talking about cyberlaw. We have the physical world laws, but a lot of the physical world laws don’t necessarily translate to the cyber universe. “

Rita’s specialty has spun off into a side business. She runs an IT training and education consultancy, RitaBarr LLC (www.ritabarr.com) specializing in corporate IT training, and she also partners with Mackinac Investigators on digital forensics investigations.   “At some point, I would like to grow the business.”  Ever-ambitious, Rita is looking forward to also moving to the “business side” of academia, at some point.  

Rita attributes her success to a few characteristics:

  • Workaholism: “I never shut it off.  I always have something cooking in my head.”

  • Being present at all times.  Balancing raising a family with her career, she learned how to partition mental challenges, and stay in the moment. Then “I give it a rest.”

  • Most importantly she said “I love watching people grow.  Mentoring is a strength.”

Along the way, Rita said that “I have always been the only female in the room.” As an example, “I presented research at the Department of Defense to a bunch of military people, who were all guys. It was intimidating. But my Dad gave me the tools to deal with that. Coming up through IT, I was the only female, but I have never felt like the only female. I was never discriminated against.” This feeling changed though “when I went to the University.”  There she experienced “over-talking, interruption, all of it.” (More about the “manterruption” phenomenon can be accessed here: http://www.lawjournalnewsletters.com/sites/lawjournalnewsletters/2016/01/31/at-the-intersectionmanterruption-redux/).  “I have been told by my colleagues that I better ‘know my place, young lady, ’ she lamented.  Rita recommended her approach to deal with this negative phenomenon. “I am very professional. I go into a very robotic mode, very stoic. I lay out the facts with no emotion. I plan what I am going to say.“

Rita’s focused leadership lessons/advice currently include:

  • “Spend time to get to know people. Find out their strengths, and where they belong.”

  • “Bring the best people around you; then get out of their way.”

  • “Stay flexible.”

  • “If you think about it --- that the project’s too big --- you will not achieve what you want to achieve. So, whatever comes, just take it in.”

  • “There is nothing you can’t overcome; nothing is impossible.”

And summing up: “There are no shortcuts.”  For Rita, success is always about hard work.

Finally “The best advice I can give a young person is to be open,” said Rita. “Don’t plan your path.  Let things happen to you.” She pointed to her own evolution. “I was blessed to find what interested to me. Opportunities come about.”

Please feel free to contact Rita Barrios at rita.barrios@udmercy.edu.

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