Ep 65: Jennifer Charters: Inspiration From An Iron Woman

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Jennifer Charters, Chief Information Officer of Corporate Technology for Ally Bank (www.ally.com), one of the first online-only financial institutions in the United States.  Now boasting over 5 million automotive customers and 1.4 million retail banking customers, award-winning Ally has provided 24 hour/7 day a week Internet-driven financial services for its clients since 2009.

Coming from a modest background, Jennifer’s technology fascination began in middle school thanks to Commodore Computers. “My family purchased a VIC 20 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_VIC-20),” she said. “It basically looked like a keyboard, that you connect into your television.”  At first, Jennifer played with inbuilt pre-programmed applications but then began to create her own programs.  “I taught myself how to use Basic. I created a ‘choose your adventure’ program.” Jennifer fondly recalled going to work with her Dad, a lithographer, and “he showed me the computer room. He probably recognized that computers were becoming the future.”   In high school, Jennifer moved on to use Apple IIe (www.apple.com) computers and realized “I had a knack for the logical nature of coding. It came easy for me.”  She matriculated to Michigan State University (www.msu.org) as one of “less than a handful of women” in the computer science program, attracted by the fact that tech jobs “paid very well.”  She was also delighted that the university offered the opportunity to minor in two additional disciplines. “I chose Psychology and Business,” she said because “technology, just for technology’s sake, doesn’t necessarily make sense.  When you apply technology to a problem,” it does, according to Jennifer.

In college, Jennifer was fortunate to obtain internships at IBM (www.ibm.com).  Her first summer was spent in North Carolina, second summer in Rochester, Minn. and third summer in Chicago, Illinois. “I got experience trying all these different companies.” Also, as a member of the Society of Women Engineers (http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org/), (where she found a lot of “like-minded women interested in technology”) she had numerous recruiters swarming. “One of the companies was Accenture (www.accenture.com),” Jennifer said. “It was Andersen Consulting at that time, and they talked about a career path with a lot of variety.”  Jennifer was hooked. “That idea of being a jet-setter and traveling all over the world and getting that opportunity to explore different areas really appealed to me.” Jennifer sold her car and moved to Chicago. “I started off as a programmer,” she said. “It evolved into project and program management; and gave me a lot of exposure to a lot of different companies, and roles within companies.” On average, Jennifer spent 18 to 24 months at each Accenture client she served.  She began in the telecommunications vertical market, then specialized in the field of Internet service providers. “That gave me the chance to work globally,” with stints at Deutsche Telekom (https://www.telekom.com/en) in Germany and Grupo Telecom (http://www.telecomitalia.com/tit/en.html) in Italy.  For Jennifer, the “exciting part was the startup aspect” of each of the challenges she tackled.  Then “In 1999, there were a lot of startups” based on massive adoption of the web. “My husband and I were presented with two different opportunities at startups, and we debated: who was going to do what. We decided only one of us should go the ‘startup route’. “

Their decision was that Jennifer’s husband should join his startup and “the funny thing about that was that in a year, his company was essentially defunct” although, ironically, the opportunity that Jennifer turned down successfully blossomed. “It was a really fun time to be in technology!”  At Accenture, Jennifer then focused on other startups including Focal Communications --- later acquired by Broadwing, which was acquired by Level 3 Communications (http://www.level3.com/en/), in an acquisition flurry. When that project ended, “it was a scary time.” Jennifer moved to a project at AT&T, in New Jersey, right after the World Trade Center was decimated by the events of 9/11; worked on that for two years; then decided to move back from Chicago to Michigan. “We decided to move closer to family” but still traveled each week. “Ultimately, I got pregnant,” and both she and her husband landed jobs in Michigan. Jennifer switched industry specializations to the automotive industry and then to an insurance industry project with The Automotive Club Group (www.aaa.org).  “What I was most interested in was staying local, then” said Jennifer.  This assignment became her entrée into the world of fintech. After having her first child, “I ended up on the road, again,” traveling to Madison, Wisconsin to work on another insurance industry customer. “Then I got pregnant with my daughter,” and had an epiphany. Her emphasis shifted to achieving a work/life balance. “That is when I began to look for other opportunities” outside of Accenture.

Jennifer obtained a project manager position (“a step down to achieve work/life balance”) at GMAC, the financing arm of General Motors (www.gm.com). “It was an interesting change of pace. But I didn’t realize what a change that would be,” she said.  She had her second child after having joined GMAC, and when she returned from maternity leave, GM had sold the financing arm to Cerberus, (http://www.cerberuscapital.com/),  a private equity company. “I found it exciting. It was a huge kind of shakeup, re-looking at our processes; and trying to find ways to make them more efficient. Fast forward another year and a half, and the worldwide financial crisis hit. I felt like I was in the crosshairs of it all. It was a financial company linked to the automotive industry, and those were the industries most affected. We were in real trouble, on the verge of bankruptcy.”  

The U.S. government bailed out GMAC, reinventing the entity as a bank holding company.  “It meant we had more regulations, but it also gave us the opportunity to start a bank --- an online bank: Ally Financial.” The key lesson for Jennifer?  “In crisis, transformation happens.” And Jennifer thrived because “with change is progress.” In that environment, Jennifer was promoted to program manager and then a director. “I felt like there was career momentum.” Eventually, she took her current promotion to Chief Information Officer, Corporate Technology, with responsibility for seven direct reports, and a large organization numbering over 180 colleagues.  “Banks had not always been very friendly.” With pride, Jennifer feels that online only Ally fundamentally has changed that. “We care about our customers. Our motto is ‘do it right’. Customers are really responding.”

“At a young age, my mom made it very clear that girls could do anything,” Jennifer said. Her personal strengths include confidence, based on taking many chances and tackling challenges throughout her career; a penchant for flexibly embracing inevitable change; a focus on what is truly important in life; and an enthusiasm for life-long learning.  “When I try to hire people,” Jennifer said, “one of the things I look for is learning agility: somebody who has curiosity, is continually ‘sharpening the saw,’ and looking for opportunities to stay fresh. In technology, it’s constant change.” Despite her strengths, she occasionally fears “that I am not spending enough time with family. I don’t ever want to look back and have regrets.”  To achieve balance, she relies on tools including her calendar and meticulously blocks out time for both work, and personal/family activities.

In her volunteer life, Jennifer is on the Advisory Board for the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (www.mcwt.org). She also coaches her daughter’s 12-week “GIRLS ON THE RUN” program, where she meets weekly with groups of girls “teaching them to be leaders, be collaborative with each other, and be kind.  At the same time, they also learn to run.” At the end of the period, they run a 5K race.

Jennifer, herself, has recently pushed herself to complete two Iron Man Triathlon Races (http://www.ironman.com/#axzz5BMqBTLsW). “I started that in 2014.  I didn’t know how to swim. If anyone had told me when I started this, that I would enter an Iron Man, I would have told them they were absolutely crazy.”  Nevertheless, once resolute Jennifer began to the process of learning, she got hooked again, using triathlete classes at Lifetime Fitness as her foundation, and inexorably progressing from there.

Key lessons that Jennifer has learned through her career:

  1. “Relationships are key. They come in so many different forms and help you in so many different ways.” Take time to develop them and maintain them. “Having people, you can talk to” is essential.

  2. Take the right amount of time for enjoying life.  “Understand what your priorities are. Take time for them.”

  3. It’s ok to take a step back. (“You actually learn quite a bit,” from taking the occasional break.)

  4. “Managing people is a whole different skill-set and experience. You use influence, since you are disconnected from the hands-on work. It requires trust; and it requires that you have a good team around you.”

  5. “Recognize that your career is your own,. It is what you make of it. You’re in the driver’s seat. Using your own strengths, values, internal compass to guide you will give you the best career for you. Follow your dreams.”

Jennifer can be reached through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jencharters/

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