Regular travellers on the London Underground between Turnham Green and Tower Hill a few years ago may have noticed a woman who always had her nose in a thick book or a folder bulging with papers. They may have wondered who she was and what she was doing.

The answer is that Maggie Miller, now senior vice-president and CIO of the Warner Music Group, was doing what she does best - moving out of her comfort zone. She was using her commute to study part-time for an MBA at the Open University Business School, while holding down her job as IS director at Merrett Group, one of the largest groups of managing agents at Lloyds of London.

"I have never had a career plan, but I have always tried to find something new and challenging, a bit outside my comfort zone. Something that is going to allow me to learn and stretch," says Miller.

Miller's point about being willing to move out of a comfort zone and take on a new challenge is a pertinent lesson for young IT professionals wondering whether to take a risk.

As is her decision to spend her commute studying for that degree. "You have to take responsibility for your own development and not expect a company to do it for you," she says.

In an IT career that now stretches back more than 30 years, Miller has always contrived to position herself where the risky action is. In the 1980s and early 1990s - the years after the "big bang" in financial services - she worked for companies seeking to exploit the new markets.

Miller then moved into retailing, just when the major supermarket chains were looking at ways to use IT to make themselves more competitive. Now, she is at the heart of the music industry - at a time when it is seeking to come to terms with the slow death of the CD and the rapid birth of mobile music and subscription services.

"The kind of companies I have always deliberately chosen are those that are undergoing a challenge of some sort - either through the growth or decline of their industry, or massive change of some kind.

"The type of the industry or the size of the organisation is not what does it for me. It is about the challenge that the company is facing and the likely opportunities for IT to play a role in meeting them."

Miller describes her style as impatient. "I think it comes down to wanting to be part of change. In my career, I have been looking for organisations where there is an understanding of the need for change, and a willingness to make it," she says.

"I like to learn new things and change is how I learn. Sometimes I have taken risks with my career. I have done things that might not be obvious or things about which I have been a bit uncertain. But I do like a challenge and I like the learning that it represents. The fact that I have to stretch means I have to grow in my skills."

The first time Miller decided to move out of her comfort zone was relatively early in her career. She had been working for Brooke Bond Oxo for several years, first as a development programmer and then as a project manager. "I had always been on the development side of the business and I was offered the opportunity to run systems programming. It was old-fashioned technical support programming, which I knew nothing about," she says.

"But it has been a move that I have been grateful for ever since. I only did it for a couple of years, but it was the only opportunity in my career when I have worked on service delivery - the operational side - and that experience has been hugely valuable. I would not pretend that I was great at systems programming, but the learning was enormous."

Another learning experience was the time spent with Dell as CIO for EMEA. "Working for Dell for a couple of years is something everybody should do. It is an amazing organisation. Not easy by any means, but you learn a lot," says Miller.

The MBA was another example of how Miller has pushed herself in order to advance her career. But Miller cautions that an MBA is not an automatic entry ticket to the most senior management positions in IT.

However, she adds, "It opens the door and gets you on the list when senior appointments are being made. It also helped me to learn a common management language so that I could have more fruitful discussions with, for example, marketing and finance professionals."

Looking for opportunities to move out of the comfort zone means taking a decision to move on when the challenges disappear. "There comes a time when the major changes have been made and it is time for the organisation to settle down for a bit. Typically, I think to myself: okay, I will go and do something different now."

Yet Miller does not believe that constantly seeking new challenges is necessarily right for every IT professional. "I think organisations need different management teams at different stages in their development," she says. "What works well in a time of major change will not work in a stable state."

But Miller has found that there are also times not to move on. And that is when the going gets tough. "There have been a couple of occasions in my career when the going got tough and I have had opportunities to leave and do other things. But I made the decision to stick it out.

"Those situations have taught me a great deal about organisational behaviour and about my own strengths and weaknesses and how I operate in difficult circumstances. You learn far more from difficult times than the easier ones."

And it is the difficult times that test professional standards. "I do think it is enormously important for those of us in IT to develop our own set of professional standards and be prepared to adhere to them. We need to have a clear understanding of what is professional and unprofessional behaviour," says Miller.

"In IT, especially in senior positions, you have a unique end-to-end and long-term view of business process. Those without that perspective may try to bully you into actions that may not be in the overall best interests of the business.

"You have to be pragmatic and decide which battles to fight and which not to bother with, but there has to be a core set of professional values which are inviolate."

Miller adds, "I think the key to making those choices is to take the longer-term view and try to keep to a path that has a strategic coherence, rather than bending every which way with the monthly or quarterly demands of the business. IT is a long-term thing. The best way of wasting money in IT is to spend it tactically."

Miller believes that a career in which she has adopted the motto "fortune favours the brave" is standing her in good stead at Warner Music Group. "Organisations can sometimes get paralysed when faced with major change.They think that the status quo is the safe place to be. But when an industry is undergoing major change, like the music business, it is the most dangerous place."

Miller is excited by the positive attitude in US business culture. It translates into the changes she is making at Warner Music Group. "There are enormous difficulties in IT-enabled change. But it is far more exciting to try and make them succeed rather than point out how they might fail."

Looking back, Miller agrees that it is possible to make mistakes when you move out of your comfort zone, but she advises, "Understand your preferred environment and pick your employer carefully. If you find yourself in a mismatch, appreciate what you can and cannot change and just move on."

Miller's current role

Maggie Miller works from New York and heads a team of 400 IT professionals at Warner Music Group. She reports to Michael Fleischer, WMG's group chief financial officer.

Miller has organised the IT function so that it is aligned with the rest of the business. Thus, she has six staff members that report directly to her that are responsible for financial systems, sales systems, distribution, publishing, asset management, and royalty systems.

There are also two CTOs who report directly to Miller. One handles international IT, and the other has worldwide responsibility for the IT infrastructure. There is also a programme office which oversees issues such as governance and contract management.

In addition to developing online and mobile technology infrastructure and capabilities, Miller oversees the expansion of WMG's numerous web assets and e-commerce sites.

CV: Maggie Miller

1974: Joined British Airways training scheme. Trained as PL/1 programmer.

1977: Moved to Brooke Bond Oxo as, successively, senior analyst programmer, project manager, systems software manager.

1986: Joined Lombard Tricity Finance as development manager and later became data processing manager.

1989: Appointed deputy IS director of the Merrett Group, one of the largest Lloyds of London managing agents. Moved up to become IS director.

1994: Moved to Marsh & McLennan Corporation - at the time, the world's largest commercial insurance broker - as senior vice-president of IT in the UK.

1995: Appointed group IS director at First Choice Holidays. Provided IT services for 5,500 users and travel agents.

1997: First post within IT industry as CIO for Dell Europe, Middle East and Africa. Managed 570 staff in 22 countries.

2001: Joined J Sainsbury, UK's second largest food retailer, as CIO. Led a £1.8bn IT transformation programme.

2005: Went to work in New York as senior vice-president and CIO of Warner Music Group.





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This was first published in October 2007

 

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