Chief Innovation Officer at Involta
Michelle is the new Chief Innovation Officer at Involta — a managed IT service provider based in Cedar Rapids. Michelle was formerly the President and Founder of BluPrairie — a cloud technology strategy and design company, which was recently acquired by Involta in October 2018. An accountant by trade, Michelle transitioned into tech after witnessing first-hand the transformative power of technology while working for her father's insurance company. She's working to build a talent pipeline for eastern Iowa and sees it as her duty to inspire the next generation of women technologists.
Describe the path you took to where you are now.
I'm an accountant by trade. I am not a computer science major or anything along those lines. I worked in public accounting for a brief period of time and then I came back to Iowa to work for my family business—my dad had an insurance agency in Kalona, IA. He was a guy with an eighth grade education who had grown a company starting in the laundry room of our house. He reached a point where he had more paperwork then he was tall because insurance is pretty paperwork intensive. He knew he needed to automate so my brother and I helped him put in and optimize a policy automation system. He considered that to be a really great thing, because it did what warms an accountant’s heart--we improved cash flow and margins.
Then I went to work for the software company that put in the solution—a company called Applied Systems that opened up a call center in Coralville, Iowa. I was the first person out of a mass hiring of 60 that was brought into that organization and I was the only person who had ever seen the software before. That really became my jump off point into tech. I’ve worked in the financial services sector, I’ve worked in the manufacturing sector and prior to starting BluPrairie, I was the director of IT architecture for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids. I was responsible for oversight of the creation of the cloud strategy to help Rockwell get a little bit better at being a global company through the use of collaboration and implementation of collaboration services.
I love the pace of change. I loved the business enablement aspect of technology. From that point on, I set my sights on being the CIO of a small to mid-market company in the Midwest. I started BluPrairie in October of 2015 and I have been in the tech space for a couple of decades.
Tell us about BluPrairie and why you started the company.
I started to see that we were importing talent from the east and west coasts to help us with cloud technologies. What we wanted to be able to do with the vision that I had for BluPrairie, was create a service organization that could help companies in the midwest take advantage of the cloud. Most companies know they need to do something they just don't know how to go about it and that's really the whole purpose of BluPrairie.
We are a cloud technology strategy and design company. We help companies modernize their technology and move from their on premise locations to public cloud or private cloud so that they can optimize their IT spend, and position themselves for growth, flexibility and scalability. We focus on strategy first and that includes people and process. We are far more than technology here, we help people to embrace, adopt and use technology.
Did your time at Rockwell Collins enable or inspire you to start your own company?
I was really blessed in my time and tenure at Rockwell. I got to work with incredibly smart people and have opportunities to change and transform our organization. I had exposure working with companies like Google and Amazon that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise in my career. It gave me exposure to structure and process in ways that I hadn’t been exposed to before and really I took all of those lessons learned and built the model of BluPrairie— which is that we focus on: people, process and technology.
You’ve now been in business 2.5 years - what challenges have you faced over the past couple of years?
The challenges have been about growth and managing growth which is a pretty common entrepreneurial story. I wanted to make sure that I was managing growth effectively—that's the accountant in me. We now have 12 folks on staff and that’s a lot of souls to think about and feed and care for. That’s not something I take lightly. I’m really blessed by the staff that I have and the fact that all of these folks took a chance coming from their very successful careers to a startup to contribute and change things here. Managing growth will continue to be the biggest challenge that we have and to make sure that we’re doing it in a smart, efficient way and not getting over our skis.
What made you decide to establish your company in eastern Iowa?
I'm a Midwestern girl and I believe that there's so much goodness that comes out of the Midwest. There are so many hidden gems of companies that people don't realize are here, who are contributing to the local economy, to the national economy and to the global economy. What I wanted to do was create a talent pool for them that they could tap into to continue to grow and stay relevant in their market. When you're raised in the land of the Amish, serving your community is a really important thing to do. I'm excited to be here and I'm excited to be able to bring attention to what happens in the state of Iowa through tech.
Were your family and friends supportive of your career path?
My partner Annie, I couldn’t do this without her support, because the life of an entrepreneur and even someone who works in tech for over 20 years, your hours are up and down and crazy. I couldn’t do that without my family’s support. My two daughters are pretty incredible humans and they have always been champions in my corner. While I love everything that I do at BluPrairie, the two of them will always be my greatest success.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
At first I thought the biggest risk was leaving my very comfortable life with a Fortune 500 company where I had a lot of security and certainly could have stayed there throughout the remainder of my career. What was a real risk was not trying and not tapping into what I thought I could potentially do. Until I started BluPrairie, I was the only person in my family who didn't own their own business. My mom was a sole proprietor as an independent cleaning lady, my dad owned his own business, both of my brothers own their own businesses and I wanted to make sure that I had it in me. I knew it was going to be a risk if I didn’t step out and try, because I would have always wondered. Fulfilling the family legacy is a really important part of who I am and keeping the values that my brothers and I were raised with in business at the core or BluPrairie. I feel pretty blessed by the foundation that my folks gave me.
How has your education helped you get to where you are today?
I'm an accountant, at the end of the day, what you hope for in any company is being in the black. The things that came natural to me as I was raised in a family business, I understood things like the financial needs and the accounting side, the insurance side, the HR side, those things weren’t overwhelming for me and I think a lot of entrepreneurs are not sure where to go with that. I feel like I had a good foundation to build on, and the experience that I’ve been blessed to gain working with different companies over the years was the icing on the cake that allowed us to take off more rapidly than we ever anticipated.
Was there an “Aha!” moment when you knew tech was what you wanted to do with your career?
When I was working at the insurance agency with my dad I was able to really see the difference that technology made for a small business. It allowed him to lower his total cost of ownership and continue to grow the business. Technology connected him to his insurance carriers and his partners in a very different way. In that moment I knew that those were areas that I wanted to be a part of, because that’s how growth happens. Growth comes through connections with other people whether it’s partners or customers or suppliers. I caught the bug at that point in time and I’ve been riding the technology crazy train for almost 25 years now.
You’re frequently out in the community speaking to students and particularly girls. Is this a passion of yours?
It absolutely is. I feel as though that's definitely a call to service and a way that I can give back to the community. I grew up in a time where the idea of women in tech was not something that was actively promoted. Being able to show, especially to young women, that there is a path for them and also to be able to broaden their ideas of what technology is. Often times, we will talk about engineering or coding or infrastructure, but there are so many other careers whether it's business architecture or being a business analyst or being a project manager where people can contribute. If I can open their eyes to what that is, then I'm excited to do that.
One of the things I spoke about at Kirkwood for their girls high-tech day, was the fact that we focus on the “knowns.” We focus on things like hardware, but we don't step back and say how important it is to be able to build communication and collaboration skills. The future of IT skills are drastically changing. You have to be able to be a broker of information and technology. It used to be that we controlled our own space, our technology was in our building, and now you're really becoming a broker with third-party service providers whether that is somebody who's in the SAAS space or in the IaaS (infrastructure as a service) space, or public or private cloud. You’ve got to be able to manage all of that, which comes back to communication and relationships.
There is a blend that's happening with IT and business. The expansion of those skills and making sure that if you’re a computer science major, you take a couple of business courses, like an accounting course or a finance course. It's really important for you to understand where the solutions that you create fit into an organization, and how they enable employees and also enable the bottom line. Sometimes we take a hard-line stance of either you are business or you are tech, but when you can bring those things together with effective communication skills that's really when you create the “secret sauce” for success.
What advice would you give a young person considering tech or a person looking to transition into a tech career?
My advice for young people is to try it! Don't be afraid to try it. Sometimes tech can feel intimidating, because what we might hear about tech is “I have to have a GPA of ‘X’ or I have to have to have been coding since I was 5.” That's not necessarily the case. You can come into tech at any time in your life. It doesn't necessarily mean as a college grad, it can be retooling your skills as an adult professional. Not being afraid to just dive in and try it, the folks that can do that will find a home for themselves in tech. Today we typically think about a technology company as someone like Google or Amazon or Microsoft, but every single company is a tech company. There is no company today that isn't using technology to do business in some way.
Also I talked to the kids at Kirkwood about the fact that I got a 19 on my ACTs. I wasn’t a wiz kid. I was somebody with common sense, perseverance and some grit. We focus on a lot on hard skills, but leveraging your strengths, and trusting yourself and trusting your voice even if you don’t have all of these skills, or your scorecard doesn’t look how you expect it to look, step out and try.
Have you had any mentors along your path?
I've had some great mentors people like Bruce Lehrman (CEO of Involta) and Dave Tucker (SVP of Product Development at Workiva) who have been tremendous to me through TAI. They started as mentors and have become friends and trusted advisors for me. Women like Beth Tinsman, who is based out of the Quad Cities and has had a technology company (Twin State Technical Services) for 25 years. I also have folks like Diane Fickle who was a teacher I had in high school. She was one of the first people who instilled confidence in me telling me I could do anything—I could be anything. When I was blessed to win the Women of Innovation award for leadership this last year, the next morning, the first person I sent a text message to was Diane Fickle just to say thank you – that her investment in me paid off in that moment. That I shared that award with her was really important for me.
The greatest mentor I ever had in my life was my dad. He was a guy who took a winding road to success. While his business did very well, I think the greatest thing about my dad was the relationships he built. The business still stands 55 years later and my brother now runs the business. He believed in a people-first approach to things and I hope I carry that forward in what I do and how I interact with my employees and partners.
What interested you in joining TAI as a member and then the board?
I got exposed to TAI during my time at Rockwell Collins. They are a member and I was fortunate to be able to attend some events and see some glimpses of the work that TAI was doing. What I really appreciate about TAI is they’re working to expand their footprint across the state of Iowa, and that's no small feat to be able to do with the staff that TAI has in terms of reaching out to people and engaging with the communities. There’s also the awareness of some key things that are going on like the Iowan Project which is about bringing talent back to the state. I think it's terrific that we're working to formalize that, because a passion of mine is bringing talent back to Iowa. I was fortunate to bring Troy Blankenship back to Iowa. He was working for EA Games out of Austin, Texas. He was a Cedar Rapids native and just came back home to us. That’s a “W” in our column!
You’ve been honored by TAI in the past for your leadership innovation and as a Prometheus Awards finalist for CIO of the year. What do these recognitions mean to you and to your company?
It’s very humbling. When I started the company, I certainly didn't anticipate that we would be nominated for those things—let alone win some of those things. It’s affirming and I think, for my employees especially, they get a chance to see how people see us throughout the tech community. I might leave BluPrairie, but what I'm doing is building paths to enable these guys to do the great work that they do. Having them be recognized in those ways—I'm really thankful for that.
When I left the world of Fortune 500 I wondered could I still make an impact? Could I still do these things that I have in my head and actually breathe life into them. The recognition that we are doing those things, and quite honestly doing things that we never imagined doing and working in industries that we never imagined working in, has been really humbling and exciting and I think has generated a lot of excitement for the staff as well. They are now having opportunities to just grow and to explore—and really, that’s all that technology is: trying to find the next frontier and apply the next frontier with what we’re learning.
What does a typical day look and feel like for you?
If only there were typical! My day consists of everything from sales, to finance oversight, to CEO duties, to community outreach, to prospecting, to developing contracts, to weighing in on the activities that the team is doing. It changes day to day. I love that every day I'm having to adapt. I never know what's going to walk through the door or what's going to happen. One of the biggest skill sets that I look for in my staff is people who are flexible and adaptable and can kind of just go with it. It's critical to what we do.
How does creativity and problem solving integrate into your current role? Every single day when we're thinking about “how do we enable a business?” We have to think about that in new ways. These are companies that have been successful, they’re generating revenues, they're doing good things, but now they have a goal of doing something different. That “doing something different” could be growth, it could be acquisition, it could be launching new product lines and services. We have to get creative about how we can help them meet those goals, and then also be able to develop a road map and a path that’s structured and prioritized for them to be able to do that. It really takes people who are able to think about things from a big picture standpoint and then drive down and be able to execute.
Can you tell us about an exciting project you are working on right now?
A really consistent thing that we are doing is helping companies develop technology strategies that align to their business goals. We have a very structured way about being able to do that. We are fortunate that we have customers in the state of Iowa and we're just branching out to our first customer outside of the state on the east coast. One of the things that we're excited about there is that this is a very successful company that is now trying to get to the next level and they’ve tapped BluPrairie on the shoulder to be their partner. That’s pretty exciting stuff for us!
What’s on the horizon for BluPrairie?
I'm looking forward to our next chapter of growth. We have a strategic roadmap and executing on it well will enable us to grow and create opportunities and stability for our employees, as well as expand our service offerings for our customers. We started with a defined set of services and now they’re asking us for more which is a wonderful thing to have happen, but it also means that we have to flex and grow with that.
The world of cloud technology is growing exponentially. We're really just at the tipping point. A lot of people think cloud is everywhere. It's not everywhere yet, but we're on the path to get there. As customers are looking at growth and using data to make data driven decisions and to provide insights—things like AI and machine learning are really going to be critical components. Helping a customer define their technology portfolio of the future is great, but making sure that they know how to put those pieces together effectively is what we’re really good at.
What do you foresee as the largest challenges ahead in the industry?Making sure that we're taking business along with the pace of technology change. When I started my career, the technology cycle was every seven years, and we’re now down to cycles of about every 18 months. I think that can be really overwhelming for businesses to make sure that all of the technology doesn't outpace the businesses that we have today. There are certainly going to be disruptors in the marketplace—there's no doubt about that, but we also have to make sure that we're helping existing companies stay viable in their markets.
What changes do you hope to see in the tech industry in the next 5 - 10 years?
The tech industry at large over the next few years is really going to be all of us having to focus on talent, growing talent, figuring out how to build talent and getting creative with programs around talent. Even some of our economic development programs in terms of how we enable companies needs to change. More and more companies are becoming service companies and that’s not necessarily what our economic development policies and practices are built around today. They’re built around supporting product-based companies and we’re becoming a service-oriented culture where I can consume everything in small bits and bytes. It’s going to require both the tech industry and folks in policy to make some adjustments to accommodate the needs of growth in tech.
What do you envision for the future of tech in the great state of Iowa?
In the future of tech in Iowa, there will be more partnerships, there will be more collaboration between companies to create broader service offerings. I think Iowa and the Midwest is really well positioned to take advantage of cloud and to offer our services outside the state with new delivery mechanisms, distribution mechanisms, all of that can be run and positioned using cloud capabilities, whether that’s private or public. Technology is really going to be the key enabler for the growth of any form of business within Iowa.
What kind of groups or activities are you active in outside of your job?
This is where a little bit of the nerd comes out: work is probably my hobby. There’s no doubt about it. I always make sure that I spend time with family and friends, because that's what fills up my cup. When I'm working to create balance in my life you will probably find me driving around the dirt roads by my hometown. That's where I go to clear my head and to think. Certainly making time to spend time with my girls. They no longer live in Iowa - they live elsewhere. I also like being engaged with talking with young women in whatever forms I can to tell them about technology. If I can mix in a little bit of golf and water skiing then I’m good with that too!
If you weren’t in tech, or if you could go back and do something different, what would it be?
I would be an artist of some sort. I'm fascinated by people who can create and who have this inherent ability to see things differently and then bring that to life. People who can paint, people who can sing, that is not something I can do in any capacity. I would want to be in the arts in some way.
What music are you into right now?
Much to the dismay of a lot of my staff, I'm a country music girl!
Do you have a go-to food item?
If I need a snack it's usually oranges or cashews or kind bars.
Do you have any favorite TV shows/series or movies?
Personality insight: I love anything Marvel comics on Netflix. I will watch things like The Flash, Luke Cage, Avengers, Jessica Jones - that’s totally me!
What kind of impact do work to leave in your field?
I wasn’t afraid to try. I wasn’t afraid to step out even when it was difficult to do that, and making sure that people felt that when they worked with me, they felt respected and valued and they had some fun along the way, and they were heard.
What kind of impact do you want to establish within the Iowa tech community?
Expansion of public cloud would make me very happy in my time and tenure. I think even more importantly, the customers that I worked with and helped them meet their goals through technology—that’s a really important part of it for me that our customers grow and meet their goals.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
I took a people-first approach to my life.