In this edition of My CIO Career, Sharay Erskine, CIO at Atlanta Community Food Bank explains how getting to know every part of the nonprofit’s operations guides both her IT management choices and staff development efforts.

When Sharay Erskine, CIO for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, talks about her IT priorities, she hardly mentions technology at all.

Instead, she talks about the need to be more efficient in getting food to the families served by nearly 700 community partners in 29 metro counties, helping community partners more easily work with the organization, and creating ways for clients to order their food as easily as if it were a commercial food-delivery service.

“I think of myself as a business partner who represents the technological space,” she explains, “so my objective as CIO is understanding our overall business objectives and our strategic priorities and then the technology enablement that is needed.”

Erskine has spent her career perfecting that business-minded approach. She reached the position of vice president of IT during a 19-year run at Bunzl Distribution North America, a supplier of food packaging and disposable supplies to supermarkets, non-food retailers, and processors across the continent before taking her current CIO post in July 2022. An essential lesson from her Bunzl tenure: the value of working rotations in different departments.

In this interview, part of the My CIO Career series, Erskine shares how she has sought out hands-on experiences – and assigned her team to do the same – as a means to clarify the challenges and to identify opportunities for using IT to improve operations. She also articulates her vision of a CIO’s legacy: the IT talent she helps develop.

Mary K. Pratt: What attracted you to your current position?

Sharay Erskine 216Sharay ErskineI never saw myself as executive of a nonprofit. However, this opportunity came to me through Heller Search, and it sounded interesting because I could take my passion for IT and my philanthropic drive and support something that is very mission-driven, very purposeful, where I almost immediately can see the results of the IT department’s work. I thought that would be amazing, because as CIOs we often do not see the immediate results of our work. Our projects, especially the ones that are most meaningful, can span years, or at minimum months.

I will give you an example. We set up a contact center within 24 hours to help support our home delivery program. We were able to later layer in conversational AI to support the contact center work. This was so satisfying because I was able to take some of my technical competencies and apply it to something so tangible: enabling families to eat by way of this program.

How did this project come about?

We had a need to offer home delivery, and to stand up the service quickly. But instead of trying to staff up a 10-person contact center overnight, we thought we could start with three people and conversational chat.

Then there came the question: Do we build it, or do we just pull it off the shelf?

A company that already had that capability reached out to us, so we partnered to develop a conversational AI tool for us to engage with clients – to ask what their needs are, translate those needs into orders, and then send those orders to our systems so we can pick, pack and ship them through a corporate delivery partner to get those orders delivered directly to clients in need within the same week.

You listed being leaner and more efficient as priorities for 2024. How do you plan to deliver on those objectives?

Working to become leaner and more efficient with our tools are longstanding objectives shared by everyone from traditional businesses to nonprofits at the food bank, we have to do that while we expand and face talent shortages.

To overcome that challenge, I am looking at how we can use artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and other innovative solutions to do more as an IT department. I also am asking how those technologies enable IT to help make the food bank’s operations leaner and more efficient through, for example, better picking and better receiving in our warehouse.

To that point, IT is implementing an enterprise resource planning platform and warehouse management system. There are food bank-specific packages, and these designated packages allow us to shrink our expected implementation window, which is exciting.

Also, IT is implementing data and analytics programs, such as business visualizations via Power BI, Azure, and Logic Apps. We are working to deliver tools that allow our operations to answer business-related questions very quickly.

And we are using these technologies to improve the client experience and our employee experience and productivity, as well.

You called the Atlanta Community Food Bank a “learning and development organization.” What is your approach to developing your IT team members?

We believe wholeheartedly that when talent is in the building, we want to invest in said talent.

I look at my strategy and I ask, “This is where the IT organization is today, and this is where I need it to be in three years. Do I have the right roles?” With each team member, based on our skills-based employee, engagement and development, we inquire on the individual’s interests and where they may see themselves in the organization in the coming months or year.

For example, if I am looking for a cybersecurity expert and there is somebody on my IT team who has an interest in that, I want to help that person arrive at their goals because it helps the Atlanta Community Food Bank, too.

I also believe in developmental assignments. They are like cross-training, and it helps us get outside our IT bubble. I take IT professionals and plant them into another department for a period of time and vice versa with pulling people into IT. It gives them visibility into how the whole organization works, especially if they can make a complete round of departments.

In fact, we have that as part of the onboarding practice here. Employees get a passport, and they get a stamp each time they do a specified rotation in a different department. Rotating through different departments was part of my onboarding experience as well. Such rotations help IT professionals – including CIOs – understand the business and develop the business acumen necessary for IT to solve problems.

 

Related article:

My CIO Career: How Active Listening Enables Rob Hanlon’s Leadership Success

 

What did your rotation entail?

Though it was a short tour at the food bank, I did tours through the departments, talking to people and going onsite where I talked to clients. I also worked in our Hunger Action Center and Community Food Center, were volunteers sort and pack recently donated food, among other tasks. It is all very hands-on. I believe that this kind of hands-on involvement in an organization’s work is what CIOs should do; this was not something that was mandated.

I brought this rotation practice from Bunzl Distribution. When I started there, I asked to spend several weeks in every department. I sat in customer service where I took orders over the phone and entered them into the system. I worked in purchasing. I sat with sales and went on sales calls. All of this helped me understand the whole ecosystem of that organization, and I took that understanding and applied it throughout my nearly 20-year tenure there in IT.

And that firsthand experience in the Hunger Action Center already has paid off. It helped with using conversational AI in the contact center, because I understood how neighbors in need prefer to communicate with us.

Also, it helps with everything that relates to the ERP we are implementing, because the ERP/warehouse management system (WMS) is all about understanding operations – how the warehouse works from a day-to-day perspective and what challenges they face. By doing the tours through the departments I could draft a strategy that addresses those challenges.

How has your Project Management Professional certification helped you as a CIO?

The project management background helps me with problem-solving and decision-making. Project managers by trade are change agents. Leaning into my project management skills has helped me keep key projects on time, within budget, and delivery of the right scope. My project management certification has helped me and the work we do immensely.

What is your big-picture career objective?

I would love to be able to look back over the Atlanta-area landscape and the tech community and be able to say, “Wow, I have helped plant people at a lot of great organizations, and they came through the Atlanta Community Food Bank, where they received an opportunity to do some good things that they would not typically have a chance to do. They were stretched in ways that they would not be stretched in other jobs.” Hopefully, the majority will continue to develop their careers at the food bank.

Notice that I did not say anything about specific goals with technology. Yes, I want to be able to successfully deploy another ERP/WMS and stand up the data analytics program and explore robotics in a nonprofit environment plus more. But above all of that, I want to make a difference for the community.

I see that you mentored young girls interested in STEM. Why is that important to you?

Female representation in IT specifically and STEM is just not there. So how do we get more young girls excited about the opportunities of STEM? I want to show them that they can have as much fun in STEM as any other space, that they can engage in change and innovation and help a particular department or person, or organization, excel and be so much more than what pencil and paper allows them to be.

 

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