Working as a tech consultant, Jorge Elguera was so intrigued by his CIO clients' challenges and responsibilities that he set his sights on becoming a CIO.
Steve Rovniak: How did you get your start in technology?
Jorge Elguera: I started as a developer straight out of college. I had a background in electrical engineering and computer science, and I was fascinated by programming and software engineering. I thought that you could run the world on software and got into all kinds of interesting projects, including telecommunication systems.
Where did you get your degree?
At the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, in electrical engineering. It was really a master's degree in engineering because it was a six-year program. At the time there was no undergrad program for computer science.
What were some of the career stops you have made on the journey to where you are today, EVP and CIO of RTI International?
While I had an interest in programming and electrical engineering, I found that I was even more interested in the business side of things – what clients were looking for. So, I started asking myself and my colleagues," What problems are we solving with all this great software that we are developing?" I found myself becoming more curious about business problems and client problems.
Later on I made a very important decision to pursue an account management position at the firm where I was working at the time, InterSoft Argentina, one of the largest consulting firms in Latin America. That brought me into dialogue with clients and potential clients, and a little further away from the actual software development, but it was the right decision for me based on my interests.
I got exposed to international clients and that eventually led to my next position with Skytel Telecommunications, which took me out of consulting and into management. Skytel was based in the U.S. but I started out working in Argentina. Then they transferred me to headquarters in the U.S. and gave me responsibility for all of the technology operations in Latin America. Skytel was later acquired by Verizon.
What came next?
Someone who had worked with me in InterSoft Argentina was working for the consulting arm of Oracle. He had been telling me how great it was there, and that Oracle was an amazing company. Through him they contacted me and offered for me to join the telecommunications consulting group.
I felt that I could learn a lot at a larger company like Oracle. It turned out to be a good decision because as a practice director with the Oracle Consulting Group, I was in charge of implementing business systems for clients. That gave me a better understanding of how companies create value, and how they optimize their operations. because that is what the clients were asking Oracle to do: help them become more efficient in their operations.
So it was a great run because I got exposed to working with large clients like AT&T, Comcast and the large carriers like Southwestern Bell. Those types of large clients are very challenging, but at the same time, you learn a lot about how they manage. And I got exposed to CIOs who were typically my clients at Oracle.
Working closely with all those CIOs, did you start to think that maybe one day, it could be a role for you?
That's exactly what happened. I saw those CIOs acting as part of an executive team. I remember vividly one CIO client who worked very closely with the CFO, and I thought to myself, "Oh, this is really fascinating. This CIO needs to understand the financial model behind the company, and there's interplay and teamwork.” I felt that this could be a career path I wanted to pursue.
This also generated my interest in learning more about business management and pursuing an MBA (University of Texas). One of great leaders that I followed was Michael Capellas, CIO of Compaq at the time, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard, and Capellas eventually became CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I thought, "That's cool. CIOs even have a path to become CEO one day." I know I'm dating myself with the Compaq story, but all of that was really very interesting to me.
What led to the decision to shift industries and join Laureate Education?
As I started looking into a CIO career and some opportunities, I ended up receiving two offers. A company called MicroStrategy offered me a job to run their consulting business. Laureate offered me a CIO position for the online education business unit, which wasn’t that big at the time, but had potential to expand. Laureate was a publicly traded company, but it was in a completely different industry. I knew nothing about higher education or mission-driven businesses.
I could have stayed comfortably in the tech consulting industry I knew so well, where I knew lots of people and how it worked, or I could take a challenge and step into the unknown. My thinking was that this is what being a CIO is all about, learning about an industry and bringing that understanding into managing technology effectively. Not only was I interested to have a CIO role, but I was excited to learn a completely different business. That was one of the best decisions I made in my life because at around that time, the online education industry really took off, putting me squarely into the biggest growth opportunity the company had ever had.
I helped the company grow the online education business unit from around $200 or $300 million to over $1 billion. Then I got offered the corporate CIO position.
You joined Abt Associates as CIO in 2017, and became Chief Digital Officer in 2019.
After 12 years, and taking Laureate private and then taking it public again, I decided to move on and look for something different. My familiarity with mission-driven industries brought me to Abt, which is not in higher education, but it is a mission-driven company. I could understand some aspects of their business, although I had to learn a lot more, but I'm passionate about learning.
I started out as what you would consider a traditional CIO, managing all of the technology operations, ERP systems, and trying to make the operation as effective as possible. Then a couple years into my tenure, the CEO asked me to take over client-facing technology operations as well, because she felt that we needed to do more. There wasn't a cohesive strategy for how to apply technology to our client projects. And that's where the digital term came in.
Digital is a very broad term but one way in which many companies choose to use that term is to apply it to client operations. It is creating better client engagement, better client intimacy, and doing things for clients that, without digital technologies, are not possible. That's what Abt asked me to do, transform client operations.
After you were named Chief Digital Officer, did you keep all of your CIO responsibilities?
I did, but thanks to the incredible team that I had built at Abt, including at least two people that could be successors, I could take on this additional responsibility. I could devote less time to the IT operations.
Was this a big change from a day-to-day perspective, or was the change gradual?
It was a large, very noticeable change right away. The biggest challenge was that I had to run two entirely different business models.
In the case of Abt, one business model is a professional services organization that is driven by client revenue, by utilization of their resources, and margin, like any traditional professional services firm. But we were looking to also generate revenue from products—digital subscription-type products that we started positioning with clients. So you need to run a full group on a business model that is really revenue, and utilization, and margin-driven.
My CIO role was based on a completely different model, which was fixed allocation or resources driven by internal efficiencies. That is the traditional CIO model. It's very challenging to do both of these. But on the other hand, there are very interesting outside opportunities when you start looking at the synergies that are possible between the two models and how you could possibly turn some of the fixed cost parts of the CIO operation into a revenue-generating subscription model. That was the exciting opportunity that this big challenge presented.
What attracted you to the RTI International CIO opportunity in early 2022?
What attracted me to RTI was its critical mass, and its growth. It is one of the leaders in the space. And frankly, what also attracted me to RTI was the diversity of the opportunity to apply digital to their mission. RTI is a much larger organization than Abt, and quite diversified, which made it very attractive to me.
About RTI International
Research Triangle Institute International is an independent, non-profit research institute based in North Carolina dedicated to improving the human condition. RTI has a staff of nearly 6,000 people working in more than 75 countries.
What do you think the hiring committee at RTI International saw in your background that made you their top choice?
In my view, it was client orientation. I tend to look at everything a chief digital officer does from the perspective of the client and the market. My experience as chief digital officer at Abt and my experience running professional services groups at Oracle has made me client-oriented, which probably made my profile attractive to RTI compared to a more traditional CIO.
What soft skills do you rely on most as an IT leader?
Listening and collaboration. These are absolutely key when it comes to technology because it's never easy to know exactly what are you solving for. If you don't listen correctly to what is being articulated, it's very difficult to make progress. And of course, it's not just about listening, it's also what you do with the information. How well you listen and how well you interpret, which is where collaboration comes into play.
What do you look for when you are recruiting and hiring leaders for your team?
This is one of the most important parts of my job. One of the things I always look for in candidates is whether they really want to join our company. Is this person really excited about the opportunity? I want to leave any interview I have with a candidate feeling like he or she really wants this job, that we’re offering significant advancement for them and that they are excited. If it’s just an okay hire, I really don't want to do it. This also applies inside when you are promoting someone, or expanding their role. I always ask myself, "Is this the person that I would hire for this role if I were recruiting from outside the organization?"
How do you tell whether a candidate is truly excited about an opportunity on your team?
You start with the question of where you see yourself in a few years. What are your ambitions, what is your vision of where you would you like to be? Once a candidate starts explaining that, you try to connect that to why they think this position will allow them to accomplish the goals they are describing. It's not just one question but a series of questions that I ask starting with their vision, and why this position would be a step in that direction.
What part of being a CIO do you love the most?
There are many fulfilling aspects of the role, especially the opportunity to help people grow professionally and bring folks together in high performing teams. In my present role at RTI, I particularly love the opportunity to contribute in a mission-driven organization. I can’t think of a better place to work with a variety of teams, clients and stakeholders to maximize the impact that digital and technology can produce to improve society and people’s wellbeing around the world. We are very focused on developing a digital transformation journey that allows us to direct investments and resources to learn and apply technologies for the benefit of our clients and stakeholders.
What advice would you give to aspiring CIOs?
The first piece of advice is to always be asking questions, especially around "What are we trying to solve for, and who are we trying to solve it for?" I think that continuously following question after question on that front leads to aligning what a technology organization does with what the company and clients need. Creating that alignment is one of the biggest challenges in technology. It doesn't come naturally.
The second piece of advice I have is to develop your team. You're only going to go as far as the strength of your bench. You could be an excellent executive, an excellent leader, but what's going to count the most is the type of team you have built around you. Based on my experience, that is what will propel you and your team towards greater accomplishments, and drive your career forward.