CSAA's Michaele James shrugs off core replacement challenges

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Michaele James grew up in Colorado with a strong interest in math and a desire to build things — perhaps unsurprising, coming from a family of accountants and engineers.

Originally, she enrolled in the University of Denver thinking she would become a civil engineer, and when she graduated it was with a degree in quantitative methods and statistics. But it was her first job that really set the course for her future career in computer science.

“I went to interview with Electronic Data Systems, and that was kind of like signing up for the military,” she recalls. Founded by Ross Perot, a former naval officer and future billionaire and presidential candidate, EDS provided James with “phenomenal” training.

“It was my first foray into IT,” she says, “and I haven’t looked back since.”

As CSAA’s CTO, James is charged with upgrading its applications — including nine legacy systems. She says when she originally accepted the job, she didn’t realize that the industry-wide success rate for policy-administration replacements was dismal. “I had absolutely no idea there was a 60% failure rate,” she laughs.

Defying the odds, James and her team successfully moved four of the nine systems onto CSAA’s new digital platform on time and on budget. They also consolidated several different claims systems into one. The remaining five PAS upgrades are scheduled to be completed by 2020.

“There we were in the heart of Silicon Valley,” James recounts, “and we had absolutely no web presence,” along with a great many other technological deficits. However, her IT acumen forged over a long career has helped her pull off the difficult task.

Going back to her experience at EDS, James has tackled challenges related to her gender with grace and success.

“I have a bias for action and sometimes can be a little pushy in making things happen,” she says, noting that “people aren’t always used to having a senior woman in IT.”

Learning experience

A standing policy at EDS was to transfer new recruits to an unfamiliar part of the country. In James’ case, that meant leaving Denver to work out of an office in Columbus, Ohio, that was overwhelmingly male. About eight months in, she was approached by a manager in the data center, who told her that she was frequently the topic of conversation at his management meetings.

“There I was,” she says, “a 22-year-old fresh out of college, and I felt like somebody had just punched me in the stomach.” When she asked him why, he told her, “’You’re not supposed to wear colored nylons and open-toed shoes. You’re not supposed to paint your nails.’

“Well,” she remembers, “I just looked at him and thought, ‘No, I don’t know any of that. And if none of you have the guts to tell me, then I’m just going to go on my merry way!’”

But it was also a huge lesson: “If there’s an issue about someone and they don’t know it, then shame on management for not sharing it with them. I feel that way today, with my staff, and I expect the same from my manager.”

James’ profile grew over her career to the point where Steve O’Connor, a former colleague who was the CIO at CSAA, said he wanted her to help overhaul the company’s legacy environment. She attributes her success to learning how to balance her biases to action with the need to listen to employees’ pain points and find the right way to direct projects— crucial with a team of more than 300.

“I take the long view, and I love framing problems in terms of the market and the company’s overall objectives.” Pausing, she adds, “I ask a lot of questions, and I try to hear. I want people to feel like they’re heard and that they are having an impact and contributing to what we’re trying to achieve.”

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