Lori Plate, Advisory Board member of the University of Wisconsin Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing and vice president and chief information officer (CIO) at Johnsonville Sausage in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, did not have a direct path into the IT industry. Plate graduated with a civil and environmental engineering degree from UW-Madison, but realized during her senior year internship that she didn’t want to be an engineer.
Luckily, the IT market was (and still is) booming. Accounting and consulting firms were focused on hiring engineers to retrain as IT professionals, so after graduation, Plate started a career in IT consulting. From there, she took on various IT roles, working her way into positions at Miller Brewing Company (now Molson Coors Beverage Company) and eventually Johnsonville Sausage.
Prior to her role as VP and CIO, Plate was Senior Director of IT at Johnsonville. Her passion for IT is rooted in supporting consumer products. The following Q&A explores her view of the current Wisconsin IT industry and how prospective IT professionals can find their own unique path into the field.
What should individuals interested in applied computing and IT know?
At Johnsonville, we are an enterprise that has become very reliant upon our ERP (enterprise resource planning) environment. This means that if our ERP environment goes down or isn’t functioning properly for some reason, products don’t go out the door—we cannot accept orders, produce, or invoice. There are times and certain environments where IT can go unnoticed, and I think it can be hard to appreciate just how integrated IT is in running the day-to-day operations of a company, brand, or manufacturing environment.
It’s not just tech companies anymore where IT is needed. Every company, at some capacity, has IT needs. They need people to support it, and they need people to better understand how to leverage it to bring a competitive advantage to whatever industry they are in.
What core competencies are needed today in the IT field?
Project management skills are crucial to anyone who is coming into an IT role. Strong candidates have the ability to execute, deliver, and lead a team through a project’s timeline. A lot of times, it’s not even your core technical skills that make you stand out. It’s that you can actually manage the project and make it happen—delivering business value through systems and technology.
Core communication skills, along with data analysis skills are also must-haves today. Every industry in the world is generating so much data, and now the question is what to do with it all. If you can understand the data, and then make informed decisions from it, employers will find that extremely valuable.
Have you seen growth in the applied computing and IT industries here in Wisconsin?
The growth in the state has been significant, which has resulted in a very tight job market. There are many more job opportunities available in the IT industry than there are resources. When you’re looking for a job in the IT space, that’s a good thing. But, if you’re hiring in the IT space, that supply and demand can be a challenge.
I’ve been at Johnsonville for 11 years, and when I started our team was about 25 people. Now, our team is more than 50. In just over 10 years we’ve doubled our size, and that growth path is projected to continue.
Companies have started to understand the value of IT and how it can provide operational efficiency across industries. Because of this, organizations are investing more into the IT space, which has led to a spike in job opportunities. It is an exciting time to be in IT, as there are so many possibilities to pursue.
How can a degree program like UW Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing help prospective IT professionals get up to speed in this exciting job market?
For all of the individuals coming through this program, the goal is to establish a base understanding of the IT space and then to figure out the direction they want to take. Once you have that IT foundation, it’s important to understand that the need to progress within the IT space doesn’t stop. It’s always changing, and this program gives students foundational and well-rounded skills that focus both on the technical know-how of programming and the soft skills of communication and management.
After completing the program’s capstone, students can pull together all of these competencies and see how they work together in a real-life IT setting. This learning structure allows students to explore the IT field in any direction they choose.
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What advice do you have for prospective IT professionals who are considering to further their education?
My primary advice is “what’s the harm in trying?” Next, I’d advise them to talk to coworkers in the IT departments at their current companies. IT is everywhere, and understanding how it works at your job—even if it is not tech-based—can help you start to understand the possibilities within the industry.
I often hear potential job applicants say they didn’t apply for an IT role because they didn’t think they were qualified. What I tell them is that with every job change that I made, I probably wasn’t the most qualified on paper either. But, if you have the willingness to put yourself out there and to continue to learn and engage with opportunities—those are skills that make you stand apart from others.
Overall, if there’s a career that you think would be fun and exciting, put yourself out there and give yourself the opportunity to at least learn and figure it out. Take a risk, because chances are if this thought is sitting in the back of your head, it’s something you want to do, and that “what if” isn’t going to go away until you try.
Learn more about the UW Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing online degree by visiting the program’s website, or reach out to an enrollment adviser by calling 608-800-6762 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the NEW IT Alliance newsletter.