Vicki W. Hamilton | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Sowing the Seeds of an IT Career
By Karen Rosen
Vicki W. Hamilton can trace her leadership roots all the way back to her reign as the Poppy Queen.
“I truly believe that was the beginning of my ability to talk in front of others,” says Hamilton, whose family lived on a military base in Okinawa when she was elected Poppy Queen. “I learned leadership skills in terms of presentations and being able to do interviews, because I had to go on television. I was 6 years old and I had to shake the general’s hand.”
From those seeds, Hamilton became one of the pioneering African-American women in IT. She rose through the ranks to a senior vice president position and was often asked to be a change agent within the organization. “Every job I went into, no one ever had before.”
Hamilton’s job as SVP of enterprise, digital operations and performance with Turner Broadcasting System, Inc’s Technology, Operations & Strategy group was eliminated in November.
“You work yourself out of a job, that’s when you know you’re successful,” she says.
Hamilton is now pursuing opportunities as a CIO, within a global enterprise customer support environment, in portfolio management or in a role that combines her three areas of expertise. She is an expert in the balanced scorecard methodology.
Hamilton also learned at an early age to be resilient. Her parents were very active in the civil rights movement, and she saw her father, Dr. Thomas V. Wright, an Air Force captain, face a difficult decision. “They weren’t promoting a lot of blacks at that time,” Hamilton said, “so my father had to make a choice to either be downgraded as an enlisted man, or he had to get out of the service.”
He chose to leave the service, using the GI bill to go back to school. Hamilton’s mother supported the family while he got his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and PhD in finance.
Dr. Irene M. Wright, a speech pathologist who had started a school for the deaf, blind and mentally retarded in Okinawa, was also a teacher and educator in the U.S. When she decided to go back to school for her PhD, she enlisted her 11-year-old daughter to help with research.
Sparking an Early Interest
“This is when I got interested in computers,” says Hamilton who was already proficient with word processing and typing memos. “I also had an opportunity to go to her classes and take notes when she couldn’t be there, so I went to her stats class and that’s what got me very interested in math.”
Hamilton’s high school in Dayton, Ohio, had a magnet program that allowed students to learn a skill or trade they could use to earn money while attending college. Hamilton became a proof operator, encoding the amount and date on checks and putting the information through a machine. She was promoted to proof supervisor while taking every possible high school math course and then progressing to some college courses at the University of Dayton.
As a debutante for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Hamilton won a college scholarship. She made a deal with her parents to allow her to go to Spelman even though she could have gotten free tuition at the University of Dayton, where her father taught.
Because Spelman’s computer science degree was through the AU center, all of Hamilton’s classes were at Morehouse. “Not that that was a problem,” she says. “I enjoyed being in a classroom with all men. There were only two or three females in the whole class.”
Hamilton also worked at the National Bank of Georgia in repossessions and accounting, as well as in the library and for one of her mother’s friends running a word processing office.
When her father told her the University of Dayton had started a curriculum for management information systems, that was the “marriage” Hamilton had sought between business and technology. She returned for her junior and senior years.
After sorting through job offers, she joined Cargill, the largest agricultural company in the world, in Minneapolis.
Understanding the Business
“Their philosophy was you can’t just go in and be a technologist if you don’t understand the business,” Hamilton says.
So she learned the business. Hamilton became a programmer, a systems analyst, and then ran the operations group for the underwriting insurance department. She subsequently ran operations and development for the steel and wire manufacturing division, then was PC analyst and supervisor for the poultry group.
A headhunter called with the opportunity to oversee operations and application development for Mobil Chemical, in Jacksonville, Ill. After that stint, Hamilton ran the corporate systems department for a St. Louis medical company while also pursuing her MBA from St. Louis University.
After marrying and relocating to Atlanta, Hamilton was hired to run a sales office for Gentia Software, a UK-based company based on the Balance Scorecard Methodology. She then made her first venture into media with the Weather Channel, where she was tasked with centralizing a technology group. Hamilton rose to vice president and general manager for the radio and newspaper group.
She then joined a marketing company in the cinema space as COO, taking the opportunity to learn about investments, private investors and sitting on a board.
“We had always said that if we got the company to a point where we could sell, we would,” Hamilton says.
They sold, and in April 2007, she went to Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., as SVP. Hamilton’s enterprise performance department was responsible for reporting on the efficiency and effectiveness of more than $500 million in IT projects and investments.
“The idea was that we really wanted to understand portfolio management across the business,” says Hamilton, who was a perfect fit for the job because of her understanding of technology and business foundations.
They developed methodologies to prioritize IT investments, evaluate enterprise-wide processes such as customer relationship management and manage large-scale and international deployments.
Success Arrives, Job Goes Away
Although Hamilton was promoted to also lead the digital media technology group, she always knew that the executive jobs could eventually be consolidated. “The company made a decision that the enterprise portfolio work we had done for Turner had been successful and they wanted to leave it where it was,” she says. “In addition, it was more efficient to merge the digital media technology group with the audience solutions group. You have to practice what you preach: to implement efficiency when it makes sense for the business.”
While she pursues new challenges, Hamilton continues to be involved with Women in Technology and is on the board. Hamilton says the programs are designed to not only get young girls interested in science, math, engineering and technology, but also to offer women at all levels an opportunity for their next growth.
“Our vision is to take a young girl from grade school to the boardroom,” she says.
That also includes changing the perception that technology is just “about the bits and the bytes and if you didn’t want to get into the hardware or you didn’t want to get into the software, and you didn’t want to get into the infrastructure, there was not a job for you. That’s simply not true.”
Women must be exposed to other opportunities, such as business analyst or project management roles, Hamilton says.
She is also the Executive Lead for Global EXEC Women, an international organization recognizing women who are changing the way international business is conducted and provides value to its members regarding global issues, and is on the board for the Black Executive Exchange Program (BEEP) of the National Urban League.
“We work with the historically black colleges and universities and do workshops and programs to help them to see more people that look like themselves, that come from the executive ranks and that can make a difference,” Hamilton says.
Personal Board of Directors
On a broader level, everyone needs a mentor, role model and/or champion, Hamilton says. “We should have them across gender, racial lines, professional and personal. This is like your personal board of directors. We are an entire person, so each part of our life should be represented.”
Hamilton’s mother is one of her board members. She was a dean at Albany State, Spelman and Harris-Stowe State University. “She taught me to never let others’ negativity dictate my success,” Hamilton says. “I can do anything that I put my mind to. Yes, there would be ‘failures,’ but they are really opportunities for growth and development.
She never lets me give up, even today! This has truly helped to shape my leadership style of leveraging everyone's strengths and not harping on their opportunities.
“If we put 100% of our efforts into everyone's passion and strength, we would not spend so much money and time trying to ‘fix’ people. Believe it or not, this definitely impacts the bottom line from a productivity and expense basis.”
Hamilton has a growing concern that a sense of loyalty within organizations is starting to diminish from the perspective of the employee. “Everybody believes the employer is out for themselves,” she says. “I believe that perception is there because as budgets get cut and times get hard, the things that end up having less focus are education and training opportunities. People are feeling stifled.”
Hamilton is proud that while she was at Turner, a number of employees on her team were promoted. “Every promotion meant that the investment in them and helping them to grow was successful,” she says.
“I used to always tell my staff, I will never, ever stop you from going to an opportunity that you want to pursue. My job is to help you get there and give you the tools that you need in your toolbox to be successful.”
That includes having a succession plan, which comprises more on-the-job training, project exposure and special opportunities so the business will continue to grow.
“I do believe that when you’re in a leadership role, it is truly about collaboration,” Hamilton says.
Taking a Risk
It’s also about risk. “When it comes to African American women, it’s always easier when you see somebody who looks like you,” Hamilton says. “But when you see somebody who looks like you and they’re not moving up, or there are challenges or there are not that many, it becomes harder for others to believe that it’s going to be OK. It comes down to you taking a risk.
“I always say that every individual is their own business, how much risk are they willing to embark upon? How will I handle being the only one sitting around the boardroom, even if I might be perceived as the token? How will I handle it?
We have to teach people how to be politically savvy, how to recognize what’s in front of them inside and outside of the boardroom and how to understand the impacts to the business. Once you understand the business and how your role plays a valuable part, you can write your ticket, because nobody wants to lose their investment of your intellectual property and start over. It is a costly proposition.”
Secrets to Success
1. Networking and relationship building. We used to always say, ‘Oh, well I know so and so, they can help me.’ But if they don’t know you very well, it doesn’t matter that you know them. If your name doesn’t come first to mind when they talk about you, it doesn’t matter.
2. You have to be confident and competent in the area you’re working in.
3. You can never stop learning.
4. There is no such thing as perfect balance all the time. You have to recognize that every career has peaks and valleys, busy times and slow times. You seize the moment of the slower times and you recognize the moments when it’s busier and the sacrifices that you have to make in terms of making it happen.
Vicki W. Hamilton is a former Senior Vice President at Turner Broadcasting Systems, Inc. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Vicki W. Hamilton for sharing her thoughts with us.