Alexander Collins (MBA '98) has made his career navigating operations issues in the world of Information Technology. Since graduating from the U-M Tauber Institute of Global Operations, Alex has worked in six different IT environments, most recently landing the VP, Software Application Development position at CITIGROUP.
Alex discusses how his Michigan education has shaped his career path, and why he thinks the software industry presents some of today’s greatest operations challenges.
Q: What was your background before joining the U-M Tauber Institute for Global Operations?
Before attending the University of Michigan, I received undergraduate degrees in Physics and Electrical Engineering, in addition to a law degree that I earned at night while serving as an Officer and Nuclear Engineer in the Navy and later as a defense contractor. I also managed to squeeze in time as a White House Volunteer in those six years between my time as an undergrad and my time at the University of Michigan.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue more education at U-M?
My primary goal for attending the University of Michigan was to effectuate a wholesale career change. Coming out of my years as an undergrad, I took a particular job because it was a "rare opportunity" to do engineering management right out of college for a very elite Naval program. Unfortunately, I hated it, primarily for two reasons: (1) I had always liked computers and electronics and the Navy was having me perform the more mechanical aspects of nuclear engineering, and (2) I realized I hated the defense industry, not due to any fundamental qualms with it, but due to the simple fact that I really needed to see the fruits of my labor - and that wasn't going to happen unless our nation stumbled upon World War III! After the Navy, I found that it was hard to escape the defense industry since everyone seemed to pigeonhole my defense experience as utterly useless in the real world. Attending the University of Michigan indeed helped me to finally reach my career goal, with a job in commercial IT upon graduation.
Q: How has your operations training at the Tauber Institute shaped the leader you are today?
One thing I've discovered is that studying a subject is much more than simply about learning the material - it also makes you better able to enunciate what is wrong and take action on it. For example, a few years ago, I took a course in screenwriting for fun. Before taking the course, the best critique I could give a screenplay or movie, was probably, "It was boring," which would be of no use to a screenwriter. After taking the course, however, I could be very explicit about the problems I saw. (The inciting incident was ambiguous; no rising action, etc.) Similarly, having taken courses in Tauber with an operations concentration, I am much better able to clearly and authoritatively identify what is wrong with the way things are run and state a clear path to their resolution. Before Tauber, I might have just been speaking "from my gut" that something is wrong, with not much clarity beyond that.
Q: What are some of the most challenging aspects of your work?
Having worked in IT for six different companies/divisions since I graduated from U-M, I feel pretty comfortable stating that the software industry is still extraordinarily immature operationally compared with other industries. While in Tauber we learned about using the "5-why's" to identify root causes, the software industry continues to find a simple coding bug and immediately label it "the root cause,” never delving further in to why the bug is there in the first place. I would have thought that mentality would have been wiped out long ago by now, but it isn't in IT. Hence, in my opinion, the biggest operational challenges today are probably in IT.
Q: What was your favorite class or activity while you were studying at U-M?
Since I was a licensed attorney, I performed pro bono work for Legal Services of Southeastern Michigan representing SSI disability clients in addition to performing other legal work. Given funding limitations, we could pick and choose our clients (i.e., only ones that were truly deserving), and so It was extraordinarily rewarding work. It also gave me the utmost respect for the people that work full time performing this public service work.
Q: What advice do you have for current Tauber Institute students?
It's better to take a slightly less than ideal job in an industry that you have a passion for than taking a "great opportunity" in a field that you plan to leave in the future. Simply put, it's so much easier to excel and move up in the world if you love what you're doing. In contrast, switching across industries to what you love to do can sometimes be impossible since, even if you're willing to start over, no one will necessarily take the risk to hire you, even at a significant pay cut.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
In that last 10 years I've done quite a bit of ballroom dancing - and have even had a case where my ballroom teacher had to cancel a private lesson with me since she was making a special guest appearance on "Dancing with the Stars!” My latest passion, though, has been working on using games/graphics as a teaching tool. With the exception of games for teaching young kids, I believe this field has barely scratched the surface of its true potential for the future.