Chief Of The Year: Ralph Szygenda

General Motors' hard-driving CIO has revved the engines of the carmaker's once-stagnant IT systems

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 27, 2002

2 Min Read

HP CEO Carly Fiorina says Szygenda is a tough negotiator, but he also wants healthy suppliers. "He understands that without a real sustainable win-win, a vendor can't perform effectively over time," she says. "So he both drives a hard bargain for his business and his own shareowners, but he also understands that we need to have a win as well."

As successful an IT leader as he is, Szygenda, a self-professed "beach bum" who enjoys spending time at his home in Naples, Fla., didn't plan to head down the CIO path. He thought about being a physician, but the financial burden of medical school convinced him that engineering would be a better route. After serving in the Air Force, Szygenda worked 21 years at Texas Instruments Inc. designing computer systems for F-15 and F-16 military jets. The engineering tasks he performed and managed, such as CAD/CAM operations, gave him hands-on insight that has helped him at GM. He also learned that companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon could work together on some projects while fiercely competing on others, something that's demanded of his own suppliers at GM.

Szygenda wasn't looking to leave Texas Instruments, where he liked the work and his wife liked the location. Then a recruiter approached him about becoming CIO of Bell Atlantic in 1993, during a time when then-CEO Raymond Smith was trying to change from a phone company to an information and entertainment company. "Why did I do it? It was about transforming a company, not to become the CIO," Szygenda says.

That was a taste he couldn't wash away. When GM approached him with an even larger transformation, he made the move, but not until he could convince his wife to give up Virginia for a northern climate and convince himself that GM's leadership believed what they said. "CIOs often take jobs and are asked to do things that are impossible because the company doesn't really want to change," he says. Szygenda wrestled with the decision and discussed the pros and cons at length with George Heilmeir, a former colleague at Texas Instruments and then CEO of Bellcore. "I could tell it was weighing heavily on him," recalls Heilmeir, chairman of GM's Science Advisory Board and chairman emeritus of Telcordia Technologies. Heilmeir advised Szygenda to take the job, although he had his doubts that anyone, even Szygenda, could change GM. "The day after he accepted the job, he sent two dozen roses to my house."

What about the future? Apparently, retirement's not in Szygenda's plans. "I doubt there will ever be another CIO job. This is it," he says. He's excited about future roles for IT at the company, such as providing embedded systems in GM's vehicles. Maybe someday, he muses, he'll become a CEO. For now, though, he's content to finish his IT transformation at GM--and maybe improve that golf game.

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