Innovation Mandate: Valero Execs On Keys To U.S. Success

It all starts with quality education, and a culture that emphasizes hard work and technical prowess.

Doug Henschen, Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

October 1, 2010

6 Min Read

Global CIO InformationWeek's Series On U.S. Tech Competitiveness

Hal Zesch and Nayaki Nayyar were born in different countries, but they now have the same employer and their kids go to the same school. They also share similar views on the value of education, parental responsibility, and what it will take for the U.S. to keep from losing its leadership in IT and the wider global economy.

Zesch is CIO and Nayyar is VP, enterprise architecture, at Valero Energy, a $70 billion-a-year fuel refiner, distributor, and retailer based in San Antonio, Texas. Zesch was born in the U.S., went to school at the University of Texas in Austin, and has spent the last 30 years, most of his career, at Valero. Nayyar was raised in India, where she earned a bachelor's degree in engineering, and she came to the United States in 1993 to earn her graduate degree. She has worked for Valero for the past 10 years, now one of many foreign-born employees in Valero's 349-strong IT department.

"If you look at our IT area over the last five years, by no means all but a majority of our best technical people were not born in the United States," Zesch says. "If those people had not been available, we would have been in serious trouble."

Zesch laments that not enough U.S.-born students are taking "the tough courses" and pursuing careers in engineering and science. Instead they are studying to be "lawyers and sports medicine specialists," he groans.

It may be a chicken-and-egg question, but college and university professors in the U.S. will tell you that American students (and their parents) are steering clear of computer science and other science, technology, engineering, and math studies, in part for fear that those jobs are being outsourced to India and China. Zesch isn't the first to call that mentality a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Zesch worries that tougher U.S. immigration policies and growing opportunities abroad will draw foreign-born IT talent back home. Nayyar has witnessed the trend firsthand.

"There were 60 students in my undergraduate class in India, and 50 of us came to the United States for higher education," she says. "Just recently I took a poll among old classmates, and I discovered that at least 30 have gone back to India."

In some cases, classmates returned to take care of aging parents. Some missed the Indian culture. But what's making it easier for many immigrants to return is the rise of job opportunities back home.

"In the early '90s when my classmates and I came to the United States, we had a dream," Nayyar says. "We called it the American dream, where you'd get a job in a multinational company, you'd get good compensation, and have a house. It seems that somewhere along the way, more and more of my classmates figured they could pursue that dream back home."

Noting changes in immigration policy, Nayyar says it took her less than two years to obtain a green card in the 1990s, but candidates now face an expensive, five- to eight-year legal struggle that keeps them in limbo. They aren't inclined to settle down, buy houses, and raise families in this country until they're sure that they can stay.

From Zesch's perspective, U.S. immigration policy seems more focused on what immigrants might demand from this country--as if they're all destined to go on welfare--rather than the intellectual contribution they can make to this country, such as offering advanced technical or scientific expertise. "Our doors should be wide open to these advanced engineers and scientists of the future, incenting them to come here and stay here," he says.

Counting On Education

Calling math and science the engine of innovation, Zesch worries that India, China, and other countries are catching up while the U.S. is falling back. "They have the fire in the belly, and we don't as much," he says.

Zesch says the K-12 educational system and U.S. parental attitudes must change. The school system, he says, is more interested in making students self-satisfied than self-motivated--the "you're all winners!" mind-set. "That's a constant, creeping de-motivator," he says, "both for the kids who work the hardest and win and for those who would otherwise get a wake-up call by losing."

That's a stark contrast to the way things are in India. "When I grew up, they would rank the students in every single grade and say who came first, who came second, who came third, and down the line in every category, from academics to sports," Nayyar says.

Zesch, a father of four with two children still in high school, sent his kids through the Keystone School, a small, private K-12. Calling education his passion, he has served as chairman of the school since 2005. Nayyar and her husband, now U.S. citizens, send their 8-year-old son to Keystone as well.

Academically rigorous and among the highest-scoring schools in the nation in terms of SAT scores, Keystone was founded in 1948 and took off in the 1950s in response to Sputnik and the space race. The two founders were concerned that the U.S. was falling behind other countries in math and science, so those subjects have long been an emphasis at Keystone. The school has sent more competitors to the Discovery Channel's annual "Future Scientist" competition than any other school in the U.S.

Zesch thinks U.S. public schools are catering to permissive parents, who are all-too-accepting of kids spending most of their free time playing games, watching TV, or participating in sports and other extracurricular activities rather than doing homework or reading. Nayyar remembers parents setting very specific career goals growing up. "Across India, every parent wanted their child to be a doctor or an engineer," she says. "Here, there's hardly any drive for the children to become doctors, engineers, or scientists."

Zesch thinks there's still time for the U.S. to turn things around, but it won't happen without engaged parents who drive their kids to excel. "We've lost the competition on the lower school, middle school, and high school levels, but I think we can win it back," he says. "It's the parents and the schools that will make the difference."

More In This Series

InformationWeek's Series On U.S. Tech Competitiveness

About the Author(s)

Doug Henschen

Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of Transform Magazine, and Executive Editor at DM News. He has covered IT and data-driven marketing for more than 15 years.

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