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Inside Track: In the minority: not the usual computer science nerd
Susan Cotts, the first female partner at C/D/H, is among relatively few women in leadership in the IT industry.
Susan Cotts likes to stay absorbed in the task at hand without worrying about what the rest of the herd is doing.
That would explain why she was caught by surprise when she learned she was in the top 10 in academic standing in her high school graduating class.
“I had no idea I was even on the list until they called me down for the pictures” as graduation day approached at Hudsonville High School, she recalls.
That was in the late 1980s, when Cotts started on the path less traveled by other young American women: one involving science, math, engineering and computers. This year, she became the first female partner at C/D/H, a growing IT consulting firm in Grand Rapids that has expanded into southeast Michigan.
Her father was an educator in the Grandville school system, and her mother had been a math teacher. Cotts and her sister grew up knowing the importance of an education, and while her parents had high expectations, “it was up to us to meet them without their help.”
Cotts said she loved science and often was involved in summer science programs, including traveling out West with a student group. Then, in her senior year in high school, she elected to take a computer science class and learned basic programming.
“I found that I liked to solve problems, and that was kind of a fun way, I thought, to do that — through coding.”
And so was planted the seed of an IT career. Cotts went to Western Michigan University on an academic scholarship. Then, as now, Western had a “pretty strong computer science department,” she said.
She originally thought she would be a teacher in math and computer science. However, in her freshman year, she got a job helping business majors who were struggling in math. That experience made her realize maybe she did not want to be a teacher after all.
She turned to the WMU guidance office for testing. The guidance counselor said the tests indicated she should become a systems analyst or computer systems engineer. So she changed her major and went on to earn a degree in computer systems engineering with a minor in math.
In that field, as a female, she was definitely in the minority. She said that in many of the more advanced classes, such as physics and electrical engineering, she was the only female in the room.
“It was a very male-dominated kind of thing, but I didn’t ever feel like that was a particular challenge for me. I liked my peers; I was just as smart as they were. They didn’t intimidate me.
“My dad always used to say, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’”
While at WMU, there was a competition for a paid internship at Upjohn pharmaceuticals in Kalamazoo, and Cotts got it. It lasted about a year and a half, but when she graduated from college in 1992, Upjohn did not have an open full-time position. Still, she managed to get a job as a software programmer almost immediately in Grand Rapids at H.H. Cutler, an apparel manufacturer.
The company was just beginning to move some of its mainframe applications onto the new personal computers everybody was excited about. Her role was to help in that transition, and Cotts was already very familiar with PCs because she had bought one in college: a Gateway 2000 with a 286 microprocessor.
“This is how nerdy I was,” she said with a laugh. “I could basically write my own operating system on the diskette and then boot it up on the PC and test it. I was trying to code my own operating system — the weird stuff computer scientists do.”
In 1993, Upjohn offered her a full-time job as a systems engineer and she took it. She worked in R&D, supporting the researchers with software and hardware.
In 1994, Upjohn established its Global Network Team to implement an all-inclusive global email network within two years. Cotts was named to the team and put in charge of Central and South America, which required frequent travel for two or three weeks at a time. She would spend the time at the remote Upjohn offices, learning their needs and requirements. Often, she would meet with the CFO there to establish the budget and provide advice on purchasing and other aspects.
“I realized then that consulting was the career I am best suited for,” she said. “It combines my passion for problem solving and technology with my interest in business and business strategy.”
Of course, Cotts had prepared for the assignment with intensive Spanish lessons to augment her high school Spanish. As a tall blond, she notes with a laugh that she was “nothing like any Latina,” but she fell in love with the Latin American culture.
When the project was completed in 1996, Cotts had a decision to make. She wanted to continue in her role as a consultant and was not looking forward to sitting at the same desk back at Upjohn day after day.
That was when she joined C/D/H. There was one other female consultant working there, but Cotts quickly decided to become a Microsoft-certified systems engineer, the first at C/D/H.
C/D/H has about 28 employees today — 15 in Grand Rapids and 13 in Detroit. It began in Grand Rapids in 1990 as Conway, Dierking and Hillman, but in 1997, the firm became C/D/H to reflect its growing base of skilled consultants, rather than just the partners.
In 2004, Mark Becker became a partner alongside Keith Dierking and Paul Hillman. In 2005, C/D/H opened an office in Royal Oak to serve the Detroit Metro area, and Doug Lindhout joined the partner team in 2006 to head the new office. Dierking retired in 2008, serving today as chairman of the C/D/H board. Lindhout’s retirement in 2013 resulted in the current partnership trio of Hillman, Becker and Cotts.
When Cotts joined the partner team in 2014, she became one of a handful of women in leadership roles within the IT industry, according to the C/D/H website. Another significant promotion was Amy Moore to director of client services — applications, which means two of the five leadership positions at C/D/H now are held by women.
In 2010, C/D/H acquired Plante Moran’s web development and SharePoint practice, growing the Detroit office significantly. This year, C/D/H will move from Royal Oak to downtown Detroit.
In early June, C/D/H merged with Coil Group, an enterprise mobile software firm in Rochester that helps companies trying to increase sales, channel growth and sales team effectiveness. Coil Group has developed an iPad-based mobile catalog and sales solution called Stage, which will be marketed to companies that need to mobilize their sales teams and channels.
Cotts said the big thing in business IT today is a mobile strategy. For example: At a meeting with a customer, a salesperson armed with a catalog on an iPad or tablet can instantly draw on real-time market data focused on that precise geographic region.
C/D/H calls it “enterprise mobility,” to distinguish business mobility from consumers walking around playing games like Angry Birds on their mobile devices.
Many businesses today are lacking a “road map for how technology is a part of their business strategy,” said Cotts. Some may feel secure with their business strategy, although it “may not be tightly integrated with a technology strategy.”
Businesses that do incorporate a mobile technology are “ahead of the game,” she said — and she doesn’t mean Angry Birds.