TechBrew: Martina Schubert of Continental Western Group

TechBrew Martina Schubert, the Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Continental Western Group, was the guest for the Q&A during the April TechBrew in Des Moines.

On the second Friday of each month, the Technology Association of Iowa hosts an informal networking event at West End Salvage in downtown Des Moines for entrepreneurs, educators, technologists, business leaders and government professionals.

During each event, Brian Waller, President of the Technology Association of Iowa, does a sitdown Q&A with a local tech executive. After each interview, Waller presents them with a vinyl record of their choice for, “Vinyl Friday.”

On Friday morning, Waller spoke with Martina Schubert, the Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Continental Western Group. They discussed growing up in Newton and the Maytag impact, teambuilding, security and analytics.

At the end, Waller presented Schubert with a record of Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits.

Their Q&A is below and edited for conciseness:

We ask everyone starting off, hometown and high school?

MS: Newton and Newton High School

Talk about leaving Newton and your career path after that

MS: I went to DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College), my parents were Maytagers of course. I went for computer programming and if any of you were around in the 80’s, DMACC had a fabulous program and everybody was leaving with a job. Which I did.

Pretty soon after that, I started at what is now Marsh downtown. So 20 years old and downtown was really awesome. Then I went back to work for Maytag for about ten years.

Talk about Maytag and its heyday, Newton during that time and how it has changed

MS: You might make me choke up a little bit, it’s totally different now however they are kind of coming around so it’s a little more positive.

But when I was at Maytag our budget was off the charts, we had so many divisions and I got to travel all over the world. I worked for Maytag International in Chicago after that so it was just night and day from what it is now.

My dad was actually President of the Union the day I started as a corporate employee. Back then you were “Blue suits” and you wore a blue suit every day, so we didn’t really tell anybody that we were related. Because nobody in the office liked them.

They wanted to move a washing machine manufacturing plant and it was between Illinois and Newton so it was a big deal. All the corporate people had signs saying “Move Maytag to Herrin” and it was not good.

So that was a tough Thanksgiving…

But talk about the role technology played at Maytag?

MS: I was a developer, pretty typical. We actually were writing systems to make Maytag corporate one system basically. We had all these different locations from around the United States that we were bringing onto one system.

So you have a DMACC agree—amongst others—can you hire community college two years in the IT world?

MS: We have somebody in IT who is my best developer and has no degree, he came up through the ranks and is fabulous. So I don’t really get hung up on degrees and credentials. I know that it matters maybe when you get to my role, which is why I went on to get my four-year and MBA because I knew where I wanted to go, but it’s kind of an individual thing.

It’s always good for people to be educated but there’s a lot of educated people who aren’t really that smart.

So talk about what is Continental Western Group?

MS: We are a commercial insurance company, about 350 employees. Berkley Technology Services, a lot of people know them, WR Berkley is our holding company. They have about 58 companies underneath that umbrella and Continental Western Group is one of them.

One of the reasons I chose this position is because it was a little like Maytag in a way. When I worked for Maytag International it was a very small group, like a mom and pop shop with this huge corporate backing. But we also get to run our business how we want to and I love being involved in those business decisions on a regular basis.

Your role is delivering to the business side, has that gotten easier over the years as the business is more knowledgeable about IT?

MS: I don’t know if it’s easier but it’s definitely gotten different. I think IT people have gotten smarter and learned that we have to know about the business and that we have to be able to talk to a business person and have them understand what we are getting at.

We used to go in our cubicle and two years alter pass out software and they’d say, “Wow that’s really not what I wanted.” But we’ve learned through all the other things that we do, is to do things on a small scale and then deliver them something they really want. I think they are happier because they are now seeing that with agile and all those things.

Part of your job is also building teams, what have you learned about building a team in IT?

MS: I think it’s absolutely different and unique but then has some similarities. What I mean by that is I think diversity in IT is a lot more important than it is in any other business. You have to have people who know all sorts of different things and can leverage each other for whatever they need. We talk about how collaboration is number one for u, that was not something we were good at two and a half years ago. We can only make fabulous solutions if we put our minds together, it can’t be single threaded.

But some things in the business are very similar. We have an intern who started working for us in high school and now he’s at Iowa State, he’s fantastic and I hope I can hire him full time someday. He said after a few months that he learned something really big today: Communication is really important.

And we’re like wow he got it, and we have people who have been here 27 years who haven’t quite yet.

How do you press those levers to get better collaboration?

MS: I came to Continental Western Group because the CIO before me retired and the President asked me to see if they were structured in the right way, are the right people in the right positions to do the strategic initiatives that we want to do.

The average tenure when I started there was about 21 years of service, which is a lot. It’s pretty normal for insurance companies and great to have tenured people but we didn’t have any diversity and we also hadn’t focused on education to keep people up on their skills.

That’s not a good combination when you want to start developing things that are amazing right? And honestly, within the last nine months, we are talking to each other and that was not the case before.

What part of data security falls on your lap?

MS: We do have a Chief Security Officer and WR Berkley so they kind of oversee this, however, I am responsible for security at Continental Western Group. I get to not be responsible for a lot of the systems stuff because BTS covers a lot of that, they do the infrastructure and that sort of thing, so it’s the perfect CIO job. You have to be responsible for it but I wouldn’t be fired if something happened.

Data analytics, what is Continental Western doing with analytics?

MS: We did a huge transformation with that team and now have three people who do ETO because that’s the volume that we needed and then four people who focus on business intelligence. So that is a heavy part of what we are doing and just making sure our database and data structure is governed.

What stresses you out and keeps you up at night?

MS: Honestly it’s probably the drama that people bring up. I love Cy Wakeman if anyone listens to any of her stuff I am a firm believer of taking the drama out of it. I find myself still doing this where I’m giving myself this story going into a big conversation at work and you think it’s going to be this worse thing, and then you lose sleep for no reason.

Our biggest motto right now is assume good intentions, don’t assume somebody is going to do something bad.

Advice to 18-year-old Martina as she drives to college?

MS: I wish I knew what I knew now.

But it’s probably a couple things, I would say read the book, “Extreme Ownership” because that was life altering to me. It’s basically about some Navy Seals and extreme ownership and what that means. It parallels to the business world so they talk about why it’s important and it really is enlightening about how to think about things on a regular basis.

The real thing I would tell myself is to lighten up because I take things seriously a lot and I do really take extreme ownership seriously. I feel like it’s all on me when anything goes awry and it might be but you’ve got to let it go and figure it out right?

Star Wars or Star Trek?

MS: Neither. Favorite movie of all time is probably Animal House

Favorite curse word?

MS: Shit

Favorite caffeinated beverage?

MS: Coffee of course

Out of town, crash at a friends house or stay at a hotel?

MS: Friends house

Comedy or dance club?

MS: Both in the same night

Favorite word?

MS: Virtue

The least favorite word?

MS: This is hard…probably it’s hard

Sound or noise do you love?

MS: Little toddlers belly-laughing and the ocean

Sound or noise do you hate?

MS: My husband’s alarm clock and whining

What profession other than your own would you like to try?

MS: Professional cyclist

What would you not like to try?

MS: I say try but I don’t want to ever detassel again.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?

MS: This is hard, I might get choked up again…

Probably come in, your mom is waiting.

Previous TechBrew interviews

Luke Tingley, Hy-Vee – March 9, 2018

Nicole Chesmore, Grinnell Mutual – Feb. 9, 2018

Terry Rich, Iowa Lottery CEO – Jan. 12, 2018

Linc Kroeger, Pillar Technology –  Dec. 8, 2017

John Bertran, Kreg Tool – Nov. 10, 2017

Ben Milne, Dwolla – Oct. 13, 2017

Rich Schappert, Casey’s General Store – Aug. 11, 2017