Paving the Way

Though she says challenges for CIOs are not gender specific, Sysco Corporation’s Twila Day encourages young women to join the IT industry through her work in female-specific programs and leading by example

“The technology industry is a wonderful place for females to have a career. With all the social aspects of the roles and the need for great communication skills, it is an area where women can thrive.”
Twila Day
Senior VP & CIO

Twila Day wears many hats at home and at work. The talented leader, problem solver, mentor, mother, and Fortune 100 senior vice president and CIO received the Association of Women in Computing’s Leadership in Technology award for skillfully guiding the IT department at Sysco Corporation. Techxans CIO Innovations Institute later awarded Day its Leadership in the Technology Industry and Influence on Young People award for her involvement in programs that encourage youth to enter the technology field. The Houston-based executive has more than two decades of experience with Sysco. Here, Day reveals what’s brought her success while leading a department of 500 full-time employees and a $350 million budget.

What is your educational background? 

[I have a] BS degree in business management and an associates of science degree in information technology and business management.

What drew you to the field of IT? 

When I was in high school, I took and enjoyed a data-processing class, and my father urged me to consider a double major in business management and information technology. He had developed training programs for the Navy and had worked with their technology groups with technology people who lacked the business side. It turned out to be the best advice I’ve ever received, because my mixture of business education and experience has become more and more important with my technology background.

How did you end up in your current position? 

I started at Sysco as a programmer analyst hired to write a piece of our internally developed ERP [enterprise resource planning] system. I continued to gain knowledge and other areas of responsibility and moved up in the organization. When I started out, I didn’t think about being the CIO, but once it became a possibility I turned my efforts into attaining that role. It has been a wonderful journey.

What are your main CIO duties? 

I direct Sysco’s enterprise-technology organization, which includes system operations, applications, strategy, planning, and data management. Additionally, I currently cochair for our business transformation initiative, which includes transitioning to a single instance of SAP across the enterprise.

What are your department’s biggest contributions to Sysco’s bottom line?

We support the business with systems and data to procure, order, pack, and ship products to our customers.

Is there a secret to overcoming business obstacles? 

Everything is solvable … Sometimes you have to be more creative and think outside the box. Rarely does something end up being carried out exactly as it was planned. I think it’s important to understand the need and the ways to solve problems with the best solutions.

What are some inherent challenges of being a female CIO in a male-dominated industry? 

I really don’t believe there are different challenges for female CIOs versus males. While there are certainly more male CIOs, the challenges are the same.

Do you see the industry changing for females? 

The technology industry is a wonderful place for females to have a career. With all the social aspects of the roles and the need for great communication skills, it is an area where women can thrive.

What is your proudest career accomplishment? 

Being able to mentor others inside and outside work. Giving back to others and helping them succeed!

Discuss your mentoring efforts. Are they focused on female protégés? 

I mentor both males and females. There are some female-specific mentoring programs that I’m involved with such as Sysco’s women mentoring groups and the Women in Foodservice Forum. I’m open to mentoring anyone as long as I can dedicate the time to spend with them.

How should executives in your field recruit women?

We need to have a diverse pool to choose from, so the best way to support recruiting women is to encourage young women to choose technology as a career. I’m involved with junior high school and high school programs like Genesys Works Houston, which shows youth what it’s like to work in a technology job by giving them training in general business and technology skills and placing them in internships. Anytime I have an opportunity to talk to young females, I encourage them to look at a career in technology. Many times there is a fear that you can’t have work-life balance in a technology role. With the flexibility in the technology roles, that isn’t the case.

What is most rewarding about being a female CIO?

That I am a role model to other women, showing them they can have a career and a family.

What is one thing you have not done with your life or career that you hope to accomplish?

Finish getting my children through college and out in their own careers … I still have 13-year-old twin girls to go!

What do you hope your success as a female exec has taught them? 

I have five children between the ages 13 and 34. I want them to find careers that make them happy, utilize their strengths, and allow them to take care of themselves and their families. I believe I have shown my daughters that they can have a career and a family. I believe I’ve shown my sons that their wives can have a career and a family. In both cases, they know it takes help from everyone for it to work. My husband is also an executive, so everyone has to pitch in. We have a nanny, without whom, I couldn’t do what I do.