News & Features
Feeding the need for creative IT
From fashion design student to food industry global chief information officer is quite a career change. But for Julia Anderson (B.S. ’85 Information Science and General Business Administration), creative innovation and data-based decision-making are all in a day’s work.
Anderson was named Global CIO for Smithfield Foods, Inc., a $15 billion global firm in the consumer goods/manufacturing industry, in September 2015. She brought to Smithfield more than 29 years of information technology excellence and an extensive track record in Fortune 500 consumer companies. Previously, she held leadership positions at other food industry giants H.J. Heinz, PepsiCo, Kraft and Oscar Mayer. Anderson has been recognized for her creative problem-solving, effective relationship building, delivery speed improvements and talented global team leadership. Anderson has been honored with the Kraft Foods IT Leadership Award and has twice earned the PepsiCo Chairman’s Award from Harvey C. Russell.
So how did she go from fashioning apparel to fashioning global systems? “My dad was an electrician,” Anderson recalls, “but my first wish was to go to fashion school. Dad said that was fine—on the condition that I get a Bachelor of Science degree first.
“I remember Dad as always working. He even went to New York to do projects over the years. He enjoyed a successful career at Kraft and then doing projects for big names including Walgreens, Marshall Field, O’Hare Airport and the Sears Tower. But he didn’t have a college degree, and he insisted that all of his kids enroll in college. I was familiar with Northeastern Illinois University because my dad put in the NEIU computer room earlier on. It just seemed natural to go there.
“I enrolled at NEIU, started taking Computer Science classes, and found they were easy for me compared with classes like History or Music Appreciation. I was the youngest of seven kids and all but one of us works in IT today, so I guess I inherited a fearless interest in the possibilities of electronic technologies. That turned out to be a pretty handy quality.
“I needed to graduate on time, so I also took some business classes and discovered I just loved them! I saw the intersection of technology and business very readily, and the classes weren’t a struggle for me. None of this was pre-planned, but it all worked out.
“I know I’m not the only person who entered NEIU with one career dream and discovered a much better fit with exposure to different classes. When they talk about college being the place to find yourself, I think this is what they mean.”
Baxter Healthcare in Northbrook was partnering with Northeastern to place students in career positions, and Anderson was recruited. At Baxter, she began her successful career in the area of corporate transformation and particularly in ERP, enterprise resource planning. ERP is the use of complex process management software that lets an organization integrate its many applications to manage the business and automate back-office functions governing technology, services, human resources and much more. ERP lets each department utilize its own computer system, optimized for its particular needs, but also share information with other departments through a cohesive, overarching system. Says Anderson, “IT is the essential access point for creating a database that all divisions can share in real time, and it’s essential to choose the right legacy system to use.
“IT supports every part of any business, so IT management has to understand every part. IT brings everything into sync, from the basic internal logistics to partnering with other firms, and from everyday operations to major transformations. It’s endlessly fascinating to me.”
In addition to deploying technical innovation, Anderson’s expertise includes developing personnel on a global basis, strategic planning, restructuring, digital marketing, business intelligence, vendor management and more. In a time of corporate reorganization and growth, all of these skills come in to play.
One particular skill of Anderson’s is especially applicable to any institution and organization: creating an investment roadmap and investment case for each functional division. Just as important, Anderson is adept at updating this roadmap as priorities change, providing new capabilities, leveraging existing assets and retiring inefficient processes and reporting.
Most people know that IT careers can be financially rewarding. Many don’t know that, as Anderson insists, there’s a “creative side” to IT.
“I’ve always worked in brand-name firms, where it’s essential to earn buy-in from lots of different people,” she says. “To do that, you need to know the business end-to-end because IT, done right, captures the movement of every part of that business. In my case, it’s been the food industry.
“Once you get the automatic aspects running smoothly every day, then you get to the fun part. I love how IT works to refine logistics, finance, developing product, digitally marketing it, and keeping employees safe.”
Northeastern’s role in launching Anderson’s remarkable career sparked her interest in the NEIU Foundation’s work. Says Anderson, “I began thinking, I really want to give back, so what’s the most effective way to do that?”
Anderson and her husband share a blended family of five kids aged 23 to 33, so her interest in the next generation’s wellbeing is longstanding. And of course, since childhood, her family’s history has been tied in with Northeastern’s.
“I’m one of seven siblings, and six of us work in IT. Five of us graduated from NEIU, and we’ve all had great careers. I was excited about the opportunity to come back to NEIU and talk to students, especially women, about careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
“STEM offers lots of in-demand careers, and I want to talk with NEIU students personally and help them believe that they can compete. I want to support today’s Northeastern students so that they, too, can find their true place and succeed.”
In the video below, Anderson presents “Recipe for Success” as part of the NEIU Alumni: All Access series and the International Business Conference.