In the Kentucky State University Marching Thorobred Band, it wasn’t hard to spot Rhonda Childress.
The high-stepping euphonium player swinging her instrument was one of only three white students in the show band at the historically African-American college in central Kentucky—not the last time this pioneer would blaze her own trail.
Now she has become the first IBM Fellow who has spent her entire career in strategic outsourcing (SO). She was working at McDonnell-Douglas in 1993, when IBM won an SO deal, and the future Fellow was re-badged as an IBMer.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different companies, but IBM gave me the greatest opportunity to grow,” said the Austin resident who has worked on SO engagements for a long list of clients, including Texaco, Disney, Monsanto, Westpac in Australia, and currently DuPont.
The Distinguished Engineer and master inventor has authored 75 patents, building IBM’s intellectual property in outsourcing architectures and approaches. “For a long time, I shied away from trying to get patents. I thought my ideas were too obvious and a patent has to be non-obvious. But someone pointed out to me, obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to other people.”
From humble beginnings came innovative thinking
Growing up in modest means in Kentucky, Rhonda was one of six children, three of whom died as infants. “My dad had a heart condition and we didn’t have much money. We grew fruits and vegetables and canned them and chopped wood to help heat the house through the winter. My parents made it very clear if I wanted to go to college, I’d have to find a way to pay for it.”
A prodigy in advanced math and computer science, Rhonda was offered a full scholarship to Kentucky State. “It was quite a unique experience being one of the few white kids who lived on campus. It really opened my eyes to the way minorities are treated,” Rhonda recalled. “Once we got through our differences—apparently how often I washed my hair was the talk of the dorm for the first several weeks —it was a great experience for me, some of the best times in my life.”
The outgoing engineer with a sunny disposition got her start at GM in Michigan. “I got the opportunity early on to work on some first-of-a-kind projects—like creating a system for electronic swipe cards for recording time and attendance for plant workers. That hadn’t been done before.”
Throughout her IBM career, the married mom of two college-age sons has brought fresh thinking to client issues. Her designs for processing data through a network firewall and a common architecture for systems management infrastructure have been incorporated into the Tivoli portfolio. Her latest innovations have been in security, including an invention that correlates a password’s expiration period with the strength of the password.
“On my review one year, my manager wrote, ‘likes to color outside the box.’ I can come up with some strange, nutty things to help a customer with. But more often than not, it’s a simple idea, a simple approach that hasn’t been tried before.”
What do you look for when hiring?
To me, it’s not what you know and how smart you are. It’s your attitude. How well are you going to fit into the team? If I ask you to do something new, are you going to go figure it out on your own? In the SO world, you encounter all sorts of challenges. You can work through anything, it’s all about attitude.
What keeps you up at night?
I think about the Internet of everything. Bitcoins, cars driving themselves… it’s amazing where technology is going. But there are a lot of nasty people out there. I have a 14-character password on my phone. My kids think I’m paranoid, but I’m a realist. I look at security and what can happen and how can we prevent what is happening. How do we let technology march on, keep it safe, but still usable. That’s where analytics is so important. We can stay one step ahead of the bad guys.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
If I’m near water, it’s scuba diving. I also have a computer that does embroidering, which is really cool. On a plane, I either read a book or knit.
What was the last book you read?
Bag of Bones by Stephen King. On my Kindle.
Who’s on your playlist?
John Legend, Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson and Sara Bareilles. Brave (00:03:58) is my new favorite song.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
It’s all about chocolate. Some might say Diet Coke. If I’m totally stressed, it’s Diet Coke and chocolate.
What does it mean to become an IBM Fellow?
Working my entire career in GTS in the SO world, being a female and there not being but a handful of female Fellows, makes it a really big deal to me. I just hope I’m a role model for everybody else.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be the remembered as the one who always had a great attitude, and got the job done.