Garret Yoshimi has more lines on his résumé than most IT professionals. “I guess I took a nontraditional approach,” Yoshimi says of his many jobs. “But I’ve made that an asset I can leverage in many ways.” After starting his career as an applications developer and working in numerous public and private entities of all sizes, Yoshimi is now the University of Hawaii’s CIO. The role—combined with his unique experience—gives Yoshimi an unusual perspective on the talent pipeline and what aspiring tech leaders can do to prepare in today’s rapidly changing environment.
Yoshimi says that tech leadership is in his blood. He was born and raised in Hawaii and watched as his father worked as an engineer and technician for a large local company. After tinkering with any electronic components he could find, Yoshimi noticed his natural talent and looked to go to college to study electrical engineering. Looking for a strong engineering program at a reasonable cost in the 1970s, he selected electrical engineering at Indiana’s Purdue University over CalTech and MIT.
Purdue had formed a partnership with Bell Labs, and soon, Yoshimi found himself working on complex systems with an emphasis on computer software. Upon graduation, he landed a job as a software developer and has never looked back. “I’ve had the luxury to make frequent moves to keep my work fun and challenging,” he says. “I’m not the type of person who can just sit and earn a paycheck. I have to be learning and growing, or I’ll die.”
Yoshimi’s Steps for Success
For those aspiring to leadership, Yoshimi has one simple bit of advice: “Work only on what’s most important.” Over his long and distinguished career, Yoshimi has developed a formula for success, and it’s taking the University of Hawaii into the future. Here are his simple steps to take for success:
Ask questions and listen.
Figure out what makes your organization tick.
Create an aligned tech strategy that enables overall business goals.
Maximize value by executing that strategy.
Identify talent, and give each person meaningful work.
Between 1989 and 2002, Yoshimi had five different employers. He integrated systems for a telecom company, was the first CIO of Hawaii’s statewide court system, led tech infrastructure for a research center at the University of Hawaii, and transformed service delivery for a private IT firm. He then held various roles at the university before he took another leadership role in the private sector in 2009. In 2014, Yoshimi received news of an unexpected opportunity. His former boss became the university’s president and was looking for someone to lead information technology services (ITS) at the University of Hawaii. Yoshimi agreed to return to the public sector once again.
Today, Yoshimi and ITS are in the midst of executing a strategic plan designed to help transform the university by 2020. The strategic plan, titled, “Looking Forward to 2020 and Beyond,” is fully aligned with the University of Hawaii’s strategic directions as approved by its board of regents in January 2015. Yoshimi is working to increase connectivity across the system’s ten campuses and to gather and analyze data to enable decision making, replace and upgrade legacy systems, provide fast and robust support, and automate self-service systems. To do so, he’s drawing upon much of his previous experience. “I’ve touched many industries, roles, and sectors,” he says. “That prepared me really well for the challenges you face in public education. I’ve been on all sides of the relationship, and I understand all of what my current team has to support.”
Yoshimi’s team is responsible for network and systems infrastructure, student information systems, financial management systems, human resources, and all other tech areas for a network of institutions scattered across four islands. Each of the university’s ten campuses has one or more smaller IT teams that provide localized support. There’s plenty of work to go around, and several positive aspects attract qualified applicants who enjoy working on open-source teams at one of the state’s top IT employers—and one that runs networks and services that rival any large telecom company.
Despite the key differentiators, Yoshimi faces constant challenges around talent and resources. All university leaders must demonstrate and prove clear financial requirements while relying on limited state budgets. Additionally, changing talent requirements often outpace changes to university curricula. Yoshimi overcomes challenges inherent to public education by running a lean operation and promoting a positive culture. “We do meaningful and important work here,” he says. “It’s a collaborative, rewarding atmosphere in which aspiring leaders can find the training and networking they desire.”
Since his return to public education in 2015, Yoshimi has been building on the work of his predecessor by networking with other CIOs and area tech leaders. And while he executes the internal plan, Yoshimi also has external goals. “ITS is playing a bigger and bigger role in meeting the university’s objectives, and our IT organization is one of the largest in the state,” he says. “We have the opportunity and the responsibility to step into IT leadership in our region.” He meets regularly with his counterparts in public and private organizations to discuss challenges and opportunities. Each leader recognizes the need for an adequate and robust candidate pipeline to fill the jobs in the IT sector and in other STEM fields throughout the state.
As a university CIO, Yoshimi is in the unique position to influence the process as both employer and educator. When he’s not meeting with industry leaders, he’s talking to deans, professors, chancellors, and others responsible for developing curriculum. When possible, he connects one side to the other, facilitating conversations between educators and employers.
“We do meaningful and important work here. It’s a collaborative, rewarding atmosphere in which aspiring leaders can find the training and networking they desire.”
Yoshimi says his fellow CIOs have identified the hard and soft skills they need educators to develop in students. Now, he’s working to create the mentoring programs, internships, and project-based curriculums that will produce better candidates. Internally, he encourages those on his teams to engage and collaborate more than in the past. “Many in our community are introverts, but today’s connected work requires more collaboration and more partnership,” Yoshimi says. “We have to make connections with others to add real value.” He constantly preaches the importance of connecting all ITS activities back to the university’s strategic objectives. A public-facing website and an internal portal demonstrate those connections.
As ITS at the University of Hawaii executes on its 2020 plan, Yoshimi is focused on succession planning. “Leadership in IT doesn’t blossom overnight,” he says. “We have to do the hard work now that will take us well into the future.”