Alum Margaret Needham: Set up for success

Needham-Margaret-120X180During her years as an Arizona State University student, Margaret Needham (MSIM ’98) contemplated two careers, both of them involving keyboards.

In the 1990s, Needham majored in piano performance at Yavapai Community College in Prescott before transferring to ASU to study music education. Her goal was to translate her passion for music into a career as a choral conductor, first at the high school level and then at the college level.

Needham was well on the way to her first goal when she received her music education degree and K-12 teaching certificate in 1994. But before she actually launched her career, she says, “I had a change of heart.”

“I enjoyed it, but I felt something was missing,” Needham says.

One thing that was missing was a job. While student teaching, Needham learned that in order to teach choir in high school, you had to wait for someone to leave since there generally is only one such instructor at each school. That severely limited her prospects of landing a job in her field after graduation.

Needham also started thinking of pursuing another career based on her experience as a student worker at the ASU business school while she was studying for her bachelor’s degree in music. The job involved providing computer support to graduate and MBA students in the Information Systems Department. After graduating with her music degree, she transitioned from a student worker to a full-time computer support position with the business school, and her interest in IT grew.

With no teaching positions available at area high schools, Needham stared looking at different master’s programs at ASU, including music, public administration and education. But some of the business school faculty, including Andrew Philippakis, now retired, and Michael Goul, now Information Systems Department Chair, encouraged her to consider an IS degree.

“I would talk to the students about what they were studying, and I wondered if I could do the same thing,” Needham recalls. “That’s when I decided to enroll in the MSIM degree program.”

And that was the start of Needham’s second keyboard career, one she has been pursuing since 1998, when she graduated with her master’s degree and was hired by ExxonMobil, where she now works as a refining and supply controls advisor at the company’s refinery in Billings, Montana.

The marriage of music and IT

Changing careers from music to IT might seem extreme, but there actually is a connection, Needham says, explaining that in music theory, the analysis of how composers create music has a lot in common with mathematics.

“The repeated patterns, the count, the measurement, the beat and how notes are aligned — it is all very mathematical,” she says, adding that when early programming companies first hired code writers they looked for people with music backgrounds.

When she attended an ExxonMobil recruiting session at ASU before finishing her MSIM degree, Needham wasn’t sure how well an IT interview would go because she was just starting the program. But it turns out that company manager leading the recruiting session picked up on her music background.

The recruiter, Phil Rogers, now a clinical assistant professor of information systems at the W. P. Carey School of Business, says that although the connection is indirect, “music and math have been connected for a long time, and I guess I view math as an excellent background for an IT professional.”

“The year 2000 problem”

When Needham started with ExxonMobil after graduation, the company gave her some job options, allowing her to choose what most interested her. At the time, concern was mounting about the so-called “year 2000 problem,” or Y2K. Analysts speculated that as of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, entire computer networks would crash. They said that because many computers had been programmed to record dates using only the last two digits of every year, the year 2000 would register as the year 1900, wreaking worldwide computer havoc.

Like most companies large and small, ExxonMobil was preparing for the anticipated problems, and Needham joined the firm as a Chemicals Marketing and Manufacturing Y2K analyst. She was responsible for the design and implementation of Y2K event handling, communication flow design, escalation procedures and the setup of centers in the U.S, Brussels and Singapore.

“We were anticipating problems,” she says, although, in the end, Y2K was rather uneventful and most computer systems survived.

Since then, Needham has held a variety of IT positions at ExxonMobil, mostly in Houston, giving her the opportunity to learn a lot about different segments of the company’s business. She says that when ExxonMobil hires IT employees, it exposes them to as many of the company’s business lines as possible. In her case, that included jobs in the chemical division, which works with the byproducts of refining, such as plastic for bottles, car molding and tires.

She also worked in the excise tax division and, of course, the IT Division. Her job titles have included chemicals technology project leader and strategic planner, downstream payables team lead, special projects lead for the comprehensive excise tax system and IT applications service support supervisor.

“There is a lot to be said for knowing that every two years you are going to be learning something new and not stagnating,” she says.

Needham says IT is an integral part of the company, which has thousands of computers and even more applications and employs 7,500 IT associates in 50 countries.

Trading warmth for cold and snow

In 2013, Needham and her family — her husband and their two sons — relocated to Montana where she transitioned into her new role. It was a major change for someone who grew up in Southern California and lived in other warm places, including Arizona and Texas.

“We love it in Montana,” she says. “We have a view of the Rockies from our back deck. There’s nothing like picking up our boys after school and going to the sledding hill. We were big campers in Texas and Arizona and we will continue that here. My husband and the kids like to fish and we want to start skiing. Living here definitely gives us a lot of different things to do.”

Needham’s current job involves overseeing the security and control aspects at the refinery, including managing controls to protect data from internal and external issues. Her duties include ensuring compliance with corporate standards for refinery operations, business conduct and corporate regulations for business transactions; coordinating audits, unit internal assessments, health checks and state reviews; supervising payables and timekeeping and providing review for proposed capital projects.

Needham also is part of ExxonMobil’s recruiting team, which brings her back to ASU to check out the IT talent. She says the company recruits IT personnel at 16 universities, which are assessed annually based on their academic programs and the classes offered.

Needham says that her MSIM professors and classes at ASU gave her a stable base of knowledge and the confidence she needed to succeed in her ExxonMobil interview and her IT positions within the company.

“At no time have I felt undereducated when starting a new project at ExxonMobil,” she says. “The MSIM is such a strong program. I was set up for success from the moment I walked in the door.”