Melanie Kirkwood Ruiz is a world-class technology leader best known for her role as the Chief Information and Technology Officer at ABM Industries, a Fortune 500 company and a leading provider of facility solutions with offices in the United States, United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and other international locations. She has held various IT leadership roles at companies including Cushman & Wakefield, Scientific Games, United Airlines, and Abbott.
Ruiz’s early interest in mathematics and science led her to pursue a path in engineering, where she developed a passion for problem-solving, especially in the realm of computer science. Ruiz’s career trajectory evolved through a diverse range of roles, including operations and technology, eventually reaching leadership roles including being a two-time CIO.
As a technology leader, Ruiz has championed the transformative power of technology within ABM Industries. Ruiz has skillfully navigated technology shifts, embracing advancements like AI and data science to streamline operations and enhance customer experiences. At the same time, her leadership has been characterized by a commitment to diversity and innovation, driving her to build teams enriched by individuals from various backgrounds, fostering a culture of collaboration and fresh perspectives.
Growing up in Texas
As a young student, Ruiz excelled in math and science. Growing up in Texas, a state known for its energy sector, she eventually found herself drawn to chemical engineering, particularly due to the prevalent job opportunities in the field. However, it was her fascination with computer science that truly ignited her curiosity and problem-solving prowess. “It was very math-like, with algorithms and such. I definitely felt that was my path. I wasn’t sure about the CIO career yet; that came later. But I gravitated towards technical challenges.”
These early inclinations shaped the foundation of her career. Upon entering the professional world, Ruiz’s passion for technology remained steadfast, though she switched operations and engineering roles throughout her early career at Johnson & Johnson. As she increasingly took on IT management roles, her technology leadership skills, and with it a sharp perspective on best practices, began to develop.
Reflecting on her own career path, Melanie advises people at the beginning of their career journey to envision their desired destinations early on. “Start researching, think about the possibilities of where your career can go. Having a clear goal in mind can guide your building blocks towards that destination. Shoot for the moon!”
Coupling innovation with diversity
Diversity and innovation comprise the foundations of Ruiz’s leadership philosophy. She emphasizes the importance of assembling teams with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Ruiz posits that this approach both prevents groupthink while also fostering a dynamic environment where unique viewpoints are cultivated to develop creative solutions.
“When you look at the team I’ve assembled at ABM, it becomes evident that it comprises individuals hailing from diverse fields. These include individuals with backgrounds in consulting, the oil and gas industry, and even those who have previously worked for government agencies. The team members come from various technology firms and pharmaceutical companies as well. This assortment of backgrounds holds great significance, particularly in the context of fostering innovation. Innovation thrives when approached from varied angles, and this diversity of backgrounds enhances that potential. Solving challenges in one domain can often inspire creative solutions in entirely different areas,” Ruiz says.
A leadership philosophy predicated on empowerment
As a leader, she embraces the philosophy of serving her team and peers, fostering an environment where individuals are not only entrusted with responsibility but also encouraged to take ownership of their roles. “I’m definitely more of a servant leader. For those who want to dive deeper into the concept, I recommend reading the book ‘The Servant Leader’. Trusting your team and enabling them to make decisions empowers them to excel and drive outcomes,” she explained.
Her leadership philosophy centers on fostering a sense of ownership and autonomy, enabling her team to innovate and make decisions without micromanagement. “The role of a leader isn’t just about managing, it’s about coaching, mentoring, and understanding each team member’s motivations and aspirations, striving to foster growth and provide opportunities aligned with their goals,” she adds.
Navigating talent challenges and connecting remote teams
One major challenge Melanie recognizes in today’s job market is talent acquisition, specifically in technology roles. “Acquiring and retaining talent is so hard. Early-stage founders should seek team members who are intellectually curious, versatile, and self-starters. Adaptability is crucial in the always evolving startup environment.”
To foster innovation within distributed workforces, she emphasizes open communication, innovation sessions, and collaboration across departments. “By creating an ecosystem of open communication, my team remains aligned and agile, enabling seamless collaboration even in remote settings. We hold frequent brainstorming sessions, encouraging team members to think outside the box and contribute creative ideas. It’s really like pulling them in and creating a process around coming up with creative ideas.”
AI and technology trends
Ruiz believes that AI has the potential to streamline business operations and improve customer experiences. In the long run, she believes industries will likely be reshaped. To remain at the forefront of these technological shifts, she advises organizations to proactively engage with AI developments, experimenting with leveraging its capabilities to create long-term value.
Finding the balance between IT security and technology innovation
Melanie offers a three-tiered approach to technology investment: foundational operations, operations enabling, and revenue-driving technology. Companies considering adopting technology should carefully measure ROI for each category and align technology strategies with business objectives. “Everything that we do with technology has to match with the company’s overarching business goals,” she noted.
Discussing the challenges in balancing the desire to maintain an innovative approach to adopting new technology like AI while also ensuring robust security, Ruiz highlights the importance of an integrated security posture. Rather than making security an afterthought, IT teams and business users need to align on the importance of security as part of the innovation process.
“As technology rapidly advances, I believe AI will reshape industries, much like smartphones and the internet did. At the same time, breakthroughs in technology come along with more complex threats and vulnerabilities. It’s a balancing act between adapting to a rapidly changing technological landscape while ensuring security remains a top priority – a priority for any CIO I know. Staying informed and prepared in these areas is critical.”
Working with early-stage founders as a CIO
Throughout her career, she has engaged with early-stage founders and established partnerships with accelerators and venture capital firms. She expresses admiration for the passion, ambition, and enthusiasm that early-stage founders bring to their products.
She also emphasizes the importance of balancing visionary thinking adaptability. Ruiz shares experiences with startup founders who possess strong technology and innovative ideas, but may not fully consider the broader applications of their products in the context of problems they may not have yet considered. Ruiz encourages early-stage founders to maintain their ambitious dreams while also being open to finding the best way to leverage their technology in various contexts.