by Lee Pender

Simon Heads IT at Wildlife Conservation Society

Jul 01, 20013 mins

Last summer, Paula Simon traded bulls and bears for yaks and tigers. After 30 years of IT experience in the financial services industry, the Long Island native answered the call of the wild?or rather of a recruiter. She became CTO of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which oversees the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, three New York City zoos and wildlife programs all over the world. Since July 2000, Simon has led the formation of WCS’s first IT department.

CIO: What prompted you to break from 30 years of corporate work to take a job in such an unusual environment?

Simon: It was a very fast track to an offer and an acceptance. Doesn’t every kid who grows up in this area remember fondly the Bronx Zoo? Besides, I was very ready for a change, looking for a little less pressure and a different ambiance on a day-to-day basis?which this definitely is.

How is IT incorporated into work with the animals?

For one thing, we’re planning a new exhibit for our Siberian tigers. We are working in a very interesting area called behavior enrichment, which is special to zoos. It’s a movement to enrich [animals’] experience and to stimulate them. So we’re building toys. I’m involved in creating software to monitor and track the impact of this behavior enrichment. Part of the exhibit for the tigers will be [monitoring] the impact of the toys.

What were the biggest adjustments you had to make in your new role?

I had to slow myself down. In the financial services arena, everything has to be instant gratification. But this is about long-term objectives for animal [care]. This is about making sure people are comfortable before taking action on initiatives. It’s relaxed compared with financial services. I never got out of my office before 6 [in financial services], but now I do. Also the mix of people you work with is much more varied. You’re dealing with the basic day-to-day care and feeding of animals in many of the dimensions of what we do. But the biggest difference is that we run on a limited budget. We make do where we have to make do, but the animals come first. We’ve been very judicious in choosing our priorities.

Working for a nonprofit organization isn’t usually as lucrative as corporate work. What advice would you give to others wanting to make a similar move?

It takes a change of attitude about money. I’m long enough in the tooth that I’ve accumulated some personal assets. The real motivation to come here is because we have so much to do that everything I do makes a difference. Not every CTO can say that.