by Ben Worthen

CIO 20/20 Honorees–Leadership Profile: Ralph Szygenda of GM

Oct 01, 20022 mins
IT Leadership

Group Vice President and CIO

General Motors Corp.

After suffering three heart attacks, Ralph Szygenda’s father stopped working at age 60, leaving his son to pay his own way through college. All things being equal, Szygenda says he would have gone to medical school. But things weren’t equal, and with economic reality in mind, young Szygenda followed in his father’s footsteps and became an engineer, a field that all but guaranteed a job. After college he went to work at Texas Instruments, where he stayed for 21 years, becoming a chief information officer in 1989. In 1993, he left for Bell Atlantic, where he stayed until 1996, when General Motors?then the world’s largest company?asked him to be its first CIO.

These days Szygenda, 54, thinks only about being a physician in rare moments of nostalgia. However, he frequently thinks like one. “I am known for diagnosing things,” he says. “I know why things don’t work right, and I can apply technology to the problem.” Some of Szygenda’s prescriptions at Detroit-based GM are well known. He is strong willed, tough as nails and always direct. Szygenda has cut the overall number of systems from 7,000 to 3,500, put in place an outsourcing business model (GM spends billions on IT every year but doesn’t write a line of code internally) and is generally credited with helping to wake a slumbering giant. “I love what I do,” says Szygenda. But he hasn’t entirely given up on his medical school dream. “I still might go,” he says.