by Meridith Levinson

Growing from Programmer to CEO

Jun 26, 20084 mins

Mike Kistner has moved in and out of IT leadership and business operations positions with HFS, Super 8 Motels, Cendant and Best Western. In June 2008, he was promoted from COO of Pegasus Solutions to CEO. Here, Kistner discusses how his career took flight.

Mike Kistner never planned on becoming a CEO. When he began his career in IT nearly 30 years ago, he was a programmer writing business applications for a company called Professional Computer Systems. At the time, Kistner was like most programmers: He just wanted to write good code. Maybe he’d someday become a lead systems analyst, he thought, but certainly never a chief exec.

Mike Kistner, CEO, Pegasus Solutions
Kistner’s ability to solve business problems and his technical training played an instrumental role in where he is today.

Kistner, who was appointed CEO of travel services provider Pegasus Solutions on June 10, didn’t begin thinking about the possibility of a career beyond coding until he began working for Super 8 Motels. An executive there one day asked the young programmer about his career plans. Recognizing Kistner’s knack for problem-solving and budding leadership capabilities, he told Kistner to consider moving into management.

Kistner says he stepped up to the plate and began to weigh in on operational issues after that fateful conversation. First he applied his analytical mind and systems methodologies to determining optimum staffing levels for the hotel chain’s call center.

“The recognition I got [from that] was a mixed blessing,” says Kistner. He was rewarded with responsibility for the call center in addition to IT.

Next he was asked to figure out how to use the company’s fleet of corporate aircraft most efficiently. Kistner’s analysis led to the creation of flight schedules and $1.5 million in annual savings for the company. For that accomplishment, he was given added responsibility for corporate travel. The same thing happened with corporate insurance.

“It got to the point where the CEO of the company [Harvey Jewett] said, ‘I’d like you to be my EVP of operations,'” says Kistner. “He listed all of these different areas he wanted me to take over. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about compliance, customer loyalty, etc.’ He said, ‘You understand how to analyze them, determine objectives and put together plans to execute and be successful. That’s what I’m looking for.'”

Kistner’s ability to solve business problems is largely what got him to where he is today, and he says his technical training played an instrumental role in helping him solve those problems. It gave him the ability to step back, assess situations and focus on core issues.

Of course, the conversation Kistner initially had about his career was also critical in making him realize he could do more than just write code. And Kistner credits Jewett’s mentoring and belief in him in shaping his career.

“If Harvey didn’t have that confidence in me, I’m sure my career would have branched in a much different direction,” he says. “I’d be a really good programmer today.”

Kistner recommends that IT managers who aspire to executive-level positions outside of IT “look at the big picture” and understand their company’s real business objectives today. He also advises them to understand that they don’t always have to solve business problems with technology, and he recalls another mentor, a CIO he worked with while at Cendant, Dave McNichols, in dispensing this advice:

“Dave said, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ Technology people will try to solve every problem with technology. Sometimes, a couple of human beings can brute force their way through something you spend weeks analyzing and trying to solve programmatically. Focus on what it takes to drive business forward as opposed to what it takes to drive IT forward because they aren’t necessarily one and the same.”

(For more stories about executives who moved from CIO to CEO, see What It’s Like to Go from CIO to CEO; Christopher Lofgren’s Transition from CIO to CEO; Dawn Lepore’s Lessons Learned; JoAnn Ryan Goes from CIO to CEO and National Association of Realtors’ CIO/CFO Appointed CEO.)