Sherry Aaholm is the chief information officer for Cummins Inc., a position she took in 2013 after leaving FedEx. She started her career in 1980 doing marketing at Wisconsin-based trucking firm Schneider National but shifted to IT and later assumed senior tech roles at Schneider, Atlanta-based GeoLogistics and Memphis-based FedEx.
Born in Burlington, Wisconsin, Aaholm now lives in Indianapolis with her husband and 15-year-old daughter. She spoke with IBJ about her career in IT, her projects at Cummins and her recently obtained environmental degree.
When did you first get involved in IT?
When I worked for Schneider National in the 1990s. I was going to school for marketing and economics. And during that time, the chief financial officer gave me his portable laptop—it was like a sewing machine—and asked me to take over for him some of the financial models that the company was doing in terms of driver routing and driver optimization.
And that was all written in Fortran [a programming language], and I started playing with the Fortran code to tweak the model. I didn’t know programming, but I kind of had a knack for the logical side and that moved me into writing some pretty significant and elaborate operations-research models.
You spent more than a decade at FedEx. What would you say was your biggest accomplishment leading IT operations there?
One was the rollout of a mobile, handheld device for couriers. So we upgraded and replaced the original SuperTracker device to what they call PowerPad. It has the ability to capture signatures and have integrated interactions. That was a very large program I did for them.
What compelled you to join Cummins in 2013?
I really wanted to accelerate my career to be a chief information officer. And at FedEx, the CIO is Rob Carter—he’s still there—and I could see there wouldn’t be any opportunity in the immediate future to actually have a role like that. That’s what prompted me to start looking externally.
What are some of the tech-related initiatives that you’re working on at Cummins?
We actually created what’s called a ‘digital accelerator’ in the company. We’ve now got a dedicated staff and team that’s engaged in taking ideas—whether that’s in the manufacturing side or the customer side or supply-chain side—and running them through what is a rapid, iterative process to validate the ideas or throw it out if we don’t think it’s going to work.
The focus is on three key themes: How can we improve product quality and up-time availability? How can we help with new services for our customers? And how can we find value within the company?
When did you start this team?
About three or four years ago, we started doing telematics [or vehicle monitoring] work within the company. So we already have products that are running on our newer engines that companies have in their fleet, and we’re doing telematics on them. And we’re using that information to change the service experience that our customers have. We’re interpreting [fault codes] and telling the customer proactively if the vehicle needs to be routed in for maintenance and where’s the nearby service center.
We just brought the [accelerator] team together [in late April]. We’ve been working on the digital stuff for a while, but we recognized it was probably time now to bring it together.
What are some of your sources for technology and innovation news?
My main source is the World 50 group, which is a collection of the top 100 CIOs, basically, across the world. It’s a collaborative platform for you to ask them questions and engage. Gartner is a big place for me to understand the technology trends that are going on. And then, of course, working with our vendors.
Besides that, I’m a bit of a personal techie geek. So I like to play with my own stuff, like 3-D printing. My daughter is now into some robotics. She was doing Python, so I jumped into it to help her do that.
You got your master’s degree in sustainability studies last year. What prompted that?
One of the things about technology is that it can also have an impact on the environment. At FedEx, one of the things I was engaged in was the buildout of their new data center in Colorado Springs. And we were LEED Gold-certified and we did everything from an environmental perspective to focus on the efficient utilization of the facility.
That got me pretty excited about this, which is why I wanted to further understand it. But also, Cummins is very significantly focused on sustainability, too. And, obviously, I want to have a world for my child to grow up in.
What did your parents do?
My parents were dairy farmers in northern Wisconsin. So I’m the first of their kids to actually have advanced degrees.
Any lessons you’ve learned from them that stick with you today?
My father was very ill and my mother took over the farm. And my mother became, not only the matriarch, but I watched my mother interact in those days with vendors who would go to my father, and my father would push them to my mom.
So my mother, early on, taught me the value of hard work, the value of recognizing diversity, the value of recognizing engagement and the fact that you’re just as powerful to do what you want to do. So she was very influential in my life. Hugely. I love my dad, but my mom was the inspiration for all that.•