I was a military brat. My father was a spy pilot in the Air Force. I went to 12 different schools before I graduated from high school. It just so happens that I finished high school in Texas, and that’s how I ended up going to a Texas [university].
At the time I started in college, I went in as pre-med. I wanted to be a medical doctor. My father was battling cancer. I ended up spending a lot of time in the cancer ward, and I was just fascinated by all that. I also felt that we could be doing a whole lot more than we were doing to cure cancer.
Then I spent a summer as an intern at IBM, and it was just to make some money because I was pretty broke. I fell in love with the environment, the people I got to work with, the customers. For the first time, I was exposed to the fact that with technology you get to solve really big problems and you never stand still.
The beauty of a company like IBM, at least in those days, if you’re on a development track, you get exposed to all aspects of the business — hardware, software, finance, [human resources], education — and the most exciting to me was software, because it seemed to be the area that drove the greatest amount of innovation and change.
[The experience helped me ultimately land at a company called SolidWorks, where I was named chief executive.] The company had been wildly successful. But I felt that we were reaching the end of what the platform could do and we needed to work on the next-generation technologies. The hardest thing to change is a successful company.
It’s easy to change when you’ve been diagnosed with a challenging disease or some kind of event or crisis is forced upon you. It’s very hard to force change on people when you’re doing well. But that’s exactly the time that you should start questioning what you’re doing.
[Ellucian, a higher education software company, came about when] someone approached me. I was telling my wife about it. She just broke out in a big smile. She said, ‘You’ve come home,’ because she knew that I always had this very strong passion for education. I just got very, very excited about it. As I said before, don’t work for boring companies. Work for companies [where] you can make a change. I believe that you should work for a company where you draw an emotional paycheck not just a physical paycheck. This is a company with a high level of emotional paychecks.
— Interview with Kathy Orton
Position: President and chief executive, Ellucian, a Fairfax, Va.-based higher education software company.
Career highlights: CEO, Ventyx; executive vice president, Dassault Systemes; CEO, COO, SolidWorks; vice president, Progress Software; vice president, Compuware
Education: BS, economics, Texas A&M