Alumni Spotlight - Tracey Graham

Hard work and diligence earn success

By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist

Tracey Graham has worked in the field of business continuity management for almost 10 years, most recently as a Principal Program Manager for Microsoft. A graduate of Everett Community College, Tracey earned associate's degrees in network administration and business applications. Here, Tracey tells us more about her background and why she loves the field of risk management.

Where did you graduate from high school?

I graduated from Meadowdale High School (near Lynnwood, WA), in 1985.

When you were in high school, did you ever envision what you're doing today?

No, not in a million years. I wouldn't have even known what business continuity management was or that it even existed.

Were the talents you're using in your career today evident when you were in high school?

Well, I was heavily involved in DECA (a student marketing organization) back then. I took first place in state for finance and credit and then went on to nationals. So, I guess from an analytical point of view, I was learning and using those skills early on, but had no idea that it would lead me to business continuity management.

Obviously, you excelled in high school.

I excelled at things I enjoyed [Smiling].

Did you attend Everett Community College right after high school?

Actually, I didn't. Between my high school graduation and EvCC, I had a short career in banking as a mortgage banker and then was a stay at home mom for 10 years, raising three children.

How and when did you end up at EvCC?

I began attending EvCC in 2000. I went through a divorce and knew that I needed to establish new skills in order be relevant in the workplace and be able to support my three children.

Did you have a focus when you came to EvCC?

I actually came into the Counseling Center and took some placement tests just to ensure I was heading down the right path. I felt like I knew the direction I wanted to take, but I just wanted confirmation to make sure I was going to use my potential skillset appropriately. I had limited time to do what I needed to accomplish and I didn't want to go down the wrong path. I wanted to go into IT (information technology), and when the placement tests came back, my interest was confirmed. I ended up receiving two associate's degrees: network administration and business applications. They probably don't have those associates’ degrees anymore!

Why did you decide to do the two degrees together?

Because there was a lot of cross-over with the classes for the two degrees and I was able to accomplish them by only taking a few more classes; it totally made sense.

How were you able to manage your time with your children and everything?

It was very, very difficult and exhausting. Not a lot of sleep. I would drop the children off at school in the morning, go to my classes, do my homework in the car, wait to pick them up, take them to their activities, come home and have dinner and then help with their homework. After they went to bed, I was usually doing homework until 2:00 a.m., and then started the whole process over the next day.

You were obviously very motivated.

Very motivated! It was up to me to figure out how to support my three children and that was the only thing that mattered. It is still my driving force today.

Tell me about the quality of EvCC's teachers and courses you took.

As I was considering attending EvCC, someone said to me, “What’s a two year education going to do for you?” That always stuck in the back of my head, as I believe all education is relevant and important. Because I hadn’t been to school since high school, I remember being so nervous to start classes that first week; I literally broke out in hives!

I loved being at EvCC for a number of reasons. The teachers provided an environment where having strong relationships with the students was easy and they totally supported the educational journey for the students. I really loved the small class sizes. As a mom trying to juggle everything, it was very important that I was accessible to the staff and could have one-on-one conversations with them if I had questions. Not sure I would have gotten that from another type of institution. It was critical that I was on track and had all available resources at my disposal. My advisor, Louise Lien, was also very inspirational to me. She was always there for me, anytime.

It sounds like EvCC provided a foundation for you.

Absolutely. The basic foundation of the education was instrumental for me, but the opportunity to also have an internship was essential. That gave me real-life experience and allowed me to demonstrate the skills that I had learned at the college and really utilize them. It was absolutely critical.

What did you do after graduating from EvCC?

The last six months before I graduated, I started an internship through EvCC at Swedish Heart Institute, in their IT group. Then they offered me two contract jobs after I graduated, so I completed those as I was looking for full-time employment. I was then hired at Washington Mutual in January of 2003. This was my first experience of understanding how networking is so important with everyone you know. My brother’s neighbor worked for Washington Mutual and so my brother sent my resume to him. He brought me in for an interview, which resulted in me being hired. If I hadn’t had that networking opportunity, I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to get my first job after graduation.

What did you do for Washington Mutual?

Initially, project and program management in their IT architecture group, and then later, program management for the Office of Continuity Assurance. I was there until July, 2008.

What did you do in the architecture group?

From an IT perspective, they were looking at either the current architecture—how to improve it—or ways to bring in new technology or infrastructure. I worked with the IT engineers and architects who would evaluate the new technology and see if it would work within the infrastructure. Basically, I managed their projects and helped babysit those guys [Smiling].

Did you enjoy that work?

Yes, I loved it. I was in the architecture group for probably a year, and then, because of reorgs, I was recruited into the Office of Continuity Assurance as a Disaster Recovery Testing Engineer, providing input to concept proposals and technical feasibility studies as it related to disaster recovery for the company, as well as supporting annual disaster recovery testing of the systems and infrastructure. At that point, I discovered that I really loved this type of practice and wanted to pursue a career in business continuity management. By the end of my time at Washington Mutual, I had worked my way up to being a Senior Program Manager, managing the operations of the governance structure, i.e. policy, standards and processes of the entire business continuity program, facilitating the working and steering committees, all communications and awareness, and what we called the Vendor Continuity Assessment Program, where we assessed all of our critical vendors to ensure they could recover from any disruption to their business so it would not impact Washington Mutual.

It sounds like great experience. What did you do next?

After leaving Washington Mutual in July 2008, I was hired at Frontier Bank as the BC/DR Risk Manager in the Operational Risk Management group to manage their business continuity and disaster recovery program. For my career, it was a great opportunity to own the development of a program. I did that for 18 months, but then saw the handwriting on the wall that the bank was likely going to be one of the many banks that would succumb to the financial industry crash. So, I thought it might be a good time to get away from the banking industry altogether. And that’s the beauty of what I do--business continuity and disaster recovery is a program that many companies and corporations have, so my skills are very portable.

Business continuity is really a form of risk management. It's really looking at the enterprise or the company as a whole, performing an impact assessment on processes within each of the organizations within the company, and evaluating potential impacts to things like revenue, legal/regulatory, customer, brand/reputation, third parties, and employee, etc., so that any disruption to business or disaster can be recovered quickly; ultimately, to prevent any adverse impact to the company, its assets and stakeholders.

On the face of it, that sounds like a really tall order.

It is. 9/11 really changed the face of this kind of practice. Business continuity management has existed for a long time, but that was the moment where companies started saying, “We have no choice but to put this program in place." It’s kind of like an insurance policy that, hopefully, we never have to use, but it’s there when we need it. The idea is that companies prepare for any disruption to a business process: a vendor who can’t provide their products or services that a business process relies on, weather impacts (e.g., flooding or snowstorm), or a system or dependent process within the company that has a disruption. Anything that impacts and touches that process that could go down, we try to mitigate risks in advance, but always plan for recovery in the event of a disruption. It's been proven over and over again that if those plans are not put in place, companies can potentially not recover from the impact.

You were at Frontier Bank for 18 months, and then what happened?

I left there and got a job at Clearwire, to manage their business continuity management program. I was there for six months and then was recruited to Microsoft, which is where I always wanted to be [Smiling]. It was a strange year for me because I had actually worked at three different companies in one year, totally not my style. I tend to think of myself as a ‘lifer’ if I am working for a good company, but the economy certainly turned that concept upside down. 

Are you doing the same work at Microsoft?

Yes, I am currently a Principal Program Manager working in the enterprise program; it's called the Enterprise Business Continuity Management Program Management Office. Essentially, we govern and oversee, and provide subject matter expertise to all the business units across the enterprise (worldwide) to ensure they comply with the program and the annual deliverables.  

Do you work with a team?

Yes. We have approximately 5 people on the core PMO team.

Can you give me an example of a typical day or project?

On any typical day, I am responsible and maybe working on the program methodology, training, awareness, quarterly newsletter, communications, branding and campaigns. Or, scheduling multiple meetings with business units who I am assigned to and responsible for consulting to oversee and support their BCM programs. I am always juggling many projects and deadlines. And, of course, the ever popular: responding to a multitude of emails on a daily basis!  In my position, I work with little direction, but I am expected to drive thought leadership to help shape the overall enterprise program. I have to be prepared to speak at a tactical level, as well as at an executive management level, as we meet with people at all levels of the company. It’s always challenging, but rewarding and really fun!

What has helped you succeed in your career?

Well, I'm a perfectionist and I work really hard, but there are a lot of people who I see also work hard but don't necessarily network themselves very well. Even in a bad economy, I've had doors open up because of the relationships that I have developed and maintained. Networking plays a huge part of that success, along with the hard work. You have to have both. Don’t ever burn bridges as it will always come back to bite you--it will!

Also, look for ways to improve your career with continued education or certifications. I have two international certifications in business continuity management: Certified Business Continuity Planner (CBCP) - DRII, and Member of the Business Continuity Institute (MBCI) - BCI. There are also always opportunities to join community organizations, councils or committees related to your field. I sat on the King County Emergency Management Council in 2009 and was the Chair for the WashingtonFIRST Coalition for two years. I am currently still on the Washington State Region 6 Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee. I love being able to make a difference for the companies I have or do work for and in the community or state where I live; it’s very rewarding. I would also recommend having a LinkedIn account and really work hard at establishing connections through that avenue. Lots of companies today only use LinkedIn as their way to recruit, so that can be a very powerful tool.

What are the rewards of your work?

Well, the rewards are easy to talk about: knowing you're implementing a program that not only ensures the company can recover from any kind of impact, but, ultimately, making sure that people are safe. One of my passions is personal preparedness at home. From a business perspective, you can’t expect critical workers to come to work during a recovery effort until they know their family members are safe at home, after an earthquake, let’s say. You would never think to say, “You have to come to work” when people are concerned about their family's safety and welfare. From a business perspective, it's in the best interest to encourage people to be prepared at home.

There are all kinds of resources out there to help with preparedness: Ready.gov, FEMA, Red Cross, and so on. Providing employees those resources so they can easily find them is really a great way to support that model.

It sounds like your work is theoretical, but also based on past experience.

Most companies benchmark on industry best practices, as well as analyze lessons learned from incidents that have directly impacted their company, as well as other disasters that can be learned from. It’s always learning in progress. 

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

Just the normal stuff: juggling lots of projects and deadlines; influencing people. Since business continuity is like an insurance policy, it's one of those things that, hopefully, you never have to use, but when it happens and you need it, it's there. Usually, until an event happens, the burden is to try to influence people to understand the importance for planning for potential impacts for when it does happen. After an event happens everyone gets it and jumps on board to support it--it’s kind of funny that way.

What do you consider your keys to success?

Let's go back to what motivates me. When I was at EvCC, I was on a serious mission to gain marketable skills so I could go out and get a job to support my children; that was my driver and still is, period. But I saw other women in my situation as well, and for some reason they thought that just getting by was good enough and something was just going to be handed to them. I never saw it that way. I saw that it was going to take a lot of hard work and determination, and I needed to go above and beyond. I never understood why they might have had that mentality; you should never expect anything to be handed to you.

My greatest success is to see my children grow up to be successful, contributing members of society. My daughter received a scholarship for college this past year and, as part of that process, she wrote an essay which described how she admired my hard work and determination, and she recognized that I never expected to get a hand out during the progression of my education and my career. When I found out she had written this, it brought tears to my eyes and was a very proud moment for me. It’s the ultimate compliment and biggest reward to know my children understand and recognize how hard I worked for them. She also described in her essay how she aspires to have those same attributes in her life. I know she will. I would love to inspire other women who have been in similar situations as mine to do that as well. You are always rewarded for hard work; but it doesn't come easy.

Side note - I have been happily married to my husband, Richard, since April, 2003.  And, to give credit, without his love and support for me and the family, I could not have accomplished all that I have!

Would you say your key to success, then, is hard work?

Absolutely. And always thinking that “good isn't good enough,” especially in this competitive world nowadays. You have to stand out. A lot of people are trying to do the same thing. I don't settle for mediocrity; it's not acceptable to me.

What traits should a person have to be good at your job?

You have to be analytical, conceptual, and utilize critical thinking.  Working in the corporate world you have to be both strategic and an influencer. No matter what you're doing, you have to have strong communication skills—both written and verbal—to succeed. It's very important and I cannot stress that enough. Obviously, it was also advantageous for me to have a technical degree from EvCC, it certainly helped me as I deal with technology all the time.

Finally, do you have any words of advice for current EvCC students?

Yes. There are so many resources at EvCC. From the moment I started going down the path of attending EvCC, through graduation, and on to my career, there were so many resources available. And there are so many people that want to help you with those resources to achieve your goals. It's your “bad” if you don't utilize them, because they're there. You will succeed if you seek out all opportunities and go above and beyond what is expected. For example, I made use of the tutoring resources for math classes and I also had a tutor for a programming class who was still in high school; I didn't care—it didn't matter. I just needed to utilize all the resources and I was not afraid to seek them out in order to fulfill my educational journey.