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Getting to know Yale IT leaders: Karen Polhemus
June 27, 2019
Karen Polhemus, senior director, Operational Excellence, has worked at Yale for 12 years. Karen is responsible for oversight of the Business Process Improvement and Organizational Change Management teams, that play a key role in identifying process and system improvements and facilitating major change initiatives at the University.
Karen was raised in the small agriculture town of Hatfield, Massachusetts. Growing up, she spent summers picking cucumbers or tending shade tobacco for neighboring farmers. Karen graduated from Smith Academy, followed by culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. After college, she moved to Chicago, where she launched her professional career in the hotel business. Unsure this was the right choice, Karen switched gears and started to focus on information technology (IT). She attended the Computer Processing Institute, taking word processing and other courses.
After completing her coursework, her IT career launched at Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH), where she started in Human Resources and later transferred to IT as a network administrator. She left YNHH for other new and challenging technology positions, including leading a startup called Chart Links — one of the first patient record information systems. Karen also held the position of Chief Information Officer of Canberra Industries and brought all of this external IT expertise with her when she joined Yale University in 2007.
What was your first job after college?
Making salads and desserts at the Radisson Hotel in Chicago. I quickly realized that working in a culinary setting was not the place I wanted to be. My sister, who I lived with in Chicago, was working in IT at Wang Laboratories. She encouraged me to pursue a career in technology. I’m thankful for her encouragement and advice that led me to where I am today.
Favorite childhood memory?
Summers at the lake. I loved visiting my family’s island cottage in the Berkshires of Massachusetts – it’s been in our family for generations. There was no electricity - only a generator for when it got dark. And, an outhouse which my mom decorated with pictures from Better Homes and Gardens. Our days were spent having fun, waterskiing, sailing and swimming.
What are some of your hobbies?
Gardening, reading, kayaking, travel, and scuba diving. I really love diving. My most recent dive trip took me to the South Caribbean island of Bonaire. I’ve also dived in Fiji, Hawaii, and the Red Sea – all unique and beautiful in their own way.
What is your idea of a great weekend?
I have a lot of family and friends all over New England; I love to visit and spend time with them. Other times, I like to relax at home. I spend a great deal of time working in my gardens or at the beach with a book.
What is the biggest challenge today of working in IT?
Communicating. People need to internalize the information you are trying to convey with as little effort as possible on their part in order to get them to take appropriate actions - not always easy. Sometimes the challenge is getting people to read. In our culture, it often feels like if you can’t say it in 180 characters or less, no one will read it.
Words of wisdom for people thinking of a career in IT?
If you enjoy continous learning - come to IT. If you like change - come to IT. You’ll never find yourself doing the same thing for too long because technology is constantly changing. It’s an exciting field and there are so many different aspects to IT. Who would have thought, when I started my career that I would be in an area managing communications and change – it didn’t exist in the past. There is no way to predict where things will be in the next 2, 5, or 10 years.
If you weren’t working in IT, what other job would you have?
I would probably manage a perennial garden shop.
Do you have a favorite quote?
We spend so much time at work that I really appreciate and relate to: “The only way to do great work, is to love what you do.” - Steve Jobs
What was your first car (and what happened to it)?
My first car was a well-used Datsun B210 that ran like a top. I never had to wash it because it was brown. It was a jewel of a car and took my friends and me to a lot of great places.
Favorite books or movies?
I love to read, so choosing a favorite is hard. For movies, a recent favorite was “Hidden Figures.”
iPhone or Android?
iPhone; I’ve never had an Android.
Mac or PC?
PC at work, because that’s what my employers always provided. I have a Mac at home, but at work, I’m more comfortable with a PC. Either beats a typewriter!