From Programmer to CEO

In Episode 1 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed experts from Texmark, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and CBT about the evolution of Texmark’s “Refinery of the Future.” In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with CBT CEO Kelly Ireland about her life and career. In Part I, Kelly explains the challenges of being a female in a tech in the 1970s, the early stages of her career, and how focus on people helped her build a company culture of purpose and innovation.


When Kelly Ireland graduated high school, going to college just seemed like the thing to do; with a father who was a football coach and a mother who was a teacher, education—and respect for it—ran deeply in the family’s blood. With six siblings all interested in sports, Kelly originally planned to be an athlete, but she found that after 2 years in college, it just wasn’t for her. One thing she always likes to highlight is that leadership and talent don’t require a college education.

“Everyone talks about their degrees, and that’s wonderful,” she notes, “and there are definitely places where you need that; but I think that especially in [informational technology] IT and [operational technology] OT, there are a lot who don’t need that.”

With preference for math and science, the general education required by a degree bored Kelly to death, which drove her to work for a local company as a programmer. This was the 1970s, and Kelly was an IBM RPG II and III programmer—quite early to be a female in that profession.

Moving to California, she started a lifelong journey in the tech industry. Working for General Electric, she laughs about what is now antiquated technology: “I actually worked for them when there were 300-baud modems and phone couplers where you’d take the phone and put it on the cups, and that’s how it transmitted.” As a member of the instrumentation and communication group, Kelly was part of a team that was trying to break into a brand-new market—renting out modems, the first IBM personal computers, and so forth, which was truly cutting-edge at the time.

From there, she moved away from the developer side and into working for resellers like CompuCom, ComputerLand, MicroAge, and many others who were part of the original microcomputer revolution.

“I focused mostly on aerospace,” she recalls, “and I remember, 30 years ago, I was asked why I was working with aerospace. I was told they were impossible to work with and that I’d never get anywhere. Well, about a billion dollars later, I can tell you that’s just not true.”

An early relationship with Boeing, which now spans multiple decades, ignited her passion and carried her forward, even as a later client for CBT.

When founding CBT in 2001, Kelly saw that the culture inherent in tech companies—male-dominated, insane hours, no work-life balance—wasn’t ideal for building and nurturing successful relationships, much less a successful business enterprise. This, combined with an appreciation for the value of teams that stemmed from her father and time in sports, informed a vision for a different kind of company.

“So, when I founded CBT, I believed it was very important that work-life balance be something we fostered,” Kelly says, “not necessarily for me, but for my team. It’s not rocket science: take care of your employees, they take care of your customers, and your customers buy more. And I can tell you that’s extremely true; we have really happy employees, and really happy customers.”

Learning how to integrate IT and OT has driven the company to new heights in the past 4 years, much of their success on the back of the Texmark Refinery of the Future project in Galena Park, Texas.

Originally a standard value-added IT reseller, Kelly saw in the mid-2000s that Boeing was venturing into high-performance computing, and she felt that CBT needed to do the same thing. Bringing in resources that could support high-performance computing and all that goes with it, they added a new facet to the business, which paid off big time in the end.

“This helped really build out what CBT is all about,” Kelly explains,” which is doing what the customer needs and being proactive about it.”

With one of the longest-standing groups in high-performance computing, Kelly is confident about her team’s experience and what they bring to the market. Continuing to ask what more they could do brought new accounts to the fold, including Ford in 2011, which needed a B2B portal that was entirely customized.

Built upon Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s (HPE) platform as a foundation, the two companies partnered to build a portal covering 40 foreign countries with trade block adjustors, currency exchange calculators, and a myriad of other bells and whistles. For Kelly, it also afforded her and the company a new way to manage a business, to ensure that the right service level was consistently delivered. Today, they keep expanding the portal, and the relationship is stronger than ever.

Kelly knew that CBT needed to get into the cloud computing market, but she wanted to take a different approach. Early on, she tried to find a unique group ecosystem where all the pieces could fit together without depending on Google, Amazon Web Services, or Microsoft Azure. “This was at the time when the big, public clouds were skyrocketing, but as much as we proved that we were half the price of everyone else with better offerings, it fell on deaf ears,” she comments, “because we were a small company, and even though we had big ecosystem partners, it wasn’t really an ecosystem environment back then. Fast forward to today, and working on the Refinery of the Future, I saw something that made a ton of sense, and decided to double down.”

Investing $4 million in the project to bring on experts in OT instead of effectively borrowing talent, Kelly hired control systems engineers, design engineers, and mechanical engineers to be full-time staff members—possibly the only such team employed by a value-added reseller in the world.

Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Kelly takes a closer look at the remarkable partnership between Hewlett Packard Enterprise, CBT, Intel, RealWear, and many other tech companies at Texmark’s “Refinery of the Future,” where the entire plant is connected via IIoT technologies and platforms. Kelly ends with her thoughts on what’s next for her and CBT in 2021 and beyond.

This article was written by Stephen Forrester.

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