(Photo by Glynns Thomas)

Women in Leadership: Marcie Kahbody

Our annual salute to women at the top of their field

Back Article Mar 7, 2024 By Catherine Warmerdam

This story is part of our March 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Marcie Kahbody

Deputy Secretary, Agency Information Officer, California State Transportation Agency and Chief Information Officer, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)

Ask Marcie Kahbody about the most important lesson she has learned in her successful three-decade career in IT, and she’ll answer emphatically: “Embracing change.” Leaning into change — even when uncomfortable or tumultuous — is a stance she learned to adopt early in life and continues to rely upon in order to learn and grow professionally.

Born and raised in Tehran, Kahbody left Iran with her parents in the aftermath of the revolution that upended life as they knew it. “I was 14 when the revolution happened. I went from living in a free country to having to be covered, not being allowed to talk to boys, having to attend separate schools,” she explains. “The experience shaped who I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone who could do things that men could do.”

“I like change because it brings opportunities. When you are an agent of change, other changemakers are attracted to you. You can accomplish a lot.”

As a college student at Sacramento State who was still acclimating to American culture and unsure of her career plans — “I changed paths many times” — she enrolled in a computer programming class filled with mostly male students. It changed her trajectory.

“I had a vibrant teacher in a class where I was able to build things through computers. It sparked something in me. I loved the creativity and the problem solving,” recalls Kahbody. “The fact that I was one of the only women there made me feel good that I was leading an effort for women in the field.”

By the time Kahbody graduated in 1990, computer science jobs were hard to come by; she estimates she sent out 200 resumes before finally landing a consulting job with Cellular One. She was hired for a job related to hardware, even though her specialty was software. Undeterred, Kahbody laughs now about preparing herself for the position by buying a “Dummies” book and spending a weekend disassembling and reassembling a computer, “praying that it would work.”

Craving more stability in her career, Kahbody soon sought a position in the public sector, landing in a telecom engineering department. “It was hard at the beginning,” she admits. “I had a difficult manager, but he was the best thing that happened to me. He made me stronger. I learned to speak up.”

Kahbody continued to advance to different positions within state government, always seeking new challenges. “It hindered my growth to stay in one place too long. You start to get tunnel vision,” she explains. “I like change because it brings opportunities. When you are an agent of change, other changemakers are attracted to you. You can accomplish a lot.”

Today, in her dual roles as deputy secretary for the California State Transportation Agency and chief information officer for Caltrans, Kahbody strives to embody a culture where change is seen as a positive. “Over the years, I grew as a leader. There were instances in the past where I fought for the status quo, but that didn’t help me or the organization,” she says.

Now, she challenges staff to improve processes or policies that were put in place 20 years ago but may not serve the organization well today. “I like to ask them, ‘Why are we taking 10 steps to do something if only nine steps are needed?’ I want them to come to me with their own ideas for change.”

It’s the same quest for improvement that she applies to herself. “My English is not perfect, I’m not always a great public speaker, but I have become comfortable being uncomfortable. I embrace the challenge.” 

Catherine Warmerdam is a Sacramento-based writer who has covered the region’s most interesting people, places, events and trends for Sacramento Magazine and other local publications since 2005.

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