10 Questions: Denise Chochrek

When her job duties went global, Denise Chochrek never considered stepping back from teaching, volunteering, traveling, or learning.

By Stuart Hales

Note: This article appears in the May-June 2015 issue of Information Outlook.

For someone who decided to become a librarian on a whim, Denise Chochrek sure behaves as though it was her life’s calling.

With her day job as senior knowledge analyst for PepsiCo, her teaching duties at the University of North Texas, her responsibilities as president of the Information & Research Management Council of the Conference Board, and her volunteer work with SLA, Denise is constantly in librarian mode. And she shows no signs of letting up—she has no plans to stop working or teaching, and she gets too much out of her volunteer activities to consider dropping them.

“The main thing is that you’re always learning,” she says. “It never stops. . . If you’re not constantly learning, you’re not staying ahead of the game.”

Information Outlook spoke to Denise as she was making plans to visit Greece with her husband. She talked about the many jobs she’s held and things she’s learned during her career, what she sees on the information horizon, and her bicycle rides to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.

Some SLA members caught the “librarian bug” at an early age. You went directly from college to library school, so it’s tempting to think you’re one of them. Did you know before you went to college that you wanted to be a librarian, or did something happen in college to push you in that direction?

I wasn’t one of those people who always knew she wanted to be a librarian. When I was in high school, I was part of the Library Club, but I only did that so I could hide in there when I wasn’t in class. (laughs) But I didn’t know what I was going to be in life.

At one point I was within one year of five different majors—computer science, business, history, English, and teaching. I started off in computer science, but it just didn’t fit. At that time, the only job you could get was as a programmer, which I didn’t want to do. So I was busy hunting around for something else.

I was living in Texas at that time and saw something about library and information sciences up at the University of North Texas, and I thought, oh, that sounds really interesting. So I went and talked to them, and it just seemed like the perfect fit. I liked research and looking for things and finding things, but I could also use my computer science background as well.

I went to my counselor, and he essentially said, “Just graduate. Just pick one of those five majors and finish it.” So that’s what I did—I picked history. I started in library school later that same year.

When did you hear about SLA, and why did you join?

I first heard about it while I was in library school at North Texas, but at the time I was going to school and working full time, so I did not join. I had friends who had joined, but I didn’t.

I actually joined around 1989, when I started my first job, at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas. My boss, Pat Talley, was very active in SLA, and she encouraged me to join and get involved.

Speaking of SLA, you’ve chaired two fairly large divisions (Knowledge Management and Business & Finance) and also served as president of the Texas Chapter. Now you’re a member of the Public Relations Advisory Council (PRAC), which is a much smaller and less glamorous group. Why did you join PRAC, and what do you get out of being a PRAC member?

I did B&F and the Texas Chapter, and then I went back and did Knowledge Management. They were all very time-consuming jobs. I’m glad I did them, but at this stage of my life and career, I really don’t want to do something like that again.

So I decided I wanted to be on a committee or council, and I pulled up the list, and PRAC sounded like the most interesting of all of them. I really do believe that communication and telling our story—both to employers and to our industry as a whole—is very critical if we’re going to survive.

For the past 11 years you’ve worked at Frito-Lay, a Fortune 500 company with thousands of employees. What are your job responsibilities, and what does a typical day look like?

Well, I used to work in research and development for Frito-Lay. Recently they combined us with PepsiCo, so now I actually work for PepsiCo R&D.

Denise and her colleagues at Frito-Lay

Denise confers with colleagues in the Information Research Center at PepsiCo in Plano, Texas.

I manage all of the databases for the PepsiCo R&D Department globally. I spend a lot of time working with the databases, working on metrics, helping out with issues, renewing contracts, and screening potential new databases. I’m also in charge of global training on our databases, both one-on-one and group trainings. I used to handle only the training for Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas, but now I have to handle training across the globe, so I have to coordinate with vendors to offer training in different languages.

I still do research—trends forecasting, patent research, competitive intelligence—but it’s in my spare time. (laughs) I’m also working on updating our portal. We have a portal for our team, and I’m trying to make it look more inviting.

On top of all these responsibilities, you’re also an adjunct faculty member at the University of North Texas, where you earned your library degree. Given your busy schedule, why do you teach? Do you think you’d like to be a full-time faculty member someday?

Well, the answer to your second question is no. (laughs) To really teach as a faculty member, I’d have to go back to school and get my doctorate, and I don’t see myself doing that. But I do enjoy teaching.

I got involved in teaching many years ago—probably about 12 or 14 years ago—when the person who was teaching the business research class up at UNT had to take a sabbatical and asked if I would fill in. I did, and I enjoyed it. Then she retired, and the university looked over at me and said, hey, you’ve done this before, would you be interested in continuing? I said yes, and then maybe a year or so later, they asked, would you be willing to turn this into an online class? The timing was good because I was in between jobs then—I hadn’t started at Frito-Lay yet—so I designed the course, and now I’m the only one who teaches business research at UNT.

I teach it usually one semester a year, sometimes two. It’s online, which is its saving grace; if it weren’t, I don’t think I could handle it. You have a lot more flexibility with an online class—you can check how your students are doing any time you want. You’re not tied to a schedule.

So far, it’s worked out well for me. I’ve met a lot of nice people and helped them learn what they need to know so they can hit the ground running. And I’ll probably keep doing it for a few more years. The course is already created—all I have to do is update and adjust it. It doesn’t take a lot of prep work.

As if your two jobs and your volunteer commitments with SLA weren’t enough, you also serve on the Information & Research Management Council of the Conference Board, an association that helps businesses and large nonprofits improve their performance and better serve society. What does the council do, and how did you become a member?

They came to me. You have to be nominated to join the council, and a member of the Conference Board who knew me pretty well suggested that I would be a great addition to the council. I looked into it and thought it sounded very interesting, so I joined.

The council brings together corporate librarians from major companies to brainstorm and share best practices. We get together physically twice a year, in the spring and the fall, at different locations in the U.S. We do a wonderful round-robin event where we all talk about we’re doing and what we’re focusing on. We have speakers, and there’s a lot of interaction on topics.

I’m currently president of the council—I just can’t seem to say no. (laughs) But it’s just one year, and I’ll be done in December. Currently we have 20-plus members, so it’s not a huge group. It’s been as high as 40, but we’ve had several members retire recently.

Being on the council has been great. I get a lot of my new ideas from it. These are all very experienced librarians who’ve been around the block many times, so it’s a wonderful place for sharing knowledge and developing new ideas.

You work for a large multinational firm, you teach part-time, and you’ve worked for a government agency, for an investment firm, and as a consultant. What have you learned from working in these different environments, not only about librarianship but about yourself?

One of the things I learned very quickly is that there’s really no set definition of a librarian. It just doesn’t exist. So you have to be extremely flexible and willing to take on every challenge that comes along if you want to be successful.

I’ve been in knowledge management, competitive intelligence, the legal world, and business; I’ve been in all sorts of environments, from very regulated settings like the government to free-form workplaces, as when I was working for the Bass brothers’ investment company. Looking back, I’m glad I took accounting in college. It’s not something you think about in terms of librarianship, but you do a lot of budgeting and accounting and metrics, so I was lucky I had that accounting knowledge. I would have been lost if I hadn’t.

Denise with her husband and two children

Denise with her husband, Leonard, and their children, Chris and Nicole.

The main thing is that you’re always learning. It never stops. Just because you’ve been in a job a long time, if you’re not constantly learning, you’re not staying ahead of the game. You’re going to be left behind, and more than likely you’re going to be one of those people who gets laid off when the economy turns down.

About myself, I learned that I hate cold calling—more than anything else in life, maybe. (laughs) That’s why I didn’t stay in business for myself. I don’t mind selling from within my own organization, but I’m just not geared to be an entrepreneur.

You’ve been a librarian for approximately a quarter century, and during that time the information profession has probably seen more changes than at any time in its history. Gaze into your crystal ball and tell me what you see coming in the next 25 years.

One change we’ll see that’s already starting is that the concept of an actual physical library, a physical space, is going away. I think that’s going to continue to the point where there aren’t libraries anymore, at least from the corporate standpoint. You might still have some books, but they’ll be in a hallway or some other place.

I think the lines are going to continue to blur around the question of what librarianship is. We’re going to be competing a lot more with market researchers and people in KM and CI who did not go through library school. The lines are not going to be clear; it’s not going to be, “I’m the head of the library,” it’s going to be, “I’m the head of these functions—research, or KM.” It’s not going to be geared toward the L-word; I don’t think the L-word is going to exist anymore from a corporate standpoint.

It’s going to be very competitive out there. You can’t be thinking, I need to be in my library, or you won’t be employed in the future. Libraries will still be important from a public standpoint or an academic standpoint, but even in those areas, as more and more resources become available online, librarians will need to think about what and how much to keep in a hard-copy collection.

All of these changes mean that library schools will need to be very technologically capable. Everything in our profession is going to be involved in some way with computers.

On a personal note, you participate in a two-day bicycle ride each year for multiple sclerosis (MS). Do you ride individually or as part of a team, and what do you enjoy most from the experience?

Denise participates in an annual bike ride to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.

Denise Chochrek participates in an annual bike ride to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.

I’m part of a team—the Cheesy Riders. It’s a Frito-Lay team, and Chester the Cheetah, from the Cheeto’s commercials, is our mascot. We usually have someone from the company dress up in a cheetah costume and wave at us at rest stops.

I do this because I have MS. It’s an ongoing challenge, and the bike ride is a way for me to show that I haven’t given up, I haven’t given in to a disease that’s incurable, I can still do something. Yes, I’ve had to move from a regular bicycle to a recumbent trike, but I can still do something. And even if I don’t complete the full two days, I’m giving myself a challenge, and I enjoy doing what I can to meet that challenge.

Bike MS has rides across the country, and there are Cheesy Rider teams in multiple places around the nation. Our ride is essentially from Dallas to Fort Worth, in the first week of May.

When you go on vacation or just get away for a weekend, are you able to put your job and work behind you? Can you curl up in front of a fireplace with a book in one hand and a bag of Fritos in the other?

I’m kind of a mix. I used to be worse about working too much, but I’ve gotten better in recent years.

Denise "hangs out" in Sedona, Arizona

Denise “hangs out” during a recent vacation in Sedona, Arizona.

For me, it’s not a vacation unless I get out of town. I have to leave this area. My vacations tend to be high adventure, lots of traveling, seeing sights, so I’m out and about. I do have e-mail on my phone, and I tend to check it at night, but I have trained myself not to respond unless it’s really an emergency. But I do check my e-mail.

I typically take long vacations. I’ll be leaving for Greece for two weeks at the end of September; on my last vacation, my husband and I were on a motorcycle for two weeks riding around Arizona. Next year, we’re planning to take a cruise to the Panama Canal.

On the motorcycle, I’m always on the back. The MS tends to mess with your balance, so I don’t drive. I’ve actually been on the back of my husband’s motorcycle since we were dating, so I’ve gotten comfortable there. And now he has a big Gold Wing, which has heated seats and a stereo. It’s very nice, and a lot of fun.

Stuart Hales is senior writer/editor at SLA and editor of Information Outlook.

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