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2017: A year for women being bold with change in technology

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day was “Be Bold for Change”. To kick off my series on women in technology, I made a point of attending a local celebration hosted by Intuit. All the tickets had been snapped up very quickly, but I took a chance and asked for a press pass from the event organizer who kindly obliged. I figured I had to be bold myself if I wanted to meet some great women in the technology space. It was a smart move.

After a harrowing drive through rush hour traffic, I snagged my name badge with minutes to spare before the first speaker took the podium. Upon arrival, I noticed one thing that immediately set this event apart from typical tech-focused events I had attended in the past. Even with more than a hundred people in the room and wine flowing freely, it was still possible to carry on a conversation without shouting. And when it came time for the attendees to take their seats and the program to begin, this feat was accomplished with a simple request. It was a cooperative and considerate start to the evening. The room was filled with a sense of purpose. These women were here to listen and learn.

Event host Intuit sets the pace for diversity in technology

CeCe Morken, Executive VP and General Manager of Intuit’s ProConnect Group, broke the ice with a short introduction about what inclusion means to her organization. “One of the things that we’ve learned is that innovation can thrive when you have a workforce that is made up of different life experiences and you have a culture that supports those experiences and allows diverse and new ideas to rise to the top.” I learned that this company is well-known for having a better gender balance than most technology firms. About one third of the tech roles at Intuit are filled by women, and the leadership at the CEO and executive level stands at about forty percent. Even with these impressive stats compared to competitors, CeCe admitted that the company still has room to improve. With a woman leading this change in the role of Chief Diversity Officer, I can well believe that the company will continue moving toward its goals.

“I often equate boldness with risk. Because if you don’t take risk, you aren’t putting yourself out there.”
-Elisa Miller, CA Technologies

In the meantime, the organization is leveraging its diverse workforce to take on some tough challenges. “One of the things being bold means to us is finding a really big, important problem. Whenever we talk about that we say, ‘Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.’ As an example of a huge problem, fifty percent of small businesses don’t survive five years. These businesses are the backbone of the economy globally, and they are built by our neighbors and friends.” Intuit has set a goal to cut the failure rate of small businesses by fifty percent in the next five years. It’s a grand challenge, but certainly a worthy one. With about thirty percent of small businesses world-wide owned by women, it’s one way to make a bold change that favors female success everywhere.

Women speak out on the importance of being bold

Like the rest of the attendees, I was impressed with the quality of the speakers selected for the panel. They represented entrepreneurial, academic, corporate, and executive backgrounds and decades of experience in technology. While each one delivered helpful answers to the moderator’s questions, I also noted the range of dispositions on display. From outgoing and energetic to thoughtful and concise, it was a perfect way to showcase that there isn’t a particular personality type that makes a woman more likely to succeed in a tough industry like technology. The one thing these ladies did have in common was persistence. Being bold was not just one big leap. It was the courage to take action over and over in the face of resistance, disagreement, and doubt.

Boldness follows excitement for avid problem solvers

After the first round of introductions and professional biographies, the speakers dove right into the question of what it means to be bold. The youngest panelist, Candy Bernhardt, Head of Design UX in Capital One’s auto lending division, took first crack at giving an answer. “As one example, I was put in a situation where I was driving an innovation team to look for new, important challenges in the travel space. When I’d go find the biggest juiciest problem, I’d realize through feedback that as someone was describing a big, seemingly unsolvable problem, I would start smiling.” This unintentional habit apparently ruffled some feathers. I could imagine Candy’s cohorts pouring out their frustration and angst only to be met with a Cheshire grin. It must have been disconcerting.

According to Candy, she had some explaining to do. “I had to explain that I’m not smiling because I don’t think the problem is hard. I’m smiling because it is hard. There’s something that hasn’t been discovered or challenged and that got me excited. For me, being bold is about wanting to tackle those challenges and loving it.”

Seeking success is not for the faint of heart

Julie Hamrick, Founder and COO of Ignite Sales, told a personal story about putting everything on the line because she believed in herself. Hamrick’s quiet and calm demeanor opened up to reveal some steel beneath. “Sometimes boldness just means ignorance, stubbornness. Doing something because you think it’s the right thing to do or because the naysayers say no.” In building a company from the ground up, it meant going all in when it seemed to her friends like she might be buying deck chairs for the Titanic. “For me, it meant getting a second mortgage on my house when I just knew that the company could make it but we were out of cash.”

How do you know that it’s time to take bold action? It’s not always a choice. Sometimes, it’s a necessity. “There’s something inside you, a spark that says I’ve just got to do it.” For Julie, the gamble paid off. In the end, her company was, as she put it, ‘a fifteen year overnight success.’ There were certainly many other daring choices along the way, but this was a perfect example of what it meant to risk it all for the sake of crafting one’s own future in the tech sector. With plenty of other female entrepreneurs in the room, I could sense that this was a story that gave fresh drive to those who were set on taking the road less traveled.

Being a leader in technology is about setting the pace

After these tales of personal boldness, Mamie Jones, ProConnect Sr. VP of Product Development at Intuit, took a completely different approach to the topic. It was the collaborative view from the role of a leader who had been tasked many times with transforming technology groups. “For me the boldness is, number one, listening to the people within the organization. Two, summarizing what you are hearing, three, pulling people together to ask ‘Did we get it right and are these the things we need to go tackle?’”

According to Jones, once the challenge has been defined and the action steps lined up, it’s time to make it happen. This starts with an audacious statement. She referenced Kennedy’s declaration about going to the moon in the sixties as an example. It was no more than a dream when he made the promise, but everyone pulled together to make it a reality. It’s that boldness of vision that women like Jones bring to their technology teams. “I’ve found that when you put the grand challenge out and you’ve defined the problem, you can put a very bold declaration out there. And if you get out of the way and let people go, it is extraordinary what they will achieve.”

It struck me as Jones concluded her story that this approach to leadership is particularly well suited to the collaborative working style that comes naturally to so many women. It has the added benefit of being a leadership style that men can also recognize and respect. Great communication, courageous vision, and the ability to empower others to act: what could be a better combination?

Being bold means being true to yourself

Elisa Miller, a Design Transformation Coach for CA Technologies, concluded the evening with a story of being a sole survivor turned team champion within her organization. As a self-described ‘individual contributor’, Elisa swore never to be a manager. Although she was competent at leading others, she had no desire to do so. But she proved that even a single bold voice from the ranks can make a big difference in charting the course of an entire company.

“I often equate boldness with risk. Because if you don’t take risk, you aren’t putting yourself out there.” Those risks can make or break a career. Miller told the story of helping build a UX team of eight people under a senior manager. Six short months later (and several rungs up the ladder), a decision was made to lay off half the team. Apparently, the move was financially motivated and not about performance. The manager predicted that the team would dissolve as a result of this shattering blow, and that’s precisely what happened. Within short order, every single person on the team had quit—except for Elisa.

“I decided, now is the time for me to take a risk. I sat down with the woman who was now my boss and said, ‘We need to present to our new product officer why design is important.’” Elisa crafted the presentation, but her role wasn’t considered lofty enough to allow her direct access to the Chief Product Officer. Her manager made the pitch instead. Fortunately, the message about the reasons why the design team should have a seat at the table and finally be heard got through.

“I made it perfectly clear that I had the courage of my convictions. I didn’t tell anyone, but I made a private promise that if I did not see positive change in six months, I was going to quit.” Less than three months later, the Chief Product Officer announced his new organizational structure with a general manager of design reporting directly to him. Miller was offered the position. Of course, she declined. Her victory was already earned. Her parting words for the rapt crowd on International Women’s Day were succinct. “Take a risk. It’s scary. That’s exhilarating. Go for it!”

Top takeaways from the night

At the end of the evening, I had the opportunity to speak with many of the attendees. It was an excellent opportunity to get a feel for the chord the speakers had struck with their peers. We agreed that:

  • Persistence is the secret to success
  • It’s OK to have an unpopular viewpoint
  • You should never let someone tell you what you want to achieve is impossible
  • We are all in this together
  • Women helping one another in technology can make anything happen

We are all looking forward to the strides women will make in tech by next International Women’s Day!

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