I was 18 years into a successful career as a project management consultant when someone in my network told me about a 6-month contract to put in a new credit card system at Universal Studios Theme Park in Hollywood. Eight years later, I'm still there. It was the first time I was ever tempted to hang up my consulting hat, and I've never regretted it. Who says a consultant can't become a top manager? Rules are just guidelines—a dotted line around the box, not a solid one.
Lessons from consulting life
A consultant who works with lots of different industries and projects has to learn the lay of the land quickly, including spotting opportunities. I remember working on one project where the CIO had missed multiple deadlines, and he knew it. So he went out to lunch on Friday before the system was supposed to launch, and he just never came back. I worked seven days a week, pulling people in from my network, to build an operations support department, but I did it.
A few years later, when I was already at Universal Studios Theme Park, we were getting ready to open up the Harry Potter-themed area, which we already knew would attract huge crowds. We were on a tight deadline to develop an online ticketing store where people could select their dates, which no theme park had done before. It would have taken 15 months, but as a project manager I worked with the relevant teams to organize a plan to work longer hours, split shifts 24/7, and develop some things on parallel paths. We finished it in eight months. That project is one of the reasons I was promoted from manager to director.
Setting the standard
Being both female and black, I've always felt like I had to work harder, be the first in the office, do things better. I don't want to give anyone any excuse to think less of my abilities. I want to set the standard.
I once worked on a project, before I came to Universal, where the administrative assistant was the only other black woman in the building—and even though we looked nothing alike, people were always asking me to bring them coffee. I do think it's getting much better, though, especially in media and entertainment. My boss, the head of IT for Universal Studios Theme Park – Hollywood, is a woman. The president of Universal Studios Theme Parks - Hollywood is a woman. There are studies showing that the more diverse your management team is, the better your revenues, and people are definitely starting to realize that.
People tend to hire people like themselves or who are in their network, so if you don't know a female IT director or a senior vice president who's a woman of color, you won't have them in the hiring mix. You have to expand the talent pipeline and make sure that a certain percentage of your hiring pool reflects diversity.
Mentors open doors
A woman who wants to succeed in technology needs confidence, tenacity, and analytical skills. You have to be confident that you belong there so that when people try to say you don't have the skills, you can tell them that you do—they just haven't noticed. Developing those qualities takes education, internships, and most of all, mentors.
I have a mentor who's a headhunter. She's the one I talked to when I was considering going full-time at NBCUniversal. She asked what I liked about the company and whether I could see myself here in five years. But we also talked about what kinds of certifications I should get to cement my experience, what events I should attend, and who I should meet.
I'm on the board of STEMAdvantage, which provides mentors, internships, and scholarships for women and underserved minorities in STEM, and I've mentored several college juniors and seniors. I talk to them about how to interview, how to behave as an intern, what being a project manager involves. One of them is now working on her master's degree, just moved from being a programmer analyst to a new job in cybersecurity, and is herself mentoring for the same organization!
IT in entertainment
In my time here, we've remodeled 75 percent of the theme park, so someone who was last here five years ago will have a totally different experience. And a lot of that experience comes down to digital initiatives related to mobile technology.
Everything with us is mobile-first, getting our guests to use our mobile app to buy tickets before they arrive and enhance their experiences while they're in the park. Improving the guest experience through mobile engagement is where entertainment and every other retail-like industry is going. I'm not allowed to talk about the next-level things we're doing around that, but I can say we provide the best entertainment experience.
My prediction for 2030 for Universal Theme Parks? I don't work on attractions, so I can't speak to what we're planning for ride technology, but it's clear that artificial intelligence and virtual reality are where gaming and entertainment, in general, are going. We have to keep up with what people want and try to give it to them.
Shifting from consultant to full-time executive requires as much focus on corporate culture, relationship-building, and collaboration as it does on actual business goals.
The biggest barrier to diversity is hiring managers who unconsciously prioritize candidates who are most like existing employees. Making a deliberate effort to expand the talent pipeline is the best way to break down that barrier.
To enhance customer experience, you have to know what customers like, what they want, and what they expect. And to know that, you need data.