Robin Abrams is one of the most seasoned executives in technology. Now a director at HCL Technologies and three other public companies, she has served as CEO or COO of numerous tech startups, President of Palm Computing, Senior Vice President of 3Com, and President and CEO of VeriFone. Before joining VeriFone in 1997, she held a variety of senior management positions with Apple Computers and Unisys. The first 12 years of her career she spent at Norwest Bank, now Wells Fargo.

In this conversation with CIO Straight Talk Managing Editor Neha Anand, she talks about how she happened to get into technology, the challenges of being a woman in IT, and what it takes to get ahead as a female tech manager.

Did you always want to work in technology?

No. First, I wanted to be an attorney, and I actually found myself interning in criminal law -- getting drunks out of jail at midnight and that type of thing. Well, I rethought that plan, and then I found myself employed by a bank.  

How did you get interested in IT?

I fell in love with technology the first time I saw an Excel spreadsheet. Before that, I’d been analyzing credits with a pencil. I couldn’t get enough of technology -- it was so empowering. I installed some of the first ATMs in the Midwest and the United States, and then found myself in sales and marketing, and exposed to international markets.

How do you think the corporate environment has changed to accommodate women leaders in the last decade?

Some functions that have done exceedingly well with the hiring, retention, and promotion of women: accounting, supply chain, and marketing all have done a really solid job and they’ve created a culture to support those female employees. But in R&D, they’re still mostly struggling.

 Was gender an obstacle in your career?

I spent a lot of years in Asia, and the people I worked with had never had a woman as Managing Director or CEO. But I didn’t experience any resistance. Whether it was Japan, China, Philippines, Malaysia, India, there was no pushback. And I think that really goes to the credit of our industry and to those cultures.

People often say women aren’t very good with conflict. Was that ever a problem?

I disagree. I find that in technology men are more conflict-averse than women. Even at the board level, men don't want to talk about the elephant in the room, while women are often good at crisping up the issue, defining it really well, and identifying solutions to the problem. In our own way we are often much tougher, and frequently more effective.

What drives your passion to create more women leaders?

I believe that the world is a better place when workplaces treat women equally, It's better for women, it's better for the companies, it's better for consumers.

Why is it so hard to take action that promotes diversity? Is it because companies don’t really believe in it?

I think a lot of people believe diversity is important. How to do it is where we struggle. I have a good friend who is CTO of a very large tech company, and he says, “Just tell me what to do. I know it needs to be done, I'm committed to doing it, but I don’t know how.”

So what does it take?

First, the CEO has to make diversity an important priority and make that known. Two, it can't be just a goal of human resources. Otherwise, the engineers won't believe it's important. And then, of course, programs have to be developed, tested, and possibly thrown away when they don’t work, not only for the women but the managers of those women.

Do all women need a mentor? What kind of person should they look for?

For me, a mentor is mostly useful as a sounding board. I’m looking for someone I can test ideas against. I need someone that's been in my space either as a manager or in my space technology-wise.  

What does it take to be a good mentor?

Humility, for starters. A good mentor won’t say: You must do such and such right. You're good if you do X you're bad if you do Y. A good non-judgmental mentor will say things like, “Have you thought about X?”, “Here's how I thought about that once.”  And a good mentor must be good at holding things in confidence. You spend 10 hours a day in your career and you don't want a flippant mentor to break a confidence. 

What if I don't have a mentor. Can I still be successful?

 Of course you can be successful without a mentor. Many women have been. But does it help you climb your learning curve? Without a doubt.

You often hold “Lean-In” circles for women leaders at HCL. What are some common themes you hear?

One would expect those circles to be about women’s issues, but one of the really cool attributes about HCL is that 80 percent of the questions are about this company's business. “Why don't we do X, Y or Z?” “We could generate more revenue if we did this...”

In this kind of conversation, what are the most common questions around women’s issues?

The tough conversations are almost always around promotion and money. The biggest challenge is that there's all kinds of research showing that women prefer to see a well-defined career ladder, because once you know where those rungs are in an organization, you march right up them. “Tell me what it takes to get an A, I'll get an A.” But the difficulty with technology is that we can't define the career ladder that rigidly. What that means is that as women, we have to let go of some of that rigidity around a career ladder. We have to be willing to take some risks. You don’t have to know exactly what the rung of that ladder feels like under your foot. You have a lot more skills than you give yourself credit for.

Now on the other tough conversation about money: I say, “Go to Glassdoor or an internal tool, find out what you're worth. Then, go talk to your manager. You might feel like crying but do your best not to.  Have the two or three points that you want to make on an old fashioned 3 x 5 card. If you start to tear up, simply say, “This is very difficult for me” – then look at your notes, and ask for that raise. But do your homework first.”

What is the best piece of advice you have received from one of your mentors?

I had a terrific manager when I was at Norwest Bank. I had no technology background -- I didn't know a byte from an overbite -- but my manager, Bob Holger, thought that I could manage software developers: I knew banking, I knew law, and I was a very good manager. And so he put me in charge of 250 programmers. His message was simple: I know you can do this. That was all I needed.

I have thought many, many times about what made him such a good manager, and I think it was because he had four daughters, so he knew how to manage women. It's an art.

What advice do you have for male leaders on managing women?

Be a good listener. Be fair. Be equitable. And think about your whole team.

When you're doing a code review, make sure that everyone at the table participates. March around the room and ask everybody. Don't listen just to the noisy voice.

What advice do you have for women trying to find work-life balance?

You have to focus. In our family, my husband and I focused on our two girls and our jobs. That was it. I have golf clubs in my garage that have probably moved to eight different cities, and I have tennis rackets but they haven’t gotten out much. And because of our focus, we don't have the breadth of friendships other people have. You make your choices.

Also, we made some non-traditional choices. Michael was the Girl Scout leader. He baked the brownies because I was in Hong Kong or Sydney or Paris. We were flexible in our roles but we also did not try to do everything.