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With a career that took her from the Help Desk to a Vice President role, this executive has a store of first-hand advice for women seeking success as a technology leader.
I started with Price Chopper while I was still in high school. I worked many positions in the store, from cashier to cashier trainer to office clerk, while I attended college. In 1987, I started my career in IT as a help desk teammate. I liked working with support systems and was later approached by a female leader who invited me to take the programming trainee course. I hadn’t studied programming, so I said, “I don't think so.” She replied, “I think you can do it, and I think you should try.” So I did and that’s when I started down the programming path in IT.
At the time, I was the only woman trainee. It felt special. But I also didn't feel different, because the person who approached me had all the faith in the world in me, and, after some initial misgivings, I ended up really liking programming.
The biggest turning point for me, though, was years later when my CIO asked if I would be interested in the VP position. I had just had a newborn, so I asked him, “What makes you think that I can do this?” And he said, “You have the qualities I need that will enhance my role in this department. I really want you to be part of my team.”
What he saw in me was my way of relating to employees, understanding what their weaknesses and strengths were, and ultimately how to build on the latter. I am always communicating with people and can read them. This has helped me in many ways. In my leadership roles, it helped me recognize the talent in people and get them to work on things that they might not want to work on – and feel good about what they are doing.
In fact, it was the same with my mentors, the bosses who saw what I was capable of and who encouraged, trained, and promoted me. They recognized things in me that I doubted.
Balancing Two Lives
It can be difficult for women moving up through the ranks, especially if you’re raising a family and working with mostly males who may not understand the challenges you face. Over the years, I haven’t always been able to attend all the things that my children were doing. And, juggling work and life like this, there have been some accidents along the way.
One time while on a conference call from home, my son came in and informed me that he needed to go to the bathroom. To make a long story short, we didn't make it in time. But you know what? It was no big deal. I cleaned it up and moved on. The same is true of most, if not all, of the problems that happen at work. No big deal. We’ll get through it, clean it up, and be fine.
Opportunities to Learn
I think I always tried to make up for my shortcomings in the home in other ways. If I couldn't attend important events, I would always try to make up for it afterwards. “Tell me about your day,” I’d say. “Go through the scenarios with me. Read your speech just to me.” That kind of thing. So my family knew they were still special to me.
It's the same with people at work sometimes. With a workforce of 50 or more, you can't give everyone all the attention they need and deserve at one time. So it's important to create special opportunities when you can. In this and other ways, there are a lot of similarities between work and home life.
I learned that from the person who gave me the best advice I ever got about my career and life in general – my father. He always said: “Learn everything you can. Anything that they're willing to teach you or show you, learn it, because if you have an opportunity to learn something, there's nothing greater than that.”
So whenever I was offered an opportunity, even if a part of me said, “Oh I'm not sure about that,” I hear my father's voice saying, “It's an opportunity to learn.” I apply that advice to overcome the bottlenecks at both work and home: “I can learn from this.”
Building the Ranks
When it comes to equal opportunity for women in technology, I think we're still a little behind. It's still predominantly male, although there are clearly more female leaders joining the ranks than when I started. To these newcomers I say, “Get out there and play with the boys.” Try it, even if you’re told that the boys are better than the girls. Don't believe what "they” say. You can be just as good, if not better. But you have to get out there!
One way to build the ranks of women technology leaders is to get kids – girls – exposed to STEM subjects earlier in school, as early as elementary school. But it’s also good to give girls direct exposure to the work we do. At Price Chopper, for example, we bring them in and show them how we’re changing the world!
Some people might say, “You’re a grocery store—what do you program?” But I can bring them into our department and show them the register systems and how we program them to run 132 stores to keep lines moving. When kids see the end product of our work, it can be exciting.
And we should emphasize to them that STEM subjects aren’t too difficult to learn. Yes, it can be like learning a foreign language to many of them. But that simply means we need to show, tell, and instruct, just as we do when someone learns a foreign language – or learns to read.
Lastly, I’ll say that women have to learn not to take things so personally. You have to just let some things go, after doing what you can. Don't stress about the things you cannot do. Insofar as is possible, “clean it up and move on.”
An important trait for a leader is the ability to assess employees’ strengths and weaknesses and then help them build on the strengths.
It’s important, when facing a messy problem, to get through it, take care of what remains to be cleaned up – and then move on.
When offered an opportunity that seems beyond your capabilities, look at it as an invaluable opportunity to learn.