The second morning of this workshop started with a panel of senior technical leaders talking about breaking through barriers to move your vision into reality.
Irene Au, Director of User Experience at Google talked a bit about the challenges of representing the user experience in product development. She shared the “Trojan Horse” strategy that helped her build effective teams, at Yahoo and then Google, as an paradigm of how to develop your influence and move your vision to reality. First, she said, discover what your Trojan horse is: the reason why you are on the team and why people will approach you. Use that to build relationships with stakeholders and eventually up-sell them on other valuable skills and services you or your team have to offer. She also advises building the best teams you can by hiring A players, people who are better than you and complementary to each other. Irene noted that many women leaders have the strength of bringing a group of people together to accomplish something greater than one person can create. She also advises learning to manage through change, since change is constant.
Sandra Begay-Campbell is a Principal Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories. Themes of Navajo philosophy and strategic planning intertwined as she shared her path. The visioning process we use in the workshop is something Sandra learned early in her career for strategic planning. When she went off to school, her vision was so strong it stayed with her as she worked to achieve her goals. “Things don’t always unfold in a strategic sense, and you have to learn to take the bumps.” Sandra’s vision carried her through isolation (Native Americans are only 0.003% of the engineer population) and a particularly rough period she called the wintertime of her life, after the death of her mother (a major loss in the matriarchal Navajo family structure), sexual harassment at a previous job, and illness. She reminded us that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She made it through, she said, “and then the spring came and the summer,” and now in her career she is reaping the harvest. And, Sandra says, she is learning to appreciate being unique, and tries to make opportunities from that uniqueness. For example, she provides direct technical assistance to tribes who are interested in renewable energy projects.
Monica Martinez-Canales is a Principal Engineer at Intel Corporation. She shared her path from pure mathematics to computational and applied math research, to becoming one of only 54 women Principal Engineers at Intel. She shared as an example the up-and-down path of a specific project from vision to reality. Some of her key points: Be clear about what your vision is, why it is important to your organization, how you will accomplish it, and what it will cost. Assess and reassess. Learn to communicate effectively using the working language and values of your organization. Don’t take feedback personally; often it’s not about your idea but other business issues you may not be aware of. Monica recommended Strategy Maps to help you understand value opportunities and to figure out where you fit in and where you want to make your impact. She also advised us, “Never ever cry in front of your boss. But if you do, it’s not the end of the world.”
During the Q&A, Monica had some great advice on how to find the right people to share your ideas with. She said you only need one person, with a lot of connections, but the more people you have, the better. Share your vision and ask for their comments and feedback, using open-ended questions: What do you think? What is the history of this in our organization? Before ending the conversation, always ask “Who do you think I should talk to next?” Leave with names of people and actions to take. And don’t be concerned people are recommending you talk primarily to managers. When you get to the point where you need a certain resource or expertise, having a lot of managers in your network can help you access those resources.
Another important theme that arose during the Q&A was the need to pay attention to your health. For example, compared to the general population, African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by diabetes. Women often take care of our families and everyone else around us but forget to take care of ourselves. You must take care of yourself if you want to be around to make your vision a reality.
Freada Kapor Klein, Founder and Board Chair of the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) provided our day 2 keynote. She talked about the way the brain uses implicit processing to recognize patterns, how that can translate into hidden bias and barriers in the workplace, and the costs of those hidden barriers. She shared data on the disparities between the workforce landscape and the technical pipeline, noting, “At a time when we need to recruit and retain diverse talent, more than ever before, efforts around diversity and inclusion in corporate America have failed.”
LPFI’s approach looks at the whole pipeline of bias and barriers from classroom to boardroom, and their programs promote fairness in education and workplaces by removing barriers to full participation. Based in San Francisco, they take kids from the most disadvantaged public schools in the Bay Area and offer summer experiences for high school students, scholarships, internships for college students, assistance with resumes for graduate students, and a support network once graduates enter the workforce. She showed some impressive Public Service Announcements made by 14-16 year old students participating in their SMASH high school program.
Freada also shared stories and results from LPFI’s study on Corporate Leavers. The study shows that two million professionals and managers leave their jobs every year solely because of workplace unfairness. This costs U.S. employers $64 billion annually — their conservative estimate. Her talk was rich in data that I can’t do justice to here, so I encourage you to check out the Corporate Leavers website and Freada’s book, Giving Notice: Why the Best and Brightest Leave the Workplace and How You Can Help Them Stay for compelling data and specific actions to improve the workplace.
LPFI thinks a lot about the distance traveled to achievement and what can be done to measure that, in order to have more meritocratic institutions. She challenged us to think what would happen if, for example, a college applicant had to list all their college prep classes and coaches, and how many times they’ve taken the SAT. Many applicants cannot pay for these advantages that raise SAT scores only for the privileged. For more information on hidden bias and barriers and what can be done about them see the Level Playing Field Institute website.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in breakout sessions, sharing strategies and tactics for surmounting a variety of barriers. As I have with every one of our TechLeaders workshops, I came away with a deep appreciation for the generosity and wisdom of the women in the room. As technical women, most are and will be in the minority at their schools and in their workplaces, and the challenges they face are for the most part familiar to me. But as technical women of color they are a minority within a minority, and face bias and barriers on multiple levels. The courage, vision, and feeling of sisterhood in this week’s workshop will stay with me for a long time.