Ep 88: Michelle Greene: Bring Your Authentic Self

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing the well-traveled, accomplished, dynamic Michelle Greene, Vice President of Information Technology at Masco Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of products for home improvement, and the construction market.  An $8.5 billion conglomerate, comprising more than 20 companies, Masco operates nearly 60 manufacturing facilities in the United States and over 20 in other parts of the world.  It designs and produces cabinetry, windows, plumbing, and exterior products, with brands including more than 50 household names like Merrilat, Behr, Kraftmaid, Cardell, Delta, Brasscraft, Duraflex, Milgard, and more.

Michelle was born and raised in Valdosta, Georgia.  “My mother believed that, due to my close relationship with my aunt, I might be a school teacher.” But her predilections took her in a different direction. “What I recognized quickly was my ability to lead!” So Michelle completed her business bachelor’s degree at Valdosta State University, and a masters’ degree with a dual focus in higher education and information sciences from Florida State University. “I had a great mentor at Florida State,” she said, who assisted with her resume, negotiating skills and perspective.  With masters in hand, she entered the workforce as a business analyst at Mellon Bank, at headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa.   After two years, she migrated to Raleigh, North Carolina for another analyst position at Ericsson, “which soon became Sony Ericsson,” a global leader in mobile communications. 

Michelle progressed from business analyst to project manager, which eventually led her to accept a Sony Ericsson global program manager position. “I went to Sweden on a short-term assignment,” Michelle said.  That assignment doubled in duration, helping Michelle recognize “my own ability to make it work, wherever I am. If the opportunity and the job is good, I will figure the rest out!” She developed an appreciation for Sweden, the lifestyle, and customs.  The career positions helped hone her variety of skills. “The first big global program I led was a datacenter move,” she said, shepherding the company’s formerly outsourced center back inside the corporation. That project propelled a variety of promotions, with Michelle moving from managing the center, to a service management job back in the states, to the global management of Sony’s network services, to her final Sony Ericsson job, Director of Business Infrastructure worldwide. In that role, Michelle directed an annual budget of $70 million; managed all global infrastructure resources on three continents; and led global outsourcing, partners and suppliers for information technology. “That was the first time I had a leader approach me and say: ‘I am planning to move to something else; once I move, I would like you to be ready for this’….” said Michelle.  “I was groomed and mentored. It was amazing.” This resulted in Michelle getting promoted and returning to North America. “My reputation preceded me. I was someone who could get things done. I was a bit of a ‘turnaround’ person.” While she appreciated the promotion, she struggled with moving back. “I enjoyed living abroad!”

Michelle believes in the magic of connections.  Within a year of her return to the states, “The CIO for Sony-Ericsson (Colin Boyd) who had previously moved to Johnson Controls reached out and said:  “I think you will be great for this company!” Boyd was instrumental in providing the chance for her to move to that larger company, further test leadership skills, and take on new challenges. Michelle stayed with Johnson Controls for nine years, first working in their Buildings Division in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for 3 years; then heading up the Automotive Electronics and Interiors Division in Holland, Michigan from 2012 to 2015. Then she moved back to headquarters as Vice President of Business Partnership, for the entire enterprise.  Like Michelle’s previous functions, this represented a chance to prove her ability to impel a turnaround. “Many people don’t get the need for partnerships from the IT standpoint,” she said. “I was the first person to do this job. We built a team and made progress from there.” Michelle credited her mentors at Johnson Controls, and outside the company, for inspiring and empowering her. “I have had some very good coaches, along the way.” When Masco reached out to recruit her, “I had people I could go to” who provided advice about the appropriateness of her next career steps. “At this point in my career, it’s about the next move.  Do I need to step outside my comfort zone?”  

Following mentors’ advice, in 2018, Michelle joined Masco, in her current role as Vice President, IT. “I have been blessed with good teams,” she said. “I’ve made it my practice, when I take over a new team, to do one-on-ones with every member, so I can understand and I can meet you, where you are.”  She emphasized that her mission is to offer “authentic and strong leadership” in her current role, and all future roles. “I feel like we don’t have enough leaders in IT. I have the ability to effect change because of my leadership style.” Michelle noted that her personal strengths include authenticity, being a life-long student of leadership best practices, and wielding “influence without authority” in order to “get things done” without direct resources, in some circumstances. 

Michelle’s primary rule is “take chances.” In her career, she has been unafraid to move or travel to new countries; tackle new problems; and start new initiatives.  As she coaches teams, she is a strong believer in clear communication. “I am finding, day-to-day, our biggest source of issues is you did not have a conversation with someone, or you did not take the time to be effective in the way you were getting across your message.”   She is enthusiastic about her “fantastic” Masco team. “The majority are long-time Masco” employees and seem to appreciate her “outside-in perspective,” helping Michelle “navigate the waters, internally, at Masco” while she offers them an external lens. Her plans include the ability to extend the benefits of the information technology organization throughout the larger global organization, not just at headquarters but across the enterprise. “We don’t always leverage and maximize our spending, our licensing, our approach, our solutions.” Her vision is to propel that, worldwide. 

Along the way, when she met either gender or race bias, Michelle candidly said: “I recognized, I cannot wear it on my sleeve. That’s their problem; not mine.” Her key pieces of advice when contending with prejudices are: “Don’t take it personally.  And don’t give away your power. Don’t let it define you; and don’t carry it around with a chip on your shoulder, because, in reality, there are more people who do not” exhibit racism nor bias.  

Michelle is often asked to speak to girls and women, on the topic of leadership.  She recommended a book by Carla Harris called EXPECT TO WIN, which outlines ten proven strategies for thriving at work.  Michelle also enthused about Marshall Goldsmith’s WHAT GOT YOU HERE WON’T GET YOU THERE, which exhorts successful leaders to examine the small “transactional flaws” that keep even the most high-performing individuals from reaching the next pinnacle . “We do need to make adjustments” along the way, according to Michelle. 

Key success tips Michelle often offers to girls and women are:

  1. “Be clear about who you are, and what you would like to do. Understand WHY you are doing something. Know yourself and be true to yourself.”

  2. Don’t give in to limits nor allow barriers to success. “We say we want these glorious and fantastic careers,” but then often make excuses, or compromises, that impede personal progress.

  3. Find the balance between “sharing too much” personal information and being both authentic and personable. “It’s important to be business colleagues but find a common ground” to cultivate empathy.

Michelle also stressed how crucial it is to understand “authenticity,” and clarify “what it means to you, so you know how to show up” in professional settings.  The earlier you get a mentor and a coach, the better it will be for your career development.

Essentially, Michelle is balanced, focused and extremely happy. “For me, I am working all the time: night, mornings.” She does commit to activities that allow for some life balance, defined as fluid for her. (“I love going to the spa. I enjoy traveling! Although sometimes traveling with my friends means I bring my laptop,” but then she puts it away to have fun.)  

In her volunteer life, Michelle is very active with nonprofit organizations to give back.  She sits on the board of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Goodwill; and is also a key board member for PEARLS for TEEN GIRLS, a unique leadership development program serving middle schoolers and high school girls in Wisconsin.  She also recently joined the board of Michigan’s DPTV, viewer-supported public television in Southeast Michigan. 

“I have been blessed to make conscious choices. I wanted to be in a position to focus on my career, and I don’t have to make compromises or sacrifices when it comes to my family or other relationships.”  The elements of her joy include: “great career and great wine!” She also stressed that “failure, for me, is not an option. I keep it in the back of my mind, to keep me grounded. But I am not allowing it to be an option.”

Michelle can be reached at mgreene0289@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

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Ep 87: Sonja Gittens-Ottley: Remember Your Power and Worth

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing  Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana, a leading work management platform designed to help teams organize, track, and manage work, for team clarity and collaboration.. (Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, is also co-founder of Asana, which undoubtedly elevates the company’s standing amongst  Silicon Valley startups. Sonja’s major mission is setting standards to drive inclusivity and equity in the workplace. As a first generation transplant to the United States, she immigrated in 2004 from The West Indies. “I am the married mother of a 4-year old boy,” Sonja said. “That has shaped my work and my approach to diversity, because I am bringing up a child in this society. How can what I do today, impact his life, and shape his opportunities for the future?”

Growing up in The Republic of Trinidad/Tobago, Sonja did not have aspirational limits placed upon her. Growing up “we had really structured expectations of what were ‘cool’ jobs. Good jobs were being an educator or lawyer or perhaps an engineer. But the idea of being a technologist did not exist.”  Sonja became an attorney, earning a bachelor’s of law degree from The University of the West Indies in Barbados, and a graduate degree from The Hugh Wooding Law School. As a lawyer, she worked at both the Ministry of  Legal Affairs/Office of the Attorney General in her home country, and the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. Now she is adamant that “Inclusion is defined by thinking about all the opportunities; ensuring that everyone has access; not being confined to what society says you should be doing.” 

Sonja’s transition from law to the tech industry was prompted by her marriage and move to the U.S. for what was originally planned as a two-year stint. “But I got the option to work at a company called Yahoo.” There she implemented project management and did legal internal consulting: “an opportunity too good to pass up!” When Yahoo established a human rights program, Sonja played a significant role. That naturally led to working with Yahoo’s corporate policy making team for diversity and inclusion. “Multinational groups and organizations, and human rights activists were using the company’s tools in a really different way,” Sonja explained. To better understand customer product needs and motivations, she emphasized that  “The company has to look like their diverse customer base to really be representative of how products are being used and the potential products that they might use. Imagine the products we could build if people inside companies reflected all users!”

From Yahoo, Sonja moved to Facebook as the company’s Global Diversity Program Manager, and then to Asana as Head of Diversity/Inclusion, where “I get to work across the entire company.”  To empower Asana’s diversity, she focused on two strategic pillars: recruiting candidates (“how do we get the best people from everywhere”) and employee evaluation and growth (“how do we ensure they are assessed in a fair manner.”) She stressed that “the culture is really supportive” and that neither pillar can exist without the other; diverse recruitment and accommodating a nurturing culture must work in tandem.  She works closely with the company’s University Recruiting team and targets other events that attract diverse attendees and potential talent. To expand inclusion and diverse thinking she works with a variety of supportive initiatives like ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) for internal communities where, “making space for the community, and space for allies to learn more is paramount…”. Today, there are three groups:  Asana Women, Asana Gradient (for people of color), and Asana Team Rainbow (for LGBTQ employees). According to Sonja, “They are open to people who identify in those communities and also to employee allies of these groups.” Each group autonomously sets its objectives, but all three are aligned, overall, to the greater Asana mission. One practical approach that Asana initiated to support inclusion is the Asana Real Talk series where people can engage in honest, authentic discussions about overcoming challenges, communicating purpose and driving change, individually and in the greater world/workplace. Sonja also does onboarding sessions with all Asana team members ensuring , “ what is important to us,” is emphasized and they understand how vital inclusion is to the company. Additionally, Sonja concentrates on initiating and strengthening policies such as the liberal Family Leave policy (“this is something open to everyone --- all genders”) to support a diverse, inclusive culture.  When speaking about feedback on programs and innovations in this area, Sonja proudly exclaimed: “The beauty of Asana is that it is really transparent,” so any question asked about progress is answered with data. She added, “People are not shy, they ask the questions.”

Much of Sonja’s leadership is enabled through wielding influence and her tips for doing that include: “Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Be honest. If you are not sure what the results are going to be, say so. People want clarity on an objective --- possible issues, risks involved, and probable results.”  For those who want to work at a company with strong diversity and inclusion orientation, she advised, “You have power. You have a brand. You can ask for what you want the company to reflect to both internal and external audiences. It can be as easy as asking in an all-hands: ‘You say you care about diversity and inclusion; what are the actions we’re taking? How welcoming is our workplace? For companies initially adopting diversity and inclusion programs, Sonja recommends conducting a company-wide engagement survey with questions about “belonging” to gauge employee’s perspectives. “There are great online resources,” Sonja said, to create the surveys. (Diva Note: SHRM, Society for Human Resource Management, has created one, and evaluated a series of others).  “Think of it as an audit to see where you are.”  Sonja cautioned that acting NOW is more prudent than waiting. “The longer you take to do this, the harder it is.  If you have an HR team, someone needs to carve out time to think about culture, and employee engagement. And you should be thinking about policies.  Are they inclusive and welcoming to everyone?” She pointed to some of the mundane but vital questions a company can ask itself: “What is our restroom situation? Should we have ‘all gender’ restrooms?  Are we thinking about ‘mother’s rooms’? You should be thinking about these questions in terms of creating company policy.” For recruiting in companies without a dedicated diversity expert, she suggested: “You should be thinking about interview skills and training.”  At Asana, the company has reviewed and addressed bias in interviewing and concentrates on skill-sets rather than a candidate’s former companies.  

To measure diversity and inclusion success, Sonja said: “At Asana, we look at it as we would any other objective, in terms of both qualitative and quantitative data. What’s our new hire rate? How is it mapping to our goals? Through surveys, tracking employee engagement as well as monitoring  sense of belonging in terms of the overall company, and how are specific groups doing, and the intersectionality of these groups.” The intersectionality data can offer “very different pictures,” according to Sonja. 

To keep goals on track, Sonja and Asana do several things:

  1. Monthly “All Hands” company-wide meeting with topics focused on diversity and inclusion progress;

  2. Use of company-wide Slack communication channel and Asana to consistently, transparently share diversity and cultural data; 

  3. “Office Hours” and “Ask Me Anything” sessions dedicated to diversity/inclusion/culture, “where people can ask questions” or propose new approaches.

In addition to Asana Real Talk series, Sonja is very proud of the recent apprenticeship program the company launched, AsanaUp. “It was about a year in the making,” she said. “We were thoughtful and intentional about widening that funnel of great candidates coming from non-traditional backgrounds.”  In the AsanaUP apprenticeship, the company welcomes candidates from all backgrounds and without university computer science degrees (with other degrees, from coding schools, or parents returning to the workforce) to join the company for 6-9 months and work alongside software engineers.  The apprentices “are engineers at Asana. I am really proud of the teams I worked with to get this done,” Sonja said, , “It was a cross-collaborative effort, in the best sense.” Asana plans to expand the program in the immediate future.

Sonja characterized herself as “an eternal optimist.”  In her view, “everyone can make a difference. Children are the future, and they have no limits.”  She loves to laugh, and “see the humor in every situation.” That attitude helps her make progress on challenges that can appear, at times, to be challenging.  “There are people out there who don’t have access to the opportunities,” she said. “I plan to be working on lengthening that pipeline. This has to be done with really great partners like the Grace Hopper Celebration conference”. “Part of the work is reminding people that this is really important. We, often, forget that this is new and uncomfortable for a lot of people: to talk about race or gender or any of the other identities that people possess. Getting people to a place of comfort is how you change things.”  Sonja emphatically believes that to overcome diversity challenges, everyone must develop “a real sense of empathy; people might look different than you, might sound different, but we are all trying to do the same thing. Be respectful to others.” The most important thing Sonja would like to do is “remind people of their own power and their own worth.  It makes a difference in what you can achieve!”

Sonja Gittens-Ottley can be reached via LinkedIn and Asana can be viewed via the web at https://asana.com/.

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Ep 86: Chloe Condon: Choreographing a Completely New Career

Diva Tech Talk interviewed actor-turned-technologist/evangelist, Chloe Condon , Cloud Advocate for Microsoft.   

Chloe is a passionate supporter of women in technology, with an extensive social media brand and robust following.  For an engineer, she has a “non-traditional background,” since she “grew up doing musical theater in all shapes and forms.”  Chloe’s father is a director/playwright. Her mother is a theatrical costume designer and graphics designer. “So, I grew up in a trunk!”  she said (quoting the Judy Garland lyric from the 1954 version of A STAR IS BORN).  “I didn’t know a lot about computers, although we did have a computer in our home. I played games on it.”  She had little exposure to tech. “I did not know what STEM stood for, until about 4 years ago! I had blinders on.  I just knew that I wanted to be an actress.”

After attending a performing arts high school, Chloe matriculated at San Francisco University receiving her bachelors’ degree in theater performance. “I booked my first starring role, playing Kira in Xanadu” a San Francisco stage production.  “My picture was on billboards. There was a cut-out of me in the lobby.  I thought ‘this is it’…”. But reality brought Chloe up short when “they handed me $500 for three to four months of rehearsal and performances.” She starkly acknowledged the negative economic ramifications of an early theatrical career. So she proceeded to address cashflow through “bizarre 9-to-5 jobs to support my nights/weekends in theater, although I am probably one of the only actresses, you’ll meet who never had a waitressing job.” Chloe took numerous retail jobs, then landed an Account Executive position at (pre-IPO) Yelp, selling online advertising to merchants in Kansas.  She became fascinated by the startup, tech environment, but “I was terrible at sales.”   Eventually, she “stumbled into other tech roles” including Zirtual, the first virtual personal assistant company.  There she met Ben Parr, (“he was then editor-at-large at Mashable”), who co-founded VC fund The Dominate Group. NOTE: Ben is now a columnist at Inc., a sought after speaker, and philanthropist.  (“Later in my career, I became his full-time assistant.”)  

During this discovery period, Chloe was unhappy. She had a deficit of free time, juggling acting and her “day jobs,” combined with minimal personal autonomy.  “It gave me a lot of insight” into others performing service work, who might not realize the world of self-actualization through tech opportunities. Then Chloe attended a Google-sponsored talk focused on getting girls interested in software.  It inspired her to take an online class and find a bootcamp for coders (“these can be life-changing”). Narrowing down her choices, “HackBright Academy, an intense 12 weeks, stood out.  It was all women. It felt very empowering.”  

Hackbright’s message, to the male-dominated programming world, is “change the ratio!”  Initially, surrounded by a select cohort of women, many of whom had math or science in their background, Chloe suffered from “Impostor Syndrome” which she thinks is more pervasive in technology than other fields (“tech is always changing;  it’s always growing. You’re never going to know everything”). A key to making progress, at the bootcamp, was to adjust learning style from simply reading about concepts to reading AND doing.  “I had to think of it like choreography.” Her tenure at the focused camp culminated in a project, based on skills she had learned (Python, Java and more). It was a social media application that rigorously timed postings to achieve optimal exposure, no matter your time zone --- a “set it and forget it” app using Twitter and Facebook API’s as the base.   As she prepared for graduation “Demo Night,” Chloe’s revelation was that “building the app was hard; talking about it was not. This was a huge light bulb for me. I had always viewed my theater degree as a setback. But I truly use my theater degree, every day, as an engineer, and doing public speaking.”

Initially interviewing for junior engineering roles, (“interviewing is brutal”), Chloe experienced “a significant change” when she “pivoted my brand to be more ‘developer relations’.”  She discovered a niche for her blend of speaking, performing, and communications merged with newly minted programming skills. She was hired by start-up CodeFresh, specializing in Docker innovation.  After a year, Chloe left CodeFresh  to join Sentry.io, a company focused on error-tracking for developers working in open source.  “I was their first developer/analyst.” This gave Chloe “a lot of creative control.”  She lauded the company’s culture. “You wanted to go to work, every day. The people were so fun and cool.”  There, she reveled in creative, fun projects. “I really had the freedom to throw things at the wall and see if they stuck.”  Most of them did. Through that work, she collaborated with Microsoft, (“it’s changed a lot in the last 5 years!”) and that behemoth extended “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” At Microsoft, Chloe currently works with the cloud-based Azure platform.  Most recently, she concentrated on cognitive services, infusing applications, websites and bots with intelligent algorithms to interpret in natural language. “I built an app that analyzes images of Cosplay Mario Kart characters to determine their mood and emotions” as one example.   “95% of my demos are either funny, quirky or solve a unique problem. I try to have fun elements in everything I do.”

Chloe shared classic advice. “Treat people like humans. As they say in The Book of Mormon, let’s just be really nice to everyone. It’s not that hard.”  When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable (like code not working) Chloe advised: “Take a walk and come back with the solution.”  She also counseled people to take breaks for inspiration and to achieve higher productivity. And “ask for help!” When requesting help, Chloe enumerates steps she has already taken so that she is “not wasting anyone’s time.”   She also cited Twitter as a rich source of feedback and advice. “There are a lot of online communities, with many wonderful people.” Chloe is amazed by the generosity of experts in the tech industry. “People are willing to help.  This community is so welcoming and warm.”

Chloe has evolved to revel in her differences.  “I do not look like an engineer. And I fully embrace that,” she said, discussing the male, middle-aged technocrat stereotype. “I think it educates people” when she is the keynote speaker at a tech conference.  To build her brand influence “I began tweeting out my experience, getting a following” even as she was becoming a “junior” engineer. In 2017, she wrote an article matter-of-factly describing how it feels to be a sole woman at a tech conference.  (“You get kind of lonely.”)  It went viral, she thinks, because it allowed others to empathize without judgement. “Here’s the deal, and here’s what you can do to make it better.”  To protect herself, from Internet intrusion, she wryly said “I am very sharp, and witty, on Twitter. Anyone who comes at me, publicly, will get destroyed by my awesome jokes!” Pragmatically, she is building a bot to respond to inappropriate DM’s.

In terms of job-hunting, Chloe urged women to be selective.  “Work at a place you are comfortable.” She cited “red flags” that become obvious in interviewing. They include a company that is uncomfortable with negotiation; or who has a paucity of women leaders in the interview process.  Positively, she expressed appreciation for companies who cultivate sensitivity to issues experienced by women as the minority of engineers. She also cited Ru Paul’s advice to “silence your inner saboteur” and proceed with confidence.

Chloe noted the industry is missing the mark by not considering those with degrees that are not technical.  “There is a huge chunk of talent” being missed, by the automatic filtering out of those without computer science degrees.  “If you are going to claim you are a diverse company, be open to hiring people from bootcamps! Put your money where your mouth is.”

As an evangelist for Microsoft, and developers in general, Chloe measures success by “folks approaching me and telling me that the work I am doing changed something fundamental for them.  At the end of the day, If I have affected one person, or opened eyes to something new, that is success for me!” For other women in the field, she urged “be authentically you. Don’t feel like you must act like one of the guys. We need more ideas, and diverse thoughts.”

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Ep 85: Linda Cureton: Master ‘Debugger’ of Powerful Organizations

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Linda Cureton, veteran U.S. federal government tech leader, turned entrepreneur.  As a child, Linda “was always fascinated with numbers.” Facetiously she recalled doing a math problem as a youngster to compute how old she would be in the Year 2000.  “I remember the arithmetic and coming up with the age --- 41.” She thought: “Oh my God. I’ll be dead.” This immediately spurred her. “I better hurry up and do things!”

Linda has had many chances to “do things” (BIG THINGS) although she resisted technology in early life.  Still in high school, as an example, she worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association as a student assistant cartographer. But because she was left-handed, she would smear the ink, and was “banished” to using computers, instead. Originally aimed toward Washington D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Linda wanted to take calculus in 12th grade, the field of mathematics which focuses on the rate of change over time. So she matriculated at the famous Howard University, because she could enter as a senior in high school in an advanced early calculus program. She began university as a pre-med major, (“I hated it”) but kept taking music classes at Duke Ellington. A Howard University mentor counseled her to drop out of the pre-med program.  “You will be successful if you do what you love and enjoy,” he said. Linda switched, sophomore year, to major in mathematics with a minor in Latin. “I wanted to do pure math, but the counselor insisted I take computer classes. I couldn’t get out of it!” As she began to take programming classes (IBM Assembler, Fortran, etc.), much to her surprise, “I really enjoyed them.”  Upon university graduation, she was awarded a full scholarship for a PhD in mathematics. But fate intervened in the person of her first husband who “wanted me to get a job and a new car.” So she interviewed at the National Air and Space Administration (NASA), where she started her career. “That’s how I got into technology,” although to her, at the time, it felt like “punishment.”  Clearly, over the years, that feeling dramatically changed.

Linda was a mathematician/programmer for 2 years at NASA, then moved to the U.S. Navy, working in the weapons systems development program, and studying to become a program manager in undersea warfare.  Her primary motivation for taking the role was to spend time in Seattle, Washington (where her first husband’s family lived), then travel across the country to various naval bases, finally ending up in Crystal City, Virginia. “After 6 months, I realized I didn’t like it, at all” so she moved to become a systems programmer at the Seattle naval base.  Her next transition was sparked by divorce. Post-divorce, Linda moved home to Maryland and Washington, D.C, where she took a systems programmer position at the U.S. Department of Justice. She stayed with the department for 16 years, in a variety of technology management jobs. “I met my current husband in the computer room!”   In looking back at that period, “I joked that I did every job you could do in a data center, except operations, and I married him….”

She eventually became Deputy Director of the DOJ Data Center.  After 16 years at DOJ, Linda began applying for senior executive positions in government.  “I was told I was not qualified,” she said. Never one to back down from a challenge, “I started applying for jobs I thought I couldn’t get!”  Evaluating rejections taught her what she needed (“what I really needed, not what people said, but what the marketplace truly required”) in experience, skills and seasoning.  She recognized a need to learn to build coalitions, and whole organizations, “from dirt, from the ground up.” Engaging in that developed the “executive acumen” that characterized the rest of her career. She went to the U.S. Department of Energy as the Associate Chief Information Officer for operations for several years. The person who hired her had left, and she had no guidance nor support. “I was the only African-American career executive in the department, and the only black female; it felt very lonely.” But from that experience, she grew immensely.

Linda became the Deputy Assistant Director of Science and Technology and then Deputy CIO for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) for four years, as a female executive in a male-dominated agency where she had numerous accomplishments and “built a very strong team.”  Following that, she spent the next 8 years, again at NASA – first as CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, for 4 years, where she built that organization up to become viable and respected.  Then she served as CIO for the entire NASA agency, for her final four years. (“My boss’s boss was President Barack Obama! The buck stops there.”)  In contrasting ATF to NASA, Linda laments that NASA did not always have the most innovative technology, in comparison to ATF, who had excellent, up-to-date computers, applications and support for “those who put their lives on the line.” At NASA, she spent most of her time “debugging” the nationwide agency and bolstering it.  One of her most enjoyable moments was watching the last space shuttle launch.

In looking back, and evaluating her government career, Linda admitted “I was a pretty terrible programmer, but I was good at debugging.”  She still considers that one of her major strengths: the ability to find “bugs” in an organization, a project, a challenge or a team and solve them.  “I learned the value of teams and teamwork,” along the way. Linda had no formal mentors in her career but learned that “the best way to have a mentor is to be a mentor,” and mentors can be found outside of your organization.  While at DOE, feeling isolated, Linda reached out to Gloria Parker, the first African-American female working at a Cabinet level, as the CIO for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Gloria generously shared invaluable advice about how to effectively serve as a CIO. They have remained friends to this day. “We mentor each other.  She got me through those rough parts!” One piece of advice Linda would give to others is to pay attention to your health. Having weathered nationwide stresses (like a “hanging chad” election and the cataclysmic effects of 9/11), she has learned that it is important to maintain your health and well-being in the face of major challenges.

After retiring from NASA, Linda founded Muse Technologies, branded to reflect the concept of “goddesses of inspiration.”  She wrote a book: THE LEADERSHIP MUSE , in which she ruminated, from her heart, about things in the physical and spiritual world from which she drew leadership inspiration (“from hummingbirds to owls to notions about numbers and infinity and music…” and more.) In Linda’s eyes, “the job of leadership is so difficult, and impossible, it takes divine inspiration, sometimes, to get through it.”  That is why she founded Muse to support Federal executives and leaders, who need technical change support, supplying them with innovative problem-solving, process support, strategic planning, project/program management, technology recommendations and “soft skills” training for staff. Her problem resolution skills are well-utilized on behalf of diverse clients.

Linda expressed gratitude for setbacks and disappointments she experienced over the years.  “They have made me what I am, today.” Her greatest joy comes from contemplating “the vastness of the world we live in, God’s creation.  It gives me a chance to decompress….to understand more about my purpose in life.” Conversely, Linda’s biggest fear is potential failure, which “I have pivoted to have the courage to succeed.”  Having recently seen the movie: “Hidden Figures,” (about African-American women overcoming prejudice and discrimination to strongly contribute  to the U.S. space program), Linda left the theater “annoyed” because so many people were rejoicing, thinking that barriers faced by the protagonists in 1965 no longer existed. “Dude,” she said. “That was so last week. Maybe they don’t give you the trash to take out, but I had my share of more ‘nuanced’ attitudes!”  

On work-life balance, Linda commented: “Life is not 50/50.  It is 100/100. I am 100% who I am all the time.” Three of her career lessons for women are:

  1. You can cry, but keep on moving;

  2. Don’t apologize for being a woman – use female advantages to succeed:  heightened empathy, intuitiveness, compassion and more;

  3. Never sell out; “it’s better to quit a job than do something you think is wrong.”

In her community life, Linda gives back by being an active board member for the DC Youth Orchestra for K-12 children (“being a child musician taught me resilience and grit”) , and a newly-formed regional group called Pink Architecture, convening tech women “in an intimate space” to share insights, knowledge and support.  

Linda can be reached on Twitter at @curetonL and via the web at www.muse-technologies.com.

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Ep 84: Tarsha McCormick: Your Plan Might Not Be Your Destiny

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk interviewed enlightened leader, Tarsha McCormick, North American Head of Diversity and Inclusion, for Thoughtworks,  a global software consulting company,  created to drive a socially, economically fair and moral world, by bettering humanity through software.   With over 6000 employees, “we custom build large software applications for Fortune 100/500 companies, and help our customers solve some of their toughest business challenges,” according to Tarsha.  The company has won multiple awards as a top company for women in technology. “For us, diversity and inclusion are about righting some societal ‘wrongs’ – particularly as it relates to race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Tarsha is the youngest of seven children.  Her parents emanated from southern parts of the United States in the 1930’s and “had to face a lot of segregation in the ‘Jim Crowe’ South.”  She also noted that “of all my siblings, I am the only one with a college degree. Statistically speaking the odds were against me.” Tarsha inadvertently entered the technology industry; came to fully understand how significant the industry would be; and is now “impassioned about diversity and inclusion in the technology space.”  She noted that her mission-oriented journey is an example of “just because it isn’t your plan, doesn’t mean it isn’t your destiny.”

In her early career, Tarsha was a social worker for the State of Illinois specializing in child welfare. With a political science undergraduate degree from Illinois State University, and a master’s degree in human resources management from Keller Graduate School of Management at DeVry University,   she subsequently carved out a path in human resources and workforce development, working for Hewitt, then joining Thoughtworks (“when we were under 100 employees”) almost twenty years ago. In her Thoughtworks journey she has “had the opportunity to wear many hats, roles from recruiter to generalist to benefits manager to HR manager.”  

Thoughtworks created a business division (the People Division) in Atlanta, Georgia and New York City.  Tasha moved to Georgia to the role of Human Resource Business Partner, responsible for The Americas in 2010. “We started having some of those tough conversations about inclusion, at Thoughtworks, that some employers shy away from --- privilege, and sexism, and race in America,” she said. “I helped the company put in organization around pay equity, and how we were looking at promotions.  We started to formalize employee resource groups.” In 2015 she accepted a promotion to become the company’s first Head of Diversity and Inclusion. “This was around the time we had hired some transgender employees. And we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Tarsha exclaimed. “We didn’t know how to support this group of employees. We had to get up to speed quickly. It was an eye-opening experience; we realized we had to be more intentional in our approach.”  This promotion allowed Tarsha to spearhead creating a diversity strategic plan and overall vision. “I was the first person in the role. I felt a little overwhelmed and scared!” Tarsha acknowledged that Thoughtworks was “probably at the forefront” of diversity work in the tech space, which has led the company to honors for its inclusion programs, including being named at the Grace Hopper 2018 Celebration of Women in Tech, as a leading company for women in technology. Retention of talent is a high priority.  “We want every employee to feel they have a voice. They belong.”

For high velocity recruiting, “talent doesn’t have a face or a background,” said Tarsha. “We don’t care if you are self-taught, went to a bootcamp, or went the more traditional route of a 4-year university.  If you have the aptitude, attitude and experience, then Thoughtworks can be a home for you.” To accelerate recruiting, Thoughtworks has significantly expanded the sources for its talent pipeline. “We look for candidates outside the computer science department,” as an example, when conducting college recruiting. They also attend tech conferences, visit schools without computer science curricula, visit historically black colleges and universities, meet with candidates from community colleges, and more. “Our employee referrals are a great source, as well.” Tarsha stressed that it is important to closely examine your recruiting process; “are you mitigating bias in the process?”

Tarsha emphasized that diversity does not stop with the recruitment of people with different backgrounds, different creeds/races/colors/ages/belief systems/socio-economic statuses.  Equally important is the concept of “inclusion.” She stressed that if colleagues “don’t feel like the workplace is supportive, if they don’t feel like it’s a place where they can be their authentic selves, where they can grow, and learn, then we aren’t going to retain them.”  At Thoughtworks, the company has created a place where “people feel they have a voice; that they matter.” The team has re-architected learning/development, benefits, communication methods/content and channels, and methods of promoting high potential employees, in new and more inclusive ways.  

Thoughtworks mantra is “once you learn more about a person, their background, their situation, it will hopefully broaden your perspective and you can empathize and sympathize.” To institutionalize best diversity practices, the company established employee-led resource groups for women’s interests, LGBTQ interests, and African Americans.  There is a consistent feedback mechanism to gauge employee needs. Prior to any major policy roll-out, interest groups are polled. “An example of that is when we rolled out a policy for gender transitioning on the job,” Tarsha said. “We hired an outside expert to come in and do some training, not only for our leadership team, but for all our employees. We had appropriate groups review the policy. We created the preferred pronoun buttons. We take them to our career fairs and have them available in all our offices. We want to be sure we are being respectful of people, and how they self-identify.”  To measure the success of its diversity/inclusion programs, Thoughtworks has important tools. One is a diversity survey administered annually to all employees, measuring reaction in 5 key areas. Another is “Measures of Success” --- a benchmark tracking of every program, over time.

For other companies motivated to establish or strengthen diversity and inclusion programs, Tarsha shared key advice.  As a first step, she recommended that any company start with a holistic assessment of the organization, to identify areas for enhancement, gaps, and key priorities. Then map those back to the strategic goals of the company. “You won’t be able to do everything, but if you prioritize what’s most important, you can start the work there.”  Then simply, methodically, progress from step to step. She also stressed that accurate data collection, and planning for it, should be part of your progress, including the selection of a flexible HR information system.

For individuals looking for new roles, Tarsha recommends asking a series of questions about any company they are considering joining, including:

  1. What are the diversity and inclusion policies?

  2. What are the backgrounds of leadership?

  3. Do they have leadership development opportunities, and how are candidates selected for those?

  4. What is the average tenure for an employee?

  5. Can I speak with other employees, at the company, about their experiences?

Tarsha emphasizes that this work cannot be done in a vacuum.  “I can create the vision, and the initiatives. But it takes all of us to live it and breathe it every day; and make people feel welcome and included.”  Tarsha wholeheartedly agrees with Diva Tech Talk. “One person can’t do everything. But everyone can do something!”

 Tarsha McCormick can be reached on Twitter at @tarsha_mcc and via email at tmccormi@thoughtworks.com.

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