Ep 80: Rebekah Bastian: Leave it better than you found it

Diva Tech Talk was honored to spend time with Rebekah Bastian, the Vice President of Community and Culture at Zillow Group.  She leads efforts focused on equity and belonging, as well as social impact products and cultural engagement. Rebekah was one of Zillow Group's first employees, moving from Microsoft in 2005. Now, she has spent over 13 years leading product development across many areas of Zillow, and evolving into her current role.

Rebekah originally started her education journey as a music major, but shifted, after realizing this formal program was not for her. She reassessed and went back to school taking courses that were interesting at her local community college. This led to math and physics. She discovered her knack for problem-solving and curiosity through this course work. It was a tough transition, since she had failed at her first attempt at college, but she persisted. She noticed that “if you just show up and work hard, you can do well.” Her epiphany was that “[she] can do well at anything [she] works hard at.” Rebekah has been proving that lesson to herself ever since. She encourages others to “work hard at things you enjoy, are passionate about, and things you are good at.”

Rebekah always wanted to be an inventor. So she decided the program to blend her new love for physics and passion for innovation would be engineering. She transferred to the University of Washington where she completed her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. She continued on to UC Berkley, pursuing a masters in that field. This program was focused on product development, so she applied to Microsoft hoping to work within their hardware division. The interviewer actually had no idea how to conduct a hardware interview, so the Microsoft team opted to see if she would be a good fit as a Program Manager. She essentially ended up in a job she never considered prior to that interview.

Rebekah's work at Microsoft included development of the pervasive Outlook email platform, where she learned about processes and strategies she could leverage later. It was a great opportunity, but she did not love the arduous commute. She needed to explore other options, and subsequently checked Craigslist to see if there were any local job opportunities.She found Zillow Group, which was in full start-up mode and working under the radar. She took a flyer because she had faith in the founders, Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink,  knowing their success with Expedia.  Ultimately, Rebekah loved the mission of Zillow, the ability to start something from scratch, and the chance to get experience with many different roles. She learns best through experiential learning, so Zillow Group was a great home for her to really fuel the fire of her career.

“I did answer an ad on Craigslist and was one of the first employees here. Zillow was still in stealth startup mode, so I didn’t really know what I was going to be working on.”

Rebekah began working on the first version of the Zillow website, which has since become the largest real estate marketplace in the U.S. The Zillow Group vision was to create a revolutionary website with data transparency and ‘zestimates’ to offer the average consumer data-driven insight into the true value of homes they might buy or sell. Rebekah worked on building the product until about 8 years ago, when she was promoted into people management. The team continued to grow and scale,  spurred by Zillow Group’s success. As she progressed, leaders under her grew. She was able to launch a side project, paving the way for her current role.

Zillow Group’s diversity program began by reviewing how to build diverse points of view and people’s experiences into the organization, while shaping culture more intentionally. Rebekah also starting thinking about how she could deploy the Zillow platform to solve social issues like access for underserved populations to fair, affordable housing. She discovered, over time, that this community work, and social mission, was where her passion centered, so her community and culture leadership position was born.  As Rebekah moved into leadership, she figured out how to manage people who don’t have her aptitudes. She loved the process of “finding out how to manage people and advocate for them when you don’t have the same skill set.” She was also able to ask the right questions to help employees see and set their goals, engage mentors, and challenge themselves.

“We generally have this philosophy: hire better than yourself.”

Rebekah believes in setting employees up for success by removing barriers while affording autonomy. She benefited from this philosophy personally with her own side projects at Zillow Group.  Based on the introduction of the Apple iPhone, she assisted on a project that led to the mobile Zillow application. When it launched, it got attention from Apple and gained fast popularity. Zillow Group created the formal mobile team and she became its first mobile product manager. This opened more doors for her career.

In her Community and Culture Vice President role, Rebekah organizes and leads the Zillow Group team focused on equity and belonging, cultural engagement, housing stability, and social impact. She believes “power comes from combining these components together” into one unit. That team creates a space where everyone can bring their best selves to thrive at work. This includes  hiring diverse employees, and ensuring that after onboarding, they possess a strong sense of community. There are also affinity equity networks, and a team of “Equity and Belonging” ambassadors. The ambassadors receive tools, resources, and through those, offer support for “every employee in the community to apply an equity lens to their line of work.” In fact, at most meetings where a major decision is made, one person is dedicated to providing a community lens to the situation. Zillow is also encouraging internal mobility within the company, bringing everyone to a level playing field for success despite any past inequities in backgrounds.

Inside cultural engagement, Zillow Group examines how employees interact with each other and the community. This includes clubs as well as social impact development that allow developers to build on top of standard Zillow offerings to make a difference in the world. Housing was an obvious choice to help, and the team could add components to empower housing equity.

Rebekah believes no organization has proposed and implemented the perfect formula for leadership in diversity, community, inclusion, especially in the corporate tech space. She professes that she “love[s] problems that need to be solved that haven’t been totally figured out yet because that is what we do at Zillow Group, --- innovate! That is definitely something I am passionate about. This is a whole cultural movement. We need to be bringing everyone along.” More importantly, “everyone is on the equity and belonging team. It can’t be just one team of a few people doing this work for the company. We have to create systemic change.” There is “so much opportunity, both in the corporate space and in the world.” This passion drives her.

Active prioritizing is key when there are so many ideas and directions for a team like this. Rebekah’s product manager experience/role comes into play as she handles the sheer backlog of potential projects that could fall under the mission. The team examines metrics on where they are and where they are trying to go to select the most impactful projects aligned with overall strategy. Reviewing employee engagement can help, so she gets that data through various surveys. “In term of deciding the exact priority, you want to have a big vision of where you are trying to go. Zillow Group wants to create a space where every employee can be heard” and positively impact everyone with whom Zillow Group interacts.

Zillow Group also created an internal pathways model called “get involved” so every Zillow team member can easily get immersed in equity and belonging, and give back, or just have fun. They use various technology and channels to share these opportunities. Rebekah and her team strive to  understand and share the backgrounds of employees internally and externally through storytelling. “That allows them to value and care for each other.” The Zillow Group executive team champions all of these programs.

This work is exciting for Rebekah. For example, “Kids Day of Engineering” is an annual Zillow Group event where employees bring their children to participate in engineering activities. She also enjoys seeing social impact spread both inside the existing product road maps and building on top of existing features. Another example is Zillow Group’s “Community Pillar” which takes the rental marketplace and allows individuals with credit or rental barriers find housing. It is a great example of “incremental work that can be done on top of an existing product to create a new feature that can solve social issues.” Overall, the approach is to “creates pathways for everyone to get involved. We are really trying to channel all the passion and skills our employees have to do some great work,” Rebekah exclaimed.

Rebekah’s experience at Zillow Group as a woman in tech has been very positive. But she still believes every woman should “speak up and advocate” for herself  “asking for what she wants.” Her career breakthroughs began by simply asking. On the topic of balance, Rebekah finds time for things like aerial acrobatics as a “physical outlet, social outlet, and creative outlet.” Her view is that “Everyone has a different capacity for various activities in their lives.” For her, as long as the activity is something she enjoys, she stays in the moment, and is not overwhelmed with a busy schedule. Rebekah is a big fan of making a list to help her keep everything straight as a mother, leader, and philanthropist.

Rebekah ended the Diva Tech Talk interview with one of favorite quotes, from the Girl Scouts:  “Leave it better than you found it.” She thinks that can be “applied to anything you are doing and is needed in our world today.”

Contact Rebekah at: Linked In

Follow her on Twitter: @Rebekah_Bastian

Zillow group life on insta: https://www.instagram.com/zillowgrouplife/

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Ep 79: Nafisa Bhojawala: Anything You Choose to Learn CAN Be Learned

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Nafisa Bhojawala, Studio Chief for Cloud Design at Microsoft Corporation, leading multidisciplinary teams who empower fast-moving, agile product development cycles to maximize impact on Microsoft’s customer experience and business goals.

Nafisa, the daughter of an engineer dad, and an art teacher mom,  grew up in India, and then Dubai, UAE.  “My mother had a long career, and art was all around me.  My grandmother, my primary caregiver for years, was an artist.  We grew up, drawing, painting, working on embroidery; just basically making things! But I also did science and math, and I loved the clean rules of math and physics.  I learned to appreciate how the world works around me.”

When Nafisa chose her university major, she wanted to specialize in fine arts and study sculpture or painting. But her parents persuaded her to “pick a useful profession,” so her choice became architecture as she emigrated to Chicago to study at Illinois University of Technology, on scholarship. She spent one year, (“It was hard.  I learned a lot”) before she realized she was hooked on design, “looking at problems, and solving them, even on a smaller scale.” She loved graphics and product design, so she logically matriculated into the design school. “It was great experience for the breadth of topics I could explore.” Nafisa then discovered computer technology.  “I used it first as a tool, as a designer, but very soon I began running into these frustrating situations while using the computer,” which prompted her to think about how challenges could be circumvented, and processes transformed. The design school encouraged undergraduates to “break the problem down; look at different facets: the manufacturing side, the social and cultural side” of any challenge. She began “sketching out ways of doing it,” and, nudged by her faculty advisor, experienced a “Eureka moment.”   She took programming classes to “go deeper, to understand how code is written.” She feels very grateful to her university. “It was humbling to go through that university program. I had very talented colleagues. It made it exciting, but it also made it really hard to maintain grades.” Nafisa feels fortunate. “It was the mid-90’s. This field was emerging.”

Nafisa’s Capstone project was an interaction design endeavor: a learning tool targeted to high school students. To gain confidence to undertake it, she first accepted an internship at Morningstar, the respected global financial firm offering influential investment research/recommendations, managing over $200 billion in institutional assets, and providing software and data platforms for investment professionals.  There “I worked for close to a year on a CD-ROM project,” Nafisa said. “They were converting their stock data into an information tool that financial planners could use. It was the first time I was working as a young designer, figuring out how to apply my visual skills to interaction design.”  While she benefited from her internship (“a very enriching experience”), she also pointed out that confidence can be gained through self-directed projects and noted “it is a different learning environment, now --- there are so many online tools” for education.

After obtaining her university degree, Nafisa joined The Doblin Group, a global innovation firm dedicated to solving complex problems through rigorous interdisciplinary approach.  “They do phenomenal work.” It was another evolutionary experience for her – “their work is very diverse, and I got to sample a whole bunch of things. I learned how to do research there; apply business strategy to problems.”  It was there that Nafisa realized it was important to delve deeply into interaction design and came to the realization that “I like to design things that become real, and that I can see people using.” After the “dot.com” bust, Nafisa decided that “I was only going to look for design interaction jobs.  That's what I like to do.”

Through a friend, 19 years ago, Nafisa successfully interviewed for a design position at Microsoft. She has contributed to that company, ever since. “It has been quite a nurturing place for me,” Nafisa said. “When I joined my team, I felt like I had found my tribe: very talented people, supportive of each other. I had a great manager, and a fantastic mentor.  I could learn everything!” As she has moved into more senior leadership, she has come to the realization that “it takes a lot of work. It takes a culture that supports growth and exploration…where people feel like they can take creative risks, and actually try things.” Nafisa grew in design expertise; was promoted to team leader in a few years; and then wanted to learn more about program management.  “As designers, we work very closely with program managers,” she said. “It’s a technical role at Microsoft as well as a generalist role. I was fascinated by the dynamics of it: where can you be to make the most difference to the customer experience.” She took the role on, and flourished, although “it was a very difficult shift.”

In making the shift to program management, one of the lessons for Nafisa was realizing that she needed to “lean on others.”  The key was also “being humble about it: being a learner,” she said. She practiced reaching out, asking for help, insight and advice.  And “that has served me quite well,” Nafisa exclaimed. “Now I’m not afraid of pivoting. If I’m in that situation, I can figure it out. “  One of her revelations has been that early in her career she focused on how to get things done, (“because you need to perfect your craft”) but later in her career, she has had to “focus on the big picture, because I needed to solve bigger problems, that were more ambiguous.”  For that, she required the assistance of others. She takes pride in the fact that she feels comfortable “being the person who asks the stupid question.” That exercise often results in pinpointing the most innovative solutions. “I have to ask: how does this matter? And I must think about people, above all.”

For example, working on Microsoft Azure (Microsoft’s primary cloud platform providing a full portfolio of technical services for IT developers) as a program manager, Nafisa realized that there was a “weak link:  the customer research piece.” Azure now comprises 75 different cloud services, that form the basis for the management of all cloud applications. Accessing customer feedback was a complex issue as the product line was being developed. “There were various stakeholders, timelines were crazy, and we did not have resources.” This propelled Nafisa to join Microsoft’s customer experience team, another pivot in her career. In less than 6 months, she had created and led a “high trust” team, to “do research at a very fast clip;” and work with diverse user “personas” encompassing developers and IT professionals, to ensure high feature quality and useful deliverables across a decentralized product set.  Azure is robust and successful in part “because we figured out how to pump data through our decision-making process, from the time we decide what we want to build to actually building something.”

“I’m a big believer in making connections and investing in those connections” whether it be an academic setting, an informal educational setting, or a formal corporate setting, Nafisa emphasized. “Think about who are the other people around you” who do the kind of work you want to do, or from whom you can learn.  “Reach out to your friends who would know a design practitioner. See if they can give a couple of hours to critique your work.” She also advised designers to get feedback from end-users, members of the audience for whatever they are working on. “When you are in a company, you have stakeholders, partners, engineers” to be your validation audience “and you have your customers! All these people make you smarter about what you are doing. “

Nafisa has now moved to lead the UX (User Experience) for Microsoft’s Power BI (Business Intelligence), PowerApps, and Flow tools designed to elegantly provide the highest level of productivity to developers and others deploying BI rules inside the enterprise. “I have been focused on business insights, and how to enable people to build apps and automation,” in a simple way.  “Now we are adding artificial intelligence and machine learning. The responsiveness of systems is just at another level. You suddenly feel like you have more power, working for you.” She foresees a world where “you don’t have to think about” the mundane everyday tasks.  They can be automated for you.

Nafisa acknowledged: “I have a need to create. Art has always been the place I go to, my sanctuary.  It has, also, been a way for me to connect to a very different community, that I would not be connecting with in business. I am inspired by other artists, doing amazing things in their lives.” Her art “informs” her career and vice versa, and has taught her useful leadership precepts:

  1. When you start something new, “be optimistic about the process and the outcome.”

  2. “Pour your soul into it.”

  3. “Take risks along the way. Once you get comfortable in your space, think of what you can do differently to raise it up. When you do that, it becomes a habit. “

  4. “Recover from the failures you encounter.  You will discover you are very resilient. You know more than you think you do.”

Nafisa also characterized her art as essential because “It helps me understand the ‘creatives’ I manage. It is a journey all of us go through.”

As a busy mother, as well as business leader/artist, Nafisa achieves balance by “not thinking about perfection.” Instead she works on doing a little bit better each time and brings heightened awareness to each project.  And “I lean on others,” she said. “My partner who has an equally busy and chaotic work-life is my partner in parenting, too.” She stressed that “we can all be present in all parts of our lives, if we have a strong community to work with, that we trust.” Additionally, she said: “I am very selective about what I spend time on.  I am a little bit ruthless, setting those boundaries.” Nafisa’s final piece of wisdom was simply “anything you choose to learn, can be learned. You get to decide. But keep doing it, because that is how you keep growing.”

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Ep 78: May Russell: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Ford Motor Company’s Smart Mobility and Tech Engineering Leader, May Russell.

The oldest of three girls, “I loved mathematics,” May exclaimed, recalling her childhood. “But it’s not like I had access” since she hails from Egypt but grew up in Kuwait where her parents were professional expatriates. Later her college physics professor father and civil engineer mother emigrated to the U.S. when May was a senior in college.  “It’s a beautiful country, but at the time was really limited in resources.” As an example, she said “there was one bookstore in the whole country.” A self-described “reading nerd,” May found this frustrating; “I exhausted every single sci-fi book they had!”  She recognized her first “thirst for, and love of technology” through a “very aspirational” science fiction passion. She pointed to Isaac Asimov and his Laws of Robotics, and mentioned that, today, she still refers to those, in her work.  Her much-anticipated first computer science class when she was 15, allowed May to innovate, using an Access database with a Visual Basic front-end, so that a video store owner could catalogue the entire collection of VHS tapes in inventory, and operationalize retail transactions.  “It was an amazing experience,” said May. In “overachiever” mode, May became computer science valedictorian in her high school class.

Matriculating to university, she had the chance to either enter the school of dentistry at Cairo University or the computer science program at the American University in Egypt.  Urged by her mother to “try both,” May simultaneously began first semesters at both institutions to stimulate a “mission decision.”  Quickly though, “it became clear” that May loved computer science, so she dropped her pre-dentistry courses, and focused on technology.  She has never regretted that decision. Each subsequent year has felt like “the biggest year in tech,” to her. “Every company, every business, is a technology company, in one way or the other,” May asserted. “And the depth of the impact in our personal lives is pervasive --- an interesting twist!”  In her senior year, her family moved to the U.S where May entered the University of Michigan - Dearborn. It is another decision May has never regretted, lauding the U.S. tradition of “respect for humanity…the value for human life and civil rights, comparatively speaking” and “the ability to effect change.”

Graduating with a B.S. in Computer Science, May had job offers from E&Y,  Texas Instruments, and Ford. She accepted the E&Y offer. “My advice to anyone is accept the most challenging opportunity; do the thing that scares you the most, the thing that is riskiest to you.” E&Y gave her the chance to work in many industries with many different clients. “You’re expected to learn (each) industry; you’re expected to contribute; you’re expected to work, night and day.”  May loved many of her projects, describing one for Consumers Energy where she had the chance to “create something out of nothing” to enable the utility, in early days of deregulation, to resell energy. Post 9/11, May reached her 5-year E&Y anniversary, and was thinking “I have learned a lot.” That combined with “fatigue from the pace” of 80-plus hour weeks, plus an increasing desire to create and foster products that she could “own” cued her to look for her next challenge.  “I wanted to work for a company where I got to ‘own’ things” she said vs. moving from one project to another. So, she applied to Ford and moved there, 16-plus years ago.

Joining Ford, May learned a valuable lesson: careers are not always linear. “My goals were not to make more money or manage a large organization.  My goals, staying in the technology field, were to join a large company where I had purpose and mastery and got to ‘own’ products. And I didn’t want to travel, Monday through Thursday.”  Within the first year at Ford, however, her salary returned to the same E&Y level, and her hard work was recognized. So, her admonition was “do what is right for you, at the time it is right for you, as long as it aligns with your goals and values.”  

May’s first Ford project overhauled the entire dealer parts order fulfillment system. Then she became the leader of a 150-person development group working to transform the intricate Ford global order system (“an amazing challenge”).  “What I learned from that was how to break down something really, really complicated and break down huge teams, have them work independently, but create mechanisms of communication” to collaborate, agilely. She progressed to manage all business-to-consumer and dealer ordering and communications systems development, where she led a much larger organization, with a variety of team leaders managing sub-teams inside it. “That takes a different skill-set, more strategic thinking, supplier relationship management, and deep thought on how we execute B to C” she said. She moved on to lead the transformation of Ford’s worldwide human resources systems; combining the power of disparate systems and vendors; leading different groups managed by different Ford colleagues; and “creating something from scratch.”  

May then began to work in “emerging technologies” for Ford. Recruited by Marcy Klevorn, (now Ford’s President of Mobility but then Ford’s Global CIO), she led a team to create Ford’s initial “best-in-class” consumer-facing mobile application, empowering consumers to command and control their vehicles. Even more importantly, May helped create a “software engineering company within a company” ---- helping to recruit talent, build an entrepreneurship culture, adopt the agile processes of a software development company. Starting with just a handful of developers, that organization has now grown to 500 colleagues, and four software development labs on 3 continents, “massive growth over 2-3 years.”  This was a grueling undertaking, since it required Ford to become an “employer of choice” among talented software developers, in a time when (due to the earlier recession and other factors) development talent was not easily found in the Midwest. And the products on the drawing board had to be developed in months, not years, (in an organization traditionally unused to that speed), and then deployed globally in China, Canada, the U.S and throughout Europe. May is justifiably proud that this first app, (named “Ford Pass” and “Lincoln Way”) has been the “highest rated application in every app store” through which it is sold;  won the coveted global 2017 Mobile Marketing Design Award annually bestowed by MMA;  and has been recognized as a leading application for connected cars by Gartner.  “The team that has done this is amazing,” according to May, citing their resilience, ingenuity and talent.

May sees her top strengths, in addition to confidence instilled by her family, brilliance and developed leadership skills, as perseverance (“I just keep going”) and learning to “enjoy the journey.” Her philosophy is that “at the end of the day, you spend more time at work. So, if you enjoy the journey, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy” that you will achieve great things.  She acknowledged that it requires significant effort to create that joyous culture and “uplift the team,” but is so worth it.

Discussing being a female, May shared that “I did feel the burden of being a woman when I had children.”  Her husband is highly supportive but “as mothers we take on more; and there are more physical demands on us.”  Nevertheless, two of her “greatest career catapults” at Ford occurred within two months after the births of her two children.  “That reaffirmed my notion that being a mother wasn’t impacting my career, at all! Having said that, though, it was really difficult.” May acknowledged that while she had educational and career advantages, and has a very strong support system in her husband and parents, not every mother is that lucky.  “There are women out there, who have had children too early. And childcare is too expensive if you make a decent income, and cost-prohibitive if you don’t. It becomes a vicious cycle.” May is currently contemplating initiatives to help women in those situations pursue education and career. While very courageous, May admits to two fears: “A primal fear that something will happen to my children; and that both my kids, and I, may not realize our potential.”

In becoming a leader, May had lessons to share. She emphasized that “every opportunity is an opportunity to excel and shine.  It doesn’t matter how small the assignment is, it is your opportunity to do your best.” She is an advocate for taking more risks, but ensuring that the risks are measured, logical ones. “Master something” before you move on.  Additionally, “always leave something better than you found it. Anything has room for improvement.” In that vein, as part of “the virtuous cycle” May volunteers as the Chief Mission Officer for the Michigan Council of Women In Technology leading programs for girls in grades K through 8; and also serves on the Advisory Board for IT Leadership Women at Ford.  

To achieve happiness, May consistently reminds herself to be grateful and “that instantly makes me extremely happy.”  In her technical leadership role, May received great advice from a former Ford CIO: “you are the CEO of your own business.”  Under that view, the technical leader is fully responsible for everything (P&L, human resources/talent, product development and delivery etc.) as well as the established technical vision for whatever division, unit or initiative he or she is leading, and the future technology path. “I have to make sure that my customers are satisfied.”  Summing up, having “a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose” creates May’s personal joy.

May Russell can be personally reached at may.russell@gmail.com.

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Ep 77: Wanda Castelvecchi: Always Be Learning

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Wanda Castelvecchi, National Practice Manager for Security and Enterprise Networking at ePlus, (https://www.eplus.com/), a  Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) reseller.  The breadth of the business for which Wanda is currently responsible is over $500 million, annually.   

Like many of our “divas,” Wanda did not enter the technology industry in a traditional nor linear fashion.  In the mid-1980’s she pursued a career as a law librarian, (“really the first technologist in our law firm” ) using Lexis (https://www.lexisnexis.com) , and Westlaw (https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/products/westlaw) research databases before most attorneys had become adept at using those deep resources.  “I worked for a large law firm in downtown Richmond, Virginia, until my son was born,” she said.  During her maternity leave, the law firm closed. “So, I found myself as a brand-new Mom, with a brand-new baby at home, with no job.  I had to figure out how to make this work!” She did that by joining a much smaller law firm, and became their “Renaissance Woman” doing reception work, recruiting, working in their law library, handling billing, marketing and more.  During her tenure, the firm acquired their first computer, with less computing power than “what we carry around on a USB stick today.” Wanda became the firm’s internal computer expert, figuring out how to best use that initial tech investment to empower attorneys and assistants to become optimally effective.  “For me, I am always looking for opportunity,” she said. And Wanda saw this as a strong learning challenge, which she mastered.

From that firm, Wanda was hired by a technology systems integrator. “I was pretty green, but I made a commitment to the company that I would get a couple of certifications.”  She proceeded to obtain both Novell certification, and Microsoft certification, within the first 6 months and “thus launched my crazy career in IT!” She had no master plan for the future; she was simply passionate about learning and “I felt like a student again.”  After entering the field, she noticed the paucity of women working in it. “It felt like a huge challenge to me not only to be accepted as a newbie in the technology field, but to be accepted as a woman,” Wanda said. At the company, she was promoted into sales from a systems analyst role but immediately encountered a resistant manager, who informed her that she would probably “be gone in 90 days.”  In tenacious fashion, Wanda decided to prove him wrong. “It was really him telling me I couldn’t succeed that made me want to succeed.” Through sheer persistence, she wound up being the top salesperson of the quarter, during that very first quarter.  “As women, we could let those words crush us, or we can take those words and say ‘I’ll show you what I can do…” In an ironic note, karmically, Wanda ran into that same sales manager again, many years later, as he was bagging groceries at her grocery store.

Having fluidly moved from a technical role into sales, Wanda counseled that the path is not for every technologist.  “What people don’t understand are all the mundane tasks” with which sales professionals cope, including paperwork. The role requires empathy for deeper psychological issues underlying customer satisfaction, and to acknowledge and diligently attempt to rectify mistakes when they are made --- “the ability to say you’re sorry” to a customer.  She also emphasized that being honest, genuine, consistently reliable, considering yourself an advocate for the customer, and never losing the tendency to ask many questions of a client, as part of sales discovery, is key to success. “I want my customers to know that if they ask me to do something, they can count on me to do it. I always strive to be available.”

Wanda moved from the smaller system integrator to Sycom Technologies (https://www.sycomtech.com/) where she spent the next decade.  She performed at a very high level, becoming the top Professional Services sales leader of the year for multiple years and then “I did the thing that many successful sales people think they should do in their career, I became a sales manager.”  She subsequently realized what many sales experts freely acknowledge: “While I had a really good run at it, what makes a good salesperson, doesn’t always make a great sale manager!” But Wanda learned valuable lessons from sales leadership. Those included the need for patience with a diverse team; understanding that motivation is different for everyone; understanding that not all team members are driven to excel at a high level (and “sometimes that’s ok”); and how to listen, set expectations, and create plans with achievable goals. “I learned to trust myself.  I learned to be humble. You have to be.” But above all Wanda “learned to keep moving and always learning.”

From Sycom, Wanda briefly had a short stint at another Cisco partner company,  and then moved to ePlus, (https://www.eplus.com/) an engineering-centric technology solutions provider with certifications from top technology partners and expertise in key technologies from data center to security, cloud, and collaboration.  She has been with ePlus for 9 years. There she was fortunate to work for her “best boss,” a gentleman by the name of John Doyle. From him, Wanda is continuously absorbing the strengths she admires in leaders.  One is selflessness. “Everything John does is about lifting his team up. Nothing he ever talks about is about himself.” She considers herself in an ideal situation. “Imagine that you wake up every morning and you have the ability to create your own path. And you have a manager who is 100% supportive of that, who has always got your back!”

Selfless, herself, Wanda has been active in a number of nonprofits giving back to the overall community including the Salvation Army’s annual Angel Tree Giving program, and as a leader in two regional animal welfare organization, encompassing a a role on the Board of Directors for the Richmond Animal League (https://www.ral.org).  But her newest endeavor fills her with the most passion. GRIT (which stands for Girls Rock ‘In Tech) is designed to introduce middle school girls to a variety of tech careers, with a specific focus on cybersecurity.  “In addition to there being an overall shortage of women in technology, there is a huge shortage of experts in cybersecurity,” according to Wanda, up to 1 - 2 million jobs going unfilled each year.  So, from her vantage point, it is logical to encourage girls to explore the field. She noted that women are often more risk-averse, have excellent project management skills, and a concern for safety, so the field could be attractive and they can make a significant contribution.  “Organizations who don’t have women in their cybersecurity practice are probably less secure,” as a result of the deficit, according to Wanda.

Currently active in 4 schools, with a plan to be at 6 by 2020,  and then growing even more rapidly, the GRIT program’s name has a double meaning since “one of the things we want to be able to develop is grit” (the ability to persevere against all odds) in the young women it serves. “You can be really great at math, engineering or science, or anything you want, if you work really hard,” is GRIT’s mantra. The initial program, which is complemented by role models speaking to middle school girl audiences, involves teaching public speaking skills, imbuing the girls with courage and tenacity, modeling etiquette/behavioral skills, and sharing the basics of cyber-safety.  Using a suite of collaboration tools, Wanda noted that the program is growing fast, in different states, and aspires to bridge the gap from middle school to high school to college to career. “We want to expose the girls not only in their own communities, but outside of them.”

 Wanda had some additional success tips to share:

  1. As you progress in your career, pull people up with you.

  2. Honesty and integrity are paramount, since they are the basis of trust, and long-lasting relationships.

  3. Learn to laugh at yourself.

  4. Take your vacations, an opportunity to recharge. “It makes us better when we come back.”

Most importantly, she emphasized: “Always be learning. Every day, learn something new.”

Wanda can be reached at wcastelvecchi@eplus.com.

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Ep 76: Monica Bailey: Making GoDaddy the Company Where Everyone Wants to Work

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview Monica Bailey, Chief People Officer at GoDaddy (www.godaddy.com). With approximately 18 million global customers and over 8,000 employees worldwide, the 22-year old company is an indisputable market leader, as the largest ICANN-accredited domain registrar in the world, four times the size of its closest competitor. Monica came to her role at GoDaddy “having seen a lot of things I love about the technology industry and having seen a lot of things that I didn’t want to repeat.”

Monica, the daughter of a social worker mother and a residential builder father, was raised in what she described as a “rough and tumble fishing town” on the Washington State coast, populated by “amazing people” who “had to be as fierce as the ocean to survive there.”  She humbly acknowledged that some classmates and friends were “smarter than me” but did not have equal access to opportunities. Monica said: “I hustled as hard as I could,” applying for every scholarship for which she was remotely eligible. She graduated from Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communications with a double major in psychology and communications, and a special focus on women’s studies. Early in her career exploration, she knew “I wanted to help people; I wanted to make an impact” and “work in a company, helping people in that company --- speaking for them, and helping them.” Monica stays connected to her hometown for two decades of volunteerism on behalf of abused children, through a nonprofit called Camp Victory for Children.

Fate intervened in Monica’s landing her first job. Fortuitously armed with her resume, after graduation, she visited a friend, doing temporary work at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. She spotted her third cousin in the building and importuned her to facilitate interviews. She was hired as a technical recruiter for Microsoft. “That’s when my journey in tech began, and I have spent my whole career there. I feel so fortunate. It’s a place where we don’t ponder for too long. We get to experiment, try things, iterate, and hopefully make change in the industry, and the world.” Her career at Microsoft spanned many roles including recruiter, recruiting team captain, senior human resources generalist working on Microsoft’s consumer internet group, manager of Microsoft’s merger and acquisitions, senior talent assessment manager supporting President/CEO succession and development planning, and also did a stint as HR partner for Microsoft’s Research arm.

Monica is a life-long champion of diversity, shaped by enlightening lessons from that 17-year Microsoft tenure.  She has the highest regard for Microsoft’s current CEO, with whom she had the chance to work on important projects, and who she acknowledges is a profound change agent.  Earlier, though, “I grew up in a work environment that was pretty internally competitive. I was fundamentally impacted by that system; but that system has now changed a lot. Having lived through that experience shapes your views on what you can strive for, in a company.”  

A few years back, Monica engaged in an exercise called “I BELIEVE IN…” where participants take 2 minutes and write down things in which they strongly believe.  In Monica’s case, she is adamant that “I believe there is enough pie for everyone. I don’t want to compete with folks. I don’t want my folks to compete with each other.”  In her industry, and company, “we are better together.” To that end, she encourages, and works toward, collaboration in all endeavors. Monica also has deep feelings about characteristics that comprise personal success. “That grit, that drive, that resilience” exemplified by some of her personal experiences “will ultimately make a difference in the world.”

Monica defined diversity as “having different perspectives around ‘the decision-making table.’ The more folks you bring around that table, from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different socio-economic classes, the more holistic you get to be.”  She stressed that if you don’t have diversity, as an organization, you can “miss the market.” Her transformational work at GoDaddy has been propelled by a partnership with Stanford University’s 40-year old Clayman Institute, a nonprofit extension founded to inspire innovative solutions that advance gender equality. “We gave them unprecedented access to everything” she said, including wide-ranging employee surveys, various data cuts of the employee population, raw hiring data, redacted performance reviews, a seat to observe top-of-house talent review sessions,and much more.  After their in-depth review, “they said: you have two choices. You can continue to refine your hiring to reduce unconscious bias, similar to what many companies are working on. Or you can go for the ‘Holy Grail:’ career advancement for women, knowing that there is very little research in this area, at this point.”

Making the “Holy Grail” choice, GoDaddy’s first step was to revise their unique performance review process that encompasses both the “what” (targets, objectives, activity,) and the “how” of achieving goals.  “We want wonderful people doing wonderful work,” Monica said. “So, we had to reimagine the ‘how’ in order to strive for true diversity. The ‘how’ is how you exemplify our values; how you live them every day; how you help each other do great things for our customers.  We included ‘how do you introduce diversity and different perspectives ‘around the table’, in order to innovate.” Monica stressed that there has also been a robust effort to block unconscious bias in every human resources’ process as a result of the Clayman Institute counsel. “We just decided to build diversity into everything we did. Diversity is not siloed. It lives in every piece of work we do. The bummer is you’re never done!”  

GoDaddy is making great diversity progress.  “Our employees are super-clear about our culture and values. They come to GoDaddy because it is a really different culture --- hard-charging, yet collaborative. We overtly talk about it and more importantly, our people talk about it.” Monica said. “And we have record low attrition.”  She proudly pointed to a recent survey that shows that 89% of GoDaddy’s top individual contributors and leaders would recommend the company to others.

By following Clayman’s recommendations to break down all the company’s work into a simple, clearly accessible set of behaviors, “women and men have a statistically equal shot at top performance in the company.”  Monica is justifiably proud of GoDaddy’s pay parity goal attainment. “For the last four years since we started measuring pay parity, we pay a dollar for a dollar, women to men.” And, “last year, we were at 31% women in our most senior roles.”  She also cited the GoDaddy college campus intern program as a successful feeder to diversity, noting that in 2015, only 18% of the company’s entry-level engineers were women. But as a result of the intern program setting a goal of 40-50% female interns, the company moved to 42% entry level female engineers, by 2017.  Additionally, in 2018, 67% of incoming interns were ethnically diverse.

Monica has diversity-strengthening recommendations for other organizations:

  1. Creatively formulate what unique success looks like for your company, and then proactively act on that vision

  2. Examine performance by ethnicity, gender, and all other criteria, and evaluate whether the system is fair to ALL your people; if not, then experiment and try new approaches

  3. Use a tool to constantly survey and obtain deep feedback from your talent base, and aggressively make changes based on the data (Go Daddy has a consistent tool called “GoDaddy Voice”)

  4. Engage in systems like GoDaddy’s “promotion-flagging” to ensure that no one is forgotten (particularly women and minorities who may not normally “self-promote”) when it comes to promotion paths

Monica was emphatic about the positive return on investment that diversity represents for all companies. At GoDaddy “We believe that diversity creates better innovation, better products and services for our customers.”  Her mission at GoDaddy is “making the company we all want to work for!”

Monica can be reached through her LinkedIn profile: linkedin.com/in/monica-bailey-1a11462.

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