Ep 29: Karla Thomas: Leading Her Way in a Global Career

Diva Tech Talk chatted with Karla Thomas, Director of IT, Global Cyber Security and Audit at Tower International.  Tower is a Tier 1 leading global manufacturer of engineered automotive structural metal components and assemblies primarily serving original equipment manufacturers ("OEMs").  Tower’s products are manufactured at 27 facilities, strategically located in North America, Europe, Brazil, China and recently Mexico; and they have manufacturing operations through seven engineering and sales locations around the world.  The issues surrounding global cyber security and audit are manifold, so Karla is an extremely busy woman.

Karla had not originally intended to enter the tech field. Her first career goal was to become a math teacher and she did end up teaching. However, her very first class she taught was for a large company who was switching all their computers from Microsoft DOS to Microsoft Windows operating systems.  Her students asked “why Windows?” Karla’s empathetic response was “I don’t know,” but now she “cannot imagine going back to those early days!”  After teaching for several years, she was recruited by the President of now defunct Simplex, when he was one of her students, and she made the switch into corporate life as a PC Analyst/Trainer which was a tough decision.

Karla marveled at the experiences that her career has brought her, taking her leadership and experience around the world.  At her first company, she was sent to California to do some work (“My first business travel within the IT world!”) and now she has worked in Asia, Europe and South America, as well as throughout North America.  

Karla is now on the information technology leadership team at Tower and has been there for 12 years.  

“I was brought in as a help desk manager,” she shared.  “During my first two months, I spend half of that time in China, which was an amazing adventure.”  From Help Desk Manager at Tower, Karla progressed to an Infrastructure Manager, then to an Infrastructure Director.

“All along, one of the things key to what I do is the ability to communicate with non-technical people, bridging that gap between IT and the business,” she said.  This has been a very positive thing for Karla’s career up to today, where she has frequent meetings with Tower’s Audit Committee, including board members.  Very occasionally, the skill has also been a detriment, since it has sometimes tarnished her image within the IT organization.  

Fifteen years ago, Karla shared a memory of having to take a network administrator behind closed doors to say: “Maybe I don’t talk the way you do.  That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the technology.”  In dealing with bias like that, Karla said “Basically, you just have to be upfront and explain that you have a different way of approaching things; being very confident, yourself, is difficult, sometimes.”  For Karla it comes down to “being firm and explaining that you can’t do the job that you do, without understanding the technology” but expressing it in a non-technical way.

What excites Karla about her work at Tower International is that it is constantly changing. Five months into her tenure, Tower declared bankruptcy and information technology was very important in the restructuring.  Two years after that, Tower emerged from bankruptcy, and was acquired by a financial investment group.  Now, it is flourishing and has recently declared an IPO, and returned to being its own growing corporate entity.

“Through all those business changes, you have to understand how much the technology is relied upon,” Karla said. “And how much the technology changes, and the needs change.  It made every day, every year, every month a very different experience.”  

On top of her other current responsibilities, Karla is excited to project manage infrastructure standardization in Mexico, where Tower has recently expanded.  This is a first for her, since a number of her IT colleagues are not English-speaking.  She found Google translation tools imperative in successfully delivering on the team’s commitments.  She discussed her global role, terming it exciting, but not without some personal compromises.  She noted that it “takes more energy” to carefully discuss key tasks/topics with speakers, for whom English is not their primary language.  She also discussed the need to enforce U.S. policies and procedures in other cultures as being a challenge.  

“You have to get colleagues to accept doing things ‘our way’ and to understand why,” she said.

Karla cited flexibility as being key “to advance, and just be able to survive in a challenging role.” She recommended that professionals not “pigeonhole” themselves into “just understanding what you do. If you want to be successful, you have to have your ears open, understand and listen to what the business is doing not just what IT is doing.”

Karla does not think that her gender has had a negative effect on her career. “I was the third daughter to a father, born in 1902, who raised me to say ‘there’s nothing you can’t do’. He was a contractor, and he started out by putting a hammer in my hand, and teaching me that the role was ok. If I wanted to be the first woman to fly in space, that’s (also) ok!” However, in technology, Karla commented: “You do have those people who discount women. But it’s the success that so many of us have had that has proven that women certainly can be leaders in the field.”

Karen recommends community groups to help build networks.  Personally, she has been involved with MCWT (The Michigan Council of Women in Technology), SIM (the Society for Information Management), and the CIO organization supporting Midwest Technology Leaders.  She also noted that SANS, a cooperative research and education organization reaching more than 165,000 security professionals around the world, has a “Women in Technology” arm. She recommends that colleagues reach out through national and regional events, outside of their specialty.

Karla’s advice for aspiring leaders is:

  • Develop a strong, firm, consistent, authentic personality “that you aren’t going to change.” (“As women, we are different in the way that we converse with people, inspire people, motivate people. Lead your way.”)

  • Be willing to do what you ask your people to do.

  • Ensure that you thank and recognize people.

  • Be a conscious role model.

Karla Thomas can be reached at kft2358@gmail.com.  

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