Diva Tech Talk was excited to interview Rhonda St. John Hamborsky, Director of Strategy and Innovation at multinational AT&T Inc. AT&T is the second largest provider of mobile telephones and the largest provider of affixed telephones in the United States; also offers broadband subscription television services; and was named by Fortune Magazine as the most admired worldwide telecomm company in 2015.
Rhonda’s role is to guide select large global AT&T enterprise customers in terms of technical strategy development. Some of the projects she works on cover complete technology transformation including hybrid WAN with internet offload, security stack development, and unified communications architectures. She also focuses on emerging/evolving technologies such as SDN, IoT, LTE, Cloud Interconnect and Big Data, helping enterprises move from boxes and wires to software and intelligence on a transformational path.
The complexity of Rhonda’s current role was not predictable, as a girl/teenager, since she did not originally see her future in technology. “I came into it, accidentally,” Rhonda said. “I remember having some struggles mathematically. I attribute it to the teaching styles of the time; we were not able to work in groups or collaborate. So I am so excited for girls, today. I feel like their experience is vastly different, and there is a great opportunity to keep them engaged in math and sciences.”
Growing up in the Midwest, Rhonda moved to Silicon Valley as she was entering her early 20’s. There she got her first job as an accounting clerk in a large fleet leasing organization. From that role she migrated to become a general manager in a recruiting firm, where she got her initial exposure to sales/marketing placement in high technology companies. She developed a great relationship with startup Sytek, where the Vice President of Sales and Marketing recruited her for their operation since they observed: “You don’t appear to be afraid to try anything!”
After Sytek, Rhonda went to work as a marketing specialist for Ungermann Bass, a well known data networking company located in Santa Clara, California, where she also learned to code (“before it was cool!”). It was at Ungermann Bass that she found her first mentor, who encouraged her to go back and complete her undergraduate degree. “I ended up being one of the first two women in outside sales,” Rhonda said, reminiscing about Ungermann. She moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles, and took on a very large quota. “The first year I was properly humbled,” she laughed. “It was a very difficult job. I did not make my quota, but it was the only year in my selling career that I did not. I was determined never to let that happen again!” The experience also taught Rhonda the strong importance of relationships — both with clients, and inside her own organizations.
Ungermann Bass moved Rhonda to Michigan, after a five year career in California, since she wanted to get closer to her family. She became a District Manager for them, successfully taking over an office that needed to be turned around. After that success, she took an unpaid year off (having been recently married) to care for her first child. When returning from her leave, she decided to join a company called General Datacomm, focused on the wide area network market segment. “I stayed there (22 months) until I got pregnant with my second child,” Rhonda laughed.
Rhonda took another unpaid 8 month leave, and when she returned to the workforce, she said “I was kind of hungry for the challenge of a startup. I must have been out of my mind! But I liked the challenge.” Rhonda went to Cascade Communications, pre-IPO (“which is always a lot of fun – to be in on the ground floor of something like that”). She was then recruited away by another pre-IPO startup, a Silicon Valley-based consulting firm called International Network Services (INS) where she worked for five years. “I opened up their Michigan office for them. It was complete spade work. No one was here. Open an office. Go find some customers. Sell some consulting.” Rhonda recruited a team, and they were successful. She moved from sales to engineering. “My leadership style was what was needed. After that, I was promoted three times, three years in a row! And I ended up being the Managing Director for the Midwest, covering 12 offices and 270 people on the team.”
INS was then bought by Lucent. Rhonda looked at the market and decided she did not want to compete with Cisco (who had been an INS partner); so she moved to tech consulting firm, Calisma, as it was starting up. She joined Calisma as the Director of Strategic Alliances and Professional Development. “In a startup, you have the opportunity to wear a lot of hats,” Rhonda said. “I built the engineering training program and the leadership program for our consultants; and then I started working on strategic alliances.” One of her most important alliances was SBC, who acquired Calisma; and subsequently SBC and AT&T merged — which is what led Rhonda to her current career at AT&T.
Of her 12 years at AT&T, Rhonda said “I am so fortunate. I have one of the best jobs in the company. I have to build consensus and collaboration because I represent AT&T to some of the biggest companies headquartered in Michigan, including two of the automotives, a large appliance manufacturer, an electric company, a professional services company, and a regional bank. At a C-suite level, I talk with them about where technology is going; how to ‘future-proof’ their network, infrastructure, environment. I stay trained on the horizon…trained on what’s ahead. ”
Rhonda intends to spend at least 5 to 7 more years at AT&T but is also planning a worthwhile “encore” career, after her AT&T tenure. She is enrolled in a graduate program focused on gerontology, the study of aging. “It’s vastly different from what I do at AT&T,” she said. “But there are some interesting intersect points when you look at things like gerontechnology --- how technology will enable aging in place, and keep us safer.” Rhonda’s interest was sparked by the fact that she is part of the care-giving system for both her widowed father and widowed stepfather. “I am not going to be sitting in the rocker on the porch,” Rhonda laughed. “That’s just not who I am! I want to be busy. I want to be doing something.”
Rhonda characterized herself as a “good planner” but acknowledged that this came with maturity. Being at several startups caused what she called “the urgency addiction,” earlier in her career. “What that does is it burns you out,” she admitted. “At the end of the day, you say ‘I know I did a lot today. But did I accomplish anything that’s sustainable?’” Dr. Stephen Covey’s book: THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE was a profound influence on Rhonda. “He talks about doing what’s important before you do what is urgent, and about sharpening your saw.”
Rhonda’s top four lessons for women aspiring to become technology leaders are:
Be an active listener. “Listen carefully. The nature of our work, today, and the technology we have at our disposal means that we’re multitasking way too much. If I set up a conference call with someone, they have my attention — undivided.”
Be willing to have your argument debated, and be willing to change your mind. “When I work with colleagues, around the globe, who are from a different culture, I need to understand where they’re coming from, and how their perspective on the challenge differs from my own. They may come up with a better solution.”
Keep learning. “Study, study, study. And do it on your own time. My perspective as a manager was ‘I’m willing to pay for the schooling; but I want to see your investment in it as well,’ and that’s your time.”
Take a step back, and remember to remain humble. “The person you are interacting with is a person – isn’t just a user id on your company’s mailing list. Keep that in mind, always.”
In her community life, Rhonda is no slouch. She is on the Advisory Board for the Michigan Council of Women In Technology and mentors approximately two young people in any given time period. Rhonda is also a hospice companion (“you are working with someone who is actively dying; they know it, and you know it. There is so much you can take from that.”). She recounted a particularly satisfying interaction where she was a companion to a “Rosie the Riveter”-like role model from several generations older than Rhonda, who was the essence of persistence!
Since she is a life-long learner, Rhonda recommended a number of books including: The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande.
In discussing how being a woman has affected her career, Rhonda commented: “I’ve learned to listen carefully, but not to hold back from speaking. Be sure and get your voice heard. You just have to be persistent, I think. Be confident.”
Rhonda’s comforting final words of encouragement to women and girls exploring a technology path were“Don’t let the challenges get you down. We’re all going to encounter speed bumps along the way. As women, I think we sometimes tend to internalize those more than our male counterparts. Shake it off. Take a lesson learned from it, and get back in the ring!”
Rhonda St. John Hamborsky can be reached through Twitter at @rstjohn and also on LinkedIn (search for Rhonda St. John Hamborsky.)
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