Ep 51: Kirsten Edmondson Wolfe: Tech Is The World Change Catalyst

 

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Microsoft (www.microsoft.com)’s Senior Director, Industry Product Marketing, Cloud & Enterprise, Kirsten Edmondson Wolfe.

At a young age, Kirsten was passionate about politics. She graduated from the University of California, Davis, with an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Asian History, and then moved to Washington, D.C.  “with every intention of joining the State Department.”  Her first formative job was at an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) “whose job it was to help build democratic institutions in newly non-communist countries.”  

Kirsten’s memorable watershed moment came in 1997 when she was “standing at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Aryaduta in Jakarta, Indonesia while the Suharto government fell.”  She “watched the students use technologies to film what was going on in the streets, and to text each other to avoid where the military was.” They sent their recordings to CNN and other news outlets, and Kirsten observed “these students bring down a totalitarian government, using cell phones.”  She said to herself: “Wow, I need to get into technology because if I’m going to truly change the world, it’s going to be through tech, not through politics.”  Kirsten resigned her job; went back to Thunderbird International Business School, obtaining an MBA in business marketing; got a job, at the height of the “dot.com implosion” at a large Massachusetts-based consulting company, SETA; and subsequently was offered a position in D.C., in 2003, at Computer Associates, now CA Technologies (www.ca.com).

Kirsten’s initial role at CA was in technology consulting as it related to international relations, focused on “how do we have the U.S. government invest in technology in developing countries so that we can bridge the gap.” Knowing that she always harbored a passionate “desire to change the world,” (as she termed it: “that is my ‘North Star,’ it drives me every day”), Kirsten then recruited “a fantastic team” whose goal was to take what CA was already selling to the U.S. government and “make it more impactful to their mission.”  Since cybersecurity was a strength of the CA portfolio, and recognized as essential to federal technology implementations, Kirsten’s team stressed the safety aspects of the mainframe.  “It almost never went down” except in the case of natural disasters, so the team emphasized that “if you want a trusted partner in safeguarding the mission-critical data you hold, there is no better partner than CA” for U.S. government agencies.  Over a relatively short period of one year, Kirsten is justifiably proud that CA “went from not being in the Top 20 vendors in security for the U.S. government to #3, behind Symantec and IBM.”

As a leader, Kirsten said “I learn every day.  I learn about my leadership, how I can do better, how I can change.”   At CA, “the first thing I learned was that ‘all boats rise together’. It is about collaboration. I succeed as a leader when my team succeeds.”  She mentioned teaching and learning from her teams, pushing her teammates, and “giving them the freedom to fail. Getting the right people on the team, and then empowering them to be impactful.”   

After a change in her CA role (moving “out of the government space, into the partner space”), Kirsten decided, in 2009, to move to a smaller ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software company:  Deltek (www.deltek.com).  What attracted the change agent in her was that the newly-minted CEO was “recruiting folks from other software companies to make Deltek more of a ‘player’ in ERP.”  But, Kirsten learned what she called “a really good life lesson: don’t jump too quick.”   She said “I was so enamored of myself that I believed absolutely everything from the recruiting process and the interviewing process.  I did no digging, whatsoever.” However, since the company was owned by private equity interests, “there was no chance that we were ever going to be able to do what we wanted to do. I realized, about a year in, that I needed to find a company that I could be happy at. You have to find that company that is consistent with your values and your culture. You have to find a company that is in a location where you can be happy and successful.” So, Kirsten moved to Microsoft to “a smaller part of that company,” (www.microsoft.com/dynamics) concentrated on business applications, where the President of her Microsoft division allowed colleagues to “push the envelope.”  At Microsoft “when Satya Nadella became CEO, in 2014, I saw his speech,” she exclaimed. “And I said ---  this is where I want to be for the rest of my career.”   

Her Microsoft team works with engineering to “infuse industry requirements into the Microsoft platform.  I can fundamentally change where we go, as a company.  It’s opened a whole new set of opportunities.   This is the one company that if we can stitch all of our stuff together, we can do fantastic things in society.” Kirsten is having a great time.  “It’s a driven culture.  ‘Cloud’ never takes a day off.  You must constantly update your software; you must constantly innovate. The environment is exciting.”  

Kirsten has never thought that being female affected her career.  “With my singular focus on my goal, I have not noticed it.  There are times in my career, where I thought I was going in one trajectory, and I had to change it.” But for Kirsten being a woman in IT was not a challenge.  She said her biggest struggle is staying patient.  “I have a clear vision of where I want to go. I just see it.  But what motivates me doesn’t necessarily motivate anyone else.  You have got to have patience. That’s the biggest thing.”

Kirsten offered other key words of advice to leaders:

  • “Surround yourself with great people.”

  • “Listen.  Learn from other people.  Acknowledge that you don’t know everything.”

  • “Admit when you are wrong, and that you screwed up.”

In her philanthropic life, Kirsten is most dedicated to children’s issues.  “I want all children, everywhere, to have access to IT, have access to skills, have access to learning, have access to food, and grow up in safe environments. This is what gets me up every day.”

Kirsten avails herself of an organization called Donors Choose (https://www.donorschoose.org/) that works in concert with Microsoft and their October “Month of Giving.”   “It is an online network of educators,” she explained. Through it, “I help fund some innovative education programs in less successful school districts. My son and I just picked one, yesterday.”

Speaking of her family, Kirsten acknowledged the difficulty of achieving life balance.  “That is where the gender roles come in,” she said. “My husband is a stay-at-home Dad. He’s focused on getting R.J., our son, the best education he possibly can. But you get to school, and they look at us and think ‘Why’s the Dad here? Where’s Mom?’ Or they have programs at 10:00 AM in the morning, and I can’t be there. My son getting teased at school,” she lamented, “that I hadn’t anticipated. But you do the best you can. You try and get things on your calendar. There’s a lot of non-traditional communication,” and use of innovative technology to make it all work.  She also commented, “at the end of the day, you have to be willing to shut off the laptop, and go for a bike ride!”

Kirsten’s biggest personal challenge, currently, is that she is a quintessential “workaholic (I got that from my parents).”  So, she is “learning to walk away. I think gender roles, over the last 20 years, is allowing us to put the laptop down, and do things with your family.” Kirsten ended the interview by sharing strong words of inspiration. “Keep the faith, keep driving. There has never been a better time to be a woman in tech.  We can actually, fundamentally change all of it.”

Please feel free to contact Kirsten Edmondson Wolfe @ kiedmond@microsoft.com.  

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