Ep 66: Chris Rydzewski: Believe In Yourself

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview Chris Rydzewski, long-time tech veteran, now serving as Executive Director for the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (www.mcwt.org).  Like many of our other “divas” Chris did not originally plan a path in technology.  “Ironically, I stumbled into it,” she said. Matriculating at the University of Michigan (http://umich.edu/ ),  “I loved math and stats,” she said, “but I wound up with a degree in marketing.”

Having lived in Texas for a while, Chris returned to Michigan and joined Compuware (www.compuware.com) in the early 1990’s. “Ironically when I interviewed with them, I hadn’t been following them.” Chris soon discovered that Compuware was a leader in application lifecycle and performance development/productivity solutions, particularly on mainframe computers; and she got hooked.    “They had 5 lines of business, and were really big, at that point.” For eight years, Chris sold Compuware solutions, supporting the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Nevada – “lots of travel!”), primarily in the financial institution and state government vertical markets. She subsequently moved into covering parts of the Midwest until 1998. Then she became an international product line sales director responsible for coaching both direct and channel sales teams in South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. “It was one of my favorite roles since one of my personal passions is travel and culture. But it was also one of my most difficult jobs because of the language barriers and time differences,” Chris said. “I would be out on the road for a couple of weeks at a time. You’re constantly working when you’re doing that. Didn’t have a social life because I was always traveling.  As much as it was fun, when I came back I felt so disconnected.”

This led Chris to her next decision to move to BMC (www.bmc.com), “another big company”, she said.  She spent 5 years at BMC focusing on sales to large Michigan-based corporations like Kmart, the automotive companies, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan etc.  And then subsequently, she moved back to Compuware as a strategic sales manager for key “named accounts” that interested her, regionally. “I always loved working at Compuware,” she said; and the move allowed her to explore other products the company had developed including product portfolio management and change management offerings.

In 2013, Chris moved over to Compuware’s application performance management division, a growth segment for the company. “A company called Dynatrace was acquired and a lot of good technology came with it.” Within a year, Chicago and San Francisco-based private equity investment firm, Thoma Bravo LLC purchased Compuware for $2.4 billion. Under the agreement, Thoma Bravo split Compuware into two separate companies: the mainframe software business (under the Compuware name) and Dynatrace (www.dynatrace.com), continuing to focus on real-time software management and maintenance. Chris stayed with Dynatrace, selling for them for the next four years.  “One of the things I really loved about my whole sales career was identifying relationships and where the business drivers were. It was always about solving problems.  That’s what I love about technology.”

In the summer of 2017, changes at Dynatrace spurred Chris to leave the company. “I ended up doing some soul-searching,” she said. She asked herself questions like “what is my gift?” and “what is it that I should be doing, moving forward?”  As it happened, she was “tapped on the shoulder” to consider an opportunity with the Michigan Council of Women in Technology. “For the previous 12 years, I had always been a volunteer,” Chris said. “I had been on the Board of Directors, and had handled fundraising for many, many years.  I so enjoyed it and was super-passionate about it. There were many aspects of the organization that I loved and helped build!” So, Chris assumed the role of Executive Director. “We were at a point where we had grown so fast. There needed to be improvements from an operational perspective.”  In her new role, Chris is responsible for full MCWT P&L management with oversight over the organization’s fiscal health, its budget, fundraising, staff, and much more. She is laser-focused on “operational improvements and efficiency.”

With a mission to “grow and inspire girls and women in the field of technology in Michigan,” MCWT consumes most of Chris’s energies. As a successful sales leader, ironically, “in my career, I was always one of the few females with teams of men” she lamented.  “This is the ‘give-back’ time for me.” MCWT runs 35+ large and small events each year; has given over $1 million in scholarships to college-bound and post-college women and girls pursuing technology careers; will run 10 summer tech camps for 5th through 8th graders this year has 13 after-school girls’ high school and middle school tech programs; hosts an annual Website design contest for high school and middle school girls; a mentorship program for mid-career women, and much, much more.  While still small, compared to other nonprofits, MCWT “has lots of programs and stakeholders,” Chris said.  And she is now responsible to work closely with the Mission Officers, Infrastructure Leads, Staff, Volunteers, and the Boards to help drive success for all of the programs and events!

In looking at herself, Chris’s main personal strengths, thus far, are relationship-building skills, her penchant for problem-solving, and affinity for staff career growth.  She likes to “develop folks.” Chris has been grateful, too, to observe “many great leaders over the last 12 years” of her volunteerism at MCWT. “Everyone had a different style and approach, and I really learned” from each of them.  Key leadership lessons that Chris cited include:

  • “Be passionate” about whatever you choose to do.  She commented that at one point in her career, her volunteerism at MCWT became a “platform” for her and help cement her identity as a leader in her own company.

  • “Be open to new opportunities” Challenging opportunities may just appear, provided you have worked hard, and consistently have done your best.

  • “Believe in yourself.  Have confidence.” (dropped the Nike comment that was here)

  • “Be relevant.”

For girls and women of all ages, Chris exhorted them to “take some risk!  You are not really going to know what you are good at, until you try different things, and see what bubbles up to the top.”

Chris said that being a woman leader in a male-dominated technology workplace can be “a good thing.  I think women have different characteristics. I think we listen better. I think we communicate better.”  Some of her former colleagues “would be amazed at how I could pull out information” when she was making joint sales calls with them.   She emphasized that “you have to make yourself heard” particularly when you are in the minority in the workplace. “It is still, sometimes, a struggle for women to be in leadership roles,” she said. But she also noted that persistence and tenacity when attacking that struggle is key.

A self-admitted “workaholic,” Chris admits to occasionally having a problem balancing family, and work.  She has deployed a few practical tactics to address this. “My husband and I have ‘date nights,’ because if you don’t plan it, it’s not going to happen,“ she said.  She has also tried to make the time between dinner and when her teenage daughter went to sleep the time when everyone focuses on family. When she is driving her daughter anywhere, she turns her phone off.  As a family, they also plan big trips that all of them can take, together. “You should not always have your work drive you. Your family is super-important; there is so much more,” said Chris.

“Technology makes everything relevant” according to Chris.

She can be reached through the new and improved MCWT website (www.mcwt.org), and chris.rydzewski@mcwt.org.

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