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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