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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Ep 28: Carey Pachla: An Intentional Path to Fulfillment

Diva Tech Talk recently interviewed Carey Pachla, President of Fast Switch, a rapidly growing information technology consulting company, with 750 staff members and 2015 sales of $80 million  (a 30% annual growth rate) specializing in contract, contract-to-hire and executive search services.

Carey’s journey in technology was an intentional one. Graduating as a business major with a human resources concentration from Western Michigan University, Carey thought, long and hard, about which industry would be best for her. Discussing information technology, she said “I actually sought it out. When I got out into the field, my first job was in sales for a logistics and shipping company. Loved it, but really thinking long-term, I talked to many people and I researched.  At that time, IT was booming and everything I learned pointed me in a technology direction.”  She learned much more on the job.  “I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what all that meant,” she said.  “But I started out seeking jobs in IT and that led me ultimately into staffing and recruiting in the field.”

Carey said she couldn’t be happier about her choice. “The main reason is that there are so many wonderful, smart individuals in this industry, and I learn every day.”  

Having spent the subsequent 10 years in tech companies, after her stint in logistics, Carey is also enthusiastic about her company of the last 14 years:  Fast Switch.   “It is extremely forward-thinking.  Our motto is ‘fast, flexible, creative, and honest.’  Fourteen years ago we were doing things other IT staffing companies were not.”   Carey’s customers range from Fortune 100 organizations to startups.  Her biggest regional clients include Ford Motor Company, Nationwide Insurance, Cardinal Health, United Health Group, General Motors, and a number of automotive suppliers and financial/banking companies.

Having evolved into President of Fast Switch, Carey spends much of her current time strategically evaluating how she and her team can consistently improve in delivering on their overall mission. “I’m always looking at how we can do things faster; how we can do them better; how can we deliver better value.”  Carey said that she is extremely fortunate in her timing as she joined Fast Switch when the company was developing the Midwest region.  “We had an open drawing board. No one knew who we were. “ Now, through focused efforts, the Fast Switch team is very proud of their level of positive recognition.

Carey discussed her continuous creative efforts serving her customers.  She described a program that Fast Switch initiated with nonprofit Focus Hope equipping individuals with technology skills to become part of the talent pool for one of her largest customers.   Because of this program, and other initiatives like it, “I would say that the one adjective that describes my job is fulfilling,” Carey said.

Asked about her personal leadership strengths, Carey said that self-awareness and her propensity to surround herself with people who are dissimilar to her, filling in for her weaknesses, is very important.  She also thinks that always taking a genuine interest in her colleagues, her customers, and her team is powerful and positive.

In terms of her philanthropic life, Carey is currently the Vice President of The Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT), a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in tech. She is slated to become that organization’s President in 2017.   She described a number of MCWT programs aimed at helping girls consider, and join, the tech field including six Camp Infinity summer camps for middle schoolers, and a 1-day event for both middle school and high school girls called “Girls Are IT,” teaching inner city girls about IT.  Carey also discussed an MCWT event for women coming up in May 2016: EXECUTIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMIT, which convenes 1000 people and thought leaders.

In a common theme throughout her career and life, Carey talked about women and what they bring to the workplace.  “Women bring a lot of great things.  We bring compassion.  We bring resilience,” she said.  She also discussed achieving life balance.    The mother of two growing daughters, she ensures that she takes time for them, being present but supported by technology when necessary.  “If they see you happy, and healthy, and putting a good effort forward in your career, they are learning from you.”

As part of her support system, Carey credits several mentors for their support. And she has four key pieces of leadership wisdom for other women:

  • Work hard. There is no substitute for hard work.
  • Take the “long cut.” There are no shortcuts.  Learn your trade, dig in, and take the long road.
  • Take a genuine interest in, and listen to your team. 
  • Lead by example.

In conclusion, Carey strongly advises other women:  “Don’t be afraid and learn.” Carey Pachla can be reached at carey@fastswitch.com.  The Michigan Council of Women in Technology can be viewed at www.mcwt.org.

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Ep 27: Valerie Rogers: Forging The Path Toward Connected Health Systems

Our latest Diva Tech Talk interview is with Valerie Rogers, MPH, Director of State Government Affairs for HIMSS, a global organization focused on better health through information technology. As a cause-based non-profit, HIMSS North America provides thought leadership, community building, professional development, public policy, and events; and represents 61,000 individual members, 640 corporate members, and over 450 non-profit organizations.  

The granddaughter of a breakthrough woman leader, who owned her own successful business in the 1930’s, Valerie’s selfless path was strongly influenced by two older female cousins (a toxicologist and a primary care practitioner) who she described as “smart, sassy women.” All three of them became involved in health care, in her opinion, to fulfill the dreams of her grandmother, who had always wanted to help her community as a nurse but didn’t have the same opportunities as later generations of women.

Originally obtaining her undergraduate degree in Sociology, Valerie found herself first drawn to the environmental health field.  She initially worked for the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc. (SERCAP) helping small rural towns and communities upgrade their water and waste water systems. Her first exposure to technology was the use of GIS and GPS systems, emerging in the late 1990’s, for mapping toxic waste water sites. She instantly fell in love with what that technology could do.

Returning to get her Master’s Degree in Public Health from Tulane University with a concentration in environmental health policy, Valerie then spent the next 12 years at NACCHO (The National Association of County and City Health Officials) in ever-evolving roles. While at NACCHO, she credits a health informatics course at Johns Hopkins Institute of Public Health for her burgeoning romance with data.  “I fell in love with informatics because of the promise it holds,” Valerie said “for those of us working in the health space. “

At NACCHO, one of Valerie’s proud accomplishments was the convening of a group of diverse stakeholders across a broad spectrum of the public health field, which turned into the Joint Informatics Public Health Task Force —a profound influence on public policy surrounding health IT, and the secure exchange of medical information and records.  Valerie considers that experience exemplary of one of her personal strengths: “bringing together people working at the grassroots level” and being a catalyst to connect people in the field and change-making innovators. “We can’t move forward if we are ‘siloed’, ” she explained. “We need to work toward connected health in the deepest sense.”

Valerie kept asking herself the questions: “How could I be a mechanism for building greater awareness and understanding of the value of health information exchange?” and “How can we leverage this technology across the spectrum of health, including behavioral health, public health, clinical care and overall human services?”  In her mind, HIMSS, which she joined within the last year, is part of the answer to those questions.

The broad and intelligent use of data in health care, for Valerie, is indicative of leaders “aspiring to something much greater than the technology and innovation, itself. It’s really to impact lives.”  On this podcast she shared just one heart-wrenching anecdote of a woman, living in an abusive situation, whose circumstances were profoundly and positively improved by the fact that data was being collected and exchanged among the health systems treating her.

In her rich career, thus far, Valerie amassed leadership skills and knowledge and shared the following three tips with our audience:

  • Be true to yourself.  Start early. Build on your strengths.
  • Keep learning. Don’t ever stop. “You never know, down the road, how you might be able to leverage your knowledge to help someone,” she simply said.
  • Don’t be afraid to be a teacher, and build a cohort of women and girls.

Clearly Valerie, herself, is a very connected teacher and giver! She can be reached at vrogers@himss.org or on Twitter at @vnrogers74.

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Ep 26: Nadine Heinen: VP Taking Action to Cultivate Her Success

Diva Tech Talk interviewed Nadine Heinen, Comcast Corporation’s Vice President (VP) of Field Operations for Indiana and Kentucky.  Comcast, an American multinational mass media company, is the largest broadcasting and cable company in the world measured by revenue.  Nadine describes the corporate culture as highly communicative, and constantly working to improve and serve its employees.

In her current role, Nadine leads 650-700 technology staff for those two Midwestern states.  She does this, successfully, by visiting every location as often as possible; meeting with all new hires, and conducting roundtables with her team members at least twice a year.  She is a dedicated hands-on practitioner of “getting in the weeds.”

Starting out,  Nadine never imagined she would become part of the tech world.  “I wanted to be a writer from the fifth grade on,” she shared.  But while working her way through college in the fast food industry, she was referred by a friend to the local cable company, in Cincinnati, Ohio, where her first job was as a dispatcher. She says she “took to the technology” and credits her innate aptitude for innovation as a key to career progression.  Having figured out improved methods to accomplish things, she said “I wasn’t afraid to speak up and say ‘I think we could do it better this way’.”   That approach quickly enabled her to move into her first management roles.

Nadine helped create and lead one of the first cable industry NOC’s (Network Operation Centers) in the mid-1990’s. She became familiar with fiber networks, and spent much time in the field, mastering fiber splicing, and performing a variety of field technical tasks alongside technicians who worked on her team.  

She points to that experience, and her willingness to absorb as much knowledge as possible, as crucial to her adoption of her next challenge: Director of Affiliate Authorizations for HBO in New York City.   Nadine’s team monitored uplinks for HBO, Cinemax and “on-demand” uploads. She was frequently involved in a number of new, exciting technology projects during this period, and, as usual, she gained knowledge from them.

This led Nadine to another leadership position where she created,in 2 years, and then managed a high performing NOC in Los Angeles for Time-Warner when Adelphia, Time-Warner and Comcast merged operations from 2005 to 2008.  Nadine shared that the project was so successful that the NOC was selected as the supervision endpoint for cable networks throughout the country.  Along the way, Nadine says that her philosophy has always been to always be involved in “building things that make sense.”  She emphasized that “I never wanted to go with the ‘status quo.’ I want to do it better than anyone else can do it.”  Much of Nadine’s inspiration comes from “developing teams --- moving them from point A to point Z,” and “seeing an idea come to fruition.”

Nadine learned a number of leadership lessons along the way.  “Treat people as you would want to be treated,” she said.  She advised that leaders, while needing to be tough, should also strive to be “good, likeable people.”   She spends a lot of time listening to people, to build trust.  She also counseled that excellent leaders must have the courage to deal with difficult issues, directly and immediately.

For budding women leaders, Nadine shared four key pieces of advice for women in tech:

  • Believe in yourself
  • Know your capabilities
  • Work on your brand
  • Step out of your comfort zone. You will expand your knowledge.

On a personal level, Nadine also says that her individual approach is to “stay humble” and “laugh at myself!”

Finally, Nadine explained that she thinks occasional sexism is still alive in the technology world.  “I started out in the ‘80’s. In my field, everyone was male. I dealt with discrimination,” she said, but “I decided I was going to ‘keep my eye on the prize’ and I wouldn’t let them do that to me.”  In a very recent example, she had a vendor challenge a request that she made of him, going behind her back to her male peer to check on the validity of it.  How did Nadine deal with the issue?  She took direct action, confronting the vendor representative.  Her advice to other female leaders is “Don’t let that kind of situation get you down!”

Nadine can be reached through Twitter at @nheinen1201

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Ep 25: Women of Impact: Unstoppable Advice

Nicole Scheffler, one of the three co-founders of Diva Tech Talk, is a successful Systems Engineer at technology powerhouse Cisco Systems.  She invited the Diva Tech Talk team to conduct this multi-faceted podcast session at Cisco’s annual WOMEN OF IMPACT 2016 event, which is broadcast simultaneously on four continents, and complemented by regional sessions.

Nicole helped plan the Midwest session (the 3rd largest in the U.S.) and nine attending women (customers, partners and employees) told us how they are becoming “UNSTOPPABLE”, echoing the global event’s theme.

Our interviewees included:

  • Jasmine Herbst , Partner Account Executive and Help Desk Manager, AMI Strategies Inc.

  • Cindy Paine, President/Author/Speaker, Cynthia Paine & Associates

  • Carrie Tchijikov,  Account Manager, Cisco

  • Patti Phillips, Territory Account Manager, Cisco

  • Lynn Mackie, Partner Field Solution Architect – Security, CDW

  • Cathy Sionkowski, Partner Field Marketing Manager, CDW

  • Hayley Hoffman, Partner Account Manager, Data Strategy

  • Emily Wiesman, Partner Talent Acquisition Manager, Data Strategy

  • Debra Watkins, Senior Program Leader, GE

Diva Tech Talk asked our interviewees: "What makes you unstoppable in your field?" Their answers ranged from “being grounded/centered,” to “care about customer success,” “prioritize and persevere,” “build relationships,” and “don’t be afraid to make changes.”  One woman commented that “when you make a mistake, just start over again.” Another credited the fact that she was a “perfectionist” for contributing to her becoming successful.  Two others said they possessed both courage and optimism.

Patti Phillips stressed the need to be able to “be adaptable, and help other people be the same.” There was a constant theme of internal fortitude since, as Cindy Paine said, “being unstoppable is an ‘inside job.’" Deb Watkins urged women to “listen to good mentors, and teachers.” And Cathy Sionkowski exclaimed: “Once you have the basic skills, the world is your oyster!”

All of these women are striving for balance in their busy lives.  They shared some valuable tips with us. Deb Watkins spends time every morning on yoga and meditation.  Cindy Paine starts each day with a nature walk, and tries to listen to other inspiring women as she begins her work. Carrie Tchijikov insisted that there is always time to work out, and make time to give back; “be kind to yourself and to others,” she said. Patti Phillips, Hayley Hoffman, Emily Wiesman and Lynn Mackie all discussed the need to prioritize well, focus on the correct things, delegate, and plan. Jasmine Herbst stressed the need to regroup with her family each day, ensuring that her children understand many of the facets of her day, as much as she understands theirs.  

Since this was a day designed to inspire the event’s attendees, Diva Tech Talk asked our interviewees: "What inspires you, every day?" Carrie discussed how she is consistently inspired by helping others; and Patti talked about how she is energized by her customers and partners.  Lynn is proud to be proving that she can do great work in a male-dominated field. Emily and Jasmine both said that their children inspire them, and they work to show them that “anything is possible.” Hayley urged us, all, to “seize the day.”  And Cindy waxed philosophical, ruminating that “we are powerful beings and have more power than we have tapped.”   She is, personally, inspired by helping others identify the limiting fears that hold them back.

Cisco deliberately schedules this annual event to coincide with Women’s History Month. Diva Tech Talk asked our interviewees how they were celebrating.  Emily mentioned that she would spend time appreciating the women who had gone before her, who had “been bold, and paved a path” for other women. Cindy will spiritually honor all the women who have helped her along the way.  Cathy was planning to help promote the month through social media channels. Both Patti and Carrie said that working on this event for Cisco was part of how they were celebrating. Jasmine exclaimed that she was proud to have voted, that week, in the national Presidential primary, and mentally honored the historic women who helped win the right to vote.

Each of our interviewees offered advice for other women carving out technology careers, and creating life missions.  Cindy urged our audience to follow a simple formula: “Clear/connect/create” and “identify your limiting fears or beliefs that stop you.”  Carrie discussed the need to be supportive of yourself and develop a strong inner self-confidence; she also said: “don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.”  Cathy commented that women should not let incorrect assumptions about technology roles stop them from taking a chance to join the IT field; there are a lot of opportunities! Deb thought each person should ensure they make time to pause, reflect and be grateful at the end of every day.  Jasmine felt that “women are where technology is going!” and her best advice was “don’t be afraid to ask. You have to be continually learning in this field.”

Local sponsors for the 2016 Midwest Cisco Women of Impact Event included: SHI, KLA Laboratories, Data Strategy, CDW, Logicalis, and World Wide Technology (WWT).  Diva Tech Talk would like to thank them and Cisco for the insights and energy that the event provided.

Cisco is found at www.cisco.com.

Social media tags for the CISCO 2016 WOMEN OF IMPACT event @Cisco_WOI; the Cisco Empowered Women’s Network is @CiscoEWN; and on Facebook you can find the Cisco Empowered Women’s Group at /CiscoEmpoweredWomen.

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