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Ep 83: Gail Bernard: Live Your Life Like You Stole It!

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Gail Bernard, Director of Sales, Americas, for Cybernoor, a leading provider of Oracle platform solutions, with focused expertise in systems integration, managed services, cloud solutions, application development, technical training, and overall digital transformation of any enterprise.

 In Gail’s childhood, she was fascinated by science. Directly after high school, she worked as a dental assistant and then attended the University of Washington where she entered a pre-med program. “I saw technology, originally, as enabling medicine,” she said but additionally “I saw we could use technology to solve business problems, life problems.” She migrated to management information systems and then transferred to the University of Michigan, where Gail completed her BBA in MIS.  While completing her degree, she was fortunate to undertake two internships at the Chrysler Corporation. As an intern, she managed the personal computer rollout  for the entire corporation. Gail was fortunate to have had a great deal of breadth and autonomy in her initial roles, making decisions about displacement of existing systems and how/where/when this pivotal technology would be deployed. Then she began working at Chrysler, full-time after graduation, as a systems analyst in their product development group. “We were the first to use DB2/CICS to do relational applications, married to transactional applications, in the country.”  Her team produced a complicated engineering BOM (Bill of Materials) and in the course of that “I got to work with amazing, brilliant people!”

After Chrysler, Gail moved to consulting initially for the retail industry, where she gained more in-depth experience in inventory and supply chain technology deployment. Then she moved into technology consulting sales.  “I knew what people were doing; I knew the challenges.” She strove to lead a consulting service that would “deliver the breadth and depth of services” required by her clients, which grew to include the three largest automotive OEM’s (Ford, GM, Chrysler) and other large Michigan organizations like DTE Energy, University of Michigan Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital System, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, and others.   Some of her favorite projects involved using information technology to empower healthcare solutions. “Being around diverse groups of people taught me how to conduct myself in any given scenario,” Gail said.

Gail then migrated to founding and leading the Detroit-based office of Interactive Business Systems, as they expanded into Michigan with their full portfolio of products and services.  “I had recruiters, I had services, I had sales” as part of her team. “I needed a briefcase of solutions that any customer needed at a given time,” she said.   She then moved, for a short period of time, to Alliance Technology Solutions, an IBM business partner.

 While Gail enjoyed the sales and consulting work, she became intellectually restless. She also underwent a bout with breast cancer, and “realized that having healthcare choices, in retirement was big.” So, she decided to get her PMP certification, passing her exam on the first round.  That led Gail to her next career chapter as the Project Management Officer (PMO) for the U.S. District Court, Eastern Division, in Michigan ---- one of the biggest consolidated court systems in the U.S.  “We covered two agencies/systems, pre-trial and probation, with a dotted line to both the U.S. Marshall Service, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.” Always a disruptor, Gail explained that the system “was new to the judiciary. It had never been done.” Prior to her tenure, “no one had created the point of service to incorporate all of those agencies.”  The number of elements that required automation was extensive. “We were able to digitize the probation and pre-trial functions so that we ended up with the lowest recidivism rates of offenders, in the nation.” Gail is inordinately proud because this accomplishment was the foundation of “programs that worked on true rehabilitation” of offenders. “These people could become productive, and they wanted to be productive!”

 Now Gail has returned to a consulting role at 10-year old Cybernoor, which is “new to Michigan.”  Its founder, Ahmed Alomari ,  was the Vice President of Application Development at Oracle Corporation but left a decade ago to create an improved portfolio of products and services, on top of Oracle platforms.  What most excites Gail, in her role of driving sales throughout North America, is that Cybernoor is a leader in full, organic digital transformation for large organizations.  “In the cloud, there are a lot of services and integration that must go on,” she said. And Cybernoor is positioned to make that easier for its clients, through the “lift and shift” phases of evolution, migrating from on-premise solutions to Internet-based implementations.

 Gail’s career strengths include intellectual agility, the propensity to move/evolve at the speed of disruptive change, and her constant quest for greater meaning in her work, as a motivator, coupled with boundless energy.  To stay joyous, she fully recognizes and basks in the glow of both small and large accomplishments. “I don’t necessarily separate my professional life and my personal life,” she said. Having faced a significant health challenge, when she triumphed over cancer, she has only two fears today:  physical heights, and failure! She also gives back, regularly, to others dealing with that disease by “being a buddy” when she finds someone who needs support.

 Gail shared key leadership lessons for women following her on the tech journey:

  1. “Don’t take shortcuts. They will catch up with you!”

  2. “Accept that males and females are different.  We have different brain structures. That’s a good thing. Lean into it! Celebrate it and pull the best out of it.”  (One example Gail cited is linear thinking vs. multitasking, and how each can contribute to a success.)

  3. “Empower, rather than command.”

Gail also said that a key lesson for her has been that “no one has it figured out.”  She noted that many younger colleagues and teammates of hers “mentor up.” And that is both healthy and can produce vigorous innovation.  She also counseled that each of us should live in the moment and understand that life’s goal “is not a destination, it is a process.” Seizing the day, she giggled: “I say live your life like you stole it!”

Gail can be reached at gbernard@cybernoor.com, and her twitter handle is @gailabernard.

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Ep 82: Shuchi Sharma: Women Will Change the World...For the Better

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Shuchi Sharma, Global Head and VP, Gender Equality & Intelligence, for SAP, the multinational software giant  that creates enterprise software to manage business operations and customer relations for Fortune 500 companies throughout the world.  

Shuchi never intended to enter the software field. “I studied chemistry, with the aim of being a doctor,” she said. “I loved chemistry because it explains the ‘why’ behind everything in our universe. But I excelled in economics. I did not have the support for an economics degree, so I combined science and economics, and got a degree in public health.”  She obtained her bachelor’s of science at  College of William and Mary, and then her masters of public health at University of Michigan.  “I took a lot of courses in maternal and children’s health and HIV policy,” Shuchi said. “My interest in women’s health was sparked. I knew that I wanted to focus on women’s issues, in some shape or form.” Her first career was in management consulting, specializing in healthcare technology, working for The Advisory Board, among others.

“I loved technology,” Shuchi exclaimed. “I worked with technology for many years. Then I had an opportunity to move overseas to Germany.” She worked, in Heidelberg, for SAS, a formidable leader in software analytics, running software consulting across eastern, central and northern Europe. “That was great fun. We really had an opportunity to grow the consulting business.” However, she saw, in male-dominated corporate Europe, “women were not really helping each other. I saw opportunities being missed. I thought ‘what can I do about this?’ “ What Shuchi did, in her precious personal time, was create  The Heidelberg International Professional Women’s Forum (HIP), with laser-like focus on women’s development and leadership.

“The issues I was finding in my workplace were not unique.” The Forum brings together women, from diverse international organizations, to exchange ideas, learn from each other, and develop skills to enhance professional and personal success.  “I spent five years, building and leading that organization.  It grew tremendously, since there was an untapped need. As I built it, the impact I saw was what really helped me find my sense of purpose in life. It made me realize that this is what I would like my life to be about.”  Among HIP ongoing results were “people finding new opportunities; people starting businesses; people developing new friendships that carried great impact to their lives; creating new ventures they never thought they could achieve.”  Most of the women were in early or mid-career. There were many new partnerships and businesses, and HIP sponsored significant events including “a big summit to fuel entrepreneurship in the community.”  Shuchi is still amazed at “the multiplier effect that something like this can have on lives.”

In 2008, Shuchi left SAS to join SAP for a similar position, to grow the consulting business in northern and southern Europe, including Iberia, Italy, and the USSR. “I have been at SAP for 10 years. Now in my fourth role, I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities I have had,” she said. “I started in their business consulting practice, and after I had my second daughter, I wasn’t ready to travel as much.”  Shuchi’s empathetic boss asked her to build a marketing organization, (“I looked over both shoulders to see if he was talking to somebody else!”). Over the subsequent five years, she built a marketing function for SAP’s business consulting. “It was a fantastic learning experience, helping customers understand we are here to drive business impact, not just sell software.” Then Shuchi was asked to lead a digital transformation team in North America for SAP’s Success Factors, delivering dramatic improvement in the way companies handle their most precious investment: workforce. “It’s about changing vision to value and driving change through people and processes.” She learned from accomplished colleagues and team members, and had great fun helping customers use design thinking to envision the state of their workforces 5 years in the future.  Never a slouch, in her volunteer life in North America, Shuchi became a salary coach for AAUW’s SmartStart Program, and also worked with organizations like Moms Rising. “I stayed very involved in women’s topics.” From there, she evolved into her current position which “requires me to bring all of the skills I’ve amassed around business transformation, strategic transformation, marketing, project management to this role.”  Her job now is “changing the mix of gender in the organization and creating that very inclusive culture --- which is a strategic transformation. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring my skills and interests together.”

Shuchi is determined to deliver on SAP’s mandate: “Ensure that we, as an organization, can meet our target of having 30% of women in leadership by 2022.” The company reached a significant 2017 milestone: 25% of women in management. “Our CEO (Bill McDermott) said, without taking a breath, let’s go to 30% now!” Shuchi tackled the leadership role in typical process-oriented fashion. “First we look at data, to see where we are today, where we have to go, and how we are going to get there.” SAP has amassed internal data on their own enterprise analytics platform and uses well-designed flexible dashboards that track many areas:  gender, early talent benchmarks, all diversity and inclusion categories, and more. The analytics tools help track progress and “help us slice and dice the data by so many different dimensions.” Using the data, Shuchi’s team drives the revamp of corporate processes and organizations that have some implicit bias, “whether it comes to how we source candidates, how we review, how we promote people, who enters leadership development programs” and much more. “We use the data to have discussions with Level 1 managers” to encourage change and revamp individual plans to reach the 30% goal.

Shuchi’s team has worked on exciting projects including re-certification of SAP under the IMF’s EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality). “It is a very robust analysis that involves data, review of policies and practices, an employee survey, and a third-party audit. Through that, we understand how we are progressing from leadership and development, pay equity, recruitment and promotion, and flexible work culture, perspectives.  That data is going to help us drive change for the next 6 years.” Shuchi is excited about programs her team is rolling out centered on male allies, sponsorship and mentoring, and “return-ship” – recruiting those who dropped out for life priorities but now want to come back into the SAP workforce. Nothing can be accomplished in a vacuum, so Shuchi's team is working on collaborative partnerships with other visionary organizations who can provide insight/assistance to accomplish diversity and inclusion goals. Shuchi gauges resources by which can best achieve SAP’s target of 30% of women in leadership by 2025 --- her measuring yardstick.

For other large companies fielding gender/inclusion programs Shuchi shared SAP’s ingredients for success:

  • Strong executive sponsorship, from inception

  • An effective ecosystem, where diversity and inclusion team members are scattered throughout the company, to drive adoption (diversity inclusion councils, board area leaders, other motivated diversity ambassadors)

  • On the ground employee network groups

SAP is thrilled to have received deserved recognition for progress including being named the 11th best workplace in the U.S. and #1 best workplace in Canada by Glassdoor; one of Fortune Magazine’s top 20 companies for diversity and inclusion; one of the best places to work by the U.S. Human Rights Campaign; People Magazine’s 50 Companies That Care list; Forbes’ Best Large Employers list;  one of the Top Companies for Flexible Jobs by FlexJobs; and one of the top 5 companies for women technologists awarded by the Anita Borg Institute. On the latter award, Shuchi said: “Many people in the company really felt pride from that achievement.”

Shuchi offered wonderful wisdom for women and careers. For instance, on pay equity, “if you are in university, seek out resources that the AAUW provides. You can find a workshop to teach you the skills to negotiate salary, in a very professional way, which is something you must do in every facet of life. Just become comfortable with asking. JUST ASK.”   She also recommended books for inspiration.  Among them is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Why We Should All Be Feminists and watershed works by Dr. Louann Brizendine, particularly The Female Brain.   She advocates that people consistently experiment, “fall down, get up, and keep moving forward.”

In her own career, Shuchi is joyful about her SAP role. “Women are going to change the world…for the better. I have always felt that if you look across history, women are almost always at the heart of every positive social construct.” But she isn’t free of stress. “I worry that all these entrenched biases that we have seen, since the Jim Crow period, will continue to exist through our technology. And technology will shape the future lives of our children.  We need to take a very active role to ensure that there is no prejudice; that it is open, available to everyone, and people have opportunities regardless of their race, color, appearance. NOW is the time.” She acknowledged that diversity is very good for her company, as well. “You see innovation in diversity of thought. You see ideas come from places you would never expect and from people you would never expect. There are possibilities you could never envision that come to fruition.”

Shuchi’s two daughters are part of her personal inspiration. “I do this for them.  I see opportunities ahead, as well as great challenges. I want to equip them with everything I can to help them overcome what they might face in the workplace.”  She proudly mentioned that one of her daughters recently beat a boy in a footrace, and when one of his buddies commented that he was bested by a girl, her daughter turned and said: “that’s a normal thing; get used to it!”

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Ep 81: Patricia Howard: Putting the Pieces Together, Into Something Beautiful

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Patricia Howard, veteran instructional designer/developer, whose employers and clients have included giants like General Motors Corporation,  AAA Life Insurance,  the Auto Club Group and MSX International.

Patty came to the technology field by happenstance. “When I was a little girl, technology did not exist as it does, today,” she said. “I didn’t touch a computer until my senior year of college!”   Being highly creative, she pursued a fine arts bachelor’s degree with a minor in business at The University of Southern Colorado, which has since “morphed” into an extension of Colorado State University at Pueblo. “I had to write a paper for a finance class,” Patty said. “The system was DOS, back then!”

After college, she moved to Michigan, and her first roles were at a national historic landmark and nonprofit, Pewabic Pottery, (“a treasure, with the kilns and artisans making tiles and vessels”). There, Patty was a tile presser, a potter working on a pottery wheel, and then became a mold-maker and technical design reviewer, checking and validating specifications.  “The Internet was still new,” she said, and her voracious appetite for reading led her to explore technology, on the side. A friend made a gift of his older 486 computer to Patty, and “I was off and running.”

Exploring her options, Patty left Pewabic Pottery and landed a spot at a temporary agency, accepting short-term administrative assignments as she explored various industries. “I worked in 12 different places and got to see quite a variety of businesses and perspectives, different managing styles….it was an eye-opener.”  After this investigatory period, she exclaimed “I feel like I got the ‘Willy Wonka Golden Ticket’ because I landed a job as an entry-level Web Designer, with no experience!”

Patty’s first Web development position was at MSX International, supplier to the automotive industry.  “I was hired in-house to make Websites for internal customers.” The hiring manager “saw my potential, and level of maturity” as well as Patty’s fine arts background, which differentiated her from programmers, who “didn’t have the people skills” that she exhibited. “They were looking for someone with an artistic eye.  They saw my potential and spent about $4000 on my training.” Patty is forever grateful for her MSXI tenure of 6 years. The software skill-set she developed included HTML, Illustrator, ImageReady, Flash, and Photoshop; and the “soft skills” included conflict resolution training and more. Patty was blessed with an excellent manager (experienced programming leader, and mentor, Walter Schirmacher) who told her to “design it the way you think it should be, and I’ll make it work!”   Patty lasted through many growth spurts and consolidations, that MSXI endured during that time, with her team rapidly growing but then “the economy unfortunately contracted.”  Patty was among the last of her team to be let go, in the depths of the recession/depression, as the company dramatically downsized.

Her MSXI experience awakened Patty’s realization that she had an affinity for organizational development.  She went to work at The Creative Group, a division of Robert Half International, as a temporary contract employee, deploying her organizational skills.  Eventually she landed at Gradepoint, an online training company, where she handled much of their graphics development and support, and worked closely with instructional designers. “I’m not a programmer,” Patty said. “So, I made a decision to go back to school.”  She matriculated into Wayne State University, for a masters’ degree in instructional design with a focus on both interactive technology, and human performance improvement.  “I learned to ‘ditch the ego’ and ask for help. I ended up with 51 credits in 36-credit program,” she chuckled. Post-recession, “when I emerged with my degree, the economy was on the upswing.”

Patty took an internship at Auto Club Group in Dearborn, and then accepted a full-time position at AAA Life Insurance, where she spent the next 5 years as a courseware designer. “I did more courseware development and I was also the LMS (learning management system) administrator.”  Leaving there at the end of 5 years, she began working as a contractor, through TTI Global, at General Motors.  “At GM, it was one big team of Instructional Designers which was much different from past positions where she was accustomed to being the only one, or part of a small team,” she said. The November, 2018, announcements of GM consolidations and plant closures resulted in most contractors ending projects at the automotive behemoth.  In the aftermath, Patty is actively looking for her next challenge.

Patty’s advice for creating an interesting career included: “Find out what you don’t know.  Ask more questions.” She noted that, when younger, she didn’t explore all her options as thoroughly as she would recommend others do, now.  She characterized her own interests and skill-sets as having:

  • A propensity for gleaning information, and making logical sense of its patterns (“I’m an information hoarder”);

  • A passion for making data useful (“Making it clear and clean” adorned with relevant graphics, too);

  • A thirst to build something comprehensive and comprehensible from scratch.

She wants to “put all the pieces together into this beautiful, inherent piece of training that is going to make someone’s life easier!”

Patty also has a clear view of her own three greatest strengths which include organizational ability, married to creativity, and a high degree of empathy. “Trying to see what the learner is going through to understand what they need” is key in doing a great job in instructional design. “In one sense, my career has been like a pinball machine: bouncing around,” Patty said. “But if you look at the big picture, it has been a smooth transition, building and building.  I feel like I have great skills to make a difference, now.”

Commenting on being female, Patty said “I think I have had to work harder on being taken seriously, at times. And I don’t believe the pay has been equal.”  But “I am always looking forward to situations ahead” to make sure she has solutions ready for any challenge. Patty has found her greatest happiness lies in staying productive, and mentoring “those coming along” in her field, and in fine arts.

With all the changes through which she transitioned, Patty said “I don’t have any ‘pit of the stomach’ fears, any longer.” One of her lessons for other girls and women is “fear can be a motivator or a show-stopper. New technologies can be intimidating.  Don’t let that stop you. Let that motivate you!” She recommended several online learning sites and exhorted: “ask for help!”

Another life lesson Patty shared is how much she has learned from, and been supported by, her volunteer work, noting that being a volunteer often gives a person the chance to “do something they would like to do,” thereby increasing knowledge. Some of the organizations for which she volunteered were “like a testing ground” allowing her to practice and perfect skills. One of her favorite nonprofits, in her field, is the Association for Talent Development, where she was the VP of Programs and Events. In addition to creating new programs for the members, she developed membership welcome programs and mentoring programs.  She also recommended that practitioners consider membership in the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for ongoing professional development. For regional women leaders, she also recommended Inforum Detroit which incubates women’s potential, at all ages and stages. In all volunteer work Patty said “I try and give without resenting it” to avoid crossing the line into life imbalance.   

“The glass isn’t half empty; it isn’t half full.  It is twice as large as it needs to be, because no one did a proper needs analysis!” was Patty’s last (performance improvement) bit of humor as we ended our interview.

Patty Howard can be reached at HowardPatriciaJ@gmail.com.

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Ep 80: Rebekah Bastian: Leave it better than you found it

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk was honored to spend time with Rebekah Bastian, the Vice President of Community and Culture at Zillow Group.  She leads efforts focused on equity and belonging, as well as social impact products and cultural engagement. Rebekah was one of Zillow Group's first employees, moving from Microsoft in 2005. Now, she has spent over 13 years leading product development across many areas of Zillow, and evolving into her current role.

Rebekah originally started her education journey as a music major, but shifted, after realizing this formal program was not for her. She reassessed and went back to school taking courses that were interesting at her local community college. This led to math and physics. She discovered her knack for problem-solving and curiosity through this course work. It was a tough transition, since she had failed at her first attempt at college, but she persisted. She noticed that “if you just show up and work hard, you can do well.” Her epiphany was that “[she] can do well at anything [she] works hard at.” Rebekah has been proving that lesson to herself ever since. She encourages others to “work hard at things you enjoy, are passionate about, and things you are good at.”

Rebekah always wanted to be an inventor. So she decided the program to blend her new love for physics and passion for innovation would be engineering. She transferred to the University of Washington where she completed her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. She continued on to UC Berkley, pursuing a masters in that field. This program was focused on product development, so she applied to Microsoft hoping to work within their hardware division. The interviewer actually had no idea how to conduct a hardware interview, so the Microsoft team opted to see if she would be a good fit as a Program Manager. She essentially ended up in a job she never considered prior to that interview.

Rebekah's work at Microsoft included development of the pervasive Outlook email platform, where she learned about processes and strategies she could leverage later. It was a great opportunity, but she did not love the arduous commute. She needed to explore other options, and subsequently checked Craigslist to see if there were any local job opportunities.She found Zillow Group, which was in full start-up mode and working under the radar. She took a flyer because she had faith in the founders, Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink,  knowing their success with Expedia.  Ultimately, Rebekah loved the mission of Zillow, the ability to start something from scratch, and the chance to get experience with many different roles. She learns best through experiential learning, so Zillow Group was a great home for her to really fuel the fire of her career.

“I did answer an ad on Craigslist and was one of the first employees here. Zillow was still in stealth startup mode, so I didn’t really know what I was going to be working on.”

Rebekah began working on the first version of the Zillow website, which has since become the largest real estate marketplace in the U.S. The Zillow Group vision was to create a revolutionary website with data transparency and ‘zestimates’ to offer the average consumer data-driven insight into the true value of homes they might buy or sell. Rebekah worked on building the product until about 8 years ago, when she was promoted into people management. The team continued to grow and scale,  spurred by Zillow Group’s success. As she progressed, leaders under her grew. She was able to launch a side project, paving the way for her current role.

Zillow Group’s diversity program began by reviewing how to build diverse points of view and people’s experiences into the organization, while shaping culture more intentionally. Rebekah also starting thinking about how she could deploy the Zillow platform to solve social issues like access for underserved populations to fair, affordable housing. She discovered, over time, that this community work, and social mission, was where her passion centered, so her community and culture leadership position was born.  As Rebekah moved into leadership, she figured out how to manage people who don’t have her aptitudes. She loved the process of “finding out how to manage people and advocate for them when you don’t have the same skill set.” She was also able to ask the right questions to help employees see and set their goals, engage mentors, and challenge themselves.

“We generally have this philosophy: hire better than yourself.”

Rebekah believes in setting employees up for success by removing barriers while affording autonomy. She benefited from this philosophy personally with her own side projects at Zillow Group.  Based on the introduction of the Apple iPhone, she assisted on a project that led to the mobile Zillow application. When it launched, it got attention from Apple and gained fast popularity. Zillow Group created the formal mobile team and she became its first mobile product manager. This opened more doors for her career.

In her Community and Culture Vice President role, Rebekah organizes and leads the Zillow Group team focused on equity and belonging, cultural engagement, housing stability, and social impact. She believes “power comes from combining these components together” into one unit. That team creates a space where everyone can bring their best selves to thrive at work. This includes  hiring diverse employees, and ensuring that after onboarding, they possess a strong sense of community. There are also affinity equity networks, and a team of “Equity and Belonging” ambassadors. The ambassadors receive tools, resources, and through those, offer support for “every employee in the community to apply an equity lens to their line of work.” In fact, at most meetings where a major decision is made, one person is dedicated to providing a community lens to the situation. Zillow is also encouraging internal mobility within the company, bringing everyone to a level playing field for success despite any past inequities in backgrounds.

Inside cultural engagement, Zillow Group examines how employees interact with each other and the community. This includes clubs as well as social impact development that allow developers to build on top of standard Zillow offerings to make a difference in the world. Housing was an obvious choice to help, and the team could add components to empower housing equity.

Rebekah believes no organization has proposed and implemented the perfect formula for leadership in diversity, community, inclusion, especially in the corporate tech space. She professes that she “love[s] problems that need to be solved that haven’t been totally figured out yet because that is what we do at Zillow Group, --- innovate! That is definitely something I am passionate about. This is a whole cultural movement. We need to be bringing everyone along.” More importantly, “everyone is on the equity and belonging team. It can’t be just one team of a few people doing this work for the company. We have to create systemic change.” There is “so much opportunity, both in the corporate space and in the world.” This passion drives her.

Active prioritizing is key when there are so many ideas and directions for a team like this. Rebekah’s product manager experience/role comes into play as she handles the sheer backlog of potential projects that could fall under the mission. The team examines metrics on where they are and where they are trying to go to select the most impactful projects aligned with overall strategy. Reviewing employee engagement can help, so she gets that data through various surveys. “In term of deciding the exact priority, you want to have a big vision of where you are trying to go. Zillow Group wants to create a space where every employee can be heard” and positively impact everyone with whom Zillow Group interacts.

Zillow Group also created an internal pathways model called “get involved” so every Zillow team member can easily get immersed in equity and belonging, and give back, or just have fun. They use various technology and channels to share these opportunities. Rebekah and her team strive to  understand and share the backgrounds of employees internally and externally through storytelling. “That allows them to value and care for each other.” The Zillow Group executive team champions all of these programs.

This work is exciting for Rebekah. For example, “Kids Day of Engineering” is an annual Zillow Group event where employees bring their children to participate in engineering activities. She also enjoys seeing social impact spread both inside the existing product road maps and building on top of existing features. Another example is Zillow Group’s “Community Pillar” which takes the rental marketplace and allows individuals with credit or rental barriers find housing. It is a great example of “incremental work that can be done on top of an existing product to create a new feature that can solve social issues.” Overall, the approach is to “creates pathways for everyone to get involved. We are really trying to channel all the passion and skills our employees have to do some great work,” Rebekah exclaimed.

Rebekah’s experience at Zillow Group as a woman in tech has been very positive. But she still believes every woman should “speak up and advocate” for herself  “asking for what she wants.” Her career breakthroughs began by simply asking. On the topic of balance, Rebekah finds time for things like aerial acrobatics as a “physical outlet, social outlet, and creative outlet.” Her view is that “Everyone has a different capacity for various activities in their lives.” For her, as long as the activity is something she enjoys, she stays in the moment, and is not overwhelmed with a busy schedule. Rebekah is a big fan of making a list to help her keep everything straight as a mother, leader, and philanthropist.

Rebekah ended the Diva Tech Talk interview with one of favorite quotes, from the Girl Scouts:  “Leave it better than you found it.” She thinks that can be “applied to anything you are doing and is needed in our world today.”

Contact Rebekah at: Linked In

Follow her on Twitter: @Rebekah_Bastian

Zillow group life on insta: https://www.instagram.com/zillowgrouplife/

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Ep 79: Nafisa Bhojawala: Anything You Choose to Learn CAN Be Learned

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Nafisa Bhojawala, Studio Chief for Cloud Design at Microsoft Corporation, leading multidisciplinary teams who empower fast-moving, agile product development cycles to maximize impact on Microsoft’s customer experience and business goals.

Nafisa, the daughter of an engineer dad, and an art teacher mom,  grew up in India, and then Dubai, UAE.  “My mother had a long career, and art was all around me.  My grandmother, my primary caregiver for years, was an artist.  We grew up, drawing, painting, working on embroidery; just basically making things! But I also did science and math, and I loved the clean rules of math and physics.  I learned to appreciate how the world works around me.”

When Nafisa chose her university major, she wanted to specialize in fine arts and study sculpture or painting. But her parents persuaded her to “pick a useful profession,” so her choice became architecture as she emigrated to Chicago to study at Illinois University of Technology, on scholarship. She spent one year, (“It was hard.  I learned a lot”) before she realized she was hooked on design, “looking at problems, and solving them, even on a smaller scale.” She loved graphics and product design, so she logically matriculated into the design school. “It was great experience for the breadth of topics I could explore.” Nafisa then discovered computer technology.  “I used it first as a tool, as a designer, but very soon I began running into these frustrating situations while using the computer,” which prompted her to think about how challenges could be circumvented, and processes transformed. The design school encouraged undergraduates to “break the problem down; look at different facets: the manufacturing side, the social and cultural side” of any challenge. She began “sketching out ways of doing it,” and, nudged by her faculty advisor, experienced a “Eureka moment.”   She took programming classes to “go deeper, to understand how code is written.” She feels very grateful to her university. “It was humbling to go through that university program. I had very talented colleagues. It made it exciting, but it also made it really hard to maintain grades.” Nafisa feels fortunate. “It was the mid-90’s. This field was emerging.”

Nafisa’s Capstone project was an interaction design endeavor: a learning tool targeted to high school students. To gain confidence to undertake it, she first accepted an internship at Morningstar, the respected global financial firm offering influential investment research/recommendations, managing over $200 billion in institutional assets, and providing software and data platforms for investment professionals.  There “I worked for close to a year on a CD-ROM project,” Nafisa said. “They were converting their stock data into an information tool that financial planners could use. It was the first time I was working as a young designer, figuring out how to apply my visual skills to interaction design.”  While she benefited from her internship (“a very enriching experience”), she also pointed out that confidence can be gained through self-directed projects and noted “it is a different learning environment, now --- there are so many online tools” for education.

After obtaining her university degree, Nafisa joined The Doblin Group, a global innovation firm dedicated to solving complex problems through rigorous interdisciplinary approach.  “They do phenomenal work.” It was another evolutionary experience for her – “their work is very diverse, and I got to sample a whole bunch of things. I learned how to do research there; apply business strategy to problems.”  It was there that Nafisa realized it was important to delve deeply into interaction design and came to the realization that “I like to design things that become real, and that I can see people using.” After the “dot.com” bust, Nafisa decided that “I was only going to look for design interaction jobs.  That's what I like to do.”

Through a friend, 19 years ago, Nafisa successfully interviewed for a design position at Microsoft. She has contributed to that company, ever since. “It has been quite a nurturing place for me,” Nafisa said. “When I joined my team, I felt like I had found my tribe: very talented people, supportive of each other. I had a great manager, and a fantastic mentor.  I could learn everything!” As she has moved into more senior leadership, she has come to the realization that “it takes a lot of work. It takes a culture that supports growth and exploration…where people feel like they can take creative risks, and actually try things.” Nafisa grew in design expertise; was promoted to team leader in a few years; and then wanted to learn more about program management.  “As designers, we work very closely with program managers,” she said. “It’s a technical role at Microsoft as well as a generalist role. I was fascinated by the dynamics of it: where can you be to make the most difference to the customer experience.” She took the role on, and flourished, although “it was a very difficult shift.”

In making the shift to program management, one of the lessons for Nafisa was realizing that she needed to “lean on others.”  The key was also “being humble about it: being a learner,” she said. She practiced reaching out, asking for help, insight and advice.  And “that has served me quite well,” Nafisa exclaimed. “Now I’m not afraid of pivoting. If I’m in that situation, I can figure it out. “  One of her revelations has been that early in her career she focused on how to get things done, (“because you need to perfect your craft”) but later in her career, she has had to “focus on the big picture, because I needed to solve bigger problems, that were more ambiguous.”  For that, she required the assistance of others. She takes pride in the fact that she feels comfortable “being the person who asks the stupid question.” That exercise often results in pinpointing the most innovative solutions. “I have to ask: how does this matter? And I must think about people, above all.”

For example, working on Microsoft Azure (Microsoft’s primary cloud platform providing a full portfolio of technical services for IT developers) as a program manager, Nafisa realized that there was a “weak link:  the customer research piece.” Azure now comprises 75 different cloud services, that form the basis for the management of all cloud applications. Accessing customer feedback was a complex issue as the product line was being developed. “There were various stakeholders, timelines were crazy, and we did not have resources.” This propelled Nafisa to join Microsoft’s customer experience team, another pivot in her career. In less than 6 months, she had created and led a “high trust” team, to “do research at a very fast clip;” and work with diverse user “personas” encompassing developers and IT professionals, to ensure high feature quality and useful deliverables across a decentralized product set.  Azure is robust and successful in part “because we figured out how to pump data through our decision-making process, from the time we decide what we want to build to actually building something.”

“I’m a big believer in making connections and investing in those connections” whether it be an academic setting, an informal educational setting, or a formal corporate setting, Nafisa emphasized. “Think about who are the other people around you” who do the kind of work you want to do, or from whom you can learn.  “Reach out to your friends who would know a design practitioner. See if they can give a couple of hours to critique your work.” She also advised designers to get feedback from end-users, members of the audience for whatever they are working on. “When you are in a company, you have stakeholders, partners, engineers” to be your validation audience “and you have your customers! All these people make you smarter about what you are doing. “

Nafisa has now moved to lead the UX (User Experience) for Microsoft’s Power BI (Business Intelligence), PowerApps, and Flow tools designed to elegantly provide the highest level of productivity to developers and others deploying BI rules inside the enterprise. “I have been focused on business insights, and how to enable people to build apps and automation,” in a simple way.  “Now we are adding artificial intelligence and machine learning. The responsiveness of systems is just at another level. You suddenly feel like you have more power, working for you.” She foresees a world where “you don’t have to think about” the mundane everyday tasks.  They can be automated for you.

Nafisa acknowledged: “I have a need to create. Art has always been the place I go to, my sanctuary.  It has, also, been a way for me to connect to a very different community, that I would not be connecting with in business. I am inspired by other artists, doing amazing things in their lives.” Her art “informs” her career and vice versa, and has taught her useful leadership precepts:

  1. When you start something new, “be optimistic about the process and the outcome.”

  2. “Pour your soul into it.”

  3. “Take risks along the way. Once you get comfortable in your space, think of what you can do differently to raise it up. When you do that, it becomes a habit. “

  4. “Recover from the failures you encounter.  You will discover you are very resilient. You know more than you think you do.”

Nafisa also characterized her art as essential because “It helps me understand the ‘creatives’ I manage. It is a journey all of us go through.”

As a busy mother, as well as business leader/artist, Nafisa achieves balance by “not thinking about perfection.” Instead she works on doing a little bit better each time and brings heightened awareness to each project.  And “I lean on others,” she said. “My partner who has an equally busy and chaotic work-life is my partner in parenting, too.” She stressed that “we can all be present in all parts of our lives, if we have a strong community to work with, that we trust.” Additionally, she said: “I am very selective about what I spend time on.  I am a little bit ruthless, setting those boundaries.” Nafisa’s final piece of wisdom was simply “anything you choose to learn, can be learned. You get to decide. But keep doing it, because that is how you keep growing.”

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