Female Tech Leaders Roundtable

Episode 93

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On a very special episode of IT Visionaries, three women who are leading the way in the tech world join Mission co-founder and COO Stephanie Postles and IT Visionaries Producer, Hilary Giorgi, for a discussion about all things leadership, tech, and building a community of women in IT. 

At the table was Alvina Antar (LinkedIn), the CIO of Zuora, Julie Cullivan (LinkedIn), the Chief People and Technology Officer of Forescout, and Praniti Lakhwara (LinkedIn), CIO of Apttus. They each brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experience from decades in the world of IT, and their energy and drive to keep innovating was contagious.

Key Takeaways:

Entering and growing within the tech field — (2:20)

Everyone at the table took a different path to the leadership role they currently occupy in the tech space. And some paths were more circuitous than others, but no matter what, each woman says their experiences have helped prepare them for their current jobs. They also agree that their growth is never complete. 

Praniti, for example, always dreamed of flying planes and actually got a degree in aeronautical engineering. But when she finished school she couldn’t find a job in the aero field and instead took a job programming and that was where she stayed until she worked her way up the tech ladder.

Julie was a finance major in college and her first job was in corporate finance. But since she was working at Oracle, she was surrounded by tech and other opportunities to work in various fields on technical projects. She eventually took on a CIO role at another company then moved on to Forescout where she is responsible for tech as well as people operations. 

Alvina grew up loving math and knew she wanted to pursue that passion. She ultimately studied computer science and has been in the field from day one.  

“One of the things that I’ve certainly benefited from is that I’ve had the business experience and experience owning pieces of the business and on the functional side. That kind of helps with the conversations around, ‘Hey, how do you use technology that enables things?’” —Julie

“I’ve had two jobs my entire career, 17 years at Dell and now almost five years at Zuora….I just love it. I love technology. I love knowing my business and helping the internal employees that make the business. That’s my passion.” —Alvina

“I definitely didn’t know where I was going to be. I have to say that in fact, I still don’t know. And it’s really interesting because every few months or years, as you’re learning on the job, being in the corporate environment you’re learning, being a parent, you’re learning. You know, there’s just a lot that comes your way and you redefine yourself. And if you’re not constantly redefining yourself, you’re not really truly growing. And so I really don’t think I could have sat back 20 years back and thought, ‘I’m going to be a CIO at Apttus,’ or any of the silicon valley companies. I didn’t even think I was gonna work in the Silicon Valley.” —Praniti

Dealing with Adversity — (9:00)

There is little debate that there is a certain amount of adversity faced by women in the tech field. However, Julie notes that when she started out back in the ‘80s, very few people were worried about that. Not much thought was given to diversity in the workplace or proper treatment of women or any of the other hot button issues that face the workplace today. Nevertheless, there were struggles. But rather than blame an unfair system, Julie says she tended to put the blame on herself and challenge herself to improve her station as well as the workplace for others. 

Julie’s story brings up a larger overall theme, that everyone is responsible for their own actions and we each have the power to change certain things. Yes, often the system is unfair, but you can control how hard you work. Alvina also says that in order to deal with adversity, you have to have inherent confidence that you belong in the room. 

“We were not programmed to be worried about [adversity]. It was an entirely different culture, environment, whatever. And I love the fact that now it’s very different and we are worried about adversity and we are talking about these things. But when I came up in my career, yeah, I faced a ton of adversity but didn’t realize it was adversity.” —Julie 

Building a team — (14:15)

A lot of thought goes into building your IT team, especially because, as Julie says, it takes a lot of courage just to step into an IT role. With so many other opportunities to use technical skills, it takes the right person with the right desire and mindset to succeed in an IT role. But, technical skills aren’t the only qualifier. When building a team, it’s important to find people who are open to new ideas, have a broad range of experiences and always be willing to learn. Additionally, being in IT is no longer just working the computers. IT has a role to play in every part of the business so creating an environment where people can thrive and feel apart of everything is important.

“You do encounter people that are far more interested in being right or being the smartest technical person. And I’m much more focused on people that are interested in how they work with others and how they get their work done and how they collaborate.” —Julie 

“I look for people who at a leadership level want to invest in their people. Like, genuinely, not because they have to because they have a management title, but because that’s their passion. That’s what makes them feel fulfilled… I think that if we don’t invest in our people, they’re not going to stick around. Especially technologists. And so they’re not just looking for the coolest technology to work on, they’re looking for the best dynamic.” —Alvina

“When I think about building high performing teams, and thinking about the culture of the foundation, and it’s not just words, because if you’re thinking of yourself as more than a cog in the wheel, you’re actually already not establishing the right culture. So we are a cog in that chain. Everybody has a role to play. And that’s the kind of culture you really want to establish where it’s a two-way conversation. It’s a dialogue. It’s very transparent, very open, where people are feeling empowered to give their best.” —Praniti

Creating a system that works —(21:40)

When it comes to updating your systems and bringing in new tools or building out new processes, everyone agrees that looking at time versus value is the most important factor. In IT and technology, things change so quickly that you can’t waste months implementing a system that will be out of date by the time it’s fully functional. Using out-of-the-box solutions is becoming more common than building in-house. Additionally, you have to be flexible and change your priorities based on the needs of the business because IT is no longer just about IT.

There is a lot of pressure involved sometimes to roll things out or find solutions quickly. Being able to take a step back and understand where the ask is coming from and how you can help, then building a track record of actually finding and implementing solutions is critical to a successful IT department.

“It used to be products was over here and IT was over there. And now more and more there’s this convergence where it’s getting grayer and grayer as to who does what….It’s so hard to prioritize. And I also feel super strongly, it’s not us prioritizing, right? It’s the company prioritizing.” —Julie

How do you prove yourself? — (31:00)

So much of being in the C-suite depends on first simply getting a seat at the table. But how do you do that as a young professional or even as a first time CIO? Julie says that you can’t be afraid to insert yourself into the discussion. However, Praniti cautions that how you do it is important as well. You can’t go in just looking for control, you must offer a solution and a reason behind it, then back it up with results. 

“If your approach is you want to control, then, of course, they’re going to shut the door. But if your approach is genuine in a way that you’re looking to enable the business and you’ve got the technologist that can support their business and we’re looking to partner and you’re not looking to take credit or take control and limit them, that’s more effective and that’s the approach.” —Praniti

Taking risks — (34:20)

There might always be a desire to take risks, but when your business is on the line, the risks you take have to be calculated and well thought out. When you take risks, the impact needs to be low and you need to plan for all outcomes.

“Quite frankly, any technology project is fraught with risk in the sense of, hey, it doesn’t do exactly what we thought it was going to do or something else happens along the way or requirements change or, or all those kinds of things….I think we have to be a little more specific about where we can take those risks.” —Julie 

“The goal is not to shy away from it. The goal is to really understand the inherent part of risk. It doesn’t mean that you’re not planning for the problem. I think good planning and execution is going to take away that risk factor.” —Praniti

What’s exciting about innovation — (40:00)

Whether it’s A.I. or machine learning, there is so much new technology that is making its way into business. But the use for those technologies, at least according to Praniti, will come from crowdsourcing. Outside sources will be the innovators and people working in the tech industry will implement the technology in new and exciting ways. For Julie, she’s more interested in new tech being used to solve old problems. Whether that’s conferencing, cloud storage, what have you, anything that’s a solution to a problem that’s been plaguing workers for a long time is an exciting prospect. Alvina agrees, and she sees innovation as a way of helping her employees have a better experience and be able to focus on bigger and more exciting things.

“Sometimes innovation is really around the same nagging problem that’s been there forever. And if you can solve that for me it’s almost more meaningful sometimes….You see some of the companies that are doing well right now, it’s not because they’re using blockchain to go deliver some sort of business value. It’s because they’ve actually gone and taken that nagging problem, whatever it was, revenue recognition, whatever it was, and come up with a new way of trying to approach it and delivering it in different models.” —Julie 

“My focus is to build the level of efficiencies to allow the individuals that we’re investing in to focus on bigger and greater things and innovate as opposed to just feeling like they’re drowning. And so if we all focus on that, you know, if you’re in a thriving business that’s growing way too fast and, and you’ve got people solving the same problem over and over again, whatever it may be, like it may be a help desk issue….to be able to automate that…to a point where the employee experience is seamless, that allows for further innovation.” —Alvina

“I think it’s important to kind of really look and expose yourself to a lot of this technology that is out there, which is what I believe all of us constantly do as part of our day job. And I really like technology, but I’m not gonna use it for the sake of using and being an early adopter. I think there really needs to be a value. There needs to be a business case, it has to solve a problem and get to an outcome that we’re looking for.” —Praniti

Supporting each other — (52:00)

The female tech leaders in Silicon Valley are extremely supportive of each other, even forming a group that gets together for events, vacations, and dinners. Every year the list that Alvina, started using (a Google Sheet) grows more and more. And the women in the group are so thankful to have each other to lean on when they’re together and reach out to if they ever need help either personally or professionally. 

“It’s just about meaningful relationships with people that you just admire and respect and can have the most open, transparent conversations with.” —Alvina

“What’s nice about it is every time you show up — because we’re all super busy and we’re not all able to make it all the time — but anytime you show up, there’s guaranteed somebody new that you haven’t met yet with before, and you get to catch up with other people. We talk a lot about professional challenges. We talk about what’s going on in our lives personally and professionally, what, what good things are going on, what are we struggling with.” —Julie

“It’s a support system… I reached out to Julie a few weeks back and I said, you know, ‘I need some help on a decision,’ and she is on the call. She was in Tel Aviv and she was like, ‘just let me know when you want to talk.’ I think being able to sort of lean on each other’s experiences and learning from that versus always making your own experiences happen or mistakes — which I’m trying to avoid the word mistake — I think it’s been really, really good.” —Praniti

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Three women in the tech world, Alvina Antar of Zuora, Julie Cullivan of Forescout, and Praniti Lakhwara of Apttus, gather for a special roundtable discussion.

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