Their paths to IT were seldom easy or direct but five women tech leaders advised others to claim their own seats at the table and make room for peers, at a recent panel discussion in Denver. The event, “We Are All in IT Together,” was part of the 19th annual Colorado Digital Government Summit on Oct. 1 and convened technology officials from a variety of levels.
Christine Binnicker, deputy chief information officer of technology services for the consolidated city/county of Denver, entered tech through accounting when her former employer, a retailer, asked her to stand up its first-ever IT department. Aleta Jeffress, CIO for Aurora, Colo., began her career at a software company where she started a call center and developed problem-solving skills, subsequently moving into project management and leadership.
Colorado CIO Suma Nallapati, the state’s secretary of technology, earned a bachelor's in electronics and solid-state physics and a master’s in nuclear physics but entered technology as a programmer, ultimately ascending to lead state IT. Kate Polesovsky, director of IT operations at Colorado Interactive, NIC, entered tech out of college at a consulting company that built databases for health-care providers. And moderator Frannie Matthews became CEO at the Colorado Technology Association in July after around 18 years at IBM in what she described as “pretty much sales leadership roles.”
Each learned to be “fearless,” as Nallapati termed it, and to do the things that made them uncomfortable — mastering sales, for Jeffress; applying for a director job for the third time for Binnicker; and for the state CIO, powering through a difficult TV interview early in her tenure when “the strength in me just came through.” Men and women in their personal and professional lives were inspirational — mothers and fathers, male and female bosses — and the panel generally agreed that unfamiliar challenges sometimes connected with familiar skill sets to yield positive results.
The question of paying it forward in tech, a field where women are traditionally underrepresented including government IT where the number of female state CIOs has declined recently from five to four, was large for panelists. Polesovsky highlighted her company’s emerging leadership program as an entry point and said officials try to “push decisions down as close to the problem as possible” to help identify nascent talent.
“I pay attention to those younger women and really use that to invest in them,” said Jeffress, noting she wants “to do for somebody what I hope somebody will do for my daughter.” Binnicker said she tries to be “open and honest, and everybody deserves that.”
“You have the right to be at the table. And if there is no seat at the table, bring your own folding chair. I tell young girls, ‘Be fearless.’ Being fearless is the only way to go,” Nallapati said, underscoring the necessity of “friends that will be there for you” and mentors.
The women acknowledged it’s not always easy to keep up with technology, and Jeffress said the most important way to advance that is to hire smart people. “Our employees are my most valuable asset and when it comes to learning, they’re the experts and I no longer am,” Binnicker said. Their jobs may be demanding but like the other participants, she described women’s presence in tech as absolutely necessary to ultimately get to a better finished product.
Women tend to fix problems and move on, “not look back” until everyone is made whole, a key strategy that men are also adopting, according to Polesovsky. Nallapati went so far as to ask rhetorically why women want to be invited when “it’s your seat at the table,” advising women to create opportunities for themselves and bring along “the others that have not had those opportunities.”
Tech has changed dramatically since they entered the field, largely for the good, according to the panelists. Nallapati called emerging tech important as a way to “serve your citizens faster,” more effectively and efficiently. Jeffress admired how roles for women have opened up and said the workforce was predominantly female at her first call center job. Binnicker said the “biggest difference” today is officials are acknowledging issues and “having the conversation” around bringing on younger people and women.
Nallapati and Polesovsky said the field has left behind the time of adjunct offices merely reporting to finance or administration and is now moving toward inclusion. “There’s so much more inclusiveness across teams than what it was before and the behavior, the tolerance for unacceptable behavior, is really being kiboshed and I think a lot of us should be proud of that work,” Polesolvsky said.
Tech and working mobile have eased her work-life balance, said Jeffress. But, Binnicker pointed out, mobility’s downfall is that “we often do work all the time.” Jeffress advised the audience to “be intentional” when moving into leadership, and mindful of the difference between managing things and managing people. Polesovsky advised, “you really do have to give some things up” to preserve work and personal lives; and advised sharing responsibilities with others where possible — letting the neighbors drive the kids to school and teaching their offspring a bit about programming.
“It’s all about integration, right? I tell my boss I will be a good mom at 3 o’clock Sunday because I’m at my son’s football game and I will be a great employee at 11 o’clock when I’m checking my email and getting back to you,” said Nallapati.