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The Rewards of High Tech: One Woman’s Journey

I have been extremely fortunate to have enjoyed a stimulating career in high tech sales and leadership. As a woman, the world of technology afforded me a wonderful profession and as I progressed up the ranks, I actively sought to ensure that I developed balanced teams and mentored women into what I saw was an incredibly rewarding field. I had the great fortune to work with some inspiring women along the way, but we were sorely under-represented, particularly in executive ranks. I hope to encourage more young women to take advantage of the opportunities that a career in technology can offer. It is a demanding, lucrative, and constantly evolving field. I hope that my experience and voice can help encourage the upcoming generation to pursue technology careers.

As a young woman in the mid-eighties and straight out of university, I entered software sales for a Canadian software start-up and took in a U.S. territory, selling an advanced software development solution. My motives were simple: make money and travel. Having been a co-op student at University of Waterloo, I had completed two work terms at IBM, which gave me the opportunity to observe high tech sales up close and also provided me with the confidence to know that I could excel at it. It was largely a male dominated profession, but that did not deter me. I observed that there were a set of traits that defined the most successful sales people: drive, great communication skills, strong organizational ability, and deep product expertise – none of which was “gendered” and success was defined primarily by effort. Though demanding, it was a career that was entrepreneurial and rewarding. I worked with a bright group of motivated individuals who were constantly learning, helping customers, making money, and having fun. I was up for it.

As I gained experience and success, the journey had its challenges; particularly as a young female. I was often the only woman in the room and had to earn my voice on a daily basis. I rarely took clients for meals so as not to be misconstrued. In fashion, I erred on the conservative side to better ensure that I was taken seriously. As I started to speak at conferences, I realized that I over-prepared because I felt it was necessary to prove myself beyond a shadow of a doubt. I imagined that I would be viewed as incompetent unless I was twice as good. I felt that the benefit of the doubt would not be given to a young female. One memorable event was a business luncheon celebrating a concluded deal, attended by two senior male executives and hosted by myself along with a female technical specialist. At the conclusion of the meal, she and I were each handed a rose and a vial of perfume by our server and congratulated on “secretaries’ day” much to the amusement of our colleagues. At the beginning of my long career, it was really about the courage to join the fray and the conviction that I was indeed good enough. Any doubts that I had, I cured through effort and determination.

My second role was at a US software start-up based out of Boston. It was an exciting company with a unique technology and a great growth trajectory. One of the reasons I accepted the position was the number of women that were represented in senior roles. In fact, the Canadian staff of this company were exclusively women. Both the sales and technical executives were deeply competent and impressive females. In a competitive sales environment, I found myself vying for the top position against a male US counterpart. After years of back and forth, he was promoted to head a region, while I had to threaten to resign if I was not afforded the same opportunity. My company relented and I got my chance to manage a team and I’ve never looked back. I realized that it would never have happened if I had not been assertive beyond my comfort zone. I passionately loved building a team and mentoring young people along successful career paths. The chance to lead came my way only because I demanded an equal opportunity based on my performance. I am grateful I took the chance and stood up for myself.

Over the various senior leadership roles that followed, the corporate culture and attitude towards women varied greatly depending on the organization and enlightenment of top leadership. Some organizations were progressive and true meritocracies, while others were antediluvian and the only positive thing I can say is that there was never a line-up for the women’s facilities at executive events.

The bottom line is that intelligence is distributed equally among the sexes. Combine that simple fact with the grit and determination women cultivate to compete on an even footing, add the compassion and insight we often leverage, and women can excel in any field. High technology has much to offer and I encourage young women not to be deterred from pursuing it. I have had the great privilege to work with some passionate, brilliant and inspiring women, and their representation in leadership roles continues to grow. High tech needs to continue to benefit from a greater participation of women who can thrive in this challenging and rewarding career.

Frances Newbigin has extensive experience in building and managing successful enterprise software organizations in Canada. As member of the ITMG Advisory Board, Frances provides guidance on compelling issues and topics for CIOs.


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