On Wednesday, November 14, Peggy Yao, the first Mandarin-speaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher in the Tri-State area, is coming to the Westchester campus for a Tech Collective Lunch and Learn on “Mindfulness for Professional and Personal Success.” Peggy will be on campus to meet students and impact our School’s community in a positive way.
Yao, an alumna of the Pace University, attended several classes in Pace University’s Lubin School of Business Masters of Business Administration program from 1979 to 1981. She used her learning experiences to grow a lifelong dedication to community service and charity. As an MSBR teacher in Chinese schools and senior centers, local libraries, and the Tzu-Chi Foundation—of which she is an active member—Yao has served the community with her approach on growing stronger personal physical and mental health.
This event comes at a perfect time as the stressful season of midterms has just finished up. Students will have the opportunity to dive into a conversation about mindfulness and mental health with Yao over food provided by the School.
The event will take place at 12:00pm on the third floor at the Goldstein Academic Center. Students will have the opportunity to network and chat with Yao in the Seidenberg lounge.
Helen Altshuler is a Seidenberg alumna (BS in Computer Science ’97) of whom we are particularly proud. Not only does she have a fascinating life story, but years of hard work have enabled her to progress to a position of thought leader today. Recent articles have described her as one of the top female “engineering leaders closing the gender gap in NYC tech” (builtinnyc.com), despite her status as a noteworthy woman in tech being quite unintentional and unexpected on Helen’s part! She’s also a member of the Seidenberg Advisory Board, so we get to enjoy her presence frequently.
As a senior engineering leader at Google, Helen is responsible for managing a multi-year transformation program in Google Cloud, and an Open Source platform called Bazel. Prior to Google, Helen was the CTO at the fintech startup PeerIQ, where she built data and engineering teams, created a cloud based analytics platform for peer to peer lending, and sold it to key institutional clients. She started her career as a software engineer at JP Morgan, after obtaining a CS degree at Pace University. She grew into technical leadership and Executive Director roles, becoming responsible for technology delivery in Credit Risk, Big Data and Analytics.
Helen is passionate about talent development and is a frequent hackathon mentor/judge, women in tech guest speaker, and Girls Who Code facilitator. She actively promotes diversity and STEM initiatives at Pace University as a member of Pace Women in Business Steering Committee.
I visited Helen at Google the day after a snowstorm in NYC. When I emailed her to check we were still on, she responded that, yes, “the city is open and so are we” – my first glimpse of a woman with extraordinary work ethic.
Not long after we sat down, Helen began to describe her life. Born in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), Helen didn’t experience the same societal norms concerning gender as in the USA. “Women leaders were everywhere!” she said, listing the Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, India’s first and only female prime minister Indira Gandhi, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
She moved with her family to the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, where limited opportunities and discrimination caused them to come to America as refugees.
“I came here for the opportunities that weren’t available to me in my country – nothing was going to stop me from doing that,” Helen says. “I also came here as a woman, from somewhere where I wasn’t restricted by anything.”
One would expect that coming from a background of gender equality to a place where society treats the sexes with discrepancies ranging from subtle to outrageous would be quite the culture shock. However, Helen’s experience was different. Her background had escalated her to the point where her interactions with people were based on them as individual personalities. “I feel like I had blinders on; those blinders helped me. I never saw men and women at work – I saw people and colleagues who were there to work together.”
In fact, Helen never even thought of herself as a “woman in tech” until, 10 years into her tech career, she was invited to speak at a women in tech panel for the first time. Technology was just something she did, like everybody else she worked with. It was something she had always done.
“Since I was the only child, my father wanted to raise me to be as technical as I could be,” Helen explains. That said, when she first moved here she was interested in doing art but a swift reality check made her change her mind. “I walked down Broadway seeing artists selling their work for nothing and I couldn’t do that as an immigrant. I needed a make a living!”
She started the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science here at Pace University in 1993. This was around the time the world wide web was really becoming worldwide, and the internet was rolling out and developing faster than ever. What was it like being in the middle of that frenzy?
“Everything was moving so fast at that point that I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. I was an intern at Marsh & McLennan (insurance company) through Pace’s co-op program, and HTML and CGI had just become popular. My boss bought a book called HTML for Dummies and put it on my
desk and said ‘hey, we need an intranet site’ – it was a continuation from my studies at Pace. It was pretty organic; my job was all about building technology and this was a new thing to build.
“Pace had IRC chat before the world wide web. The amazing thing was that only the computer science students at other universities had access at the time. We had mainframes that allowed us to connect with CS students across the world; I chatted with students in Canada, Israel, Russia – it’s how I met my husband who was at Polytech. It brought us together through our curiosity about technology. It was a way to get perspective from different tech students. Later on, more students from other disciplines got on, but for a while it was just us tech students.”
After she graduated, Helen started out as a software engineer and grew her career from there. She learned that progress was good and that taking opportunities was a way to move on to bigger and better things. “But don’t move up so quickly that you have to play catch up for the rest of your career,” she warns. Even in her senior position now, Helen is an advocate of gaining and maintaining technical knowledge. It isn’t fun moving into a new position where you feel lacking in the knowledge department – in the long run, progressing too soon can hold you back.
One should never shy away from progress, on the other hand. Helen’s list of recommendations for corporate career growth is short and simple:
Become a domain expert
Align yourself to your manager’s success
If you see an opportunity, raise your hand
If you’re tapped on the shoulder, go for it
… but resist the temptation to move up too quickly before building your domain expertise
But what if opportunities don’t seem to come your way? Women in particular can find it difficult to say yes to progress, even when offered to them – and when it’s not? Many struggle to start conversations and end up waiting for a promotion that either won’t come or comes much later than it should, whereas if they had asked for it they could have received it sooner.
“Sometimes women rely on their managers to appreciate them,” Helen says, echoing a sentiment expressed by another of our alumna, Kim Perdikou.
Kim, who graduated in 1993, said in a previous interview: “I had this very wrong belief that if you worked really hard your boss would recognize it and you’d eventually get a job doing what you really should be doing. That is utter rubbish.”
Interestingly, another Seidenberg friend who recently spoke at our LST Honoree Speaker Series (which Helen introduced), Judy Spitz, told a story about advancement as a woman: “Once, early in my career, I got called into the senior executive’s office and he said ‘I want to give you this job’. I said to him ‘I’m not sure that I’m qualified for that job’. He looked at me like I had three heads. I’m not sure he’d ever had anyone in that office he’d offered a promotion to who said no, thanks.”
Imposter syndrome and plain societal conditioning are big problems for many women in technology – and in other fields. As someone with experience having these conversations and self-advocating, Helen has some advice.
“Bring your data with you,” she says. Your manager can’t deny your good work if you bring along proof. “Sometimes, you need to put your foot forward, show your data, and negotiate.”
Negotiating doesn’t have to be confrontational, either. “You don’t want to go too aggressive; it can affect your self-worth. When I came to Google, I took a leap of faith – I did not negotiate aggressively, because I looked at this opportunity as a longer term career path rather than just the next job.”
The notion of women in technology being a movement and of being a woman in technology herself took a hold on Helen. It was also what spurred her interest in board memberships. When I asked her why she joined the Seidenberg advisory board, she replied that she’d always been curious about it.
“I attended a women’s leadership panel where they stressed the importance of being on boards. It’s important to establish yourself as a thought leader – that helps with a broader perspective and gets you recognized within your industry. Women on boards is kind of the same thing as women CEOs and other high positions – there just needs to be more of it!”
Being on the board means bringing unique ideas with her to the Seidenberg School. “I started teaching through my son’s school Girls Who Code program, and started thinking about when I first came to New York, wanting to be an artist. I want to create a web design & developmente program at Pace. There is a benefit to combining the arts and sciences school and the computer science school. There are coding boot camps for Web Design and Development, but they fall short in giving CS fundamentals, impacting the quality of front end engineers on the market. Pace is uniquely positioned to do it, with the perfect combination of art and computing.”
Working with Girls Who Code (GWC), a national not-for-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology, has created a reciprocal relationship for Helen. She started working with GWC around the same time she started at Google – late summer, 2016. “That’s usually how it is for me: when you start something new, you try to put yourself on a path that’s going to change your life to some extent.”
Helen teaches web design and development, which was what inspired her thought process about potentially combining art and computing in a program at Pace. In fact, her participation with GWC, Seidenberg, and her work at Google are mutually beneficial: “The logical connection between Google, GWC, and Seidenberg, is that learning one helps the other. I had to re-learn some HTML and CSS for GWC, then one of the first things I had to do at Google was update a roadmap page on our website using those same skills.”
“Similarly, I bring suitable Google concepts, like material design and design sprints, to GWC and other programs. What I learn here, I apply in class, and what I learn in class I can sometimes apply at Google as well!”
Despite having been with Google for less than a year, Helen has, as she put it, “drank the Kool-Aid.” The company’s focus on community meant a focus on integration at the beginning. “I learned that newcomers to Google get to wear a stylish hat complete with a propeller on top and are referred to as “Nooglers” for the first six months.”
Working at the coveted Google company means Helen knows a thing or two about career paths. So what’s her best advice for tech students? And what about getting beyond the infamous Google interview?
“You need to build your domain expertise. In technology, that expertise manifests itself in two areas. One, which is the most important in interviews, is hardcore tech skills. You need to know your algorithms, etc, and it helps you do well in interviews. The second one is, I meet a lot of students who want to be managers. They should be more thoughtful about their longer-term career plans. You can’t manage until you understand your domain well. A lot of women are drawn to technical leadership – you need to be a domain expert first, which could take 4+ years of coding before you can move on.”
“Camille Fournier [a technical thought leader and former chief technology officer of Rent the Runway], said that she worked as a software engineer for 10 years and achieved mastery; at that point, she could apply herself to any technology, even if she was out of practice.
“At Google, you are constantly pushed in technical directions. Even as a leader, I’m expected to code – and I welcome that extra reinforcement. On the other hand, where I achieved mastery is in systems design and scalability, and understanding how to process data and work with data at scale. That’s what Google is all about and that’s what you learn, and it’s also important in the fintech sector. You want to keep your systems working under different conditions. Those are the skills that help you get a job in any industry. No matter what systems you work on, they need to scale and they need to be reliable.
“A lot of my interview at Google had to do with understanding of scaling large and complex systems. Google has billions of users; how do you keep that data usable? When you click on an email, how do you get it to load instantly instead of in 10 minutes? I may not achieve mastery on the pure coding front, but I certainly achieved it on systems design/scalability front.”
Having domain expertise is something that can only be achieved after years of practice. Anyone can get into casual coding, but it’s the hours you put in that really count. Helen is clearly someone who has put the hours in. “I try to tie in everything extracurricular that I do directly to work or to family,” she says. “I do hackathons with my son, coding camps with my daughter.”
And all of that is against the backdrop of NYC. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I like having lots of options to explore with my kids. When the kids were little, I took them to celebrate every international holiday – Chinatown for Chinese New Year, Little India for Independence Day, so we could celebrate international culture.”
Diversity is one of the things that makes New York great. It’s a city of hard workers, a landscape that is reflected within the walls of the Seidenberg School as students rush from class to internship to workshop to co-op job to networking event.
Recently, the New York Times ranked Pace University #2 nationwide for the upward mobility of our students. Students who come through our doors from less privileged backgrounds end up graduating and going on to great things. When Helen moved here in 1993 with $3000 to her name and the determination to make a good life for herself and family, she exemplified that quintessentially New York attitude – and ours.
The third and final of our LST Honoree Speaker Series – a chain of interviews with previous winners of our prestigious Leadership and Service in Technology award – took place on Wednesday April 19, 2017, and featured Pace University alumnus and Seidenberg advisory board member Mike Zbranak interviewing the incredibly charismatic Austin A. Adams.
Austin was recognized for his leadership and service in technology in 2006 at one of the highest-grossing iterations of our annual fundraisers in its history. We were delighted to welcome both Austin and Mike back through our doors and they were equally as happy to join us.
“We are capping what has been an absolutely stellar series on financial technology throughout the year,” said Dr. Jonathan Hill, Dean of the Seidenberg School. “We are in the presence of two legends in the financial technology industry. We are honored to have with us Mr Austin A. Adams and Mike Zbranak.”
Austin A. Adams retired in 2006 as Executive Vice President and Corporate Chief Information Officer at JPMorgan Chase where he was a member of the 13-person Operating Committee and managed 28,000 employees and a $7bn budget. Currently, Austin serves on the board of several companies, including Spectra Energy Corp., CommScope, and Keycorp. “I welcome the opportunity to be here,” Austin remarked. “I really like the model here, so when I was given the invitation to come here I welcomed it.”
Moderator of the discussion, Mike Zbranak is the Managing Director and Deputy Chief Information Officer of Chase Consumer & Community Banking at JPMorgan Chase.
In front of a room packed with students, staff and faculty, and other members of our Pace community, Austin said one of the things that is always music to our ears: “I think you’re in the right industry.”
He continued: “The IT role needs new minds, new thoughts, and I commend you for that.”
It was time for the discussion to get underway, which Mike kicked off by asking Austin what drew him into technology.
“There are several things you’ll never see on my resume,” Austin replied. “I was a failed college professor and a failed professional golfer. I got into technology almost by mistake. I was a senior manager in a bank and one group I managed was technology.”
It was through this exposure that Austin began to see how important technology was to a company. He now touts it as one of the most, if not the most, important departments in any business. The long-standing problem, however, has been that businesses still refuse to see IT departments as anything other than an unfortunate necessity, here to fix computers so the real work can get done.
“IT was the backroom – where you process things, keep your mouth shut, process reports for the next day. I wanted the business to look at us in IT and say ‘we’re partners’.”
He spoke about business orientation bias, which is what a business’ motivations are based on what it is trying to do, how it is trying to make money and serve its customers. Typically, technology does not factor very much into these plans. However, by understanding the business’ motivations, the technology department could start taking steps towards contributing meaningful work that would get it recognized as integral to a better business.
“I used to talk about our group as being partners of choice and leaders of change,” Austin said. “Being a leader of change, it’s really an art form.”
Referring to the students in the room, he said: “Technology and you as a tech pro have an opportunity to leader change. You may not get your name on it, or get your name recognized in the WST or within the company, but there is no job family in any company that I’m aware of that knows as much about the company as the IT department. You possess all the meaningful information in the company.
“Focusing on the business, understand where the business is going, and you’re a leader behind the scenes.”
Mike added: “When you’re in IT, you are the integrators of everything. When people are coming to you and talking about what they want, you get business knowledge that other people don’t have. You can become a change agent. I hire about 700 college grads a year into our training program and do touch points about what people are learning. I always want them to opine or put up suggestions about what’s going on. I’ve noticed that people fresh from school are open to adding suggestions than people 10 years in. I learn more from those sessions than I do from my whole team.”
The conversation continued towards different types of change, namely keeping up if not getting ahead in an ever-changing world. Mike spoke about his observations during the start of his career at JP Morgan.
“When I went to school here and started working at JP Morgan on Broad Street, there were 11 Money Center Banks. They dominated the financial landscape at the time. You weren’t allowed to bank across state lines. Out of those 11 banks that ran everything, only two are left. All the rest were taken over or absorbed into other banks. Austin, you engineer these massive bank acquisitions or mergers. I’m talking about programs, think about a project you have worked on, you’re talking thousands of people, you’re really betting the bank. How do you sell the board on that?”
Austin said: “People think about innovation as being too much like a buzzword. Meaningful innovation in a company is a lot of very small steps taken by a lot of people. A lot of it is about mindsets, and really good programming. If you have any kind of skill set in the world of program management, there will be a need forever for people who can coordinate between areas in business. Really good technology people look at what the business opportunity is and they can make it happen. Thinking about innovation, think about your position as an IT professional to make those small steps.”
Much of innovation can be found in consolidation. Mike spoke at length about his experiences coming into businesses and finding far too many processes, programs, and options when just a few would suffice. At JP Morgan, the business was so customer-focused that there were 970 services when Mike took over – Amex had three. When Mike asked his new team what they could reduce their services by and nobody responded, he told them “we’re going to have 10.” By consolidating hundreds of services into just 10, the business began to operate far more smoothly.
Austin agreed, saying that the biggest missed opportunity he’d had at JP Morgan was that the technology team failed to communicate the cost of complexity, or the value of simplicity. “You’ll see complexity in organizations that really doesn’t need to be there unless someone’s willing to make tough discussions. If you have a simpler environment and one way of doing something, you can increase your productivity and your profit.”
Innovation can be looked at as efficiency; it adds effectiveness. Innovation can be a life-changing moment, but it’s also incremental because it’s made up of small improvements. For example, Craigslist was an innovative site when it was created, but then people took what Craigslist was offering – goods and services – and made apps from it. Uber exists as a combination of existing taxi businesses and the ordering online concept.
“At some time in your career, you’re going to see pieces of information that’s going to show that something needs to be done better,” Austin said.
Mike agree, adding that the need to move quickly can be a challenge in traditionally slow moving business. “I think about how fast opportunity comes and go. I take my phone and look up the mobile app for Chase. We have a digital wallet now – I was talking about it nine years ago. After years of meetings and mergers, we didn’t talk about it enough – then Apple came and ate our lunch. Then, instead of being something innovative, it becomes something you have to have because everybody else has it.”
Austin and Mike then discussed the importance of having trained cybersecurity professionals entering the fintech space. “The one thing any board is worrying about is cyber,” Austin said. “Five of six panels (at a conference) ended up talking about cybersecurity. Four were scared to death because they don’t know what to do about it.”
Finally, Austin shared three things he has observed over the last few decades in his guide for how to accelerate your career. Here are his three opportunities:
Peer feedback. Work in any company, and your boss only has so much time to give you feedback. If you quickly get your head around creating dialog with a peer of yours so you can say “Jack, I want to succeed and I want the company to succeed; I’d like to get constructive criticism from you. I’ll buy you a beer every few weeks if you’ll sit down with me and give me feedback. Most people won’t do it, but some will and you’ll get extraordinary feedback. We are never in reality the way we see ourselves. Getting that outside perspective is crucial.
You’re going to work with people who have skills and knowledge that you want to develop. Mike is one of the best technologists I know, but when he was new to a senior CI role he worked on developing his skill. If you go to people who have the skills you want to develop and ask for 15 minutes for them to explain how they got to where they are, most will say yes. This is a real way to accelerate your learning process.
Think hard about what an extra hour a week would do for you if you spent it learning about the company. It may be more fun to spend the time at leisure, but if you spend an hour or so spending your discretionary time learning about your profession and the business it will help you get so far.
After the discussion between Mike and Austin, there was a brief Q&A session followed by time for the students to chat with our guests in person. We’d like to extend a massive thank you to Mike Zbranak and Austin A. Adams for taking the time to visit us and look forward to seeing you at the LST Awards and in the future!
The second of our LST Honoree Speaker Series took place on our Westchester campus. Butcher Suite was looking mighty full as a crowd of Pace students, staff, faculty, and our alumni and friends at IBM stopped by to listen to our spotlight day’s speaker, Nick Donofrio.
Similar to the previous LST Honoree speaker event with Judy Spitz, the format was interview style, with Seidenberg student Christian Nahshal (BS in Information Technology ’17) taking the stage alongside our guest. What followed was a fascinating conversation, where our 2013 LST Honoree, Nicholas Donofrio, shared his incredible insights, experiences, and wisdom.
Nick Donofrio led IBM’s technology and innovation strategies from 1997 until his retirement in October 2008. He spent the early part of his career in integrated circuit and chip development as a designer of logic and memory chips. In the years that followed, he advanced and succeeded in numerous technical management positions and, later, executive positions in several of IBM’s product divisions. Notably, he was vice chairman of the IBM International Foundation and chairman of the Board of Governors for the IBM Academy of Technology.
One of the first things Nick spoke about was what he gained from doing co-op assignments with IBM while he was at college. “I can’t say enough about co-op assignments, this idea of work study,” he said. One of the best things about doing relevant work while studying is that it helps cement theoretical learning with practical training.
As an engineer, it was useful to Nick to combine the two as it helped him learn to find solutions for specific problems. “You need to be more problem-based in the way you learn and the way you think, because that’s what engineers are.”
Nick also spoke about how important it was to get and maintain technical skills. Even though the higher up the ladder you go the fewer technical skills you typically use, it’s important to try to stay technical as long as you can.
He also introduced the concepts T-shaped and I-shaped personalities, and the importance of practicing the behaviors and traits of a T-shaped person. An I-shaped person is one that is an expert in one area and does not (and therefore cannot) solve problems outside of their field. However, if one takes the time to advance their knowledge in related areas, they spread their field of expertise – become T-shaped – and can apply a broader range of knowledge to solve different problems.
Expanding your area of knowledge also means you can connect two disparate ideas and create new things. “When you intersect things that don’t normally, or never have been intersected, you become an innovator,” said Nick. “It also allows you to explore the gaps,” finding new ideas within existing areas of knowledge.
“How do you bring that into a leadership aspect?” asked Christian, bringing the conversation around to Nick’s experiences in executive positions.
“Focus on how value is created, where, and how it is created,” Nick said. A good leader should see the strengths and weaknesses of their staff and assign them tasks and roles that allow them to work to their greatest strengths, individually and within the team.
He also spoke about how important it is to be honest. “Transparency, openness, collaboration,” Nick said. If something goes wrong, it is always better to be upfront about it so a solution can be figured out sooner. “We’re going to find out the truth in the end anyway. Because that’s how it works. You may as well tell me now that you screwed up, that the project is 6 months late, that you’re not going to deliver, you might as well tell me NOW so I can help you.”
He shared a saying he likes to use: “You be forthright, I will be forthcoming. Tell me the truth; I will get you the resources.”
Christian then asked about what Nick considers to be one of the most important successes of his life.
“The impact I have had on the lives of people and the impact they’ve had on me,” Nick replied, explaining that the opportunities he has had to help other people have had a powerful effect on him, particularly the ability to lend an empathetic ear or be a sounding board. “To know the answer, but to know to listen is a very important gift.”
Nick is also a big advocate of paying it forward: “I want you to remember what I did for you and do something for somebody else. Too often, sadly, that does not happen. People get where they want to be, and the first thing they do is to lock the door. Don’t be that person.”
Several members of the audience then got to ask questions, which Nick happily answered, including a question about his experiences working with Steve Jobs. He described the kind of innovative thinking that enabled Steve Jobs to get to where he did: “Steve Jobs would solve your problems a different way. That’s what innovators do. He understand workflow better than anyone – that was what his gift was – and he would start with the problem. Any time he started with the answer he was wrong. He didn’t really create anything, he just studied it from the end user perspective.”
Another student asked “What qualities do you have that make you a T-shaped person?”
“You have to know your limits and your abilities, but that doesn’t mean you stop asking the questions,” Nick responded, and went on to recommend reading up on the Medici family who were around in Renaissance Florence. They were a very rich and powerful family who brought around the beginning of the industrial revolution. “They were T-shaped,” Nick said. “They thought about combining this craft with that craft,” which exemplifies the king of T-shaped thinking described above.
Bringing his point a little closer to the present day, Nick spoke about his time as a manager at IBM. “I didn’t know how to do a lot of things at IBM, but I would teach people how to teach themselves. T-shaped people are enablers, open, collaborative, multi-disciplined, global thinkers. They enable others to be better.”
There was a final question – what was Nick’s favorite project?
“Probably the most embarrassing and the most rewarding,” Nick said. “When I became a manager back in the early 70s. I managed a group as the lead circuit designer. We were all friends. After a year, we had an opinion survey. For every group in IBM, you had the best and the worst. The best got rewarded by the chairman and the worst… we never heard from them again!”
When the survey results rolled around, Nick was dismayed to learn that he’d received a 1.2 out of 5 – from a team of people he considered his close friends. However, the more time he spent ruminating on his management style, the more he realized that perhaps he hadn’t been the best manager he could be. In fact, as his background had been doing the same job as the rest of the team, he realized that he’d spent the last year continuing to do that job, a job that wasn’t his any more.
“Now IBM wants me to go into a meeting with them and ‘find out why they think you’re a jerk, but you can’t outright ask them as the survey is anonymous’. I went into the meeting and told them, I am so sorry, I obviously let you all down. I know I must have been a jerk the last year, it’s clear to me that I was trying to do your job instead of my job. It’s clear to me that I may be fired. It’s also clear to me that if you’ll have me, I will change. I will be more collaborative, more open, the manager you want me to be. I will be a manager, not a circuit designer. To a person, they all agreed to keep me on.”
As luck would have it for Nick, there was one other person in the entire company with a score of 1.0, so Nick got to keep his job (it was decidedly unlucky for the other guy, though!)
“So my advice is that if you’re going to be bad, be bad early in your career!”
Following the Q&A, Nick stayed behind to chat with students and meet the community. We would like to thank Nick for spending an incredible couple of hours with us and for sharing the amazing stories and lessons he has learned over the years.
We hope to have you back soon! As Dr. Jonathan Hill, Dean of Seidenberg School remarked, “There is a reason why this gentleman fills a room.”
Kim Perdikou graduated from Pace with an MS in Information Systems in 1993. She has held positions with companies like Dun & Bradstreet, Reader’s Digest and was the CIO then Executive Vice President at Juniper Networks. She has been the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of iPhotonix, an Optical and SDN company, since April 2015. She is also an Investor and Chairwoman of the Board of REBBL, an herbal beverage company. Kim additionally serves as a Board Director of CyberArk, a technology cyber security company. She is also a member of the Advisory Board for Trunomi, a financial technology company.
She’s also an incredible human rights advocate. As an incredibly accomplished alumna, Kim has had a lot of experience which helped her uncover one of her strongest passions: fighting the global problem of human trafficking. We spoke with Kim about her experiences and unique perspective.
What was your journey to your current position as Chairwoman of the Board of Directors at iPhotonix like?
I had been invited to dinner with a friend in Bermuda and met a young couple who were on holiday. The guy was in a startup and was friends with the CEO of iPhotonix. When the CEO was looking for a new board member, he reached out to me. I joined the board and, when the chairman left (his company was acquired and there was a conflict of interest), the shareholders asked me to be chairwoman. I did say no for about an hour and then they congratulated me! Case closed.
Did you come across unique challenges as a woman in technology?
When I was 5 my mother saw a program on TV about mathematical children who are different and she tried to contain me in that ‘different’ box because I was very into math. What happened was I thought if I am different I am going to be different on my terms!
So I was. One time when my father sold a car at work and came home, he brought a new record player – the first we ever had. My brother and sister sat and watched the record go round and sang to the songs and I sat at the other end of the table, aged 5, counting the money. I did the taxes for my dad’s business when I was 12.
When I discovered there was a glass ceiling, I realized “I’m never going to be a director.” My husband didn’t understand because he’d started his own businesses and done everything he’d wanted. “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s all in your head,” he told me, and even though it isn’t all in your head, he was right: my own behavior was stopping some of my progress, so I had to change my behavior.
I had this very wrong belief that if you worked really hard your boss would recognize it and you’d eventually get a job doing what you really should be doing. That is utter rubbish. You need to know where you want to go, picture it in your head, and talk to people to find out how to get there. Men know exactly where they want to be. Part of the behavior is our own behavior – if you go along with what’s expected of you, you won’t ever break free of those expectations.
I started taking steps to change my behavior. Here’s an example: men talk to each other about sports, so I learned to play golf so I could have a conversation with them. I ended up loving golf so much I didn’t allow business on the golf course! And the men enjoyed playing with me so much it normalized our relationships. That allowed me to be seen as a person, rather than a woman who they couldn’t relate to.
How else did you change your behavior?
I would do things to be helpful that weren’t necessarily part of my job, which would benefit others but not me. For example, a software group was going to be moved to another executive but they didn’t want to move it yet because it was so ‘delicate’. Even though it wasn’t my job, I ended up running it, putting out fires every day, but the other executive was the one getting paid and promoted.
One night, I was complaining about it to my friend and I’ll never forget what she said to me. She told me I was the problem. Because I was the one doing it. I had not set any boundaries. I was the one who was doing work outside my job that someone else was getting rewarded for. I wasn’t very happy to hear it, but she was right. Once I got past how I felt about her ‘advice’, I went into work and asked for a conversation where I told them that, with all the extra work, I’m not focused on the things I should be, and so I’d like to move the software group – and the date I’m going to do it is April X. They said “we can’t do that to this guy!” and I replied “they are moving the only decision to be made is who they will report to.”
Breaking the mold is key
Everybody who is not happy in their careers blames “my boss, my this, my that,” but it’s up to them to change their situations.
You will not change what other people do, but you can change how you behave, how you react, and where you want to go.
If you want a job, you have to ask for it. Don’t sit back and wait for someone to recognize your talents. Ask for promotions in a non-confrontational way without time pressure. And don’t start doing the job until it’s actually yours.
When going for a promotion or new job, I learned that talented executives would outline a plan of what they were going to do and wouldn’t actually do it until they had the job and budget to accomplish it. Once I started to learn how people did things at the executive level I became a lot more prepared. I would have a list of things I would do and things I would not do. And I would stick with it.
Tell us about your work with REBBL and Slavery is Over? Why is it important to you?
Juniper Foundation built a relationship with Not for Sale (NFS), which is an innovative not-for-profit to re-abolish slavery. When I learned that there are more slaves in the world today than when slavery was first abolished I knew something different had to be done to solve it.
My friend Dave Batstone, Founder of NFS, had the idea of creating companies in the most economically challenged areas, where people who are the most vulnerable to slavery live, in order to address the supply chain and change the economics of the area.
There are so many vulnerable people in the world. They are vulnerable because they are so poor: there are no jobs, no money to be made, so when somebody shows up in their village promising them jobs and money overseas they jump at the chance.
They are told they will be given passports and work visas and that they can work in the USA or UK and make enough to send back home to support their families. Of course they jump at that. But when they arrive in a foreign country with only the person who brought them, they are threatened and told they have to pay everything back at an extortionate price. They are also told they are in the new country illegally, so they are forced into prostitution and other slavery and have to work 24/7 to pay off debts that will never get paid.
Dave’s idea was to disrupt the whole supply chain so that people never got into the position where they were so desperate that they would agree to leave their villages, with these people, in the first place. So several companies that were mainly dependent on labor in those villages were created. We wanted to create jobs with dignity, so looked for reasons and valuable commodities a company could use from the area to create business in specific locations.
Dave had a Montara Circle meeting of business, sports and government people to brainstorm ideas in 24 hours. They looked at the Peruvian Amazon where there are villages where whole families are indentured to collecting minerals used in the U.S. car industry. So we looked for something indigenous to the area that was also unique to the area and could be used for business. We discovered an herb called cat’s claw. We ended up creating REBBL, a beverage company that creates drinks from cat’s claw and other indigenous ingredients. The product is very good – and that is important for financially successful businesses. But the true difference is the impact of a clean dignified supply chain created which can give back to fund the next set of businesses. 2.5% of REBBL’s revenue is donated to creating new businesses, so the whole network feeds itself.
You can change the world. The way to do it in any sustainable fashion is the same as anywhere else: through economics.
This is the third in a three part post covering the Judy Spitz’s incredible interview with Seidenberg student Niamh Fitzsimon. The event is the first in a series featuring previous winners of our prestigious Leadership and Service in Technology (LST) award.
The event was rounded off with a brief Q&A session. Judy had excellent responses for our students, such as Ava Posner’s (BS in IT) question about her motivation for making a path for women.
“In my opinion, the technology field NEEDS us,” Judy replied. “It’s proven that in teams with more diversity you get better results. Women control the majority of purchasing power around the world. With product developers being mostly men, we may not be getting the best product ideas.”
Another question was about the hardest hurdle Judy has come up against. She immediately demonstrated her finesse with her first step to success – being able to tell a good story.
“At one point in my career, I oversaw the organization that delivered software to the networking engineering organization within Verizon. The network organization is the engine room in a company. The guys- all guys – who ran that organization were all engineers from the south. These were guys who were working for the phone companies their whole lives. They were older than me and they were true blue engineers. Well, in walks Judt Spitz with her PhD! I didn’t know anything about engineering or networking and I was supposed to be the partner that helped deliver the software. They had no interest in working with me. It took me a long time to figure out how to get past that.
“What I ultimately did was I brought my entourage with me – a group of people who knew me and liked me and supported me. We went to meetings and there I was surrounded by these guys who WERE comfortable with me. There’s two things you can say in this kind of situation, which are ‘gosh darnit you’re going to GET comfortable with me’, or you can say ‘what can I do to make you comfortable?’ Because the end goal is not about me, it’s about getting the software delivered. I’m being paid to deliver the software that the organization wants – remember, it’s not about you, it’s about whatever you need to accomplish. Over time, they began to realize I did have some skills – not necessarily in engineering, but about management, delivering software on time; the type of thing that makes their lives easier.”
Another question came back to women in technology. One of our students, Kendra Jackman, asked if Judy had thoughts on why fewer women are interested in tech careers, or why they choose not to pursue them.
“The lack of women in technology is not universal,” Judy said, indicating that the issue of so few women pursuing computing careers is not replicated in other countries. “I don’t think there’s anything different genetically between women here and in the rest of the world. It’s cultural. There are a lot of disincentives and cultural bias. In the 90s, when personal computers came into the house, it was assumed to be a toy for the boys: they took them apart, gamed on them, games were created for boys, and it was around then that women started to be less interested in technology and computer science. Once it gets going, it perpetuates itself. When you think about role models in technology, who do you think of? Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates: it becomes a stereotype. When you’re a female student and you peek into the Intro to Computer Science class and all you see is men, you think ‘I don’t see anyone like me’. And there are all kinds of unconscious things that go on in those classrooms. Guys don’t want you on their teams, they’ve been hacking longer than you, they don’t think you’re as good as them.”
Judy’s solution to the problem is simple: “The more women in computer science, the more women in computer science. As you get more women into the classroom in computer science, the classroom culture starts to change. The more the culture changes, the more women in the classes. I think the most effective you can do is require every undergraduate to take an Intro to Computer Science class and make that class fun.”
Finally, Judy rounded off the session by answering a question about leadership. “The most important thing about leadership is to understand that it’s a relationship. It’s a relationship between you and the people you want to follow you. It’s about them, not you.
“Make sure you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Don’t think the key to success is to be the smartest person in the room. You don’t have to be the smartest, you have to be the person who can assemble the best team.”
Judy’s last remark was to advise everyone to surround themselves by leaders who act the way described above as they will learn from their habits.
The event was closed off with a raffle for a $100 gift card, which was won by student Rachel Gonzalez – congrats, Rachel! Coffee’s on you, right?