Women of color in IT find opportunities for growth and leadership
Companies are stepping up efforts to recruit women of color for technology and leadership positions
If you're a woman and you're trained in IT, the opportunities are abundant – Geri Thomas, Bank of America
By Sue Poremba
Senior Contributing Editor
Great opportunities abound for women in the IT industry. But the rate at which women apply for these roles is significantly lower than males, a statistic that many are looking to change.
Susan Johnson, VP for diversity and inclusion at customer communications technology company Pitney Bowes, says, "We recognize some unique challenges face women in these fields. These jobs include long hours and sometimes lots of travel, which can make IT roles less attractive and serve as potential obstacles for women seeking to achieve a greater work-life balance."
On the upside, she adds, Pitney Bowes and other Fortune 500 companies see the benefits of a diverse employee base, and are stepping up their efforts to recruit women, particularly women of color, into IT careers.
"When our workforce includes people from different backgrounds, experiences, skill sets and perspectives, we are more likely to operate in a way that reflects and speaks to the diversity in the marketplace. Women of color add a special flavor to this equation, given their unique perspectives on race and gender, and their life experiences, networks, thinking styles and preferences," Johnson explains.
Geri Thomas, global diversity and inclusion executive and president for the Georgia market of Bank of America, says that the job climate for women in IT is excellent right now. "What I've seen over the past couple of years is the shrinking of the available pool," Thomas explains. "So, if you're a woman and you are trained in IT, the opportunities are abundant." Bank of America has a very strong women-in-technology group, Thomas says, as well as a longtime dedication to diversity, and they work together to recruit a diverse technology workforce. "When we go to a conference, people on my team work with recruiters. We have global HR staff and executives working together to bring in the best talent."
SVP Tracy Daniels: a diverse tech leader at Bank of America
Tracy Daniels got her BA in information systems from the University of Western Ontario (London, ON) in 1994, her BS in management from Winston-Salem State University (Winston-Salem, NC) in 1996, and an MBA from Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC) in 2006. "My husband keeps asking me when I'm going back to school," she says with a laugh.
In college, Daniels was intrigued by computers and problem solving, and she liked working in an area that wasn't traditional for women. One of her first jobs out of college was managing a helpdesk, and that evolved into other jobs along the IT ladder until she landed at Bank of America (Charlotte, NC) eight years ago. Today, Daniels is a senior VP and technology business executive.
"I'm a service-delivery executive in the technology infrastructure space, and I support our home loans and legacy asset servicing business," she explains. "I'm responsible for leading all the relationship management folks. We support the infrastructure that the applications sit on."
Dual expertise enables dual perspectives
Her varied academic background has enabled her to wear different hats in the workplace. "My technical background gives me credibility when I talk about the tech solutions we propose. My MBA helps me understand the business we're running, and how to run my group. It helps me ensure we use our resources as efficiently as possible for the benefit of our internal and external partners," she says.
Bank of America has a complex technical footprint, and one of Daniels' top challenges is making sure its infrastructure components work well together.
But she places an equal importance on nurturing the people network. "A colleague here once told me, 'never stop asking questions.' Leadership is about working with an extended network of people, and building on teamwork to make sure you can get the best solution."
Amtrak senior director Ghada Ijam succeeds by seeking opportunities
Ghada Ijam says that she is the product of multiple immigrations and transitions. "With each transition, the goal was to seek better opportunities, either by my parents or myself," she says.
Ijam was born in Baghdad and raised in Kuwait, where she got a BSCE from Kuwait University in 1988. She came to the United States to pursue a graduate degree and a career.
Ijam got her MBA in finance from Virginia Tech University (Blacksburg, VA) in 1991. "I have strong analytical and problem-solving skills," she explains. "I also love to deal with people and work in groups and teams. The MBA was a natural addition to my engineering background, and it fine-tuned my management and leadership skills."
She says she stumbled into her career in IT. "Fannie Mae hired fresh MBA graduates and put them through a four-month IT training program. As I worked in the field, I learned that technology is a key enabler to achieving business success," she says. She began to plan her IT career path.
Ijam was a senior programmer and analyst for two years with Fannie Mae, then advanced through roles at Intel and Freddie Mac before coming to passenger rail company Amtrak (Washington, DC) three years ago.
"For three years, I served as the program director for Amtrak's sales and marketing channels, where I managed the re-launch of Amtrak's e-commerce site, which generates $1 billion a year for the company," she says. Another project she managed was the implementation of the first Amtrak mobile app for iPhone, where customers can book tickets and check train status.
Ijam is now the senior director for enterprise SAP at Amtrak. She manages the IT business analysis and configuration teams in SAP, and directs the integration of business processes across finance, procurement, logistics and HR. "I am also responsible for analyzing trends in technology, assessing the impact of emerging technologies on the business, and providing solutions that use technology to transform and improve the business," she says.
Ijam finds work in IT rewarding but challenging. "All IT projects have challenges: delivering on time and on budget, and achieving your business goals. And you are always dealing with unplanned risks and issues that arise as each project progresses."
Pitney Bowes director Jacqueline Brown: leader, mentor, women's advocate
"I saw technology as a career path untapped by women and minorities," says Jacqueline Brown, who has a BS in facilities management and an MS in telecommunications from Iona College (New Rochelle, NY).
She now has twenty-eight years of IT experience, starting in the banking industry and leading to her current position as managing director, global engineering services with Pitney Bowes (Stamford, CT).
Brown provides leadership for the engineering services staff and helps meet company software development and IT services requirements. She sets the strategic direction for development operations, development applications support, infrastructure and platform as a service, and internal and external cloud solutions. "I provide support on software development projects and enable the Pitney Bowes' engineering staff to get the product to market quicker and more efficiently," she says.
Leading technology and people
Brown has found that IT allows her to build on her natural strengths: communication, facilitation, and interpersonal skills. She defines herself as a "high-energy go-getter."
"It's a challenge to keep ahead of new technology solutions and also keep up with daily support requirements," says Brown. "And it's another kind of challenge keeping a vision and focus. But that's what you need to rally the team."
Brown mentors interns who come to the company through Inroads. "I believe mentoring is a great way to grow, because it forces you to think back on your own learning. Taking time to step back and reflect is as important as giving to others."
She is active in her church, and has worked with women transitioning from prison into the mainstream world. "I enjoy reaching women in need, one at a time," she says.
Divisional CIO Chandra Dhandapani helps Capital One win
"My education and career path have been driven by a constant desire to learn new things and make a difference wherever I can," says Chandra Dhandapani.
A love of numbers led her to an undergraduate degree in math in her home country of India. She added a minor in statistics, then got an MBA in marketing and finance. Her love of technology led her to a second MBA, in information systems, from the University of Texas (Arlington, TX).
She has been with Capital One (Plano, TX), which provides financial products and solutions, since 1998. "I began my career with Capital One in IT as a technical writer, then progressively increased my responsibilities to project management, technology delivery, and architecture," she explains. Ultimately she became managing vice president and divisional CIO for Capital One's financial services division. She is responsible for the technology supporting the company's auto financing and home loan business lines as well as some bank operations.
"I am currently working on the integration of the mortgage infrastructure and systems that came with the ING Direct acquisition. I'm also working to improve online products and servicing capabilities for our customers," she says.
"Technology is at the heart of financial services businesses operations," she explains. "I love the opportunity to choose and deploy the technologies that make it easier for our customers to work with us, and give us our competitive advantage in the marketplace."
As an IT leader, she ensures that the right people are brought on board, then developed and retained. "I participate in our recruiting process, from entry-level campus recruits to executive-level positions, not just in IT but across the business.
"A key challenge and fun part of my job is connecting the dots across various functions, like marketing, operations, and IT, so we can make well-rounded decisions, move faster and win as a business."
Symantec principal research engineer Sharada Sundaram finds beauty in IT
"At the age of ten, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said an artist," says Sharada Sundaram. "Then one day my uncle showed me his new Apple Powerbook laptop. That changed my outlook. Until then computers only meant a dark screen being fed some cryptic commands. This laptop was so different, so intuitive and so very beautiful. I still remember my first drawing using the MacPaint application. I was so enamored by it. I still am. This laptop drew me closer to computers, and it stuck with me."
Sundaram's interest in IT has meshed with her affinity for research and development. "I found programming to be useful and utilitarian, but research to be artistic and beautiful. R&D is a combination of imagination, logic and creativity. It's basically having unconstrained thought, just like in art," she explains.
After earning her undergraduate degree in India, Sundaram took jobs working at various research centers, including Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a government organization. She came to the United States as part of a visiting scholar program, landing at Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) where she specialized in theoretical computer science. She earned her MS in the theory of computer science, with distinction in research, in 2009. Her skills led her to Symantec Research Labs (Mountain View, CA) where she focuses on cloud security.
Looking to tomorrow's technologies
Sundaram is now a principal research engineer at information security and management company Symantec. She supports the product groups by forecasting industry needs and "enabling our teams to handle the situations of tomorrow.
"In the short time I have been with Symantec, I have worked on many different technologies, infrastructures and datasets," she says. "I really enjoy this work. The best part about my job at Symantec is the myriad experiences. Over the last year, I have worked on Java, built a website using jQuery and PHP, switched to writing some very basic shell scripts, and also experimented with different types of virtual machines and cloud infrastructures."
Right now Sundaram is focused on cloud computing security for enterprises. "Most of our engineers are dedicated to building products that help our customers in the transition to cloud computing," she explains. "Down the road, cloud computing will likely bring very different challenges in security and privacy. I identify the problems, think of effective ways to solve them and build prototypes to support the solutions."
Coca-Cola director Tanvir Sarmast: intrigue and opportunities in IT
Tanvir Sarmast came to the United States from India in 1983, the year after she graduated with a bachelors degree in English literature.
"When I arrived in the U.S., I was looking to embark on a new career. Meanwhile, the advent of Macintosh and the era of personal computing were making a strong impression on all of us. I am sure some of us still remember Steve Jobs' '1984' commercial and the waves it created. I was intrigued enough to go back to school and take computer science courses. My professional career in the IT industry took off in 1985, when I joined Electronic Data Systems and enrolled in its systems engineering program. From that point on there was no looking back. I knew I wanted to be an IT professional and grow into a leadership position," she explains.
Exciting projects await
Sarmast joined The Coca-Cola Company (Atlanta, GA) in 1990 as a senior programmer analyst. "My interest has always been in solving problems and building technical solutions that make a difference to a business," she explains. "This is one reason I continue to pursue growth opportunities in IT."
Today, Sarmast is a group director at Coca-Cola Refreshments (CCR). She leads a department that delivers enterprise application solutions and enables CCR to supply, distribute and sell beverage products. She heads three distinct teams, responsible for delivering SAP ABAP development, application integration, and business process modeling services.
"Over the course of twenty-two years here, I have worked on several exciting and fun projects," she says. "One program I worked on three years ago required sixty to seventy percent international travel. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of that program and leading an international team. The program entailed defining and developing best practices, standards and template IT solutions for the bottlers across the globe. It gave me a great opportunity to interact and work with associates and customers from different cultural and social backgrounds."
Both inside and outside the office, Sarmast volunteers her time and talent. She is part of the University Talent Program at CCR and is a member of Women's Linc, Coca-Cola's women's business resource group for career development.
Systems analyst Erica Scott is an IT pro at State Farm
Erica Scott spent a lot of her youth involved in activities like robotics competitions and computer graphics. "I realized as I kept participating in technology-related opportunities, that I enjoyed it," she says. "As a result, I majored in computer science."
She earned her BS in computer science with a minor in math from Jackson State University (Jackson, MS) in 2008. During college, she participated in internships that focused on her computer skills. These led her to a fulltime job as a systems analyst with State Farm Insurance (Bloomington, IL).
"I arrived at my current position through a project where I developed code in the claims department," she says. Her job duties now include managing and communicating information to developers, and coordinating with the testing team during system, performance, and implementation testing to evaluate potential impacts of changes.
Only a few years into her career, Scott finds that one of the biggest challenges she faces is work-life balance. "There are times when I need to resolve issues after hours," she says. When she has a chance to work on the "life" part of the balance, Scott enjoys traveling with her friends.
She keeps busy with a number of professional activities. "I do recruiting for State Farm at Jackson State University," she says. "I'm also involved with the State Farm Young Business Professionals and I'm president of the Black Data Processing Association of Central Illinois."
Business integration analyst Swati Jain is a problem solver at Rockwell Collins
When she started college in India, Swati Jain decided to pursue EE because she liked problem solving. She came to the United States, and received her MSEE from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 2005. But her career is embedded in IT.
"I thought I would be a better fit in IT with a technical background," she says, adding that her degrees did focus on computer and electrical engineering. She relocated to Iowa because of her husband's career, and got her first job out of college at Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA), which creates communications systems for the aerospace and defense industries.
"I started as a programmer analyst," she says. "But my current job is business integration analyst, and now I get to focus on problem solving." Jain is working on a multi-year project that will provide a central content management system for everyone within Rockwell Collins. "It will tie our resources and knowledge together," she says.
In 2011, Jain got her MBA from the University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA). "Skills I learned in graduate school are helpful when it comes to some of the challenges I face in the job. This experience gave me background on how businesses operate in the United States. It also prepared me well for speaking in front of people.
"My job requires that I engage people and start dialogues," she says. "I have to make sure all the stakeholders are heard while I maintain a neutral stance. And I need to ask them the tough questions so they understand what it is they really want. With my technical background, I do like to caution them while providing long-term solutions. But it is a challenge to give that advice while staying impartial."
Jain sees herself as a solutions architect for business, and as she moves on in her career, she hopes to continue that type of problem solving.
Director Dyan Bullock: committed to the mission at U.S. Customs & Border Protection
After Dyan Bullock graduated with a BS in business information systems from Virginia State University (Petersburg, VA) in 1990, she had hoped for a career in computer programming. She'd been interested in programming and technology since high school in Brooklyn, but she found the search for work difficult.
"The challenge for me was obtaining a programming job with no formal work experience," Bullock explains. "My first 'official' job in the arena was as an IT support technician for a DC law firm helpdesk. From there, I explored software training, which led me to employment with the U.S. Customs Service."
Commitment to a cause
"Within my first month as a federal employee, I was on the road, traveling to field sites across the U.S. and internationally. It was during these trips that I came to fully understand the purpose and mission of the U. S. Customs Service. I decided then that my future career choices would be those that allowed me to develop my IT skills, while wholeheartedly supporting the mission of our agency," she says.
Over the years, Bullock made the transition into team leadership, then IT project and program management. She also served in a number of branch chief/director assignments, including her current position as the director of the program control branch, under the office of information and technology, enterprise networks and technology support division of the agency that's now known as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Springfield, VA).
"Our division is responsible for the management, monitoring and oversight of the CBP network infrastructure, which also includes the shared departmental DHS OneNet," she explains. "The division provides 24/7 operational and technology support to CBP headquarters and every field location. My branch is responsible for all the acquisitions, funding, and assets that are leveraged to support and sustain the technology."
CBP has provided Bullock with a wide range of work assignments. "Much of my career was on the technical side of the house; now I'm delving more into executive program management and leadership. I'm also more exposed to the operational aspects of my organization. I enjoy a good challenge. In my current position, I've had to stretch myself, especially in my knowledge of the federal budget arena," Bullock says.
Bullock adds that she is a firm believer in the importance of mentoring. "I was extremely fortunate to have great mentors here at CBP," she says. "My team is actually working on the development of a formal mentoring program within our division."
"Diversity and inclusion are a high priority at U.S. Customs and Border Protection," said Ken Ritchhart, deputy assistant commissioner for CBP's office of information and technology. "We value a workforce that includes individuals of varied races, religions, ages, national origins, genders, parental status, sexual orientations, and gender identities and expressions, along with the differences they bring in approaches, insights, ability and experience. This diversity enhances our ability to protect the nation and the diverse public we serve."
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