Building a community of women who work in technology – hosted by Betsy Speare, Jennifer Marsman & Helene Love Snell

Betsy Speare, Principal Program Manager Lead, Windows Server Microsoft, Happy family member, new Green Lake, Seattle Resident, 15 years at Microsoft, EWU CIS grad and chicken farmer!


Before we even dive into the topic du jour, I want to say that this blogging business is a learning experience – i.e. test link, get an editorial pass, and get this all done 24 hours before posting.  Maybe we’ll start a new blog called “how to write a WIT blog.” Finally – THANK YOU!  – just a little over 500 hits last week on our first post and some very motivational notes from women who are happy to see other technical women. It’s such a bummer to feel isolated – hopefully we can curb some of that here.  Next week we start our guest-blog-a-thon…

I have a “board” that I discuss all my work problems with. It’s a bunch of rad women that I just really trust to tell me the truth, give good feedback and wonderful ideas – but mostly just courage to be honest – self asses and then move on.    A little while ago, in a technical women’s lunch (read:  big “board”) we had such a great discussion that it made me want to just write it down.   In my experience, women can  stretch professionally by having open conversations. I don’t think the value of  peer feedback and mentoring are unique to women. Technical men  have these conversations with each other as well – but not often with women (statistically fewer technical women…). I wonder if the guys talk about their failures and successes more, but I bet the successful men have figured out how to get feedback.  A big part of “success” is mentoring – basically learning from the experiences of others and soliciting feedback on thought structure and ideas. I think the guys just have more opportunities to have conversations w/ other men because there are more of them around. It’s just harder to findother women to trust and talk to – we might not see each other that often!

So the big “board” that I referred to is the  MS Windows Server and Cloud Women’s Leadership Council(a grass roots community of technical women at Microsoft – short name “WLC” ) meeting with a topic brought up by a program manager we’ll call “Jane.” She had recently changed managers within her group. The new lead just wasn’t as inspirational as her last manager and she didn’t feel connected with her peers. She had delivered a “stack” of feedback and changes she was asking her new manager to address including asking for more inspiration and connection with the rest of the team. She came to our lunch frustrated with the lack of response and to discuss her options and get feedback (THAT takes courage!). BTW, Jane’s clearly an articulate, intelligent woman with a lot to offer and will go a long way. I asked her level (“Senior PM” in Microsoft terms, mid-level/non-manager PM), what the “stack” of feedback was and then considered how to respond.

First, to clarify – all of the  feedback to her manager was reasonable and none of it reflected bad behavior on the part of her manager – nice guy and friendly – not mean, condescending, flirting, out to get her, competitive or any of a myriad of potential crappy manager traits that we have all experienced or heard about a thousand times. Also – I’ve known Jane for a while and while she has a lot of gusto and energy, she doesn’t have deeply engrained “issues” that would make me steer her toward some kind of performance improvement plan. Last, while I’m not familiar with her new manager I’m familiar with her team which has a great reputation and solid leadership.

So the new team did not have the connection and sense of community she desired.  Wait a second, I thought – is she was waiting for someone else to create something she needed?   When had I encountered this? Had I? Honestly, no, I’ve never been a “wait for permission” person – in fact  waiting for permission makes me think I’m going by the rules for the sake of the rule and then I REALLY stop waiting! I remember one of my first test managers, Greg Chapman, telling me this was a great trait – I remember my Mom telling me otherwise. Poor Mom.

So, what was the feedback? I said it much more tactfully, but if you are looking to grow – quit looking for inspiration, direction and problem solving to come from a manager. In my case, eventually my job goals, vision and commitments came from my own assessment of the work to be done. As I became more senior, it was expected that I would find my own way, define my own priorities and make sure they lined up with the objectives of the team. Ideally, they would even improve the path to the team vision. Eventually, it has become sort of backwards to complain about a problem without a solution in mind unless you’ve really racked your brain on how to fix it – but that’s later in career. So in listening to our Senior PM (with the fabulous courage to ask the question), I wondered how to convey that – and I gave it a shot and suggested she make some suggestions on how to improve the situation.   I suggested that in addition sometimes the feedback you are giving says more about you than the receiver (not always, but in this case, yes). Maybe it was time to figure out how to address the broken issues on your own?

Mai-lan Tomsen Bukovec (a valued member of my personal board and recent Geek of the Week honoree) jumped in. She explained that at some point it was up to you to create the team you wanted. Someone else pointed out that you could quit waiting for permission to make it better. You could do brownbags and ask your manager to present, pay for pizza. How to build that sense of team camaraderie that was missing was up to her – build what she needs. Our lunch group came up with some really good suggestions.

(Mai-lan, Geek of the Week)

Jane  asked what we did to make sure we had a great team that we could lean on. I pointed to the room. This group what we had created to make sure we had the support we needed.

When I see successful women in technology there is a common attribute. They don’t wait to find out if it’s “OK.” They aren’t so concerned about “stepping on toes” and they don’t wait for someone else to fix it. Something isn’t working for her or her team or her customer and she just figures out something to make it better and does it. I guess the really successful ones probably figure out how to get it in their review and receive some recognition for it… but we’ll leave that for another blog topic called “VISIBILITY and SPONSORSHIP (check out this great article on Sponsorship that Deb McFadden forwarded me from Catalyst.”

So there are multiple pivots to this discussion. I do wonder how well this “go for it” mentality facilitates collaboration and other cross team skills. I mean it’s sort of hard to listen when you are busy just solving all the problems yourself. Yes, I know that’s an extreme, but I’d like to hear from you on that too.

So after the discussion my new friend send me mail asking for some 1:1 time – I told her I would be happy to discuss. Then I saw the title of the meeting request from her “HOW TO TURN ANY JOB INTO A PERFECT ONE.” Oops. That wasn’t what I meant… I haven’t met with her yet but I felt sort of guilty just accepting the meeting invite.

Comments on: "Do you need permission to improve a crappy team? Ask your Board of Directors!" (2)

  1. Here are a couple of articles from the Huffington Post Women in Tech series that I think are relevant to this blog:

    Thought the readers might be interested 🙂

  2. That would be the million dollar blog post if you could figure out how to turn any job into a perfect one 😉

    But it’s so true – we are so busy that we don’t take time to do “teambuilding” stuff outside of the scheduled events teams have. I can’t remember the last time I was on a team that spontaneously got lunch together, etc. So it is up to us to drive that if we want that kind of interaction.

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