Finding Your Voice as a Woman at a Silicon Valley Tech Company
Written by Mary Ellen Connelly
July 12, 2018
The best job I’ve ever had
After 30+ years in the workplace, I have found my home at RTI. I often tell people it is the best job I’ve ever had, and it’s true. But what does that mean?
Is it the title, salary, and benefits? No, though I’m very happy with all of that.
Is it the meaningful work, good management, and great customers and colleagues? Sure, but that’s not the only thing.
What I love most about working for RTI is that I have a voice, and I can make a positive impact on the company and our customers by using that voice.
Why is that so special? Because in many ways, that voice had been lost over the years of being ignored and dismissed as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Using my voice
No company, or system, or process is perfect. As a company grows, there is inevitably a need to change or improve processes to enable that growth. Part of my job is to recognize those things that need improvement, and help to enact change. At RTI, when I speak up about something I disagree with, I am listened to with respect.
Last year I had to miss one of our internal Sales calls due to a customer meeting. On this particular call, someone from Products and Markets was suggesting a new policy that would affect our customers, and they were looking for feedback from Sales. After further discussion, my colleague suggested that they table the conversation until all parties, including myself, were present. The importance of hearing all opinions before making a decision meant that no voice was too small, that it's not a boy's club, and that we are, in fact, all equals. I thought back on my experiences at other companies and could not remember a single time when my opinion was this valued.
Losing my voice
As the only girl in a family with five brothers, I learned early on to speak up or I would never get my way. I eagerly raised my hand in school to answer questions, and enjoyed a spirited debate with other students and even the teacher. I worked hard and got good grades, ending up 3rd in my high school class.
In my engineering studies at Virginia Tech, I was one of the few females in most of my classes. Still, I felt no pushback when I spoke up in class, and my study buddies were all men.
It was only when I entered the workplace that I started to notice that my opinions were less valued than those of my male colleagues. Sometimes it was subtle – my manager would listen, say nothing, then turn away and ask “Joe” what he thought. Other times it was more blatant – like when I was passed over for a promotion because I had children at home.
But I continued to work hard. I realized I needed extra credentials as a woman in engineering, so I pursued a Master’s degree in EE while working full time and starting a family. I enjoyed great success as an engineer, program manager, and engineering manager.
Life in the Office vs Life in the Field
What I loved about engineering was seeing the big picture and how all of the little details fit into it in order to make a system work. I worked on RF design, digital design, and wrote software in FORTRAN and Assembly language (I know, I’m old). But mostly I loved choreographing the dance. As a Systems Engineer and Program Manager, I directed my team and made sure all details were taken care of so that in the end, it all worked together beautifully. It required both technical skills and people skills.
What I didn’t love was sitting in a cubicle writing software day in and day out, line by line creating the program. Or writing test plans, or documentation, or the myriad other tasks that require you to sit alone in your office and stare at the screen. I know lots of people love that – it just wasn’t for me.
So, when a job opened up for an Applications Engineer – demonstrating telemetry boards to potential customers – I jumped on it. I could get out of my office and be with people, and still use my engineering background. Soon that job expanded into creating and leading Marketing and Sales for this product line. I decided I like Sales better than Marketing, and have never looked back.
Learning to sell
It could be that I was destined all along to be in Sales. My first real job was working for my dad at his RadioShack franchise store. I learned the resistor color code, counted batteries and speaker cable during inventory every December 31, and helped customers choose calculators and cassette tape players. (I know, I know. It was a few years ago.)
But selling stereos and batteries was a far cry from selling highly technical equipment and software to engineers. I took some sales training courses over the years, but mostly I figured it out on my own.
Because what we do is, in a broader sense, like Systems Engineering. We need to understand the customer’s various systems and how our software might help them to solve their problems. We need to help the customer understand how our piece fits into their bigger picture. And if they agree, we have to determine exactly what they need, and work with them through the steps of finding funding, working through procurement, and placing an order.
Navigating company culture
Selling software is about more than interfacing with the external customer. In my roles as Account Manager and now Regional Sales Manager, I need to orchestrate the team that helps identify, qualify and nurture prospects. I need to work with FAEs, Services, Sales Operations, Support, Engineering, and others to ensure my prospects and customers get the information they need to make a decision to use our software, and remain satisfied customers throughout the life of their projects. When we all work together toward the common goal of enabling our customers’ success, it is a beautiful thing. At RTI, everyone in the company is contributing in some way toward that goal of satisfied customers. And I get to witness it firsthand.
Not only are we working together, but we support each other and value all contributions.
The Six D’s
In my (unpublished) book “Savvy Women: Gaining Ground at Work” I talk about tactics that I believe are used against some women who are trying to get ahead in the workplace. I call them the Six D’s: Dismiss, Disparage, Disconcert, Dissemble, Discriminate, and Dishearten. Individually, they may seem harmless, but when taken as a whole, they can wreak enormous damage on a woman’s psyche and on her career. I have experienced all of them over the course of my career. But over the years I found ways to succeed in spite of the obstacles in my path and it has made me stronger.
So now, when I find myself working for a company whose culture is supportive of everyone, I almost have to pinch myself to believe it. It starts with our CEO, Stan Schneider, who firmly believes in and practices servant leadership. If you want to know how he feels about women in the workplace, just read his blog post. And he is not alone. We hire people as much for culture fit as for their technical or business skills. This is how Stan has built a company where Sales and Marketing work together, rather than blame each other when things go wrong. Where Engineering is happy to get on a call with a customer to help them understand our software or work through a problem. Where Services works with Support and FAEs to ensure customers’ success. Where our Company Kickoff each year is like a family reunion – without that messy business of Uncle Joe not speaking to Aunt Helen.
When everyone in the company has a positive mindset, you can work together to find creative solutions to problems. When everyone in the company has a voice, there are so many ideas to be heard. I am just grateful to be able to use my voice and know that my ideas will be met with respect.