GHC09: Women in the Flat Connected World

^ Panelists (L->R): Kristin Rozier (NASA); Sumitha Prashanth (Sun Microsystems-India); Radha Ratnaparkhi (IBM); Claudia Galvan (Microsoft); Bev Crair (Quantum, formerly Sun); Meenakshi Kaul-Basu (Sun Microsystems); Lydia Ash (Google) – photo from Meena

Globalization has forced companies to create new processes to empower distributed teams to collaborate. It could mean that individuals have to travel for longer periods of time across the globe, work at odd hours, and work from home or make other adjustments to accommodate a new working lifestyle.

Panelists will discuss and give their perspective on the topic, impact on women, and the technologies and strategies they use to maintain balance.”

This panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2009, run by my colleague Meena, was one of the few sessions at GHC09 that I felt addressed the  practical needs of women currently in technology management: all of the panelists manage geographically-dispersed teams (which are increasingly the norm in high tech).

One theme that came up over and over was the importance of face-to-face interaction, especially for the managers, who therefore end up traveling a lot. Phone conferences, email, and instant messaging simply can’t build relationships in the same way. As Bev Crair said, even for teams that know each other and have worked together for a long time, “Trust breaks down after six weeks of not seeing someone.” I’ve seen this in my own experience of working remotely.

Bev added that relationships can be supported by video conferencing: “We use WebEx a lot.”

But she and others also felt strongly enough about the importance of in-person interaction that (during her time at Sun) she created a rotation program for Sun’s engineering office in China. US-based test engineers visited for three weeks at a time (the company had rented four apartments) and did their regular jobs from Beijing while also mentoring/training Chinese colleagues.

This taught the local engineers Sun standards for engineering, but it also helped the US-based engineers understand local problems so they could better represent their Chinese counterparts when they got back to US.

Kristin Rozier, NASA: “We put a lot of emphasis on face to face” within her small US reearch group. They host an annual symposium where everyone can get together.

Lydia Ash, Google: “As a manager I had to realize that bad news travels much faster than good news.” Solution: over-commuicate rather than under-.

Claudia Galvan, Microsoft: “You need to let go of driving everything from HQ and let the remote sites drive, too.”

Work-Life Balance

Bev Crair: “Working globally means there’s not a hard line between work and home life. I take time for myself and my daughter n the middle of the day. I have to set aside that time.”

Women are about connectedness, so why try to separate work from life?

Sumitha lives with her in-laws (a traditional arrangement in India), who are very supportive of her family and career. She says: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. You figure it out as you go along. There’s no perfect situation. You have to prioritize. And don’t feel guilty about anything.”

Radha agrees that work-life balance is a myth. But there can be harmony if you have control and a support system (family, friends, community).

Two of the panelists’ daughters wouldn’t want their mothers’ jobs: “Too many phone calls.” One thinks that being an engineer is cool because you get to go to all these exotic places.

Women often end up taking care of family stuff (babies, aging parents), which leads to breaks in their career histories. Being able to “integrate” the personal with the professional is critical. Remote work allows people to deal with things e.g. cultural observations (such as the rituals around a death in the family) while still working. We need to have the tools and processes in place for this to happen.

Question from the audience: All this flexibility needs company support. How real is that?

Answer: Even the [US] federal government offers time off for family situations, e.g. up to 12 weeks to help a parent after surgery.

Tools and Pitfalls

It was mentioned that video conferencing can feel weird because of lag times (at long distance) and the fact that it doesn’t provide a sense of eye contact, because the webcam lens is not where you direct your eyes when you’re looking at the video you’re receiving. “Everyone looks stupid in a videoconference.”

Bev said they have extra monitors which display video streams from other offices, to maintain a sense of presence even when not actively participating in video conferences.

Lacking funding or tools for any of this, one manager said that her group put up photographs of their remote colleagues to enhance a feeling of connectedness. Every little thing can help.

Virtual environments (such as Google Lively and Second Life) can become informal and unprofessional very quickly. It’s important to remember that professional presence matters even in these virtual worlds. In video conferencing, watch out for bedhead and undone laundry in the background; what is the message you are sending by your video presence?

Use tool such as Writely to collaborate in real time on documents.

On the whole, a very useful panel, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from these women.

Long-Distance Working – A Tale of Two Companies

Old Days, Old Ways: Adaptec

When I began working for Adaptec in 1995 (as a result of their acquisition of Incat Systems, the company which created Easy CD), I was already a remote worker. Fabrizio Caffarelli, who had founded Incat in Milan, had moved himself and the engineering staff to California in late 1993 with the goal of selling the company. In the meantime, though still living in Milan, I needed to work closely with engineering staff to document, test, and help to improve our software products. I began traveling to California regularly, but most of the time I worked from home, keeping in touch by phone and email.

Nobody at Incat had a problem with this, but the concept was foreign to Adaptec back then. In 1995, they had not even had email for very long because (so I was told) the company’s executives had resisted, fearing it would be “a distraction” (they may have had a point).

Adaptec at the time did not have any employees working permanently offsite, and they were not about to make exceptions for an unknown quantity like me so, in spite of my clearly-stated preference to become a “regular” Adaptec employee, I was taken on only as a contractor.

Adaptec’s employee benefits would not actually have been all that interesting or useful to me (e.g., I didn’t need US health insurance). However, although even the regular employees had California-standard “at will” contracts, I suspected that, as a contractor, I was more vulnerable than they to cyclical layoffs.

Some people at Adaptec even treated me as an outsider – not realizing (or perhaps resenting) that, to the CD-recording world, I was the face of Adaptec online.

On one memorable occasion, a customer reported to me that he had phoned tech support, quoting me on some technical question.

“Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” responded the tech. “She’s just a consultant.”

I also had the uneasy feeling that, even among some of the people I worked most closely with, I wasn’t perceived as being part of the team, nor as being serious about my career. Part of the reason I started an MBA (via distance learning, of course!) was to demonstrate my seriousness – had I had to apply for the job I was already doing, the job description would have included “MBA strongly preferred.”

While I was doing one of my first MBA courses, an engineering colleague from Adaptec’s Longmont, CO office, Dan Maslowski, came up against a personal situation: he was perfectly happy in his job, but his wife had been offered the opportunity to open the European offices of the (Web) company she was working for.

Dan’s boss didn’t want to lose him, but wasn’t sure how to deal with a remote employee. So they talked to me, as an example of how it could be done, and Dan eventually moved to the Hague while still working for Adaptec. We were a mutual support society of two, commiserating on how difficult it was (and still is) to schedule phone conferences when you’re eight or nine time zones away from everyone else. I even wrote him up as a case study for my MBA course.

My own situation with Adaptec endured, but several changes of manager back at headquarters increased my sense of vulnerability, frustration, and alienation. From some perspectives, I had an ideal job: I could set my own hours (as long as those included lots of late-night phone conferences), and was largely managing my own work and that of two other contractors, all of us working from our respective homes.

But I was at a career dead-end. It was clear that, with Adaptec, I could never become a regular employee, let alone have a career path, as long as I was off-site. I was good at what I was doing, but had been doing it long enough to be getting bored. I could see things that (desperately) needed changing to make life better for Adaptec’s customers, but I would never be in a position to make those changes happen.

Hence my attempted move to California in 2000-2001, to participate in the Roxio spin-off. I wanted to help define, from the ground up, how a new company would deal with its customers, using the Internet as a tool for support, marketing, and relationship-building via customer communities.

I planned to move my family to the US for a year or two – long enough, I hoped, for me to launch a career and then find a way to move back to Italy, where my husband had his own career that he was not willing to give up.

That didn’t quite work out. The whole Roxio situation went sour for me, and I returned to Milan in March, 2001 – back to the same situation in which I had previously felt so vulnerable, alienated, and frustrated.

All those same adjectives still obtained, redoubled. The (ridiculously good) money was not enough to overcome my misery, especially when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t think I could handle a major family crisis while hating my job every day. I quit in July, 2001. (My mother-in-law was successfully treated for the cancer and is still living; Roxio is no longer with us).

A New Dawn: Sun Microsystems

Corporate practice and technology have naturally moved on, and working remotely no longer seems as strange or difficult as it did ten years ago (although in Italy it’s still highly unusual). Having suffered through the early days with a resistant employer, I am now delighted to find myself working with a company that gets it.

Remember Dan? He ended up working for Sun Microsystems, where he’s currently a Senior Engineering Manager. When he realized in February that the new position he had just taken on entailed responsibilities for part of a website, he thought of me.

I knew nothing about Sun, except that Dan worked there and I liked what I could see of his management style. He had even left Sun for AMD, then gone back to Sun, and they’d kept his company blog waiting for him. This is standard practice at Sun (10% of whose ~33,000 employees have blogs open to the public), and is a subtle indicator of the company’s relationship with its people.

Obviously, Dan was asking me to join him knowing that I live in Italy and, though very willing to travel, this is where I’ll be staying. It didn’t occur to me to ask whether this would be a problem; his answer would have been: Of course not. His team was already spread across time zones from Silicon Valley to Beijing, so managing one more person in one more location wasn’t going to make much difference to him.

Arriving at Sun’s offices in Broomfield, CO for a first meet-and-greet visit in March, I astonished to learn that practically all of Sun is like this: teams seem to be formed on no geographical basis whatsoever, and many Sun employees work from home, wherever home may be. According to an official company statement I heard in an online presentation for newbies, at least 50% of Sun employees work from home at least one or two days a week.

This point was made most forcefully for me when I read the first blog post from Deb Smith, a Director in the software group I’m working for. Go read that now and you’ll see what I mean. As soon as I read it, I thought: I’m in the right place. The whole company is built for what they call OpenWork, with all the right systems – and, more importantly, attitudes – in place to make it work well both for the company and its employees.

This is probably a factor in the large proportion of women who stay with Sun – I’ve never seen so many women in an engineering organization!

And it’s not just the women: practically everyone at Sun seems to have been there for at least ten years (the company celebrates its 25th anniversary this year), with no intention of leaving. Upon getting to know Sun a little better, this does not surprise me at all. Sun demonstrates that it values its people, and understands the importance to those people of all aspects of their lives, not just their careers. That sounds like an organization I’d like to stick with.

what qualities do you look for in an employer?