October 18 by James Lustenader
The Quote-to-Cash Masters Blog series is a collection of interviews, showcasing the people behind the scenes of Apttus customer’s digital transformation projects. It provides a deeper look into the individual, their journey, and their philosophy. It’s also a chance for us to learn from the Masters, those who have broken new ground and come before us, as they share their personal story and practical advice. In this installment, I sat down with Stefanie Causey from Aspect software, and she shared her history as a woman in the male dominated technology industry.
Q: Looking back at your education, you graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Banking & Finance, and a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, but then went with a Master’s Degree in Information Management. What made you make that switch? Do you see skills from one translating well to the other?
A: I started with the accounting program because at that time I was working my way through college doing Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable, to fund my education. I was a single mom with two young children, and I needed to choose something in which I knew I would excel, and it was the safe (but boring) bet.
Eventually, I got to the same point where everyone does in that program; I had to pick between the tracks of Audit (CPA), Tax (CPA), or Cost (CMA). I looked at the Audit track first and hated it, Tax I thought was boring and when I looked at the Cost track, I decided that I didn’t like any of them.
Well as it so happened, I took a college course in computer programming back in Junior High School, and there was this CIS Minor at my university, so I thought “I get software, so I’ll do that.” So I declared a minor in CIS and when I graduated, I was top in my class with a 4.0 in my minor and a 3.7 in my major and had told my professors that I wasn’t going to sit for the CPA after all, I was going to do consulting.
A lot of people don’t realize that a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting required that I take business oriented courses such as business law, statistics, marketing, and others to graduate, so I came out with a really strong understanding of how business works. Another benefit is that people see my Accounting degree and think, “You must be very smart to understand that stuff.” So that’s always a plus, to be seen as the smart one of course.
Q: Your career started in Project Management. Tell us about starting out in this field and how you progressed into a managerial role.
A: I mentioned I was working my way through school. For the two years leading up to my graduation, I was working for Concord EFS / EFS National Bank, who was at the time the 3rd largest credit card processor in the US. Well, my boss at the time knew that I was going to graduate soon and was planning on moving to Florida afterward with my new husband and family for an incredible opportunity with one of the Big 6 (at the time) consulting firms. He went to the president and said, “You do not want to lose this girl.” So the President called me in and offered me an opportunity to stay, said that he’d beat any offer, and allow me to create whatever position I wanted for myself. I told him that, at my core, I’m a problem solver. I’m very good at figuring out the cause of a problem and helping people understand how to fix it.
Well I took his offer to stay, and literally my title was “The Fix-It Girl,” and in the context of this interview there are certainly relevant undertones to a title like that, but you have to realize that this was in the South. The title itself didn’t bother me at all, because I was used to that kind of soft bias, and also, I expected to have it harder as a woman in the south in the tech industry, constantly having to prove myself. I took this opportunity to do just that, and I earned the title by fixing the hardest process problems the organization could throw my way.
All of this happened in 1998, and there wasn’t this idea of “Project Management in Technology” at this time. My first problem to fix was, oddly enough, a significant Quote-to-Cash problem. The company was running on an AS400 backend system, everything from the customer service to contracts was managed on this antiquated and manual system. There was no way for people to easily find the information they needed, so what I did was what any good business analyst does, I started with where the contract gets signed. I went to the sales guys and talked to him about his problems. He had our product in his trunk and a stack of paper contracts, and he would travel around his area trying to sell credit card terminals to small Mom & Pop shops, convincing them to start taking credit cards.
Then the manual process of entering the contracts into the AS400 system was done by an army of data entry employees, so I continued following the contract journey from team to team to team, all manual and duplicate data entry. It could take upwards of 6-8 weeks to get that contract executed and fully through the process with the terminal shipped out to the new customer.
The result of this process analysis was a presentation to the Board of Directors, where I made a recommendation to implement their first database ever, built on Oracle, with specialized forms which would be made for each team member in the process. My presentation also came with innovative ideas where we gave each sales person a signature terminal on their laptop so that the customer could sign right there and the contract team gets updated immediately as well as a fully automated fulfillment system that organized the work from picking the correct terminal to landing in the correct bin for shipping. So now what took 14 days from contract signature to entry into AS400 now took only seconds, and the full process went from 6-8 weeks to 2-3 days.
I went from being the “Fix-It Girl” to a manager when they needed somebody to tackle the looming Y2K problem. Because I had I kept proving to my boss that I could solve his problems; he trusted me when I said that I needed a team of people underneath me to solve his Y2K problem. I was given a team of 4 cross functional resources to support readiness activities across the organization along with a developer to go line by line and fix the year related code. I oversaw reporting and auditing on the progress there because we were a publicly traded company in the Financial Services Industry, so you could imagine the pressure everyone was feeling from our accounting firm as well as governmental agencies.
In order to build my team, I told the company to provide me with a group of people that had a very wide set of skills from different teams. Naturally, I inherited a group that was a bit like the island of misfit toys, because they were the types of employees that the managers didn’t mind losing. Here is where I learned that peer to peer relationships are critical for success in climbing the IT ladder. While all of this was going on, I also learned that I had a knack for building teams. Together we were able to create a highly functional team which set up the automation that this company needed to stay relevant and more importantly, to fix the problem in front of us, resulting in a successful transition to the year 2000 with no errors reported.
It’s about this time I came up with a bit of a philosophy around project management that I think translates well to business in general. I believe there are two types of project managers: those who measure and focus on success, and those that only worry about scope, timeline, and budget. Every project has a scope, budget, and timeline but if you complete a project on time and under budget, and the resulting system/process doesn’t meet the needs of the customer, then the fact that you came in under budget and on time doesn’t matter at all. So I always try to focus on success first.
Q: What were some real world examples of gender bias that you were faced with?
I try not to let the boy vs. girl dynamic get in the way of how I conduct my business, but I have always said that I hit the glass ceiling so hard that my head bled. It seemed like whenever I did a good job, it was my bosses that got all the credit, and frankly, they were all men. What was frustrating beyond the simple lack of acknowledgment from my peers and superiors, was my bosses didn’t want to let me advance because they were getting all the kudos for my work. The result is what you see on my resume; you’ll notice that I spent about two years on average at each company. Hence the only upwards path for me was through a lateral move to a new organization.
Imagine coming into a Board meeting, and every single person at the table is male, and you’re the only female. You’re presenting the results of your major project with your male peer, and when the email goes out from the Board to the whole company praising the success of the project, they call out your male peer specifically, and you’re just a footnote. I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to have a thick skin and not take it personally, but obviously, that type of bias is very frustrating.
I also sometimes ended up in the situation where all the women at the organization are pitted against each other in this weird competitive atmosphere where there is no room to build friendship and trust. When I saw that happening early on in my career, I thought, “Why should I even care? If you don’t sign my paycheck, then I shouldn’t really care what you think about how I do my work?” Maybe because I was never the typical girl, I’m more of a tomboy. Or maybe it’s because I try to focus on success first and foremost as part of my philosophy as a project manager and leader, I just try to get the work done to the best of my ability, especially in the early days.
However, I don’t want to come across as callous, I truly am a relationship oriented person, but I’m not going to let people who don’t appreciate or enjoy my company affect me negatively. Later in my career I realized, and this was when I became more customer facing in my role, that if nobody likes you, then you won’t be able to get anything done. So it, in fact, plays to my initial goal of getting the job done to focus on how people perceive you.
Another obvious example that I’m sure a lot, if not every, woman has experienced, is the more direct sexism. In the South and especially back then, a woman could not be seen as threatening or else you would see the male shut down immediately and revert to the “What are you doing out of the kitchen?” mentality. I’ve also been patted on the behind and called “sweetheart” before as well as subjected to some behaviors that aren’t so benign.
Every time I meet someone new in my career, I have had to prove myself to them to earn their respect. That can be a difficult hill to climb, and it can be discouraging. And I’m not saying that’s the not case with men too, but It seems like it’s more prevalent and consistent with women. Constantly needing to prove oneself with results, rather than being taken seriously off the bat due to your previous success, is something I’ve dealt with a lot and it’s something I’ve attributed to gender bias more often than not. I do try to keep it all in context though, and not chalk up every bad thing to my co-worker’s insensitivity. After all, I do have a history of moving from one organization to another more often than others, and this has given me perspective on cultural as opposed to personal bias that others that stay with companies long term may not understand. It’s just important to be cognizant of the reasons behind a person’s actions, so as not to misinterpret things and alienate people.
Q: How have responded to these manifestations of gender bias without creating a negative stigma for yourself or alienating your colleagues?
A: I learned how to be a chameleon; I learned how to adapt to the environment I was in and its unique culture. People are different, and corporations are different. Culture matters to every employee, but I think it especially matters to women.
One situation I came across is when I was promoted specifically to “shake things up” at an older, more established company, but then the boss that promoted me left shortly after that. When my new boss came in, he wasn’t in a position to support my efforts to change the organization (even if it was for the better). One day he flat out told me that “I could be successful in any other company except this one.” Now that’s obviously a very telling statement, so my response to that was to go be successful somewhere else. Sometimes you just move on and realize this isn’t the right place/time to shake things up as it’s a long process after all. Again the skill to shift and adapt is key to success in climbing the ladder anywhere.
I have developed a tool belt of sorts, which I can pull from in a given situation, depending on what I am facing. I can disarm them with charm for example, or I can challenge their sexism directly with confrontation and face their reaction head on. Sometimes you just have to break down that negative perception, if the fight is worth it and the situation calls for it. That reminds me of one of my philosophies, “If I can’t have your respect, I’ll take your fear,” and I’ve learned that you have to be confident in yourself and be ready to go toe to toe with people sometimes.
A lot of times people will dismiss a woman’s viewpoint off hand, so it’s important to have research to back up what you are saying, and I’ve developed strong skills in this area to have my voice be heard. I will spend a lot of time gauging how to deliver my message; sometimes I spend more time on that than building the message itself.
I subscribe to the “5 Strengths” by Gallup, and I think that they come into play when discussing this topic of a tool belt. My top 5 Strengths were “Learner” (my affinity for research), “Input” (curiosity and again research), “Achiever” (results & success oriented), “Activator” (good at management and team building) and “Strategic Thinker” (Fix it gal, seeing problems and finding the solution quickly). I highly suggest that any professional buy the Strength Finder book by Gallup and take the test to find the 5 Strengths for themselves. It’s through identification that we can act on those strengths and embrace them to be successful in business and life.
It’s ok sometimes to play “the dumb girl” role to be less threatening. It allows the men to have their say, and in turn, will allow you to get your thoughts out there afterward to pose your point of view. This strategy of listening may be hard for some who want to have the first word or who are impatient, but I suggest learning to control that urge and try it out in some situations. It also may seem a bit manipulative, but believe me when I say that the best businessmen and women use tactics like this one to get what they want all the time.
Q: Did you find yourself adapting to the male work/communication style more often than not, or were you primarily pushing back to change their attitude?
I would say that over time my communication style has been adapted to work well in a male dominated environment, and I would also say that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’m more direct now, I don’t pussy foot around, and I don’t worry so much about people’s feelings. But there are times when I have taken it upon myself to challenge perceptions, like when I hear this phrase at a conference, “Why do we even need to hear about ‘Women in leadership’ in conferences anymore? Aren’t we past this phase?” It is times like those when I (and my fellow female professionals) need to stand up for ourselves and re-educate our peers and sometimes even our superiors that in fact, we are still fighting for equal pay and equal rights in the work place. It has improved certainly, but it’s not a “phase,” and the balance isn’t there yet.
Don’t have regrets and learn to have really thick skin. I developed a guy’s attitude towards how others view me, and I think this has helped me learn to move on and not take things personally all the time. I am painfully aware of a stigma that many people have, that all women’s interactions in business are personally oriented and driven by emotion. This “no regrets” attitude and think skin mentality helps break down that stigma and it will help you be a more relaxed and happy individual too if you don’t sweat the small stuff.
I have a mantra that I keep taped to my laptop screen that helps me keep this in mind. “I will have the courage of my convictions, and I will not fear judgment.”
Q: I know that you spend some of your free time being a mentor to women who are looking to break back into the work place, at the Fresh Start for Women Foundation. Can you share your thoughts on the importance of mentors? Who was your mentor/role model?
I think that mentoring is incredibly important for any professional and even more so for women. I have been at a few different crossroads in my career where I was stuck and trying to determine the right path to take. The very first person who recognized my technical aptitude, his name was Tracy. He was the one who looked at our organization’s needs and then at me and said “You know, you should go take some Oracle/SQL classes. You need to take these before we get too deep into this project.” It’s because of that direction and clarity; I was able to become one of the first Database Administrators (DBAs) in my organization, I am very grateful to him for that.
Most recently, my mentor, to be honest, is my boss Jim Haskin. What I love about him and what drives me crazy at the same time, is that he doesn’t care about race, age, sex or whatever, all he cares about is “Do you get s*** done?” There aren’t many people out there like that anymore. There are times when I get stubborn like a dog with a bone and go off on a tangent and get fixated on something, and it’s not the right approach. Jim has a way of knocking sense into me and reorienting me for the better.
The point is, it’s important to find a person you have enough trust in that, when they say you’re doing the wrong thing, you listen to them. It’s so crucial to have a mentor that knows you and can tell you what you need to hear. I also give my husband credit for getting me to go back to school, for example, even when it wasn’t the easy thing to do, it was the right thing to do.
Now you may notice that all 3 of my examples are men. I guess the other lesson here is that just because you’re a feminist doesn’t mean you should discount support from other forms of mentorship. Especially in a male-dominated area, you need to be open to that kind of mentorship or else you may lose out on an opportunity.
And being a mentor myself now with the Foundation, I am getting a lot of personal satisfaction from helping another woman who is in a similar situation as myself when I was 22, recently divorced with two kids and getting back into school. If I can help someone achieve their goals and stay on task, then I have gotten to a new level of success as a feminist and female professional.
Q: Over the years, have you seen any shift in the demographics of women in the tech industry? Have you seen any progress in the numbers or even in the attitude of your male peers?
Yes and No. I see more women in business analysis positions and Project Management, but I still do not see a lot of women in tech development. And obviously I would like to see more women developers, and it’s one of the reasons I participate in the Salesforce Women in Technology organization, and we have a lot of work to be done there. Looking at that issue, I don’t think this is because the companies aren’t hiring women, I think the problem stems earlier on with children who are not encouraged to pursue STEM careers but focus more on the relationship oriented aspects of technology.
I think it will be a gradual thing, but when the schools start educating more young girls how to code software, we’ll see this balance out more and more. Adult school options are also out there now too, and these have the potential to make an immediate change, and in that way, I think it’s up to the bigger companies to promote these programs and hence promote diversity. It’s also up to the user community to promote these opportunities for both children and adults to learn a new skill. When I hear about how jobs are disappearing, I know that’s not true, they are just shifting to new areas, and everyone has the potential to learn a new skill in new areas. To be successful at any phase in your career, it goes back to the power of being adaptive and flexible.
Q: What general advice would you give a young woman professional who is working hard to make it in a male dominated role or industry?
Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Don’t be afraid to step up and assert yourself. It’s going to be hard the first time, but don’t be afraid because if you don’t do that, you’ll never succeed.
Your work alone is not going to speak for you. You need to be your loudest voice and most powerful champion. It wasn’t until I was willing to be my own best cheerleader that I started getting the kudos that my work deserved. I think that a lot of women are afraid to speak up for whatever reason, but to my earlier point about adopting male techniques, it’s not bragging to be proud of what you have accomplished, be proud of your achievements and be loud in sharing them. There is, of course, the caveat to keep in mind appropriate communication techniques.
Don’t be afraid to change; change jobs, companies, positions, try something you aren’t ready for; because that’s how everybody gets ahead to be perfectly honest. I think sometimes women can be afraid to step up to a challenge because they are afraid to fail, but its failure that teaches and its failure that pushes your limits and allows you to grow.