Note: this article originally appeared on siliconprairienews.com. We are re-posting it here with permission in appreciation for all that Shelly has accomplished, and for her valuable work as an instructor in the AIM Emerging Tech Leaders virtual program. Emerging Tech Leaders helps professionals with 0 to 3 years of management experience master the skills they need to successfully lead teams comprised of software developers and other professionals. The next session begins September 7. To learn powerful resource optimization and tech leadership skills directly from Shelly, and for more information about this program, visit the Emerging Tech Leaders page.
Shelly Blakeman thrives on knowledge-sharing, curiosity and drive.
She can code (she earned a B.S. in computer information management). She can execute (certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt and Agile Scrum Master). She can teach (instructor in the AIM Institute Emerging Leaders Program). She can write (currently working on her first book). And she can lead (she’s a vice president within enterprise portfolio delivery services for Bank of the West).
In more ways than one, she can lead.
Blakeman has honed her leadership skills through 20 years working in IT for various companies, often as one of few women in the department.
“The tech landscape has been pretty rough for women historically,” Blakeman said. “Going back to my early days, I was one of not very many women digging into tech.”
In the Beginning: a Search for a Stable Industry
Early on, Blakeman worked in the customer service department at Ford Motor Credit Company. Taking advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement policy, she enrolled at College of Saint Mary to study technology. She chose IT for the lure of job stability and marketable skills.
In nearly empty classrooms, Blakeman learned to write COBOL, a mainframe language now considered outdated (but still widely used in the financial industry). Learning COBOL taught her the linear, structured thinking and problem-solving skills that would come to power her success in tech.
As Blakeman’s education progressed, so did her place on the corporate ladder. Within a few years, she became the email team leader for a company of over 30,000 employees. This was back when the web was still new, computers at work were not yet ubiquitous, and email was spelled e-mail.
It was also a time when IT departments were little understood. Tech workers operated in knowledge silos, too often viewed as gatekeepers and order takers, not integral members of the company, Blakeman said. Worse, IT workers could also see themselves this way, developing a command and control attitude rather than a customer-centric service mindset.
As one might guess, non-tech employees resented the perceived power imbalance.
Blakeman’s dual experience in customer service and IT allowed her to see the issue holistically.
“I could very quickly discern that there was almost a battle waged between business and IT,” she said.
Bringing Tech and Business Together Before It Was Cool
She became a powerful liaison between the two. With her technical knowledge, she could help the business team identify and articulate what the company was actually looking for, and then explain to the IT department the business reasons why technical specs might need to evolve.
This experience inspired her to begin formal training in Six Sigma and Agile methodologies, reflecting her simultaneous interest in improving businesses processes and software development project management. The knowledge and leadership skills she developed helped her advance her career and keep pace with the workplace trend toward increased cross-functionality, teamwork and customer-centricity within organizations.
They also serve her well in her current role at Bank of the West.
“Think about the Agile Manifesto and the many, many companies that are trying to drive toward Agile,” Blakeman said. “Why is that? In part, it’s because IT folks have said, ‘Hey, our voices are not being heard. We’re not being adequately represented.’”
This cultural shift toward cooperation, diverse points of view and the conscription of individual talent to help achieve collectively defined goals has helped more women break into tech leadership. Since women tend to be socialized more strongly than men in communication skills and interpersonal relationship dynamics, they may have a competitive advantage as companies move away from the top-down, black-and-white, binary approach to workplace leadership and toward increased collaboration.
Things Have Changed in Tech—Sort Of
Still, men are vastly overrepresented at the highest levels of tech. As of 2019, only 18 percent of CIOs are women, according to a Korn Ferry analysis of the top 1,000 companies by revenue in the U.S.
And that’s not great news for anyone.
Teams with more diverse identities and perspectives at the table tend to outperform and out-innovate their less diverse counterparts.
Diversity, especially at the level of executives and boards of directors, increases employee satisfaction and retention and reduces turnover costs. And embracing diversity and inclusion will help reduce the knowledge bottlenecks and project breakdowns that can result from IT departments who take an outmoded top-down approach, Blakeman said.
To that end, she advises girls and women to recognize the powerful leadership skills they can offer tech, and the rewarding careers tech can offer them.
“As the global economy shifts from widget production to knowledge and services, there’s an appreciation for more diverse leadership,” she said. “The more that we can open minds to thinking about achieving outcomes, while still doing it with those technical competencies, but in a way that is more team-based and appreciative of the talents and skills of others, the more we can get away from that gatekeeper model that is still too prevalent in tech.”
Changing minds about the primacy of relational leadership in tech is key, because at the end of the day, it’s the people that drive technological success, not the other way around. Technology by itself accomplishes nothing.
“I have yet to see a laptop jump off a desk and solve any sort of business challenge,” Blakeman said.