Women in Tech: An Interview with Susan Wright
At ECHO we believe that women should be celebrated every day. We believe in and are extremely proud of all our ECHO women. But today on International Women’s Day, we decided to do a little extra celebration- by interviewing Susan Wright- the woman who is instrumental in making sure ECHO is a fully-functional and well-oiled machine at all times. Susan Wright, Managing Director, Professional Services at ECHO Technology Solutions, graciously agreed to talk to us and share her perspective on technology, innovation and the journey of a woman in technology. Here is what the conversation was like:
Vashti: To start with, Susan if you were to describe yourself in a few short sentences how would you do so?
Susan:I still identify as a social worker. It is important for me to do meaningful work and to help people. I am tough and driven. Something often said about me is that I say what other people aren’t going to say but needs to be said. A lot of times that makes people happy but of course it also can sting. The goal is to always make people recognize their full potential and work to their highest capacity.
Vashti: So, what is it exactly that you do at ECHO. What is your typical day like?
Susan: My job is to manage the services team and what I understand that to be is I need to help every person here do their job to the best ability. I remove blockers for people so they can do their job. When people have a couple of ways that they are thinking of approaching a problem I can help them decide which way to apply in this instance or if people are completely stuck on what to do I can help them decided how to proceed. A lot of my week is spent doing one on ones with people. Also, it is very important to me to put processes and resources in places so that people can be more self-serving.
Vashti: Going off of what you just said, how would you describe your leadership style and philosophy?
Susan:I have this analogy. This is not the most eloquent way to say it, but this is the best that I have. I think of myself as a rooster and the team as the chickens. My understanding of roosters and chickens is that you have all these chickens and they go around, eat bugs, lay eggs, be friends with each other and the rooster hangs back and lets the chickens do their own thing. But when a hawk or a fox tries to attack, then the rooster springs to action, gets all the chickens in safely and fights off the fox or hawk. Also, if the chickens start fighting among themselves then it’s the rooster that goes in and mitigates so that the chickens can go back to peacefully co-existing. In other words, I basically let everyone do their thing. They know what they need to do, how to do it, and they don’t need my intervention unnecessarily. But if there is a threat from outside, I protect the team and if there is conflict within the team then it is my job to get involved as soon as possible and make it so that there is peaceful coexistence once again.
Vashti: Very interesting analogy! So, you clearly love what you do, but is there something in particular that you love the most about what you do?
Susan: What I like is helping people know and accept themselves and each other. The reason I say that is because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and if you know that about yourself and you accept it and do not feel shameful about it then you can leverage your strengths and you can comfortably ask for help with your weaknesses. Also, some weaknesses can be improved and some we don’t even want to deal with, and the truth is we don’t have to be good at everything. Hence, sometimes if we just know amongst ourselves that a certain person is not the best equipped to deal with something then we can help that person by letting someone who excels at that task handle it instead. It is important to know when tap into somebody’s strength and when to let go off somebody’s weakness.
Vashti: A short while ago, you said you still think of yourself as a social worker. You have a background in social work -a master’s degree in Social Enterprise Administration. So how or why did you move into technology?
Susan: I did direct practice for three years before graduate school and for graduate school focused on management because a lot of people go into social work with a good heart, wanting to work with clients. But a lot of social work organizations have outdated technology and do a lot of work manually; instead of computers, they use binders and pen and paper. And then when an important report needs to be made, everyone scrambles to get all the information together and nobody is sure of the data. Basically, it is a mess. This outdated technology, lack of data, bad processes, and clunky computers reduces organizational effectiveness drives most people out of social work. So to me process improvement and technology is what helps the practitioners like their jobs, stay in their jobs, and also have the greatest impact that they can. Another thing I love about technology is that when you design databases or work in Salesforce and there are processes behind something, that is when you come up with business rules. For instance, when I worked with Room To Read, we were designing Salesforce and we had to define a library. Up till then we were working in seven countries and we would just email the teams to ask, “How many libraries have you established?” and people would give us a number and then when we started working in Salesforce we had to define a library “Is it just a room with books? Is a librarian required? Do we require that children can take the books home?” That sparked such a wonderful conversation which led to the organization to more clearly define what it was doing.
Vashti: How has this unique background helped you succeed in technology?
Susan: Social work is systems thinking. It is approaching an individual or family or community by looking at all the different systems that a person is part of from their family to government assistance or the judicial system and looking at how all these different factors contribute to a situation being the way that it is. And there is a lot of critical thinking there. For instance, which part needs to be changed to achieve the desired outcome? That foundation has really helped me be a systems thinker in terms of applying technology and also in terms of running the services team at ECHO or in my coaching with employees about their performance and helping them get to where they want to go.
Vashti: A good chunk of ECHO’s client portfolio is comprised of nonprofits. Do you feel your social work background has also resulted in you having a deeper understating and balanced perspective of how to best serve the technology needs of a nonprofit?
Susan: Yes, most definitely.
Vashti: What according to you is the greatest technological transformation in the nonprofit sector that you have witnessed in your career?
Susan: I think moving to cloud services and SaaS. Certainly, Salesforce has taken the world by a storm, but there are many cloud services… even Microsoft is moving to cloud. OKTA is really taking off as well. It is amazing to have organizations freed up from managing servers. Also, with a lot of these services, now it is a lot more straightforward to hire consultants to come in and help with the discrete pieces that need skilled help. But many of these services can be managed by an administrator which can be someone self-taught and that is where Salesforce and these different systems have been great. So, our clients can get Salesforce and have an employee of theirs become the administrator and do the bulk of the work and just use us when they need more specialized or technical work done which is outside of the range of this person’s abilities. As a result, not only do nonprofits get to take ownership of their database and systems but also are able to advance it piece by piece without needing in-house developers. Also, software as a service has made it so much easier for nonprofits that are using a cloud technology like Salesforce or OKTA or Microsoft Office 365, to always be on the most updated versions of the softwares as now updates automatically roll out, and it’s included in the price.
Vashti: What is your take on diversity and inclusion?
Susan:I guess this also comes from my social work background. I feel it is highly important. Actually, my first job was with a diversity and inclusion consultant in high school. I would go through the newspaper and clip out articles having to do with diversity. So, it is very deeply a part of who I am. I wish our staff was more diverse and I am always looking for ways to diversify the staff or have the team get involved with volunteering or extra-curricular career panels to help the movement. Group think is never helpful and you need different people to break out of that. So, I’m recruiting right now, and it is interesting to see that on one hand we want to hire someone who is a good cultural fit and hence is like us and yet on the other hand we want to have a diverse work force which would mean hiring someone who is different. It is a constant conundrum and so you have to be focused on skillset and potential to do the job.
Vashti: Speaking of diversity and inclusion, women are still a minority in the field of technology. Do you think it is changing? Also, have you ever felt you were treated or perceived differently because of your gender?
Susan: I have definitely worked places where people kept it a secret if they wanted to get pregnant because they knew it would negatively impact their career and that includes places that were run by women so I don’t think it is always men that are holding women back or are making a less family-friendly environment. Sometimes you have a woman at the top who is a warrior and is like “I never see my kids so why would you want to see yours?” So, I feel, that is one thing, especially now that I am a parent myself, that I need to be mindful of. Just because I had kids and came back to work pretty quickly doesn’t mean that someone else might have the same approach to motherhood.
Part of the reason why ECHO is really great about women in the workplace is because of the Balkan leadership here. When I talk with our coworkers in Bosnia and Bulgaria, I’m always taken aback and awed at the same time at the careers their wives have. Their wives are architects, doctors, chemists, and in senior leadership at IBM! I’m always impressed because it is so unusual for women at our age to be so senior in STEM focused careers. Yes, it seems like more women younger than me are in STEM here in the United States but over there it seems there is much more gender parity. That background has led our leadership here to be more egalitarian when looking at who to promote to leadership here. Also, when I told Sejo and our leadership that I was pregnant the response was just sheer joy and nobody acted disappointed or like it would hurt my career. And so, it has been amazing! I feel that choice is important and giving women choices and options is how things will change.
Vashti: We have talked about the loopholes or areas of improvement in terms of inclusion for women but let’s also talk about the positives. What according to you is the best part about being a woman in technology?
Susan: Why would it be any different than the best part about being anyone in technology? Generally speaking, the constant change in technology has kind of leveled the playing field so it is never too late to get in to the field. Especially, in software as a service people who would not have thought of themselves as technologists, bit by bit get involved by doing database administration, then they get curious and learn something more… there are so many available resources to learn things. So, before long someone might discover that they are in technology and it was never their intention to get there.
Vashti: To wrap up, what advice would you give to women considering a career in technology irrespective of what background they come for?
Susan: Just go for it! There is so much opportunity, particularly in the Bay Area and it is really easy to get started. Take a class somewhere, watch YouTube videos. Irrespective of what job someone is in right now, there is some system that they can learn to use better or report better from or build into a process. It’s really amazing how just about anyone can get into technology in these days.