This edition of Women of DevOps is very special! It’s actually a webinar, hosted by our own Tiffany Jachja, the first Women of DevOps I interviewed (listen to her interview).
This panel features Chaya Tanna, Head of DevOps at Syngenta, and Cheryl Razzell, VP of Engineering at Polystream. The theme of the webinar is Empowerment in the Software Development Life Cycle. Very worthy of a listen!
Also, if you missed Women of DevOps Episode 3, it’s out now! I interviewed Leigh Kastenson from LeafLink – it’s linked. You won’t want to miss it.
See you soon,
Watch the panel now.
Can’t watch/listen? Read on below for a transcript of their conversation.
Tiffany: Well, everyone, thank you so much for joining this panel session. I’m super excited to be moderating today, we’re going to be hosting both Chaya and Cheryl, two women in DevOps leadership. We’re going to be talking about empowerment in the DevOps lifecycle. I’m actually really excited to be sharing this panel with you all because empowerment is something that we talk about a lot at Harness when we share best practices, and even just solutions for simplifying and scaling software delivery. I wanted to take a step back and focus on the people aspect of this, and what leaders are doing to amplify voices and empower their technical teams to deliver their best work. It’s really about some of the practices and mindsets that some leaders are employing today.
I want to thank Cheryl and Chaya both for joining us today. I’m gonna do a short round of introductions, but first, I’d like to just say if you have any questions at all, any thoughts, any comments that you’d like to make, please feel free to put them in the chat. We’re going to have a little section at the end of this panel for you to be able to ask any questions that you may have, and for Cheryl and Chaya to both share their thoughts. So without further ado, I’d like to get started with some introductions.
I’m going to be your moderator today. My name is Tiffany Jachja. I’m a Technical Evangelist at Harness and I’m really excited to host this panel. I also wanted to make introductions a little bit more interesting and include an icebreaker question for our panelists today. I wanted to ask, what is the best professional development book that you’ve read recently? I’ll let both Cheryl and Chaya answer those questions.
Cheryl: I just want to say thanks, Tiffany, for inviting me along. We had a conversation a couple of weeks ago to go over what we’re going to talk about today, and I think there are some really great questions that you’ve got lined up for us. It’s something that I feel very passionate about, and it wasn’t until we had the conversation – we talked about empowerment. In my everyday life within my role at Polystream, I talk about empowerment a lot. I didn’t realize until you pulled it up to me, but I do use that a lot, and I do use that every day in front of my team and what we do, in the software delivery that we do here at Polystream.
I’ve been in technology for over 20 years. I’ve worked for some great organizations like the BBC, HSBC, and Microsoft. Today, I work for Polystream as VP of Engineering looking after our engineering team that’s taken our new product to market. I’ve been in the technology sector and all different types of technology, from traditional IT to, in the last 10 to 12 years, I’ve moved more into the DevOps space. I’ve been leading large engineering teams to build platforms, and software journeys for the customers of, for instance, HSBC. When I worked for Yammer, I worked on the Yammer product, and more recently working over at Polystream. So hopefully, it should be some great conversation.
I know that me and Chaya have some synergies of ways of thinking and books, and I have to be totally honest, I said this just before, I don’t really get the time to read as many books as I’d like to purely because I’m a working mom, I’ve got two dogs, I’ve been homeschooling. The last year has been quite difficult with quite a demanding job. So getting the time to disconnect and actually switch off and read a book has been so hard for me. I do tend to listen to audiobooks when I’m walking my dogs, because holding a physical book walking down the street is a recipe for disaster. So I do listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I’ve got some great recommendations. The last book I read, actually physically read, was – if I think about something that isn’t trashy novels or anything like that – “A Good Time to be a Girl,” which is a great book about women in the industry and some of the trials and tribulations that we all face every day. It’s very, very supportive, and a different way of thinking about things. But a book that I actually have on my list ready for me to listen to was recommended to me by a friend. I think it’s a really good subject, and it’s called “Leadership Is Language.” It’s about not necessarily the things you do say. It’s about the way that you say things and how you deliver a message. I found myself recently talking to people about it – it’s not what you’re saying, it’s the context. The way that you deliver a message can be interpreted in so many different ways. It covers large organizations, small organizations, and will make you rethink. From some of the conversations I had with my friend, I put my hands up, I haven’t read it, but it’s definitely there for me to listen to and it’s been highly recommended. A lot of people read it and said, “Actually, it makes you rethink and try to re-engage the way that you talk to people and think about what you’re not saying – not necessarily what you are saying – and how you deliver that message.”
Tiff: I love that. That sounds so awesome. I’d never heard of the book before, but I’ll definitely check it out.
Chaya: Hi, everyone. I’m really excited to be here, and I was really happy that Harness asked me to also sit on this panel and excited to sit with Cheryl. So I’m actually just happy to be listening to all of Cheryl’s answers here. But yeah, Chaya Tanna based here in North Carolina in Chapel Hill at the moment, but when the offices open back up, I’ll be in our Research Triangle Park. I work for Syngenta, which is a large agricultural company. Our mission is to feed the world with less resources. At the moment in the pandemic, that’s a pretty important mission.
When we got asked this question before, like Cheryl, I was talking to my husband last night, “What book would you say? When was the last time I read a book?” I think that we’re always really tough on ourselves. I got on LinkedIn and the other day it was, “What were the last 10 books billionaires read?” If I want to be a billionaire, I need to read all of these books? But in all honesty, the last book I read was “The Open Organization” by Jim Whitehurst. The reason I really like this book is we, at Syngenta, ran a hackathon and I was able to get Jim Whitehurst to do a keynote speech for us. It was the weekend of Jim doing his announcement when they did their merger with IBM. His story’s amazing. He turned Delta around when they were losing a ton of money – and if you think about Delta Airlines and what’s going on at the moment… Jim is all about an open way of working, and when you all have access to the same information – free-flowing information – organizations can be more successful. I’ll just leave it with: it’s a very similar way of how we all should behave. I think somebody put something in the chat around tone, our behavior, and culture – and Jim is very good about how the best idea wins and the hierarchy shouldn’t matter. That’s very similar in the way that I am on my teams. It’s an excellent book.
But I’m a little bit like Cheryl, I’m a mom. Dog Man books are probably what I will be reading for the next few weeks with my little girl. But yeah, I think we should be less tough on ourselves about professional development and just get through these next few months with our kids. And if you don’t have kids, whatever, you know, I like reading trashy novels that Cheryl talked about, because that just helps me get through the day.
Tiff: Yeah, I love that. I actually have The Open Organization right here, too. I think it’s a really great book and everyone can learn from it, especially because Jim does share a lot of his anecdotes and the story of him, actually even getting up to working at Red Hat. I think it’s really, really awesome. But like Chaya and Cheryl mentioned, there are a lot of amazing non professional development books out there. If anyone wants a good recommendation on a funny one, there’s one called A Very Punchable Face and I’ve been laughing my ass off reading it. A lot of people can relate to that book as well. I’d love to hear in the chat if you all have read any amazing books recently, we’d love to do that. We got a question about having some of these books listed out in the chat. We’ll get that to you right away.
But I do want to get to some of the questions today, because I know that they’re going to be really awesome and hopefully help out a lot of people. We’re going to ask a couple of seeded questions, but we’ll still have a couple of minutes at the end for anyone to ask any questions.
This first question is about teams, and maybe individuals, who get a lot of directions from their leadership. They’re kind of feeling a little burnt out about some of the changes in processes and resources, maybe things changing mid-sprint, or even just larger goals changing and getting a lot of those directions from the top down. What are some of your practical tips for eliminating toil?
Cheryl: I work in a startup, so this happens a lot. Especially in a startup that is currently in the process of taking a product to market, because there’s a lot of change. There is a lot of chopping and changing requirements to meet with the latest conversation that’s happening with a potential customer. I think it’s really important to try and keep the team on track. You talk about burnout from different directives within the organization – I see my role as a leader in the team is to protect the team from that, so I become this human shield between the leadership and the engineering organization. I put myself in a place where I’m trying to give them a consistent message, and I’m trying not to switch things around too much.
When you’re building out technology, some things do change, but some things do stay the same in terms of what you’re building – the fundamental platform or, or the software solution – there are things that do stay consistent when you’re building something. I think it’s important to keep with that.
In terms of eliminating the toil, I saw a lot of that was working in a bank. A lot of repetitive tasks. And I’m not a fan of repetitive tasks. I’m a fan of automating as much as possible, so I actually built a separate arm of my team to do as much automation as we possibly can, because nobody wants to repeat a task once or twice, or do the same thing every day. In a bank, it’s hard to change that because you have a lot of governance and compliance, and there was a lot of documentation and you had to tick boxes to get things through. Rightly so, because people are trusting you with their money and it’s a huge organization. But there are ways around that.
I think also distributing the toil, so that one individual doesn’t become the dogsbody for the team and gets all the repeatable tasks. I think it’s the responsibility of everybody in the team to share that burden. So a short answer to your question is, I feel like I have to protect the team from some of the organizational change in direction and keep them on the same track. Give them a sense of understanding where we’re going and be transparent. Transparency is huge for me, to keep everybody in the loop of what’s going on so they understand if we do change direction quite rapidly, what’s the reason behind that? Nobody likes to have something dropped on them and say, “Right, today we’re doing this, but yesterday, we were doing this, which is completely radically different to what we were doing.” So transparency and openness and communication with my team is key. That falls into that ‘eliminating toil’ that I would want my team to come to me, “Ugh, I do this every day, three times a day.” My solution to that would be, have we thought about automating it, or have we thought about doing it a different way? What can we do to solve this problem so that you’re not repeating tasks?
Tiff: I love that advice. It also applies to individual contributors on teams too. I remember times when I was on a newer team, but I was the one of the people who had been there the longest. When we were getting new people, I had to take on a lot of the responsibilities. Someone else on the team noticed that and they brought it up to leadership and mentioned, “Hey, I think Tiffany is doing a lot of the documentation work today and we have a lot of processes that we haven’t automated yet, but I really think we should take care of those things or try to spread out the workload so she’s not just doing one thing and she stays the person who’s doing a lot of documentation and note taking for our team.” That’s a really applicable, practical tip for eliminating some of the toil or burnout they may be feeling, because it does sometimes stem from repeatability. Chaya, I am wondering if you have any additional tips?
Chaya: You know, as people get to know me – I have a dry sense of humor. I don’t know if that’s an English thing or if that’s just a Trier thing. I have no idea. But when Cheryl said “Distribute some of the boring stuff” – I like protecting my team, but we live in the real world. Sometimes, we just have to get on with the boring stuff. She said something about “We don’t want one person just being the dogsbody.” Well, it depends. If there are people in the company who don’t want to contribute to doing some of the stuff we just have to get done, we will find a way of making them the dogsbody. But really, I wouldn’t do that to somebody.
My view is, we have the pandemic and we had this year, so feeling burnout and eliminating toil this year has been horrendous. I don’t know how any of us have even got through it. My kids seem to have introduced themselves to very senior leaders. My CTO has a picture of Ava, my little girl, in his town hall decks – and people have pictures of pigs in these town hall decks, trying to stop my little girl from crying. So this has been a really bad year, but I think the year before, how did you stop this burnout? We all have crap work to do, and so I tell my team, “We’ve got to get the crap work done. We all have it. I have it, you have it, we have to just get through it.” We’re never gonna have enough budget or resources to do everything that the top down – stuff has to get done. So my view is, let’s just plan it out. We have a roadmap and we have a delivery plan, and we can only do what we can do. That’s it.
My role on the team is to share that back. It’s not the developers, it’s not anyone else as well, I have to share that back, and then I make space to innovate. Because if I can share the delivery plan to the leaders, and I can share that back to my team, as long as they’ve got room to innovate, have fun, and room to be doing exciting stuff, they will get the crap work done. I say crap work because we all have to get it done. The top down directive is they’ve got to get this stuff done. But I think that’s how we have to get through the burnout stuff. Also, I think that we just have to have more fun and room to walk these dogs I don’t have. My two kids can be worse than a whole roomful of kids. These changes in processes and resourcing – I’ve gone from having 100 people to 4, and it is always moving around. I think that as long as our team feels supported, we get through anything. I just hope that people see that leaders need to support them, and our team needs to see that we – people like Cheryl and I – need their support as well. We have bad days, and we need support to get through burnout and all of this as well.
Tiff: I agree with you completely. It’s something to be mentioned, right? We work together in a team, and we’re not alone when we go through some of these things. We can always depend on other people or share that burden as well – that’s why we’re a team. And I really like that, because it brings everybody back in line, that we’re not just going through this alone.
Cheryl: Can I just introduce you to somebody? So, this is Jeff, and Jeff is a stuffed alpaca. [Note from Rox: Get your own Jeff here! Bonus points if you buy a few and send some to coworkers.] But Jeff is very dear to me, because of the fact that Jeff was the team mascot. And it was a stupid conversation that was having with my team about – I interviewed somebody and they really liked alpacas. Anyway, it started off a conversation within my team about alpacas. So Jeff is an alpaca, but just became more than just a stuffed toy. He became what our team was all about. It’s that camaraderie that we’ll do anything together. We’re all in it together. We had a very tight-knit team and I think everybody knew it. We have multiple Jeffs because they’re five pounds on Amazon – it was easy to get hold of many Jeffs, and I ship them out to my remote locations. Everybody knew what Jeff represented. We even had Jeff printed as you can see onto a sticker. This was the team mascot, the team logo, and everybody knew what our team stood for. People would steal Jeff and they would put ransom notes up and things like that. We had a bit of fun with Jeff. But I think from outside of the team, everybody knew who we were, and as a team, that camaraderie, that “We’re all in it together.” There’s toil when there’s a mismatch of direction, but we’re all in it together. It’s just so important and I love that.
Chaya: That’s funny that you say that, because on my team, I know that’s funny. You had that (Jeff), we were unicorns. My motto was, “Be a unicorn in a field of horses.” I’m not saying that my company has a bunch of horses, I’m just saying, “Look, just be unique.” Also, my kids love unicorns. I, one day, I came back to my office with a bunch of unicorns in there. I have no idea to this day who put them in there. We gave everyone little toy things. It got expensive. But yeah – that’s cute, I like it.
Tiff: I love that it’s a rainbow alpaca as well.
Cheryl: Yeah, it was the first one I found on Amazon and I could buy multiple ones and ship them to different locations. He became quite famous at HSBC. We never knew who did ransom him, we never found that out in the end. But they put wanted signs up with ransom notes, and we were like, “Have you seen Jeff? Where’s Jeff gone?” So Jeff’s with me now. Even though I’ve left that team, the memories are still with me. We have a whatsapp group called The Alpaca Team. That’s who we were.
Tiff: I love that. It’s like defining an identity through a mascot.
Cheryl: Well, sorry, a bit of silliness. But I think it represents that team spirit.
Tiff: I know that someone else in the chat mentioned that they 100% agree with the fact that dedicating time for innovation is really important for people to keep their passion and their growth going on in their careers. Alrighty, so we’ll just go to the next question, since it seems like we’ve had a lot of comments on this first one. The second question is about people who are in a larger team setting, or maybe they feel like they’re the different one in the room. How have you developed your communication style to share your ideas without losing your voice or confidence in these larger team settings?
Chaya: I’ll go first. I struggled – this, for me, this session today, I didn’t sleep at all last night. I find it really hard to speak up, and my team finds this weird since I’m in a leadership position. When we had Jim Whitehurst, who is a big deal in Research Triangle Park here, and we had him come in, I was trying to push somebody on my team to do the introduction speech. They were like, “No, you got him, you speak.” I was just like, “Oh my God, what would I say?” All I was doing was speaking for two minutes in front of everyone. I’m so nervous and all of this stuff. At work in meetings, I’m always spoken over. It’s something I’ve had to work on. I always had this one person on the leadership team where somebody would ask me a question, I would open my mouth to speak, and they would say, “Hey, try it, that’s an awesome idea,” or “Let me build on that thought.” I hadn’t even spoken yet. This would be a continuous thing.
I’ve found that I’ve had to work on not feeling that my ideas don’t count, and feeling comfortable – even within my team – that I don’t have to say, “Hey, I’m the boss, listen to me.” What would happen is I would go home, and I would be upset that – you know, I don’t want to name names. Even though this person’s gone, if my team were listening, they would know. I just found that I had to start speaking up because my opinion does matter. That’s why Jim and The Open Organization really spoke to me when we listened to him. It’s because those ideas come from everyone. We all have an opinion. I’m not a developer. I’m not an engineer. But let me tell you, the ideas that have come out from our team are creative ideas. Every single person has an opinion, but if I hadn’t spoken up and I didn’t have the confidence to speak up, then those ideas would never have come up.
One of our latest ideas at Syngenta, that is now our engineering platform, came from m. If I hadn’t spoken up, then we would never have developed it. I think you have to find confidence in trusting that there’s a few people – they should be women and men on your team – that speak up for you, “Hey, Chaya was speaking. Let her finish her sentence.” I think that everyone should see that and speak up on your behalf, because that’s why I lost my voice. I didn’t have confidence to speak up and I didn’t feel like anyone was speaking up for me, saying, “You just interrupted her. Let her finish.” I’ve got to have some confidence to speak up, but other people also have to encourage me. The Jim Whitehurst example was my team pushing me forward. Today, people push me forward. Cheryl will probably share the same things that she will – on her team’s behalf – if she sees it, she speaks up as well. Cheryl, I don’t know what you have to add there?
Cheryl: I actually was on a panel yesterday and we were talking about this very subject. Believe it or not, I might come across as an extrovert, but secretly, I’m more of an introvert. Public speaking, for me, frightens the hell out of me. Speaking at events, I get nervous, I get really rattled before I speak. And I speak really quickly, because sometimes I feel that i haven’t got anything valuable to add. If I just get it over and done with, nobody will ever understand because I talk really quickly and I’m done. It’s taken a lot of experience and gaining that confidence in my voice and knowing when to speak up. I think everyone can relate and we talked about it yesterday: impostor syndrome. Am I really the right person to say this? Am I really the right person to take a stand here? Is my voice being heard? The more you get shut down, the more that backs up that feeling of, “Am I the right person? Is what I’m saying relevant? Does anybody really understand me?” It’s taken years of experience to know when to voice my opinion. I talked about the “Leadership is Language” book. I am going to read it because I think it’s the way you deliver a message as well.
I work with some individuals, some on my team, that don’t have confidence in what they say. They feel like they’re constantly apologizing. If you walk into a meeting, like, “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m here and I’m going to put my opinion, but feel free to trash it,” that doesn’t inspire confidence in what you’re saying. You don’t hear what the person is saying, you just hear the tone of what they’re delivering. That person is less likely to be heard in that meeting when they’re so apologetic for even breathing. And that used to be me! I can relate to these individuals. So I’ve done a lot of coaching with people to say, have a little bit more conviction when you’re saying something. State it as fact. Or pose a question, but not undervaluing what you’re saying at the same time. So you’re in a meeting, and you’ve got a point and you go, “Has anyone really thought about it like this?” or “Hang on, can we just stop and replay that part of the conversation, just so I understand it?”
It was interesting yesterday. There was a lady that was talking about the fact that she needed time to digest what was being said. I think people work in very different ways. You might see that this person is not contributing towards a conversation, because people might think, well, they don’t have anything to say. Conversation, especially over the last year – Chaya, your point about COVID, I think it’s taken us back in terms of the way that we interact as humans. Zoom calls are very different to that in person connection you had, or all these meetings you would have had in person. Very clinical things happen over a Zoom call. It’s kind of like, “Right, we’re here to talk about this. Let’s talk about this and let’s move on.” You stopped with the niceties, like, “Hey, how are you?” The fun that we used to have, we don’t have that as much.
So when she was talking, she wanted to digest what was being said, think about it, and then pose her answer. But because of the way things happen in meetings sometimes, that moment had passed. She didn’t feel that she could voice her concerns, or, I thought, a really great solution to a problem. But it was 10 minutes ago, because she works differently to people in the room. The moral is that everybody has their own way of working. There’s no problem with going back to a point and saying, “Hey, we spoke earlier, but given that I had some thoughts over this, can we talk about this again?” There’s no problem with that. I think appreciating the differences that people have in the way that they work will help you with your voice.
You [Chaya] talked about having allies in a meeting where someone can back you up. I think it’s really important. If you find that you’re being spoken over, or that you’re like, “Hey, it’s been 10 minutes, I know, but I want to talk about our point again,” having someone then go “Yeah, no sure, you take the stage and you talk,” rather than that guy that will cut you off and go, “I know exactly what you’re going to say before you’ve even said it.”
Chaya: Oh, yeah. And I would say, “Really? Now you know the answers. Really? Wow, you’re really good at reading minds then, aren’t you?. Go ahead! Tell me what I just was about to say then! [laughs]
Cheryl: You’re in the wrong job if your mindreading is that good! You should be on the stage in Vegas. I think that you need to appreciate the way that different people work. We need to be a little bit more responsive to people that are thinkers that want to digest things and be a bit more open to that. Zoom calls, Teams calls, and video calls in general: we need to bring back some of that human side. There was a lady yesterday on the call that I was on. She was shut off. She started to talk and the guy was like, “No, you stop. We don’t want to hear from you.” And she was like, “No, no, no, I want to talk” and she stood up for herself. It’s really brave to do that and we need more people to back you up and go, “No, she’s trying to say something, let her talk.” So I do that. I can read the team when we’re video calls to go, “Actually, someone’s got an idea. They’ve been trying to raise their hand, but everyone’s talking over them, can you just let them talk?” I think you need to spot what’s happening in the meeting – someone needs to direct it. That’s really important. If a meeting is just left to chaos and there’s nobody moderating and controlling the situation, not everybody’s gonna be heard. You’re not really gonna get the outcome that you’re looking for.
Tiff: I love those tips. Even just about finding your voice and making sure that you don’t lose it. You’ll see that if you share more of your ideas, that people get ideas based off of your ideas because it inspires them. I feel a lot of my feelings, so when I come up with my ideas, a lot of them are based on conversations that other people are having or the emotions in the room.
There was actually another women’s panel. It was in person, and there was this very large crowd. I remember there was a group of people who was like, “I hate these kinds of panels because they always just force you to take more courses on D&I and actually learn things. I felt so upset. I remember them asking, “Does anyone have any comments?” I was there at the front of the room, and I raised my hand. I said, “I think anyone can learn about including other people on the team, speaking up for other people, ensuring that we don’t lose our voices.” Everyone looked at me and my face turned bright red. Then the people at the front hosting the panel said, “Oh, we didn’t really hear you. Could you say that again? Here’s a microphone.” They gave me the panel microphone, and I had to repeat it. I was so embarrassed. I remember I left that and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m gonna die.” Because I felt my emotions. I told myself I want to speak up on this, because this is a topic that I really care about.
Some people in leadership had heard and they came up to me the next day and said, “I really liked what you were saying about including voices, because everyone’s opinions count. We have an idea. We want to put together a presentation, or at least mention this topic to people and bring it up to see what they think about it.” I had to talk on an all-hands call after that. But it made me realize how much value your ideas can bring to the table, even if it’s just something small, where you had this reaction to something else. I think it’s totally fine to explore that, to put those out there. At that point, you’re not thinking about yourself. You’re not thinking about, “Oh, what does this mean, for me?” You’re thinking about the culture, you’re thinking about the team, you’re thinking about other people. That’s also one way to find your voice. I don’t know if you’re similar to me, I’m very introverted. I tend to get super red when I get put in the center of things. That’s something that I’ve learned for myself, and I’m not sure if that helps other people, but that’s my tip there.
Cheryl: I think that’s awesome. I love that you spoke up and that somebody in leadership was listening to you and followed up on that idea. That needs to happen more often, because anybody can contribute a great idea – it’s whether it’s heard or not.
Tiff: Exactly. It does bring a lot of value to it. Because then, you realize other people are listening and it’s not that you’re speaking into a void. That’s where sometimes the pressure or anxiety can come from, because you’re not sure what saying something will mean for yourself.
Cheryl: It’s interesting that you’re nervous about public speaking. I think you’re doing a great job.
Tiff: Yay! I love that. I’m super glad that we were able to host this event and I’m sure a lot of people can resonate with the topics. This also is a good segue to this next question about finding that sponsorship or finding someone to advocate for yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how sponsorship fits into mentorship, and vice versa? What are some things that you found to be helpful for advocating for your own work performance?
Cheryl: Very interesting. I see mentorship and sponsorship as two very different things. I’m a mentor to quite a few people and I help them with understanding where they are, understanding maybe struggles they’re going through at the moment, and have given them some guidance and coaching to be their better selves. That’s what I see mentorship as, and that’s what I use my mentor relationships for if I’ve got a mentee, or if I have a mentor myself. You’ve got some experience in this particular thing. There’s one particular mentee that I’ve just taken on recently who wants to build up her social presence. She wants to build her external brand, so I’m helping her understand how she does that, internally and externally. There are particular things that you work on with a mentor.
I have a mentor as well. I’ve been mentoring for over a year and I think that maybe we’ve reached the end of the road. It’s time for us to break up, but we really enjoy each other’s company so we carry on talking. But, I feel that there’s a particular use that you have for a mentor relationship, where it’s to help you professionally with, for example, finding my voice, or personal brand or leadership, or there’s a particular thing that you want to grow.
I think that with sponsorship, that is the person that advocates for you when you’re not in the room. That is something that I attribute a lot of my career to people being great sponsors of me. I’ve come into a room with my boss and he’s like, “Oh, just been having a conversation with the leadership team, they think you’ll be brilliant for this.” I’m put forward for a job or a promotion. I get it a lot externally as well, “Oh, so-and-so heard you speak and we’d love to have you talk at this event, we think it has value.” That’s your sponsorship: where somebody will advocate for your skills, and where you could be a good fit, where you wouldn’t necessarily put yourself forward because you wouldn’t know about that opportunity, or you wouldn’t know about that role. It’s more of an organic relationship as well. It’s not something you can go, “Alright, I’m going to go find a sponsor today! Who’s going to sponsor me.” It’s not something you can pay to do and it’s not something that you can build up. It comes with networking, it comes with trust, it comes with somebody identifying you’re good at something.
Chaya and I will probably advocate for a lot of our team through, “Actually, that role needs to be filled and I know somebody is great for that.” That’s where your sponsorship comes from, and it’s good to build sponsors in senior roles. I think those relationships are great. Senior leaders move on to other organizations, so I’ve got a lot of sponsors I can go to and say, “I need your help with this, could you help me with this or connect me?” And that person will then recommend me to somebody go, “Hey, Cheryl needs help with this, can you help connect her in this space?” I leverage that a lot in my career.
Chaya: You might have one or two mentors. It is like a friendship, and it develops over time. I’ve had more than one, and I have them today. What’s interesting about the mentorship relationship is you’ll see that very senior people in this industry – for instance, if you look on LinkedIn or look up Simon Sinek, he’s got some amazing TEDx talks, those are really great talks – but he has a mentor. My mentors have been great. I’ve cried in rooms with them. Personally, I felt abused in meetings, but those are trusted meetings and discussions – how can I discuss this over dinner, in a car? Those are the types of meetings that I so trusted that you have confidential discussions. They might be people that work with you, but those are closed door discussions that will never leave the room.
The sponsorship – now, what’s interesting about sponsorships – if you only have one or two people advocating for you. I’ve actually gone through this at Syngenta. I had very senior board-level sponsorship at Syngenta, and they got wiped out for whatever reasons. I didn’t do anything wrong, they just left, then there was new leadership. I was at the peak of my career at Syngenta. Actually, there were a lot of people who left for whatever reasons. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way: it’s like having a million dollars in your bank. Suddenly, all these sponsors left that were advocating for you. You open your bank balance and you’re in overdraft. And you have to prove yourself to that leadership team again. It is the worst feeling in the world.
Cheryl just said, “It’s not like you can just suddenly get that sponsorship.” And my advice is to network completely. My brother has been made redundant at Deutsche Bank. And I’ll say, it’s not the best time to be made redundant in the banking industry in London. I think if he looked back now – he was working 15 hour days – do you think he had time to network? He didn’t network. Now, if he had networked, he would probably find it much easier to reach out to all those people to find another position. It’s very difficult now.
I went through that. I had to rebuild that bank balance, and I don’t think I’m at the million dollar mark, but I do think I’ve had to do that. You have to have multiple sponsors. The thing I’ve done differently over the last two years: my sponsorship will not be just in Syngenta. My sponsorship is outside of Syngenta, and in Syngenta. My advice to everyone on this call is: don’t just look inside your companies and build your brand, build it everywhere. It’s okay to spend 10 minutes on LinkedIn on your lunch break. I don’t care, do it. My team? Do it. That’s where you’re going to innovate. I never look over anyone’s shoulder. I don’t care what you’re doing. You’re going to take half a day off? I don’t care, because you’re going to innovate. Go for it. That’s the way I think everyone should be. That’s my advice around sponsorship and mentorship.
Cheryl: One point – I never really thought of it, but I love the bank account. I call it social currency. Very similar thought process around – like you say, I think we both agree that sponsors are there and they’re there for life. People see me after 10 years and go, “I used to work with you, remember me?” Of course I remember you. Those connections happen. Networking is really, really great. I used to work at HSBC, so if your brother needs some help – I don’t know what he does, but I can always help.
Chaya: Yeah, thanks. Actually, I’m gonna say this. On LinkedIn where everyone pastes the thing, “If anyone needs a job, I’ll share anything and everything!” This is not about my brother. But I read those, right? And I’m just like, “Really? What?” Cheryl, I appreciate that. I think everyone – if we can open doors for people, for everyone, let’s open them – and it’s not about COVID. But where we, as people, whether it’s DevOps – and Tiffany, I read something that you wrote about your team at Harness. If anyone read what I put on LinkedIn – I don’t have social ninjas at Syngenta, so I think what Polystream and what Harness do, they’re brilliant. But I personally do think Harness really does care about their people. I’m a true believer that if you care about your team, they will do amazing things.
So Tiffany writes something on her LinkedIn post. I’m just gonna say this to Tiffany, because she was like, “I love my team. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I just want to take a leaf out of Tiffany’s book. Tiffany, I appreciate the things that you write, because I’m writing lots of quotes and things that you have and share back to my team, but I think that we can do a lot better for people.
I do think Harness truly cares about their team, and from their team, they will do amazing things. My team does amazing things because I care about my team. I know that there’s somebody on this – he’s left Syngenta – but I know that somebody has joined the session and he often sends me messages saying, “I learned that from you, I care about my team.” He’s all about his team now, because he knows that if his team does amazing things, they will do great things for the company. If he’s looking after them that’s what matters, and I really think my team makes me look good. I’m not doing amazing things. They’re doing amazing things. They’ve made me look great.
Cheryl: You’re building the leaders of the future there, because you’re inspiring by your leadership methods. They will take that and they will build that. That’s how I’ve built my leadership skills and all the good bits of all the good leaders I’ve had, trying to think about what works for me, and how I can apply that to my team. You’re doing the same thing. You’re gonna bring the leaders of the future by leading the way and setting a good example.
Chaya: Thank you.
Cheryl: You should be proud of that.
Tiff: For me, I have always had a stronger sense of team and community, because I do notice that I pick up on the room and what other people are doing. A lot of the ways that I measure myself is, how am I servicing other people on the team? How am I doing justice to their work? How can I grow based on what they’re doing too?
The special thing about Harness is that for pretty much the first time, I feel this very strong sense of pride for being on my team. Sometimes at the end of the day, when I think about, well, did we hit our numbers, did we hit our goals? Along the way, even if we did or we didn’t, it doesn’t matter. We had some of the greatest accomplishments that we’ve had in our careers. We’ve had some of the awesomest things happen to us. Those are all things that we need to pick up on and amplify as well. That’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to do more often.
I’ve had sponsorship and I haven’t had sponsorship, but someone told me before that you manage the relationships with people that are on your level, above your level, and below your level. I think building relationships at all different levels, and managing those relationships, is a good start for building sponsorship – and even mentors, if you don’t have relationships with any mentors.
Chaya: Tiffany, there’s a question here about finding sponsorship: “What is the best way to find sponsorship and mentorship within the organization? If you’re starting out a new job and you’re working remotely, you don’t get to meet many people within the organization.” That’s going to be challenging if you’re remote, even after COVID.
Tiff: I actually can share some of my experiences. I’ve been remote for almost all my career. A lot of my roles are remote with the travel component based in it.
I was a consultant at Red Hat for a good while and I had a really hard time finding sponsorship and mentorship, especially because I was working on different teams. When you’re a consultant, you’re put on different projects. It’s not like your managers on those projects, watching your work performance. They don’t know the code that you pushed out. They don’t know what the quality was. They don’t even know what someone else said about you. So I had a really, really hard time converting all of my accomplishments and actually gaining sponsorship and leadership because it was so hard for me. One of the things that helped was just focusing on doing the best job that I could, because if someone else could notice that I was doing a good job consistently, they would be able to share that across or even recognize me for that.
So that’s my tips for sponsorship. At least for mentorship, I think one of the best ways is to reach out to people. Sometimes you don’t know who your next mentor is, you don’t know what people think about you. I’ve had events in my life that happened where someone wanted to sit down with me and get to know me better so that they could be a mentor to me. I didn’t expect that – I didn’t even know what that person thought of me. You never really know, but I think the best thing that you can do is also just say hi to people. Don’t be afraid to say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m new here, but I’d love to work with you sometime in the future or keep following your work.” That’s one step.
Chaya: My mentors – I’ve never had a conversation and said, “Hey, I really like you, I’d like you to be my mentor.” It never goes like that from me. With the two mentors I have at the moment, it literally was, “Hey, do you have time for lunch?” Now this conversation – this person is remote, and probably everything’s over Zoom – but it could even be a close friend that is doing some awesome work in a different industry, and you just want advice on something, but it will be organic. I do think it’s an organic relationship, and from a mental perspective, you’ll grow that relationship over time. Suddenly, you’ll just find that you’re going to them for a lot of advice over and over again. That’s what’s happened for me.
But I think on sponsorship, that is something that you are building over – who knows, I might actually contact Cheryl now, and she becomes an advocate for me over time, right? That’s an example of how somebody will become a sponsor for you. You guys might connect with me over LinkedIn, and I get to know somebody. That’s a different way of getting sponsorship. I think mentoring is going to be a much more personal contact.
Cheryl: Can I offer some advice on that? I’ve just joined the Women in Tech network. It’s a great network. I should have joined years ago. I’m really late to the game on this one, but I’ve joined as a mentor on their program and I’ve actually sponsored other women to join the mentor program who I think can contribute a lot. I’ve had friends reaching out to me, like, “God Cheryl, you’re all over social presence at the moment. There’s so much going on in your LinkedIn profile. How do I get involved?” People are actively coming to me. Men and women saying they want to get more involved and they want to become a mentor.
I’ve got a great friend who I’ve just been in contact with on the same network. She wants to give back because she’s been inspired by my posts. So they’re the Women in Tech network. They just set up a mentor program which goes live in April, and I know at least 10 other women I’ve put forward that will be really great mentors. That’s a bit of practical advice.
If I don’t make it in technology – and I’m kind of a bit long in the tooth for this, I’ve been in technology for a while – I want to become a professional networker, because I’ve put together people and I like to think I know people quite well. A couple of my friends got married after I did some matchmaking. I like connecting people, it’s my favorite thing. If I spot a hole and somebody is asking, “Do you know somebody to do this?” I’ve got this Rolodex of people that I’ve met over the years to connect them – and I do a lot of that. People reaching out going, “I’m starting a business. Do you know anyone in Silicon Valley that can help me with this?” I’ve got my connections from when I used to work at Yammer. Having somebody kind of that you can contact and say, “Hey, do you know anybody that can do this?” A lot of people ask me that, because they know that I know people. Actually, a friend of mine the other day asked, “Do you know anybody who works at Shopify?” I was like, “Yeah, I did a talk a couple of years ago and I met this guy from Shopify and he’s awesome.”
Chaya: Cheryl just came up with her next startup business today!
Tiff: I agree about sponsorship and mentorship. It is the relationships that you build with people over time. For sponsorship, someone has to trust you enough to speak up for you in a room. When you’re not in that room, someone has to speak up for you and that relationship takes time. Same thing with mentorship, that relationship takes time. I found that I’ve burned myself out trying to find mentorship and trying to find sponsorship. It’s really difficult and it can be frustrating, especially if you feel isolated or you feel like no one knows your work.
Chaya: That’s the most frustrating part, right? Every single person feels that. People will look at you if you’re in a leadership position and say, “Well, what did they do to get there?” Let me tell you, we all feel that about other people in leadership positions. “They do nothing! What have they done all day to sit there in a leadership position? Nothing!” But we don’t know what they did and who they know and how they got there. We don’t. My advice is: that’s the racket, you know? The noises on the outside. Don’t worry yourself about what they did and how they got there. Just focus on yourself. If you deserve better, you’re going to get it. Focus on the positive aspects of your life. Attend sessions like this. Keep positive people around you. We all have those down moments. Remind yourself that you can, and you deserve better. There’s mentorships and those people are around, just got to find them. And people like us will help you find them. I have found them, but we will have been in the same positions.
Tiff: I think we’re gonna be running out of time pretty soon. Maybe we can take one question from the audience, if anyone has one, but I do want to say thank you all for joining. If you enjoy these sessions, let us know, or even just add us on our social media. I’m sure that we’ll be able to host more of these in the future.
I’d love to ask this question, because I think there’s a lot of people who may resonate with it. This will totally be the last question, I promise. It’s for someone who’s moved around a lot in their careers. Maybe they’ve done a little bit of project management or program management, they’ve done software engineering, they’ve maybe done dev advocacy, and they don’t necessarily identify for a particular technology or a particular career, I’d love to hear some of the advice that you have for this type of person. What are some of the skills that you’ve built in your career that have had unexpected, but significant impact on your careers?
Cheryl: I did a piece with my mentor, funny enough, a while back where I drew up a square with four boxes. He asked me to put in what I enjoy doing, what I don’t like doing, one of my blind spots, and go through this exercise to identify what are the key things I enjoy out of my role. If you’re someone who’s a bit of a generalist and you want to specialize, or you just want to find a role that’s more suited to your skills, it’s a good exercise to do to understand what it is that you like doing, and where you want your next role to take you.
Basically, what you want to do is, you want to do all of the good stuff and avoid as much of the stuff that you’re not great at and you don’t like doing. There are elements of that in every role, of course, but you want a job where at least 70-80% of your role is something that really excites you. You come to work every day and you want something that’s really exciting. I think the other part of that is networking and getting to know people, because that will help you, having shared experiences with people to understand what role might be best for you. Talking to people in different roles you’re looking at, and going, “So what does that entail every day? Oh, well that’s not for me. That’s not where we’re gonna go.” Learning more about the roles by exploring by talking to people.
Chaya: I’m not an engineer and I would always say, “I’m not technical.” I always saw that as a negative. My crutch was having very technical architects around me to translate everything before me. In the last two or three years, I’ve really stopped using it as a crutch and as an excuse. I don’t need to be a technical person. I don’t need to be a developer or an engineer. What I’ve decided is that I’m not going to learn to be a developer. Show me a developer that knows 40 development languages – no developer has that… and if they do, then, you know, they should probably be very rich.
For me, when I stopped saying that, I found that I actually understood and I was able to communicate to senior leaders much more easily what they were looking for. I was easily able to communicate to developers. I think that gave me the confidence to be in the role that I am today. The DevOps piece for me – we’re on a DevOps panel – the ability to stop saying, “Hey, I’m not technical” actually opened my eyes up to all of the different technology stacks and things out there. I don’t need to know everything to feel confident, to be able to speak to each of them. I learned enough to be dangerous. That’s what I do. I say: don’t make excuses. Don’t make excuses for yourself. It’s okay. Just be confident in what you do.
Tiff: I love that a lot, and it also speaks to who you are as a person, because sometimes you don’t notice what skills you have. It’s not until you actually put them in practice, or you do the things that you’re really great at, that you notice them. It was that way for me. I didn’t know a lot of what my skills were. If you’re an athlete, you know what your skills are. Those are obvious, like those are physical-based. For people who have more skills that are based on intuition or communication, those things don’t come out unless you are communicating or you are putting your intuition to practice. So I think that’s one of the things to note as well.
I’m so glad that a few people could stick around for this awesome session. Thank you so much, Cheryl and Chaya, for sitting on this presentation and sharing some of your wonderful advice and knowledge. I really appreciate it. And thank you everyone for joining.
Chaya: Thanks for having me. And thanks for all the comments! Yeah, thank you to everyone who joined.
Tiff: Thanks, everyone. Have a good rest of your day!
Cheryl: Likewise! Bye!
Catch Women of DevOps in May for Carmen Saenz, Senior DevOps Engineer at PEAK6 and PhD student.
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