Lisa Wood, chief marketing officer at VirtualZ Computing, fell into technology when her financial services employer told her that the entire management training program and staff would need to learn how to use new software and a computer. “The box landed on my desk, and my boss said, ‘Looks like we need to learn how to use these things,’” she recalls. “There was no IT department, training class, tech support, or YouTube videos. I taught myself everything I could about the software and computer; I took it apart and put it back together with tools I brought to work.” Wood adds, “That experience kicked off a career-long love affair with IT.”
With encouragement from her parents, Wood took a leap and left her career in financial services. “During my exit interview at the finance company, they asked what my new position was and why I was leaving. When I explained the industry and my responsibilities, the human resources person flatly stated I would be back to finance in no time as IT was full of either failed start-ups or boring, old technology, and most certainly it was littered with lost dreams,” she says.
Lisa’s parents’ unwavering support took her to the next step in her career, landing at a Silicon Valley startup that made scanners, optical character recognition and imaging software. “It was their belief in me that gave me the idea to switch careers,” says Wood. “Initially what inspired me to enter an IT career was the surprising and joyful discovery of how computers were built and what powerful things they enabled people to do. With my parents’ confidence in me to ‘go for it,’ I jumped into IT and never looked back.”
Wood’s first challenge was not listening to other people’s doubts about IT as a whole, or her own abilities. “Refreshingly, the people at the new company were incredibly supportive and excited to welcome me to IT. Despite that, one of the initial challenges was a steep learning curve,” she says. “To fit in the learning and still meet my daily responsibilities, I expanded my work day by several hours for a couple of years, going in early and staying late to squeeze it all in.” Her second challenge was navigating the industry ecosystem, including who did what, who the leaders were, who was developing the newest technology, and more. “I read industry magazines and attended conferences to accelerate this part of my knowledge base,” Wood explains.
Additionally, to learn new technical skills, she looked at her work environment as her school, spending as much time she could in labs where hardware was made, helping quality assurance teams test products, meeting with software engineers, or sitting in on design meetings. “I kept a database of everything I wanted to learn and crossed them off one by one. I spent a lot of time with customers understanding their needs and complexities of their workflows, which added more topics to my list to track down.”
To specifically develop technical skills at one company, Wood asked to move into a training role and traveled the country teaching technicians how to service laptops. “I gained a reputation for being inquisitive and for truly wanting the best for our products, company, and customers; and I had a blast doing it,” she adds. But for business skills, she opted for more formal classes through executive education to keep pace with the changes on that front.
When starting out in her new career in the mid-80s, Wood explains that many of her early mentors were men because of the gender imbalance in the industry. This is one of the reasons she wanted to be a part of the Women in IT initiative at SHARE. “We can raise up both men and women for the better of the organization and the industry,” Wood says. She explains that she had two types of mentors. “They either were open-minded and said ‘yes’ to me asking for out-of-the-norm opportunities or they pushed me towards growth opportunities I didn’t see yet,” Wood says.
For example, when she worked in marketing, Wood issued a proposal to her manager that going into the field and training technicians would give her a better understanding of the business. She thought the experience would enable her to create marketing campaigns and messaging that were more relevant to their customers. He agreed and they worked on a plan to enable her success.
Another mentor pushed her in a new direction that Wood says wasn’t on her radar. The CEO suggested that she run the company infrastructure team and network operations center, which was a stretch for her. “It took a lot of learning on my part and faith on the company’s part,” says Wood. “In my experience, some mentors supported my ideas for growth and others saw new possibilities for my development. Both were very important as it turns out, and I am fortunate to have benefited from all of it.”
For other women looking to begin a career in IT, Wood advises that they don’t listen to the naysayers, and just go for it. Moreover, learn the business you are in, what the company you work for is really doing, and who they do it for. Wood advises to dig into the details of that because it is what your IT career will be a critical part of. “It’s not IT in a vacuum for IT’s sake,” she says. “It is empowering something or someone to do something totally new, different, better, faster, less expensively, etc. That’s exciting to understand and contribute to and it will make your work in IT better, more impactful, and meaningful.” She also says to stay fresh and current with your skills; look for gaps in your team’s skills that you can fill, gaps in your own skills, or areas that light up your curiosity.
“The opportunity to fulfill your quest for knowledge is one of this industry’s true gifts,” says Wood. Embarking on any career entails learning on the job, but as long as you are passionate about your work and are driven to succeed, you can accomplish your goals. It’s about blazing your own trail and being confident enough to recognize opportunities and learning to take the advice of mentors and supervisors who may see something on the horizon that can help you expand your career.