Tales From the Top: How Women Leaders Empower Others

In 2022, women in tech leadership still remain starkly underrepresented. For some Boston tech companies, it’s about breaking through the glass ceiling and helping others across.

Written by Anderson Chen
Published on Jan. 12, 2023
Tales From the Top: How Women Leaders Empower Others
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During a panel at the 1978 Women’s Exposition, writer Marily Loden was given the Sisyphean task of explaining the lack of women in managerial positions. So, she coined the term “glass ceiling” — the conceptual limit or invisible barrier placed upon women seeking upward mobility. Six years later, Gay Bryant, then editor of Working Woman magazine, immortalized the phrase in an Adweek profile. In the decades since, the metaphorical barrier has come to define the movement for gender equality in career advancement and wages for women everywhere. 

For the tech industry — the face of corporate America today — the ceiling is a thick and pervasive obstacle, one that only allows 25 percent of leadership positions to be held by women in 2022, according to the WomenTech C-Level Network. Among those leading software engineering teams, women account for 14 percent. Fortunately, the problem has become a well-recognized priority since the days of Loden. 

Below the glass ceiling, in a sign indicative of mainstream progress, the floor has slowly risen for the male-dominated industry. Deloitte Global projects that global tech companies, on average, will hit almost 33 percent overall female representation in 2022 — a two-point uptick in the last three years. 

Meanwhile, some tech companies are striving to shatter both preconceived biases along with the gendered bottleneck in their upper echelons. For Dawn Plummer, director of software engineering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, organizational biases were prevalent in her journey up the corporate ladder. 

“Organizations tend to prioritize delivery and progress toward goals over the growth and development of those we lead,” she said of her experience. “But by becoming more aware of these types of biases, I can provide more learning experiences across the team.”

It takes a village to alter such an entrenched, seemingly immutable cultural barrier. Many women now leading their own teams have attributed their success to help from mentors and managers giving them both advice as well as opportunities to grow. At the same time, having pride in individual aptitude goes a long way to cementing visibility in the corporate hierarchy. 

“You may be the only woman at the table many times, but be confident you are adding value and much needed diversity in thinking,” advised Vineeta Puranik, SmartBear’s SVP Engineering and DevOps. She now leads the entire engineering and operations team globally. 

To tackle the long-standing issue of underrepresentation, many companies are turning to a top-down approach as a beacon for elevating women in tech. Built In Boston sat down with five women for a closer look at their professional journey to leadership and how they broke past the antiquated hurdle that hampered their predecessors, as well as their advice for those in the future who aspire to do the same. 

 

galatea associates team meeting in office with five employees
Galatea Associates

 

Dawn Plummer
Director of Software Engineering • Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

 

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston is the eponymous branch of the U.S. central bank. Known as the Boston Fed, the New England-based financial institution is responsible for the economic well-being of communities in the region, which it strives to support by conducting economic research, supervising industry players, offering financial services and contributing to monetary policies, all on top of a software-based foundation run by employees such as Director of Software Engineering Dawn Plummer.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I earned my degrees from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and fell in love with the university’s fast-paced and team-centric approach to learning. The desire to work in a fast, fluid and collaborative environment has stayed with me throughout. I’ve always sought small, dynamic teams where the work changed rapidly, and my impact was broad, so I worked for several startup companies early on. When those companies grew, I would miss the agility and camaraderie of the startup environment and make a change. 

My early career was as an IC, focusing primarily on automation, but my desire to lead was always present. Leading in a tech organization allows me to blend my love of engineering with my people skills. I am now a director of software engineering responsible for helping drive technical direction and supporting teams delivering technical and business features en route to our 2023 launch of FedNow. The role has offered me the startup feel and an environment where I can make a difference, along with leadership that has offered me more support and opportunities than ever before. They trust and value my opinion, which has allowed me to grow as a leader.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

During my time at the Fed, I attended an executive leadership program at Bentley. Right away, I applied an important lesson around people's biases. Bias comes into play so much more than people may realize. Engineering leaders are responsible for the careers of many different types of individuals and skill sets, all requiring special and unique attention. Leaders should be careful not to tap the same people over and over for special or urgent assignments. 

Bias may play a part when these situations come up, since it’s tempting to use the people who have always delivered. However, in doing so, you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to improve and evolve your team. When you’re asked to delegate work, check yourself. Don’t continue to use the same go-to people. Doing so restricts your ability to grow a teams’ overall experience and knowledge. That change has not only grown individual skill sets within our team, but also the team’s ability to deliver.

Women leaders, especially those in tech, should lean into their differences.”

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Women and men should have equal rights, opportunities and seats at the table, but they are different. Built differently, wired differently — they’re fundamentally different, with distinct strengths and weaknesses. We should value what each has and realize that without these differences, we can’t see the whole picture. 

Too often, I see women trying to mimic the leadership they see around them, rather than play to their strengths. Women leaders, especially those in tech, should lean into their differences. If you’re a woman who is good at nurturing, like many of us are, nurture your team, even if you don’t see anyone around you doing it. Teams need to learn, adapt and grow as the landscape around them changes. It requires a leader who can foster a learning environment. If you’re good at empathizing, empathize with your team — listen and seek to understand. Your team is juggling life and all its struggles. If you’re creative, use that skill to see around corners, to look at problems through a new lens. 

During your career, you’ll run into challenges, hurdles and problems that will require different approaches, solutions or tact, and the only way you’ll get through them is if you’re different.

 

 

Vineeta Puranik
SVP Engineering and DevOps • SmartBear

 

SmartBear offers a suite of tools for software development teams that aim to improve visibility into maintaining software quality through API lifecycle, performance testing management, automation and application stability. With a portfolio for software engineers by software engineers, the company’s technical team — led by leaders like SVP Engineering and DevOps Vineeta Puranik — is integral for success.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

My first job was as an electrical engineer in a power plant. After grad school, I started my career as a software engineer. I gained experience in full stack skills and soon became a technical lead overseeing delivery of large features. I was responsible for the work of an entire Scrum team.

Then I transitioned into management, where my responsibilities grew from large features to an entire product launch to multiple products, including embedded software. With proven software delivery skills — on time and with quality — I was able to move to roles with larger responsibilities.

In my current role, I manage the entire engineering and operations at SmartBear with global distributed teams. Our team is more than 300 strong. The technologies I manage vary from on-premises to multi-vendor cloud, with languages ranging from Node, Java and React to C++. Deployments vary from microservices to monoliths. 

As responsibilities grow, you move away from tactical or hands on skills to thinking more strategically on efficiency and scale. I am thankful to many amazing mentors who guided me along the way. They gave me opportunities to grow, and I learned many leadership skills by watching them.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

First, people are your most important asset. When you build your teams, look for trust, collaboration and culture match. When you interview, look for fit with the team as much as technical skills. When you strategize growth, prioritize people, retention and training. When building good teams, you see good business outcomes.

Second, empathy and high emotional intelligence will take you much further as a leader than programming speed. The more responsibility you have, the more strategic you must become in your planning, thinking, execution and decisions. Think big — scale and growth. Say you are working on a project that needs a new hire for UI work. It is easy to hire for exactly what you need, a senior React engineer, to hit the ground running for speed of work. Or, you can balance the team with a junior engineer, who can be coached to provide leadership opportunities for other team members. 

When you strategize growth, prioritize people, retention and training.”

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

You do not need to man up: Be yourself. I like to say, “You be you.”

This advice is not constrained to women; this applies to all of us. We do our best thinking and best work when we are comfortable in our own skin, not when trying to fit in.

Good things happen when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, work hard and take some calculated risks — you learn new domains. When you take on new responsibilities, you grow. You learn from your teams and peers, and most importantly, you learn from your mistakes. No one is perfect. Retrospection of the past and learning from it as you go helps you improve.

 

 

Heather LeBlanc
Associate • Galatea Associates

 

Galatea Associates is an IT company that delivers essential systems to Wall Street firms, backed by both technical and industry expertise. Partnering with many investment banks and anchored by Galatea’s positive reputation in the financial sector, the company’s associates work with clients throughout project lifecycles to improve business operations.  

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

The first project that I worked on was a real-time front office engine used for monitoring daily risk. As a developer, I learned how to work with business analysts to understand project requirements and carry them through the entire SDLC. After that, I moved to a margin calculation engine where I was in more of an individual contributor role. I was responsible for working with the project lead and business analysts to define new features and deliver them.  

I was then offered the opportunity to lead my first team of three engineers. The goal was to redesign the architecture of an existing system to improve performance and enhance user experience. I was given a lot of support from my manager and other leads as I learned about building cloud native applications and robust pipelines while managing a new team.

Today, I’m the lead of a team of eight engineers on a cloud-native, event-driven system being built out for the middle office. Once again, the project uses a combination of familiar and unfamiliar technologies where I’ve grown my skills over the last two years. Leading a larger team has taught me how to guide members of my team as they start to become leaders themselves.

Seize new opportunities, you won’t regret it.”

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

Give feedback to your team early and often. Coaching your team on a daily basis helps you provide constructive criticisms and celebrate wins at the time of the action rather than having to wait until there is a formal review period. Doing this frequently allows you to course correct actions early if needed and establish an honest environment with the members of your team, which goes a long way in improving productivity, morale and success.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

If a new opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid to try it. The first team I was asked to lead, I was managing a group on a project that was in a completely new finance space using a new tech stack. With the support of those around me, I was able to learn the technology as well as how best to manage a team of engineers. I was nervous about diving into so many new areas at once, absolutely, and I could have spoken up and moved to a different project with less responsibility. However, I am so happy I didn’t. I learned that it’s possible to manage a team while expanding your own knowledge in the space you’re working in, which, along with the tech knowledge I gained, is a skill that I’ve used on every project since then. Seize new opportunities; you won’t regret it.

 

 

Lindsey Harris
Engineering Manager • NuvoAir

 

NuvoAir is a healthtech company focusing on modernizing the industry in the respiratory health space. With technology like its virtual-first care solution — backed by real-time data and insights — the company allows clinicians and their patients to make better decisions on complex illnesses such as COPD and asthma. 

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

After college, I got a development job working in a research and development department. About 10 minutes into my first day, my boss came to my desk and handed me a Mac computer. He told me that I would be learning Objective C and leading their mobile development work. Over the next 12 years I grew personally and professionally, as I held various jobs, learned a lot and overcame many hurdles. All of this led me to where I am today. At NuvoAir, I am leading a fully remote engineering team that is spread across different states and countries. I get to lead and run major projects that are making an impact internally and externally.

The road can be very bumpy and you never know when you are coming up to a curb, but keep going forward.”

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

I have learned how to connect with people in different ways. Everyone is different and we communicate differently. Once I understand someone’s communication style, not only am I more effective in my work, but they are as well. Connecting with individuals helps me deliver my message to them in a way that lets them understand what needs to be done. At the same time, I learn how to motivate that individual specifically versus my team as a whole.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Don’t give up. The road can be very bumpy and you never know when you come up to a curb. But keep moving forward.

 

 

Cristina Ferlauto
General Manager of SmarterTravel Media • SmarterTravel

 

SmarterTravel is a data-driven travel company that leverages AI and machine learning to improve customers’ online travel experience. In addition to a more streamlined booking experience, the team wants to supplement the process with robust selections and curated recommendations to bolster its authority as a go-to resource for travelers. 

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I started my career in economic consulting, working with experts in their field to provide economic analyses in class action litigations. This experience exposed me to a lot of different industries. After almost five years, I wanted to take my analytical expertise and apply it to forward-looking business problems. I started at SmarterTravel as a manager of analytics at SmarterTravel Media working on the email marketing program. I took on management of the entire program after a year and have now moved to the travel side as GM of the content sites. In my current role, I lead a team that consists of editorial, analytics, business development and engineering.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

Managing people is a separate job that requires a different skill set than managing a project, but it can be quite rewarding. The most important lesson I’ve learned as a people manager is that each direct report will be a different experience, and I can learn as much from them as they learn from me. I’ve also found it invaluable to lean on my peers and leverage their expertise in managing as well, because everyone brings a different perspective to the same situation. These lessons made me a better manager. I am able to set down my preconceptions and listen to others, which means when I offer coaching, advice or direction, it is better informed and more actionable.

Managing people is a separate job that requires a different skill set than managing a project, but it can be quite rewarding.”

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

As a woman leader in tech, I think it is common to feel that you need to present as though you are able to do anything and everything, which can lead to impostor syndrome. Instead, I encourage everyone, and particularly women, to set that aside and ask the questions that will enable you to contribute effectively. At the end of the day, that is how you add value and lead others to do the same.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by companies and Shutterstock.

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