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Women In Technology At Gartner: Meet Michelle Gordon

21 June, 2017

Name: Michelle Gordon

Current Role: Managing Vice President, Corporate Business Systems

Number of years in technology: 19

As a leader at a top technology company, why is women in technology such a hot topic? Traditionally women weren’t pursuing these types of careers. I was in college 20+ years ago, and I was one of a few women in my class.

But that is shifting…we are becoming greater in numbers. We are reaching a critical mass where we feel our voices can now be heard.

What brought you to the technology space? I had a passion for computer science/coding from the moment I started doing it (even before I understood what I was doing). It’s how I think. It makes sense to me. I love solving problems, and technology lets me do that.

When I was a young girl (~10 years old), we had an Apple IIc computer and somehow I managed to get my hands on some kind of coding book. You typed in these very long “programs,” hit run — and hoped it did something. Truth be told, my programs never ran successfully! I’m sure it was a pesky semicolon out of place, but with no debugger and no family members or friends with any knowledge in this area, I was at a loss. But I still loved the idea that it could do something, so I would sit there for hours typing away in hopes something magical would happen.

What’s the best and worst decision you’ve ever made? The best decision I ever made was to take a job at PeopleSoft as an associate software developer right out of college. I am from the Midwest and the job was in northern California. I didn’t know a soul and was very nervous to just move on my own without any kind of local support system. But the job seemed pretty hard to turn down so I went for it. That one job set me up for my entire career. It taught me what “good” looked like. I worked with the best in the industry, and that had a lasting impression.

The worst decision was leaving PeopleSoft when I did. While I have a very hard time regretting anything in my life, I do look at that one decision as a pivotal decision in my career. I often wonder what would have happened had I stayed a little longer.

I left because I had this urgent sense of needing more from my career. My management was telling me I had a lot of potential at PeopleSoft, but they needed time. I was an impatient kid (5 years out of college) who wasn’t willing to wait. I created whole presentations for new departments I would head up and skipped levels of management to present my ideas. I had big ideas and the fact that I hadn’t managed one person yet wasn’t going to stop me. I was ready and didn’t want to wait. Oh boy!

Now being a technology executive responsible for associates and the strategy of the organization, I can look back at that decision and better understand what my leadership was doing. At the time, I didn’t understand the complexities that come along with juggling the priorities of the company and the various personalities that come along with that. But I was too new and too hungry in my career to wait.

What was your dream job as a kid and why? I wanted to be an astronaut. I was fascinated with working at NASA. The pressure. The heroics. I could envision myself standing in that astronaut suit waving goodbye to everyone as I boarded the flight. I loved the idea of looking at the earth from space — of being in that big expanse of the unknown and wanting to explore all the possibilities of What Could Be.

This was right at the time Christa McAuliffe was introduced to the world as one of the seven members of the Challenger crew. I’m sure she played a part in my belief that I could be and do anything I wanted.

What do you think is the most significant barrier for women in technology leadership? The subconscious thoughts that go through the board rooms of America.

It’s not overt, it’s subtle — but it absolutely exists.

I read Sheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In,” and one of the lightbulb moments for me was when she noted how girls get called “bossy” and boys do not. Looking back at my own life, my brother was never, ever called bossy and believe me — he was (and still is)! Yet I was always called bossy. It’s not a positive word. It’s subtle. But it’s there, sending a negative message to me and to those around me.

I have felt a distinct difference in my career in the past 2–3 years. I never felt this early on in my career or in first-level management. It’s taken me some time to admit that some of that has to do with the subconscious of those around me. At some point, these subtle things are no longer “accidents” or “misunderstandings” on my part.

In these last few years, I’ve had people say the following things in meetings after I’ve introduced myself clearly as the technology leader/partner:

“I’m not technical, like you.”

“Do you know what a database is?”

“Maybe your voice needed to be lower” (referencing a negotiation over the phone).

I would invite any of my male peers to raise their hands if they’ve experienced this or with the frequency I have. It’s in the same category of subtleness as being called bossy as a kid.

These questions and comments haven’t stopped me. I’m not using them as a crutch or an excuse. They haven’t contributed to a missed opportunity or a failed promotion. But they signal that things are still happening in people’s minds that put women at a distinct disadvantage.

What women inspire you and why? My mother — she is a constant source of inspiration and my primary and most lasting impression of what women leaders look like. She retired from St. Jude Children’s Hospital as the Director of Surgical Services. She managed pre-op, post-op, surgery and sedation, which accounted for over 300 employees.

She has always shared with me her thoughts on how she ran her department, managed some very demanding and difficult personalities (surgeons have very big egos) and created strategies for the organization, all while in an extremely stressful environment (people’s lives, not sales orders, were her “business”).

She has been a constant mentor and confidante for me. She’s watched me make my own mistakes, then guided me back to safety. She strongly advised against skipping management levels to present my fabulous ideas of new departments of world domination while at PeopleSoft! But she was also there afterward when I was crushed they didn’t promote me immediately.

We would talk daily while commuting home. I would not be where I am today without her guidance, leadership and love. I still call her for advice to this day.

Of course, she’s an awesome mom in all the typical mom ways, too!

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women in technology behind you? Bringing awareness to the unconsciousness that continues to plague the board rooms of America, then somehow pushing for change.

What advice would you give your younger self? Be patient and listen more.

If you would like to hear more from our Women In Technology at Gartner, listen to our recent panel discussion.


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