Women in Big Data - Podcast: Career, Big Data & Analytics Insights

5. Career Advancement Strategies - A Talk With Deborah Sgro (Women in Big Data)

December 10, 2022 Help To Grow Talk Episode 5
Women in Big Data - Podcast: Career, Big Data & Analytics Insights
5. Career Advancement Strategies - A Talk With Deborah Sgro (Women in Big Data)
Women in Big Data: Career, Big Data & Analytics
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Listen, and get insights into Career Advancement Strategies for Women in Technology in this talk with Deborah Sgro, Director Global Mentoring at Women In Big Data.

Mentoring Program - Women in Big Data

Brave Not Perfect (Reshma Saujani)

Lead - How Women Can Claim Their Authority (Ellen M. Snee)

Mindset (Carol S. Dweck)

Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office ( Lois P. Frankel)

Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy (Kristin Zhivago)

The First 90 Days (Michael Watkins)

The Manager's Path (Camille Fournier)

The Reality-Based Rules Of The Workplace (Cy Wakeman)

Your Next Move  (Michael Watkins)

Women in the Workplace (Since 2015, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company do launch a yearly report to give companies insights and tools to advance gender diversity in the workplace)

We are thankful to Digital Wallonia  & Agence du Numérique for their partnership.
LinkedIn: Digital Wallonia
LinkedIn: Agence du Numérique 

Support the show

Mentoring Program - Women in Big Data
Mentoring is essential to success at every stage of a women’s career, both as a mentee and mentor. The many WiBD mentoring programs are open to WiBD members and cover opportunities for junior, mid-career, and senior women in technology. Not yet a member? No worries. By joining a mentoring program, you automatically become a WiBD member. Both membership and mentoring are free of charge.

Website: Women in Big Data Podcast
LinkedIn: Follow - Women in Big Data
LinkedIn: Follow - Women in Big Data Brussels
Contact us: datawomen@protonmail.com

Note: Podcast transcription edited to improve readability.

Desiree Timmermans  00:02

Hello, welcome to the Women in Big Data Brussels Podcast, where we talk about big data topics with diversity and inclusiveness in mind. We do this to inspire you and to connect, engage, grow and champion the success of women in big data. The aim of this podcast is to reveal to you what you can do with big data, how organizations and societies use it, and the potential of big data to create a better future for everyone.

Deb Sgro  00:30

Where are you standing now? Where do you want to go? How do you get there?

Desiree Timmermans  00:36

In this fifth episode, Valerie and I talk with Deb Sgro. Deb is the Global Mentoring Director of Women in Big Data and the Founder of Beyond the Glass Ceiling. The topic we discuss is career advancement strategies. We talk about Deb's career journey, the sense of bringing value, feeling comfortable, the buyer-seller relationship between employer and employee, and we also cover acquiring business acumen and building your network. Let's start!

Desiree Timmermans  01:07

Deb, welcome to the Women in Big Data Brussels Podcast and to talk with Valerie me about career advancement strategies. Our first question, of course, is: how did your career go? What kind of strategy did you use? And what are you doing now?

Deb Sgro  01:24

Well, let me start by thanking you for this opportunity to speak to you. It really is a great pleasure and honor to be visiting with you today. Let me tell you what I am doing now. And then I will tell you what preceded that. Currently, I am a solo entrepreneur working as a technology career coach. I have my own practice. And like many solo entrepreneurs, that means I am involved in a variety of activities. I see clients, mostly women in technology; that is whom I focus on. And it fascinates me how rich the career world is. So going back to doing many things, yes, I coach people in finding jobs and also career advancement. I am a speaker, frequently to employee resource groups, corporations, women in technology groups - that sort of thing - where I am asked to speak on career advancement. And then third, I am the Managing Director for Women in Big Data and launched with the board, with the Chapter Leaders, a global mentoring initiative that offers services to women and men in career advancement technology mentoring. I am happy to say that in our first 9-10 months, we launched 11 programs and provided service for over 400 mentors and mentees. So, that is what I am currently doing. There is a lot of need and a lot of interest. And that is very rewarding. Because in this time of opportunity where you know, you open up your laptop, and all of these opportunities come streaming at you. It is so wonderful to see that we are providing a service of value, and people are seeking it. So that is what I am currently doing.   

Deb Sgro  03:36

Now previous to that, I worked in the financial technology field for 40 years, I'm happy to say 40 years. I was thinking about this the other day: 20 of those years were in the 20th century, and 20 were in the 21st century. So I straddled there. And that allowed me to see the evolution of technology. I started in 1979-1980. It was a time when the mainframe computers, the CICS- environment, was not the only option available in the computing world. We were moving into distributed computing, so there were opportunities for smaller organizations to engage in technology. They were able to buy equipment and then hire people like myself, as I learned on the job. I was trained by the company that hired me first to do technical documentation. And then very shortly after that, they involved me in an in-house coding program, and those days we were working in COBOL and Fortran and those types of compiler languages.

Deb Sgro  04:58

I then saw the need to advance my knowledge. So, I took an adult education certificate program at New York University in business analysis and program development. And as I was able to move up in my career, I worked for, first, the American Stock Exchange, then the New York Stock Exchange, and ultimately retired from BNY Mellon. So, my career has been in banking and brokerage on Wall Street.

Deb Sgro  05:33

Let me just go back to my career plan. I saw that it was very important to know what I was talking about. Because, you know, how technical people get really possessive about their knowledge. And I found people talking, literally, over my head. You know, like, they would look up over me and talk to the person. And I said: no, no, no, no, no, that is not going to happen. And so, as I mentioned, I pursued, while I was working, formal education. First, at the certificate level, so I could learn the language, get the concepts, and kind of get the feel for the culture. And then, I went on and got a master's degree at Stevens Institute of Technology - a private university in New Jersey - first in computer science. Then, 20 years later, I got a degree in Information Technology. So I received two master's degrees from Stevens Institute of Technology. And I think that is one of the keys of the strategy. I didn't know at the time how to form a strategy. Yes, I had a to-do list and my five-year plan. I am a list maker. So that was about all I could figure out, get it on paper, try to figure it out. But I really didn't know how to put those aspirations into play. Besides relying on formal education, providing myself with the language, the tools, the concepts, and then also the confidence of being able to produce at our level of expectation, there is a level of expectation that's needed.

Desiree Timmermans  07:34

From yourself or from the company? The level of expectation?

Deb Sgro  07:39

At first, it was meeting the expectation of the company, the professors, and my teammates. Rising to the expectation of others. And then, seeing that I could do it under difficult situations, I was working; I became a mom while I was working. And in school, you know, I went through numerous financial and economic situations. There was a lot of tension in the financial industry. In the 80s. And 90s. I rode out the 2008 recession. I lost a job and got a job during a time when nobody was hiring. And seeing that I could survive and thrive gave me the confidence to keep going. So that is a summary of what my career advancement looked like.

Desiree Timmermans  08:45

It is nice that you share it with us. And what I often hear is that many women say: I let the work speak for myself. So if we look at diversity and inclusion, how does that work out for women in technology when you say: I let the work speak for myself?

Deb Sgro  09:04

Well, if ever that was true, in a time of employment that works spoke for itself, I don't see that is true now, and I don't see that is particularly true for women. And I will tell you why. Every year that McKinsey and Company produce a result of a survey, they do a survey everywhere; it is between them and the Lean In organization. It is called the annual report for Women in the Workplace. So there was 2021, and there was 2022. They talk about how women are occupying different positions in the pipeline. They show you the percentage of women occupying the entry-level, the mid-level, and the senior levels. And they break it out by different careers. So even to the fine point of distinguishing software engineers from data architects. I mean, they do it at a very granular level. And, of course, I dove into that report, looked at it, and pulled out all of the technology-related examples. In those cases, women at the entry level roughly occupy around 50% in those early stages of the pipeline, whether it be development, software, engineering, database, business analysis, or product management. When it moves up to the mid-level, let's say the Vice President, the departmental managers, it erodes to about a third. Only about a third of those positions are occupied by women. And I know you can guess where this story is going. When it gets to the C-suite, the upper senior levels, it is less than a quarter. So what started at 50% of occupancy of women holding positions at that stage erodes quite dramatically to a third and then a quarter.

Deb Sgro  11:46

What I say to women when I am presenting or coaching is: take an amplifier, take a microphone, and learn how to speak for yourself. Yes, your work will speak for you; that is true. If it is poor work, it will speak for you. If it is good work, yes, it will speak for you. But help it by amplifying it and letting people know. So, that brings us to the topic of self-advocacy skills.  And self-advocacy skills are the ability to assess your work and know the value of your work. And I like to add: accept the fact that it is good. Because a lot of women will say: oh, yes, I have done good work, but everybody does good work. Well, that is probably true. But get comfortable with accepting the value of your work. The second part of that is: being able to communicate the value of your work. And this is the hard part.

Desiree Timmermans  13:02

They are both hard. Because how do you do this?

Deb Sgro  13:05

How do you do that? Well, like any skill, and we are a skilled-based profession, it can be learned. And some of the ways to do that are - if we can talk concretely about techniques - being comfortable sharing with your colleagues, manager, and client; what you are currently doing, what you hope to do, and of course, what you did in the past. Being comfortable in using what we all commonly refer to as the elevator pitch, 15 seconds. That is the starting point. It is very easy, 15 seconds, 10 seconds, whatever it needs to be. And be comfortable talking about what you did, what you hope to do, and what you're currently doing. So that is one technique. I can give you another related to that; it is very important that - and this brings us to the conversation of value - when we are deciding what to be involved in, what work we are doing, and what we want to do, to align our strengths and interests with what the market is looking for. Now that market could be your team, your department, or your larger organization: we have to bring into alignment what we can do and want to do with what is being sought after.

Desiree Timmermans  14:53

And that is rather difficult.

Deb Sgro  14:55

Well, I would say it is difficult because it might be an unfamiliar concept. We aren't really oriented to that type of thinking, okay? But once we start thinking about employment as a business transaction, it starts to fall into place. A business transaction is between a seller and a buyer. We, as employees, are sellers, and you are bringing to the marketplace: your skills, interests, energy, and time. And, you are looking for something, obviously: a salary, benefits, and intrinsic value like personal development. So, you are looking for things for the investment you are making. Now, the other side of that transaction is the buyer: your employer. And that, of course, takes the shape of your corporation, department, team, and boss. They are your buyers - the client you are serving - looking for a return on their investment. And our jobs are created only for one reason: to meet the organization's financial, strategic, and social goals. So you have to get into that alignment of targeting what is important to the person or organization you are trying to sell your goods to. And if you are in the right markets, it is okay, and it will work. If you are not in the right market, there are two choices: find another market for your skills and services; or adapt and learn what is valuable to your customer. So a little bit of the value in helping us understand our strategy of navigating our career so that we can constantly bring value to the marketplace we are working in.

Desiree Timmermans  17:14

And both for the employer and yourself. And I know, I think it is Kristin Zhivago, she has a kind of slogan: sell the way your customers want to buy.

Deb Sgro  17:25

And I love that. 

Desiree Timmermans  17:26

But that is a whole other way of thinking because: you really have to understand the customer. And what she advises you to do is call your customer, ask them the questions, don't send them an email, don't send them a survey, call them, talk to them, and understand them: what are their problems, and see how you can meet them? And actually, you are saying that you have to do the same in an employer-employee relationship.

Deb Sgro  17:56

Absolutely. Because the buying and selling relationship does not end when you get the offer letter. You know, we know we are a seller when we are interviewing. But that relationship does not end when you get the offer letter. It exists until you separate from that engagement. So you are constantly in a buyer-seller relationship.

Desiree Timmermans  18:23

And that is something that I had to learn in my career.

Deb Sgro  18:27

It is something we all have to learn in our careers.

Desiree Timmermans  18:31

Because when you apply for a job, you are really focused on doing that. But then, as you said, once you have the offer, there are so many new things that it goes into the background. And then, later on, it comes back, you think: oh yeah, I have to do this differently.

Valerie Zapico  18:47

I was thinking that you should also not wait for feedback from the employer; you should be proactive. That is the point, as you say, we stop this way of thinking when we have our contract. So, you don't have to wait for your employer. As an employee, you should also be proactive by checking some skills and upskilling yourself in cooperation with your manager.

Deb Sgro  19:13

You know, this conversation brought up two very tangible examples of using value as a career strategy. Desiree, you were just mentioning one about knowing your customer and selling to them the way they want to be sold to. It really is step number one in bringing value, and that is: get smart about the business you are in. We, as technologists, often concentrate on the technology acumen. That is our currency. We kind of are proud of that, you know, being the most technical person in the room, and we should be. However, it is not enough. We have to be smart about the business we are in; we need to know the business opportunities of our industry; we need to know the business obstacles in our industry; we have to know the opportunities and the obstacles of our particular clients or organization. And this is often referred to as the missing part in women's education. We are very savvy in our technical and professional knowledge; we excel at school; we hold more master's degrees than men. We are very well educated. So we are very professionally prepared, we are very capable in the interpersonal skills. Where we fall down is in the area of business acumen. And for technologists like us, it is almost a double duty because we think: that is non-technical work, and I don't want to get involved in that. So we purposefully avoid it to our detriment. We have to know the business of our business. And we have to be able to handle financial information so that we can make accurate decisions.

Deb Sgro  21:28

We have to be able to handle at least know and work toward our business strategy. That is going back to Valerie's point: to see that bigger picture, and we are in that larger environment. So let's talk about ways that we can stay in touch with that overview. There are very simple ways. And it is almost like: oh, I don't have time for that, I am too busy. You know, that kind of thing. There are very simple ways to leverage what we are already doing. It is not in addition. It is like you are doing something: make it work for more than one purpose.  So it is not like two jobs: it is one job accomplishing two goals.

Deb Sgro  22:20
I will tell you a mistake I made in my career. You know how they will often have town hall meetings? The CEO or the CTO will have town hall meetings, 90 minutes every quarter. Oh, my God, this was like free 90 minutes: I am not going because I can catch up on my work. What a mistake that is. Because, here, the CTO or the CEO was giving me for free: where we are going as a company. Something as simple as understanding the direction of the company or your department. And, then exploring, maybe talking with your boss, colleagues, or clients: how does our job align with those goals? How is our project contributing to those strategic or financial goals? And just simply asking a question to understand that alignment. That takes no time at all; it is merely an investment in curiosity. It is merely an investment in understanding the environment we are in. It is a low-cost effort.

Desiree Timmermans  23:45

It is, but you have to understand that it is important. Somebody needs to explain to you that this is important because of your career; you need to understand where the business is going. What does that mean for your job? What can be your next career step? Because you can have decided I want to do this, but the company is not investing in it, so you have to do something else. You need to have somebody -  a coach, colleague, or even a friend in another discipline - with whom you can talk. And then you start to understand it. At least that is how it happened to me.

Valerie Zapico  24:21

That is why, for me, it is important to build your own network: with your colleagues or even outside the organization. And sometimes, we don't think about this step; our own networking is important to develop ourselves.

Deb Sgro  24:39

You are absolutely right. And I am glad that we got into this topic of networking. Let's start off by saying: we are all individually responsible for our careers. That is the bottom line. In the modern employment world, we are responsible for advancing our career opportunities. And yes, even though we have that accountability, we are not alone. And we mentioned a number of resources available to us: colleagues, coaches, our internal network, and our external network. And another one that people often ask about is sponsors. These are all resources available to us. I bring this up because sometimes people think: oh, my network will take care of me, my sponsor will take care of me, my boss will take care of me. That is incorrect. What is also incorrect is: I am doing this completely alone, and there is nobody to help me. That is equally incorrect. It is the combination of being responsible, leading the effort, knowing where you want to go, what you are capable of what you need to fill the gaps. Where are you standing now? Where do you want to go? How do you get there? And, that 'how do you get there' is: what is required; do I have the skills and ability at the level needed for that job? If I don't, then I create an action plan to work on them. And that action plan is focusing on: what skill or ability am I going to cultivate; how will I cultivate it; whom am I going to help me cultivate it; when am I going to have that cultivated by? That is an action plan. We are all pretty familiar with those kinds of plans. That same kind of planning applies to our careers.

Deb Sgro  26:40
So let's talk about networks. Because you will often hear people say, again: I am too busy to network. As if it were a separate activity. And I would like to put forth that it is not a separate activity. It is what you are doing anyway. And a lot of times, people will say: I am too shy, I am an introvert, I don't like to do that kind of stuff. Well, there are always ways around that. We have this mistake about networking as if it was this big sales convention, and you've got to meet people you will never talk to again. That was the way networking started, but that is not how it evolved. Your network is anybody you are engaged with and you are doing business with. And your strongest networks, the tightest networks, are the ones you have accomplished something with. So, have you ever noticed you had a job from 20 years ago and you reach out to somebody on LinkedIn? And you say: hey, could you put me in touch with so and so? Those people respond immediately, right? They are your strongest networks because you accomplished something together. So anybody you are working with forms a bond that lasts through time. The strength of the network moves out and gets weaker the less interaction you have with the people. If you meet somebody at a party or a convention, they are part of your network but are not going out of their way for you. But they are not your strong network. The strong network are the people whom you probably have a friendship, or strong feelings about, because you have invested in them, and they have invested in you. So really, networking is a lot more friendlier than we give it credit for.

Desiree Timmermans  28:45

You can make it also easier for yourself. Just go - if you say I am shy - you can go and say: okay, look at the agenda, look at the speaker, go to that speaker, just ask one question, what do you want to know? And that is how you can become more comfortable. Because then you experience that people do want to help you to move forward.

Deb Sgro  29:11

And there is a flip side to that same strategy you just mentioned, and it is called: become the 'go-to person'. So it may not even be your main job. But let's say you are really good at Excel or at knowing how to file business expenses for reimbursement. And it doesn't have to be your main job: become known as the go-to person and provide that you have somebody step by your desk: can you help me? Sure I can help you. And in that way, you are building your network. You are being known by the people in your department, or whomever you are providing your time to as the go-to person, as an expert: you've got to talk to her, she is the person that knows, you got to talk to her. And, in a way, you attract a network. You don't have to seek them out. It is almost as though you are attracting the network to you.

Valerie Zapico  30:17

As a concrete example, working with your colleague or on a specific project where you will meet new people: don't hesitate to organize a quick one-to-one lunch to exchange some ideas about the project and derive to other aspects. It is not taking big time in your day, but it allows you to exchange in a one-to-one physically, personally, with the people. 

Deb Sgro  30:45

And I will add that there's a perfect audience for that. And that perfect audience is new hires, people that come into your department or your company. They might be an intern or a senior person. Whomever it is, they are the perfect people to practice that very focused networking: hi, who are you?; happy you are here; tell me your story. Let them do the talking. And then you tell them a little bit about yourself. You are absolutely right: taking those opportunities to speak with people and invite them into a conversation.

Desiree Timmermans  31:24

So, if I understand well and make a kind of summary: you have to get to know your own value; you have to communicate about it; you have to understand the strategy also of the organization; you have to understand where there is a fit. And if you feel that you lack some skills to go from here to there: you create an action plan with different steps. You talk about it with your network, coach, or whomever you feel comfortable with, and you make sure that you get the steps. And that's how your career advanced.

Deb Sgro  32:02

I would underline that it is very important to be comfortable having that career conversation with your boss. Very often, we use, or our bosses use, our one-on-one time to talk about project strategy. And that is important. I understand that. However, we each have the responsibility to make sure that some of that one-on-one meeting is focused on those three questions: what did I do?; what am I currently doing?; what do I want to do? And reviewing with the boss the action plan that you are crafting. Maybe you craft it with input from your client, a coach, or other colleagues. But it is very important to be comfortable having that conversation with our boss. Now our boss is not responsible for executing that plan or for even crafting that plan. Our boss is responsible for advising, giving insight, maybe some direction, and perspective. But it is up to us to really be the executors of that plan. Yes, we will need sponsors. Yes, we need people to be able to talk and bring our story forward for us. But if we don't tell them our worth -  if we don't let them know what there is to talk about - how could they possibly bring our story forward?

Desiree Timmermans  33:40

It is a nice wrap-up. My last question is: do you have some books, or maybe a movie, that might interest women in technology looking to advance their careers?

Deb Sgro  33:59

Now, I have many books. And which one do I mention? I have been reading a lot of Michael Watkins, who talks about: Your Next Move. That is one of his titles. He also has a book called 'The first 90 Days' when you are starting either a new job or a new assignment. And there's lots of very practical, practical information there. Another author that I go to is a woman by the name of Cy Wakeman. She has a lot of conversations about how to enhance your value and reduce those things that detract from your value. So, she talks about increasing what is the value and decreasing what is getting in your way.

Desiree Timmermans  34:51

Okay. And Valerie, do you have some resources that you recommend? What do you use? 

Valerie Zapico  34:57

I often use YouTube and Google to find new tips and tricks to develop myself or the team. I found a book, 'Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office.' That is related to unconscious mistakes women make and sabotage their careers.

Deb Sgro  35:14

That is an excellent book. It is very practical because it gives examples of mistakes that we make about why we don't occupy the corner office. So that is a wonderful book.

Valerie Zapico  35:28

Great to know this. What I often use is also podcasts. It is really funny, easy to understand and follow when you are in the transport, in your car.

Desiree Timmermans  35:43

Deb, is there something that you want to share with our audience that I didn't ask you yet?

Deb Sgro  35:49

You know, I think we have to be comfortable with our journey: we are going to face obstacles; we are going to have opportunities provided to us; we are going to have to face risks, uncertainty, and ambiguity. It can't be perfectly planned because we are not just executing a script. That script is being created as our journey progresses. And I would say: finding the ability to be comfortable with discomfort is a very important survival strategy.

Desiree Timmermans  36:32

And what, I think, helps is: talk with others, people who feel safe for you, so that you can share the things that went wrong, and they can share it. And then you start feeling more comfortable that: before you can do it right, you often have to fail first.

Deb Sgro  36:49


Desiree Timmermans  36:50

Okay. Thank you very much both for joining this podcast. It is really interesting, and Deb, really, thank you. Thank you very much.

Deb Sgro  37:00

Thank you so much. This really was a great honor and a great pleasure. Thank you.

Valerie Zapico  37:05

Thank you.

Desiree Timmermans  37:07

Thanks for listening to the Women in Big Data Brussels Podcast. We appreciate it if you get in touch with us to provide your feedback or request to partner up and be a guest. You can contact us via datawomen@protonmail.com. You also find our contact details in the show notes. Tune in next time!

Deb's Career Journey
Learn How To Speak For Yourself (instead of: I let the work speak for myself)
Self-Advocacy Skills
Buyer - Seller Relationship: Employer - Employee
Business Acumen: Get Smart About The Business You're In
Become 'The Go To Person'
Be Comfortable Having That Career Conversation: What Did I Do? What Am I Currently Doing? What Do I Want To Do?
Career Advancement - Book Recommendations