Navigating the crowded halls of VMworld 2010 in San Francisco last week, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to the signage developed for this year’s event: “Virtual Clouds, Actual Roads. ” The backdrop image of a road meeting a cloudy sky looked a lot like a scene out of My Own Private Idaho, a confusing movie if ever there was one. But that isn’t why the signs spoke to me. It was during an event called “Women of Purpose, Moving Beyond” — designed to bring together the women attending VMworld — that I saw the sign’s image as a metaphor for the perennial lack of women in IT.
Sure, there are lots of notable women involved in enterprise technology operations, but they still make up only 5% of IT staffers, according to experts. Of the 17,000 VMworld 2010 guests, fewer than 400 of the female persuasion gathered in the upstairs ballroom at Moscone West for a program developed by Sonal Patel and JJ DiGeronimo, employed by VMware.
I was one of the lucky women present at the first Women in Technology event in the early ’90s, which kicked off with about as many participants as Women of Purpose, VMworld 2010. Back then, a fashionable St. John suit was recommended to women wanting to work in technology, along with sage advice to secure adequate household help. Over the years, more women’s groups have banded together to raise their collective profile in IT through mentoring and information technology strategizing. “I always aspired to have a career and leverage the education,” says Melissa Armstrong, vice president for technology infrastructure and operations at Fannie Mae in Washington, D.C., and a mother of seven children. What works for her? “Listen most, question often and speak least.”
Responding to colorful and honest queries and comments from the audience — ranging from “How do I move up?“ (answers: build relationships through face time, training and mentoring; be nimble and flexible because technology is always changing; do chores no one else wants to do; say to your manager, “I can do more for you, I am an underused asset.”) to a well-put rant on timeless booth bimbos — the panelists made it clear that they are women of substance. Marj Hutchings, vice president of Internet operations at Esurance, an auto insurance provider based in San Francisco, even granted that the “booth bimbos” are effective at what they do, which is to drive traffic into their space. “It’s a male-dominated industry,” she says with a shrug.
We were all at VMworld 2010 to learn about virtualization, a technology that helped Suzanne-Lee Haskell, vice president of strategy and planning for Pearson’s CIO group, achieve $27 million in savings. Adoption at the education and media company, based in New York, is through the roof, Haskell says, “wildly successful.” Meanwhile, Fannie Mae’s virtualization efforts have been a “journey of ‘show me,'” Armstrong says, in which the home mortgage organization is experimenting with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Karen Paratore, CIO of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, led the Houston-based law firm on a technological path that is now a 100% virtualized environment.
After the panel concluded, the talk at our table turned to the task of explaining virtualization. IT departments need to gain widespread buy-in from company executives and educate users before undertaking a virtualization effort. On the sales side, the challenge has been “getting the marketing folks to speak virtualization,” says a female engineer for IBM who has been pulled recently into a more explanatory, up-front role with customers.
At a session the previous day, a desktop architect at Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. revealed a successful strategy for getting the business fired up: a tech fair. “It was a really great thing because people were calling to see when they could have this cool device,” says Kimberley Christiansen of the financial services firm, based in Denver and New York. Leave it to a woman to come up with an idea like that — and read more about it soon on SearchCIO.com.