Learning from Grace Hopper and Madonna - career inspirations for Tibco CIO Sharon Mandell

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 15, 2020
Tibco CIO Sharon Mandell has gathered learnings from some key women leaders throughout her career in IT.

Sharon Mandell
(via Tibco )

When Sharon Mandell was at Temple University, Philadelphia back in the 1980s, studying languages like Fortran, computing was something kept distinctly separate from users – of whom there were few, there was no interest in aligning IT with the rest of the business, and women in the field were as scarce as they are now.

As the president of her student computing organization, which was part of The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), Mandell was seated next to the guest speaker at one of her university’s events, a computer programming pioneer whose work paved the way for the development of COBOL.

Dressed in her naval uniform, petite and already in her eighties, Grace Hopper took to the stage with her beloved nanoseconds - foot-long lengths of telephone wire she used at lectures to show how in one billionth of a second, an electronic signal can travel almost twelve inches. Mandell says of Hopper:

She just had this energy that was tremendous. She was one of these very memorable individuals. She tried to use visual tools that made the concept she was talking about less abstract, which is something I distinctly remember and try to do myself. I try to find analogies. Computing concepts can be somewhat arcane at times and trying to make them understandable to people who don't do it for a living - being able to find analogies or physical things in the world that you can relate them to, it helps you explain.

This was Mandell’s first experience of that relatable approach, and is something she has tried to emulate ever since:

I work very hard to make the challenges or the choices that are available to business users tangible to them. I try to not just say, I understand this stuff, just trust me. I try to empathize with what they're doing and that probably started with that talk. While I didn't correspond with Hopper on a regular basis, that evening was extremely impactful on me as a young person.

CIO in practice

Fast forward 30-odd years, and that experience has paid dividends in the modern computing era, where building a relationship with C-level executives and general business users is crucial. Mandell is currently CIO at Tibco, heading up a team that manages all the corporate infrastructure, networks and servers, but also supporting teams building customer relationships and connecting the business challenges the company is having internally with features it might want to take to market.

As well as Hopper, Mandell was fortunate to meet other women technologists and female business leaders early on in her career who she could hold up as role models:

The year that I was part of the ACM student chapter, they held their national conference in Philadelphia and I organized many of the student activities on it. As a result, I got to meet Adele Goldberg, who they credit - along with several others - the invention of the Smalltalk language to. She was the head of the organization, so I could see women in leadership positions in my field. That's very important, you have to believe there's opportunity there to be successful.

Mandell was just one of a handful of women in her class who were taking computing seriously as a career; when she went to work at a software company, she was mostly surrounded by men – and still is, she adds. However, she has always felt that if she was delivering the results consistently, people would want to work with her, irrespective of gender:

What dismays me a little bit today is, I hear that women don't feel that way about this career and that's not necessarily turning out to be true for them or they don't feel it's turning out to be true. I feel like I maybe had this window where maybe there just weren't enough people overall in the profession, that that turned out to be true.

Despite excelling in the field of computing, Mandell’s first choice of career was ballet dancer. During school, she was training intensely under the Pennsylvania ballet as part of its apprentice program: the theory was, take a year off and audition for permanent roles in ballet companies:

My father was like, if you want me to keep paying the bills, you'll go to college. So I started college without a real mission or focus there.

I was at a very big university and the advising department couldn't handle the volume of students so professors would come in. So I was applying to a physics professor who listened to me ramble on and suggested the next few things I should try were economics and computer science because I liked math, and was pretty good at it and I wasn't particularly a fan of writing long papers.

I laughed when he said computers because it seemed very alien to me, given my dancing background. And he made an argument that was, if you hate it, you never have to take it again but if you like it and this ballet thing doesn't work out, it's a field where opportunity is available very quickly.

I took it and it turned out that I loved the instant gratification of writing the code, submitting it, knowing it works, knowing it didn't work, and then being able to attack the problem and fix it. So a software career was born.

Be like Madonna

Mandell attributes her longevity in the field partly down to an ability to embrace change; as she puts it, being in tech is like being Madonna - you re-invent yourself every five years.

For a person who sits in my chair, the number of things I'm expected to know, fairly deeply, it's sort of mind boggling today. But if you don't want to constantly learn new things, it's not the place to be.

Mainframes used to be these things that were locked in rooms, that you didn't see. Virtualization existed on mainframes, and then we went to different kinds of compute models and then virtualization came back again in new forms. You have to be interested, if you’re not you'll fall behind, you won't be doing the most exciting things if you don't have that curiosity.

This openness to change is proving invaluable to Mandell, as she supports Tibco through its response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Tibco was fairly well prepared in most parts of the world to adapt to the new environment it finds itself in, with staff going from working in an office every day to working from home:

We had great tools in place. We’re a G-Suite customer and Google has been very stable over the last year. Parts of the company had been using Slack for a very long time but last year, we did a very expansive rollout to the rest of the organization and have focused very hard to gain adoption of that tool, which makes real-time communication very simple. We’re a big Zoom customer and that's been a very stable product.

There's a very large focus on security and taking walks all around in every corner again to make sure that you're not leaving any doors open or windows unlocked because the hackers are working overtime in these times of change. They capitalize on these incidents so we’re spending a lot of time there.”

For her part, Mandell misses interacting with people at the office and is looking forward to the day when staff can go back.

I love my home, but I don't want to spend 24 by seven in it. I'm fortunate that my daughter is all grown up and I’m single so there aren’t distractions at home, but many people in the company have other distractions at home. So we're trying to do many, many things to make sure people aren't working 18 hours a day because it's really easy. I can tell you, I've done it.

In the meantime, the biggest technological challenge Mandell is facing is her home internet, which she points out doesn’t get upgraded in the same way as we do our smartphones, on a regular basis. Tibco has been focused on equipping its employees so the firm can continue as much as possible with business as usual, but outside of the US and Europe it has proved difficult to provide staff with a laptop, even one the firm already owns, due to courier restrictions.

Mandell is aware that coming out the other side of this pandemic, things will be new and different. At least her appetite for reinvention should stand her in good stead.

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