What I’d say to me back then - jump at opportunities earlier than you think you're able to, says Slack's Deirdre Byrne

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett November 21, 2023
Summary:
It’s easier to see women leaders in tech now, but as the numbers grow, so does the need for proper menopause support.

Slack UK/I
Deirdre Byrne

Today she's Head of UK and Ireland at Slack, but technology wasn’t Deirdre (Dee) Byrne’s first-choice of career. After studying communications and journalism at college in Ireland, she graduated unsure how to land a job in the media sector.

After various unpaid posts on local newspapers and needing to pay the bills, Byrne took a job at Dell in 2004. This was at a time when the tech industry was starting to flourish in Ireland.

After earning some money at Dell, Byrne left to go travelling, spent all the money and returned. She then did a very brief stint in investment banking in early 2007. Byrne explains:

It was when banking was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, the massive economy stretch in Ireland. I realized very quickly it wasn't for me. It didn't have the same agility, the same people focus as sales or tech. 

Byrne moved onto a position that offered that agility and people focus, working in sales at Salesforce. She was aware of the company as many of her peers had left Dell and moved over from the hardware to the software side.  Sixteen years later, Byrne has moved roles, countries, and into leadership at Salesforce, and is now Head of UK&I at Slack.

Mentors

Looking back to her early days in tech, Byrne says she was fortunate to be supported by some strong mentors, as there weren’t many specific programs and schemes in place to support and develop women. But even those mentors were male, she recalls: 

That was purely because, in those types of leadership positions 15 years ago, women weren't in those roles.

However, Byrne saw that change very quickly. Just a couple of years after joining Salesforce, a lot of women-in-tech programs started to come into place, and the firm also saw quite a lot of women enter into senior positions: 

Things that have changed a lot is that structured and intentional approach around the development of leaders first and foremost, but then also female leaders in the business. That just wasn't around back then. Then there’s the less structured side of it, which is around the employee resource groups, which helped to feed into creating those programs.

The first Employee Resource Group [ERG] in Salesforce was in fact a women-in-tech group. At the time of its launch, Byrne was based in the Dublin office, and there were around 10 staff there who realistically could have joined that group. The Dublin branch of that group now has over a thousand members. Byrne adds:

That's just a given. It's one of the first things that any of my female new hires, when they start, they ask me, 'What does that look like?'.

Byrne says Slack is a boon when it comes to diversity and equality, as it makes it easy for employees to locate all the resources like ERGs available to support them. The rise in the number of women working at Salesforce has also been hugely beneficial:

You can't be what you can't see. When I first joined, there was no one in those roles that I could aspire to be. But it pivoted very quickly. Now, I am consistently surrounded by strong, smart and collaborative women, and that didn't exist back then. There are now women above me, above them, right up to the very top, like Amy Weaver, who is Salesforce CFO. There are now women in some phenomenally powerful and impactful jobs.

This means Byrne has relatable female peers at her level, thanks to the pivotal changes that Salesforce and Slack have made:

For many years, working in tech and in sales, both pretty male-orientated roles and industries, I was so used to being on teams full of men. It just was what it was. I now have those female peers who I can connect with, who I know if we're in a particular meeting, they're probably reading that meeting in the same way I am, or it's not just a male team that I have.

Values

In Byrne's view, Salesforce and Slack are well-aligned when it comes to core values and equality. When the former bought the latter in 2021, the businesses ran in parallel for the first few months, while they were still figuring out the new relationship. Then, they brought the various different ERGs together and took the best of both worlds. 

There was a very large women's group within Slack, which is now embedded in the Salesforce one. The best practices for Slack as a tool in itself were also incorporated into the Salesforce ERGs, not just in the women's group, says Byrne: 

There's different ways in which we can use the Slack platform, for example, we create channels around Ask Me Anything sessions. We can run those in Slack, and it helps create spaces where, in this instance, women can connect with other women to share experiences and encourage allyship.

Byrne shares another anecdotal example of Slack’s role in supporting employees. She recently got added to a channel called Talking Menopause, set up by a group of women across the UK&I: 

It's been so eye-opening to see all these other women across the UK having some of the challenges that I'm having at the moment. Without a tool like Slack, we probably wouldn't have been able to do that because, it's not exactly like a reply-all email that you can send out to the workforce.

She notes that Slack and Salesforce are working together to tackle the challenges around menopause support, something that has become more important as the tech sector has matured, and as the number of women tech leaders has increased: 

Tech is a grown adult now. When I started in tech, it was like a gangly teenager just starting out. By nature, the demographic was quite a young demographic. We've all grown in that industry and by virtue of the fact that we have a lot of women in very senior roles, we've also grown in age as well. Those senior roles are high-stress roles, and we have to tackle them alongside the changes that our body is going through as well.

Allyship is crucial in this respect, which is why it’s important to have a channel like Talking Menopause as an open one rather than private discussion forum, she adds:  

Keeping channels open so if men are working with particular demographics in their organization, being able to search all communication and knowledge, to tap into a group like that, reach out to someone, have a chat, it's really important.

When it comes to what Byrne would tell her younger self coming into the technology sector, it would be to back herself more. Due to the lack of accessible and visible female role models and colleagues, Byrne says she was timid in the early stages of her career: 

I saw a lot of quite loud and confident men in the roles that I wanted to go for. I naturally didn't push myself forward.

As powerful females moved into those roles, one woman in particular changed her view, who is now in a very senior C-level role in another multi-national tech company: 

In my first one-to-one with her, she said, 'Why aren't you a leader yet?'. I said, I'm only such and such an age, I've only done such and such amount of years in this role, so I'm following a path. She replied, 'No, you can outstrip a lot of those males on that team. You just crack on, back yourself'. I took that first step into leadership and haven't looked back since. I would say back yourself and go take a risk on something that you're not comfortable with. Jump at it a lot sooner than you think you are able for it.

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