What I’d say to me back then - SAP SuccessFactors Maryann Abbajay on her "stinking hard" return to work after a 10-year gap
- Abbajay’s second stint in the tech sector includes a focus on pulling up other women in their careers and prioritizing the kids.
It was stinking hard.
No punches pulled as Maryann Abbajay, Chief Revenue Officer at SAP SuccessFactors, describes re-entering the technology workforce after a 10-year hiatus.
Abbajay joined the tech sector in 1985, working for Oracle and then Cisco until 1995. Having tried for many years to get pregnant, when she finally did, Abbajay and her husband, Dave, both took 10 years off.
The reason for her eventual return to work was the cost of healthcare in the US, she says:
We were paying for our own private insurance, paying a whole bunch of money for it. Our kids were little and basically we said, 'One of us has to go back to work'. I was in sales, Dave was in development, I drew the short straw and went back to work.
By the time she did return to work in 2005, at the same start-up as her brother, she found the tech sector a very different place:
Coming back after 10 years, I was so grateful I was working for my brother because I could ask him a bunch of dumb questions. I had never been on WebEx, it didn't exist [before]. I would be in meetings writing down acronyms with a question mark and then I would go look them all up.
Even wardrobe choices had to be re-evaluated, she recalls:
There was nobody to help me understand that all those suits that were more like men's suits, that I had worn before, were no longer like fashionable. I had to do it all myself. It was really hard.
Today, things might not have been so difficult as there are various organizations set up to help women return to work. Abbajay works with two in particular. Path Forward, an SAP partner for about eight years, sees women come in effectively as interns. SAP then has the option of hiring them. Abbajay says:
It's a nice way for us to try each other out and then for us to be able to make offers.
SAP also partners with The Mom Project. Women returners to the workforce upload what they want to do, even if it isn’t something they were doing before, and employers then match candidates to open jobs.
In addition, SAP has its own program, Pledge to Flex, which offers flexi-time at work for employees. Abbajay is keen for staff to embrace this initiative as more than just remote working:
A lot of people think that means, 'I can work from home whenever I want'. But to me, what it means is, you have the right to say, 'Hey, I’ve got to get my kids to school at eight, I’ve got to pick them up at three. I'm not going to be on calls at that time, I'm not going to be in a meeting at that time.
One of the regrets I have is, when my kids were little, if I was home, a lot of times I was shushing them, telling them I'm on a call and that's when they want to talk to you. That's a big part of Pledge to Flex.
Providing a stipend for childcare, and helping staff find elder care or daycare, are other initiatives Abbajay supports:
There's the monetary things, but it’s also the empathy and ability to be cognizant that when people have kids, things come up or when their kids come into the room and they're on a meeting, the right to say, 'I'm going to put you on mute for just a minute, I need to talk to my daughter'.
This is something that Abbajay does now as she wants to set an example.
Even though my youngest is 23, when she comes in, I put people on mute and I turn around and I have whatever conversation and then come back.
Abbajay’s early experience in the tech sector means she feels a responsibility now as a woman in a senior position to support and advocate for other women. When she started at Oracle in 1985, she was almost always the only woman in the room and most of the people she was selling to were men:
Back in those days, women were not looking to pull other women up, they were looking to get ahead. I had worked for both women and men, and the women I had worked for were not so great, so I would take a man any day.
I don't want to be that kind of person, I don't want to be that kind of manager. I want to be the one who pulls a bunch of women along with me and builds them up and that you can trust. I could not trust some of the women that I worked for in the early days, because they were only out for their own career to get themselves ahead. They were generally older and they had it even worse than I did.
So what advice would Abbajay give her younger self back when she was first joining the tech sector? She says:
First of all, I would absolutely take those opportunities that were offered to me. I had so many opportunities that I turned down - and this was actually pre-children.
Abbajay is specifically referring to her stint at Cisco Systems under John Morgridge and John Chambers, who she says were phenomenal leaders and wanted her to move up the ranks. As she had already done sales management at Oracle and didn’t want to do it again, she decided to stick to being a sales rep – and now wishes she had taken those openings.
But the flipside of that is when it comes to her children, Abbajay wishes she had not dedicated so much time to work when with her family. She shares a story of baking some cookies for one of her children’s fundraisers:
Dave was picking the kids up from school, and I thought, 'When they come home, they'll smell chocolate chip cookies, how nice'. But they walk in, see I made cookies, and their first thought was, 'What's wrong? Are you and dad getting divorced?'. That's so sad.
I wish I had been a little more flexible about not shushing the kids or taking the call, because all of us know that it's about the family. That is why we work. So let's keep our priorities straight. Thank goodness, my kids are great and everything turned out and I'm still married. Because a lot of women who have moved up the ranks end up not still being married.