What I’d say to me back then - You don’t need to code to be a technologist, says IBM iX’s Jennifer Quinlan

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett December 12, 2023
Summary:
Work/life balance needs to be a sliding scale and women don’t need all the answers to contribute, says Quinlan.

Jennifer
Jennifer Quinlan

Jennifer Quinlan might not be a technologist by trade or by education – at college, she studied journalism - but with 30 years’ experience in the sector, her entire career has been rooted in technology development, from AS/400 and mainframes to current cloud-based systems. 

She's had roles at AmeriComm, Merkle and IBM to CEO at R2integrated, and for the past three years at IBM iX, the experience agency of IBM Consulting, most recently as Global Managing Partner. Through all these positions, a constant in Quinlan’s career has been the change in adoption of digital capabilities. Embracing this change, she has continued to say yes to new projects and making herself uncomfortable, to learning new technologies and new ways of working. Quinlan explains:

I am intensely curious. My commitment to learning what I might not know today, but I'm going to be able to reflect that tomorrow with my clients and with our teams, is really important.

Alone in the room

When Quinlan started working in technology, things were very different. She was mostly the only woman in the room, which had its own challenges. However, she has always approached her career from wanting to be great at what she does and being valuable in the conversation, rather than on her gender. Hence, Quinlan focused less on the equity in the room, and more around the equity and contributions in the discussion. She explains: 

Was it easy? Absolutely not. Where I saw many examples of things that didn't work is when women leaders were inauthentic. They would try to be like men or like other people when we're not. What I tried to own was my contribution to the conversation, and then ultimately what were the outcomes that we're trying to drive as a company.

While there are still imbalances, Quinlan says these are significantly different compared to her early days in the sector, and certainly women in STEM have made significant inroads. She adds:

The dialog is different than it was 30 years ago, and the investments in women and in diversity, to have diverse voices around the table, are significant. So it's very different today than it was when I started out. I’m incredibly proud of the changes that I've seen over the course of my career, and I’m incredibly inspired about what I see will be the future of women in technology as well.

Quinlan is very appreciative and mindful of her own ability to influence diversity. In her current role, she has taken the opportunity to drive impact via ensuring diverse candidate slates, pay equity as part of annual increases and reviews, and promotion diversity. She adds:

Where I don't see diverse candidate slates, I will send those back and I will say, we will look at these slates when they're completely diverse. That's the beauty of where I've come to in my career, that I have the ability to do that.

Paying forward

IBM and IBM Consulting have many other schemes in place to promote and build diverse teams. Pay It Forward is primarily for women to share their personal and professional stories within the community, how they have grown their career, and lessons learned. Quinlan adds:

It starts to humanize how we've grown in our career, so we're not the unicorn, we're part of the pack.

While it started out as a small grassroots opportunity at IBM iX, Pay It Forward is now an IBM Consulting scheme.

When Quinlan interviewed with IBM, she interviewed with the Head of Consulting - a female leader - and two sector leaders - both women. She notes:

There was a no-brainer for me. I looked at the leadership team and I thought, they are being conscious about how they're growing their business, and this is an organization that I want to be a part of.

IBM has many other diversity programs: there’s a significant allyship program, focusing on men as allies in the business, and fostering innovation and growth; Pathways to Technical Leadership, aimed at people who are mid-career and diverse technical leaders; and a level-up series, designed to develop executive potential and leadership in women. 

The business also offers a paid six-month tech re-entry program for returning professionals, where they can refresh their skills with learning plans, along with part-time and job-share options. This helps women come back into the workforce, restart their career and transition back, which is critical. Quinlan says:

I have children, and the demands on working mothers are challenging.  I recently had somebody in my business, who is a tremendous talent, she left and had a baby, and wasn't sure entirely that she was ready to come back. She is back part-time. I spent time with her recently and just feeling incredibly supported and coming back to work after a year and working part-time and being able to continue to contribute while supporting her family, those are things that we look at with folks who in some cases didn't realize that that was an opportunity for them to do.

IBM is applying a skills-first mentality and new-collar mindset to recruitment, which helps the business source talent through alternative routes rather than just a traditional four-year degree. Quinlan explains:

That could be folks that are re-entering the workplace or relaunching their careers, women coming back to work, veterans leaving the military and coming into the workforce, as well as Hispanic and black populations. We're also working with 20 HBCUs [historically Black colleges and Universities] to create an IBM cyber leadership center.

Apprenticeships are another important route for bringing in skills and talent. IBM has 12- and 24-month apprentice programs, which are based on an earn-and-learn model. The program has been a big success, with 90% of the apprenticeship graduates now working full-time at IBM, a number of those in Quinlan’s own organization. 

Mentoring

Mentorship is something that Quinlan is committed to, which has been incredibly positive for her as well as the women she mentors. She explains:

Having somebody that has been through it like I have been through it, I've been in this business a long time, I really feel like it's helped the women that I've continued to mentor. They really are having a tough time balancing, and balance really is a personal definition. A lot of times as we hear about work-life balance, there's always a desire to make that 50/50. But that's a sliding scale depending on where you are in your career, in your journey and in your family situation.

As a leader, it's incumbent on you to help employees balance work with home life, she believes, and give them the space to do their best work. 

They might have to work a little bit at night because they needed to take a couple of hours to take their sick parent or child to the doctor. And that's perfectly appropriate. By mentoring folks and understanding where they are, that's helps me as a leader to know what support that person will need and where I can help them best. It's not a one-size-fits-all.

Quinlan has around 10 to 12 people she is mentoring, who are all at different points in their career. As well as helping them with the resources they need, she also offers advice on what is critical to do that day, and more importantly, what can be left until tomorrow:

Taking your kid to the doctor is really important. I've had more than one occasion where I've had somebody say, 'I just needed to hear that'.

Advice

If Quinlan could give advice to her younger self entering the technology sector, she would start with - you don't have to code to be a technologist. 

This is a passion point for me. This is a common thing that I will tell women, especially women with liberal arts backgrounds or not classic STEM backgrounds. 

Earlier in my career, I wouldn't have said I was a technologist. I felt insecure that I couldn't code and that didn't qualify me to be considered a technologist, which I don't think is true. I'm a technologist. I spend every day around technology and I don't have to code to be a technologist. Demystifying that for folks that are not ‘classic’ STEM-trained folks is really important.

Second piece of advice - you don't have to have all the answers! Quinlan spent a lot of time preparing and over-preparing all her research and strategy and numbers early in her career:

When you're sitting at the table, use your voice. There's a reason why you're sitting at the table and you don't have to have all the answers to contribute. Part of the beauty of experience is that you learn that a little later in your career; I wish I had learned that maybe a little bit earlier.

Finally - be you. Quinlan was mostly one of one females in the room in her first job. At different times, she’d be one of five:

Ultimately we try to assimilate, and when we're comfortable and confident in who we are and what we have to add to the conversation, and why we have a seat at that table, it gives us better license to be you.  I wish I had learned that a little bit earlier because that's something we all struggle with.

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