Wal-Mart CIO's Advice For Women In IT - InformationWeek
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Wal-Mart CIO's Advice For Women In IT

Karenann Terrell talks risk, job hopping, sponsors, and more. Are you developing the traits it takes to succeed?

Karenann Terrell has a passion for developing female IT leaders and encouraging young women to study science and math. As executive VP and CIO for Wal-Mart, she speaks to this topic from a high-profile position, but with a level of candor and practicality that's unusual among C-suite executives, male or female. When I moderated a panel she was on earlier this year at the Michigan Council of Women in Technology, Terrell looked out at the room of 500 people and delivered this message: I am a woman. That will never change.

For women who have been told for years to downplay their gender, it's invigorating to hear Terrell say that.

She's not all talk. At Wal-Mart, Terrell leads circles of 20 or so women who get together regularly to learn from each other and achieve better results for the business as they find new mentors and allies. She encourages young women to study the STEM subjects. And behind the scenes, she sponsors rising IT leaders in her own organization. Developing female IT leaders isn't just the right thing to do, it's also the commercially prudent thing to do given today's tight IT labor market, she says.

Terrell spoke with me recently about the IT career lessons she has learned, the traits she looks for in rising IT leaders, and what her organization has learned about developing and retaining those leaders.

InformationWeek: What do you wish you had learned earlier in your career as an IT leader?

Terrell: To take more risk. Practice taking risk as early as possible: The stakes are much lower, but you don’t realize it. It teaches you to fail gracefully and develop an instinct, an intuition.

I learned later to take risks in terms of moving, projects, and innovation, but probably not until the 20-year mark in my career.

InformationWeek: What are the most important traits you see in women climbing the IT career ladder, possibly to CIO positions?

Terrell: There is a directness and candor in their communications, which usually comes out of being able to be succinct. They're not brutal, not overly direct. They have a way of being candid yet disarming. Sometimes, it's combined with humor.

They always have had a significant diversity of experience. That makes them more nimble. This allows them to be more effective when unknown things come at them. [That diversity includes having served in multiple job functions, such as engineering and finance, or in various geographies, Terrell added.]

They have a depth of experience in something vertically, in an area of technology, that they can reach into…. I've never seen fast-moving women who were jacks of all trades and masters of none.

InformationWeek: Do some women take too long to decide to pursue a fresh role?

Terrell: In general, yes. But if they are well counseled and mentored, someone else is saying, "Of course you're ready." Women want to have that impact of value in the current role… and prove it. I have to push women a lot more frequently when I'm talking to them about the next role.

I was exactly like that. It was "one more year in this and I'm going to get another gold star for my experience vest."

InformationWeek: How important is it to have not just a mentor, but a sponsor, and why?

Terrell: A mentor is somebody who stays with you over a long time. You have that trusting investment in each other.

The sponsor is key for any talent to have. They will speak on your behalf in a compelling way. There's no messiness. A sponsor doesn’t worry about being second-guessed. Their credibility in their peer group is a really powerful counter-effect on subliminal bias in an organization. The sponsor can say "Why can’t she?"

[A mentor may be assigned to you, Terrell added, but you want a sponsor to volunteer. The sponsor puts you forward for a new responsibility because it will be good for the business, without the personal strings that a mentor would carry.]

Karenann Terrell, CIO, Wal-Mart
Image source: Michigan Council of Women in Technology
Karenann Terrell, CIO, Wal-Mart
Image source: Michigan Council of Women in Technology

InformationWeek: How do you develop female IT leaders in your organization? What is value of the "mentoring circle" approach?

Terrell: In our culture, with the grass roots of being able to speak out on any topic, a mentoring circle lets people come together. I select them to come together. What I find is in 90 minutes, I am speaking for 10, maybe 15 minutes. It's so much about them speaking to each other.

I'm not sure that group would ever come together. A vast majority of them would say they don’t know each other.

[So how do the women land in the circles?] They wanted mentoring from me, Terrell said.

InformationWeek: Have you had any eureka! moments come out of the mentoring circles?

Terrell: Because of the diversity, our "eureka" was a discussion about women of color… and how if white women won’t speak up for women of color, the likelihood of things getting better is low.

The second is, if we're all going to persist here. It's going to take us all being able to lean in and lean on each other.

[In other words, Terrell said, the women learned to call each other and ask for help. They became a real cohort.]

InformationWeek: You've said there are two times when the numbers of young women studying science and math drop dramatically: around the eighth grade, when bullying kicks in, and then from freshman year through senior year of college. What can universities do to encourage female IT students to stick with STEM?

Terrell: The data shows that women don't drop out of university; they drop out of STEM. The underlying reasons have to do with curriculums that weed people out as soon as possible.

Either there must be much more focus on support instead of "they want me out, I'll get out," or there must be some type of a rethink on this weed-out system. That's pretty institutional, but it's scaring people out of the curriculum.

What we have realized here [at Wal-Mart] is to establish, as early as possible, these network-based cohorts of women. Sometimes you find it in sororities. But sororities aren't all women in STEM. Universities could do that along STEM lines.

Here, we all hang together. If you could repeat that in the university, there might be some magic there.

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 11:22:37 AM
IT Mentoring
This is great to read stuff like this!  I am new to the IT industry and with being a recent graduate studying Business Administration I sometimes feel lost so finding articles like this really help me out! I do not have a mentor or a sponsor and really don't know how to even go about it, but does anyone have any suggestions or ways to start mentoring groups within an organization? 
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 8:59:13 AM
Re: "Lean In"
Alex, I find it interesting that Terrell was doing IT mentoring circles at Wal-Mart long before the idea of Lean In circles (inpsired by Sandberg's book) became popular. Wal-Mart has mentoring circles for people in disciplines outside of IT, as well.
User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2013 | 2:58:39 AM
Women in IT
This is an interesting article. There is very less percentage, where ladies continue their higher studies in the area of IT. Most of them prefer to be doctors and engineers rather than IT professional.
IW Pick
User Rank: Author
11/19/2013 | 5:35:23 PM
Re: Where are the female technologists on TV?
@Laurianne Never underestimate the power of dramatization. If not for the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring that was also made into a successful film, the painting, which is currently visiting The Frick Collection in NYC would not have the oval room all to itself and would not be the representative picture for the special exhibit.  It's not necessarily Vermeer's best work, but it is his best known, thanks to the chick lit/flick effect. So, yes, casting women in IT roles on television would likely have quite an impact on the public's perception.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/19/2013 | 2:17:08 PM
speaking up for women of color
Interesting comment on women speaking up for women of color? What do people think about this observation? Does it ring true in their organizations? 
Alex Kane Rudansky
Alex Kane Rudansky,
User Rank: Author
11/19/2013 | 10:47:28 AM
"Lean In"
This interview reminded me of some of the lessons in Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In." Both Sandberg's and Terrell's advice is valuable for women in and out of the IT world. Speak up. Work together. Advocate for yourself. Sandberg dives into the topic of the male/female interactions in the workplace, and walking the fine line between assertive and over-bearing. I wonder what Terrell's response to "Lean In" would be. 
User Rank: Author
11/19/2013 | 10:46:48 AM
Re: sounds familiar
That is exactly right, Nicole. A sponsor advocates for you and puts you forward for new projects and opportunities. The sponsor does it because it's good for the business -- not because he or she is fond of you, as a longtime mentor. That is why the sponsor's voice carries weight, Terrell says.
Nicole Ferraro
Nicole Ferraro,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/19/2013 | 10:28:02 AM
Re: sounds familiar
I was intrigued by the distinction between mentor and sponsor here -- and it sounds like a mentor could help women ask for what they want, but a sponsor could actually advocate on their behalf. Is that right? 
Sara Peters
Sara Peters,
User Rank: Ninja
11/19/2013 | 10:15:03 AM
sounds familiar
Good advice for those of us inside and outside of IT... and advice I confess I'm not always very good at taking. The key part seems to be women being shy about asking for things they deserve -- whether that be a better salary, a better title, a new position, or something else. Most of us are more likely to work hard and hope that those things will eventually be handed to us. That's an overgeneralization, of course, but I think it's largely true.

So how do we fix that?

Is that the kind of thing that the mentor group for women can assuage?
User Rank: Author
11/19/2013 | 10:10:20 AM
Where are the female technologists on TV?
Here's another interesting tidbit from Terrell: Television and movies have a powerful impact on a young woman's view of the world. She thinks young women need to see women on television and in the movies who are successful technologists. We see female lawyers, doctors and police officers galore -- but where are the cool female software developers? CSI is one show that has stoked girls' interest in tech. Terrell would like to see more.

Maybe one of you could write the Bridget Jones Diary of female technologists. Wouldn't that be fun -- and powerful?
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