Empowering Women in Tech is an interview series by Templeton & Partners designed to provide a vibrant platform for women in the tech industry to connect, share experiences, and draw inspiration from each other's remarkable journeys.
This time, we had the privilege of engaging in an insightful conversation with Alessandra Cantù, a Technology and Management Consulting expert with over 20 years of experience in the industry. With a proven track record in driving value through business transformation and digitalisation and a rich background in supply chain management and operations, her expertise spans diverse industries, including energy, chemicals, retail, telecommunications, and financial services.
Beyond her impressive career, Alessandra is a passionate advocate for equality and change. She actively contributes to creating a more equal world through her involvement with Ated Ticino as a coder dojo mentor and Women in Tech in Switzerland. Her commitment to driving value through technology, coupled with her dedication to fostering inclusivity, makes her a remarkable professional and an inspiring force for positive change.
Join us as we delve into Alessandra's insights, exploring her experiences in overcoming challenges and empowering women in the workplace.
Alessandra, can you tell us a bit about your career journey so far and what led you to where you are today?
My career journey has been quite a diverse one, with a few shifts along the way. Initially, I was drawn to communications, but towards the end of my studies, I realised my analytical and logical skills were better suited elsewhere. This led me into the world of supply chain management. So, I started working in the industry for a couple of years. After gaining valuable experience, I was sure that this was what I wanted to do, so I decided to pursue a master's degree in finance. However, my interests continued to evolve as I discovered a new passion for consulting and technology. I found the dynamic nature of consulting, with its varied projects and challenges, to be the perfect fit for my skills and aspirations.
In 2006, I joined Accenture in London, where I spent a fulfilling decade working primarily on supply chain management and technology implementations to enable company transformations, cost savings, and efficiencies. During this first half of my career, I also used to travel a lot for work. However, when I became a parent, my priorities changed, and I decided it was time for a career shift to accommodate my personal life. I transitioned to technology vendors, working with two technology companies, with my final stint at IBM. There, I could really use my consulting skills in service delivery and programme management for big technology implementations.
My career has been twofold, marked by adaptation and growth, aligning with both my personal life and professional goals. Looking back, I'm particularly proud of how I've managed to blend both these aspects together.
If someone asked you what's your job title, what would you say?
For me, the most fitting description would be a Programme Manager and a Change Maker. Being a consulting manager is intricately tied to enabling change, and my primary focus lies in Technology and Management Consulting. But while I've moved away from pure supply chain management roles, my expertise in this area still influences my approach, even in my current responsibilities. The shift has been partly influenced by the unique job market I found in Switzerland after relocating from the UK. Adapting to new industry landscapes has been a challenge, but it has also offered me opportunities to explore alternative career paths and apply my diverse skill set effectively.
You've had quite a journey in the tech industry spanning over 20 years, exploring various roles and positions. What specifically grabbed your attention and fuelled your passion for working in tech, and what aspects of this field do you enjoy the most?
For me, it's all about the dynamic intersection of business and digital transformation. Managing programmes that bring about real, tangible changes for companies has always been at the core of my interests. Over the years, I've noticed a significant shift. Two decades ago, as a management consultant, the work was often more strategic, somewhat detached from the practical execution. However, with technology becoming omnipresent, there's a growing demand to be hands-on to grasp how to implement these transformative changes. This evolution has made programme management and enabling business transformations even more intriguing for me.
Another aspect that truly resonates with me is the direct management of people. It's not just about overseeing projects; it's about guiding and nurturing a team. This is an element I enjoy a lot, being able to use my experience to help others grow and discover their potential. Witnessing their development is incredibly rewarding.
Lastly, innovation is another key element that keeps me engaged. My consulting background has equipped me with problem-solving skills, and I thrive in fast-paced environments where innovation is not just a buzzword but a daily reality. The challenge of working in the heart of constant change and innovation is both invigorating and fulfilling.
Managing people from diverse backgrounds sounds quite challenging. Could you share your experience with handling this diversity? How do you strike a balance?
Managing diverse teams does indeed present its challenges, and it requires a lot of self-reflection and maturity. This diversity goes far beyond race, gender and ethnicity – it also means dealing with people of varying age groups, personalities, working styles, and ambitions, and this requires a lot of work. It's not just about overseeing the physical tasks at hand; it involves a great deal of active listening. Understanding the unique motivations and preferences of each person is key. Building relationships based on this understanding allows us to collaborate effectively and bring out the best in everyone.
Recognising our biases is also crucial, even though we strive to overcome them. We are all human, after all. Sometimes, I find it necessary to seek support from my own managers. Having that external perspective ensures I can truly give my best to my teams and foster an environment where everyone can thrive. It's about continuous learning, adapting, and, most importantly, empathising with the people I work with.
How long have you been working as a contractor, and what led you to choose this path over being an employee?
Interestingly, I've been an employee throughout my career. I started as a consultant and was employed by Accenture for a decade. Following that, I spent almost another ten years with NCR and then with IBM, always as an employee. I’ve only recently considered the prospect of working as a contractor.
The shift in my perspective came about because I've grown to value the content of my work. I underwent several job changes in my last role, mainly due to the economic situation. One of these transitions landed me in sales, a domain that doesn't really align with my skills and interests. Now, I'm really eager to return to my roots, focusing on programme management and delivery.
Choosing contract work seemed like a practical step in that direction. It serves as a gateway to the area I'm most passionate about, providing the flexibility and opportunities I need to re-immerse myself in the kind of work I truly enjoy and excel at.
What do most people don’t understand about your job or the tech industry in general? What are some common misconceptions about this field?
Explaining my role as a management and technology consultant can be quite a challenge. Each company has unique goals, diverse projects, and specific needs, and this is something quite hard to explain to someone who doesn’t come from this sector. Technology, in general, suffers from a lack of understanding. I often encounter the assumption that all tech professionals are developers, but that's not the case for me. Even though I oversee technology implementations, my background isn't coding-centric. This misconception is widespread, and it's a barrier, especially for women. Many tech roles don't involve coding at all, and this lack of awareness creates missed opportunities.
I'm deeply passionate about this issue, which is why I'm an active member of Women in Tech Switzerland, a global organisation. Through my involvement, and because I have children myself, I've witnessed the disparity firsthand, both in the education system and in the workplace. Girls, especially, receive limited exposure to STEM subjects, leading to confidence issues and the perception that these fields are overly complex. Addressing these misconceptions and fostering greater understanding is essential, not just for individuals like me but for the tech industry as a whole. There's work to be done in education to break these barriers and make technology accessible to everyone.
Could you share more about Women in Tech? What initiatives is the organisation involved in, and how are you connected to this group?
I discovered Women in Tech while I was in the UK, attending some of their events there. When I relocated to Switzerland a few years later, I felt a strong desire to be part of a community and contribute towards the cause of gender equality, which I believe is still a pressing issue. So, I joined Women in Tech Switzerland. Initially, I participated in their events and later became involved as a volunteer in various activities.
Our organisation is engaged in diverse initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality in the workplace. This includes organising upscaling sessions, networking events, and collaborating with local communities. We focus on showcasing best practices related to workplace flexibility and achieving a healthy work-life balance. These efforts are vital because they not only raise awareness but also bridge the gap for those who might not be directly affected or aware of the challenges faced.
In the tech industry, despite its vastness, there's still a sense of closeness, like a closed community. These initiatives serve as avenues to break barriers, expand outreach, and ensure that everyone understands the situation faced by others. Creating awareness is fundamental, and that’s the cornerstone of everything we do.
You mentioned the tech industry being somewhat of a closed and male-dominated community. Can you share your personal experience as a woman working in this field?
Working in tech has been incredibly thrilling for me. It places you right on the front lines of societal changes, allowing you to grasp the evolving dynamics of the world. However, when it comes to gender dynamics, it's unfortunate but true that male dominance still persists, although there have been improvements in recent years. I vividly recall my time in consulting in London around 2010. While the gender ratio among employees was relatively equal, the scenario changed dramatically when it came to career progression. As you moved up the ladder to senior management, the gender gap widened further. It's like there's a leak in the pipeline as you progress.
I do see positive changes happening in society now. There's more flexibility in the workplace, and families are embracing greater equality in their dynamics. However, to truly establish gender-equal workplaces, more substantial efforts are necessary. We need more role models, visible examples of women in positions that others can aspire to. Seeing someone like yourself in a particular role can significantly encourage more women to participate actively. So, while there have been strides, there's still a lot more ground to cover to foster a genuinely equal environment.
It's no secret that many women in the tech industry have faced challenges due to their gender. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that, and if so, how did you handle it?
Unfortunately, yes, I have encountered such situations. While it might not have been a direct case of being denied a promotion due to my gender, I have faced unwelcome comments related to being a woman. The first instance was particularly challenging because I didn't know how to respond. Learning to set boundaries and speak up against inappropriate or uncomfortable comments took time and experience. It's a skill that develops with seniority.
Because of this, I strongly believe in the importance of having allies. Having people around you who can stand up for you and help create an environment where discrimination isn't tolerated is crucial. Now, when I hear comments that could make someone uncomfortable, I speak up. I've undergone training to know how to handle such situations, often explaining to the other person why their comment is inappropriate and how it might make someone feel. It's something we all need to work towards because, at the moment, it's not always easy to react swiftly when you're the victim. Having support is essential in those situations. Creating awareness and fostering understanding are steps towards a more inclusive workplace for everyone.
You mentioned seeing changes, but why do you think there are still so few women in the tech sector? What's causing this lack of representation?
It's a multifaceted issue, I believe. One aspect is that change takes time, especially when it comes to permeating all levels of companies and management. That progress doesn't happen overnight; it requires consistent effort and time.
Another significant challenge stems from societal pressures, especially concerning mothers. Balancing work and family life can create immense pressure, making it harder for women, especially mothers, to stay in the workforce. This pressure often leads to a slowdown in their career, and in some cases, it becomes so challenging that women opt to exit the workforce altogether. It's a regrettable outcome, and this is where we need significant societal changes.
I strongly believe that the responsibility for these interventions and changes shouldn't solely rest with companies. It's a matter that requires broader societal and political support. We need a society that is more supportive and equal for both genders. Embracing flexibility, for example, can be a game-changer. Many people are seeking more flexible work arrangements. These changes won't only benefit working parents but will also create a more inclusive environment for everyone.
You’re a mother and a working woman. How do you manage to balance between these two roles? What specific challenges have you faced while trying to juggle these responsibilities?
Ah, the eternal question: How to manage it all, right? It's something many of us ponder. We often underestimate what we achieve in a day or a week, brushing it off as if it's nothing. But if we take a moment to reflect, we realise just how much we've accomplished. As women, we need to pat ourselves on the back more often and acknowledge our achievements.
For me, clarity was key. I knew I wanted to continue my professional journey, a decision I made even before having kids. Yes, doubts crept in, especially during those challenging early days when the maternity leaves differed between London and Switzerland. But my determination stemmed from understanding my 'why' – the profound satisfaction I derive from being a professional. I didn't want to lose that part of myself permanently, knowing how tough re-entering the workforce can be.
Crucially, my husband's support was invaluable. He took paternity leave to spend more time with our babies. We both opted for four-day work weeks when the kids were small. This balance felt right to us. Of course, it was tough at times, stressful periods cropped up, but I felt I could be both a present mother and a contributing professional. The key, I found, was having the right support and open conversations. Establishing clear boundaries with my boss and team was also crucial, ensuring everyone knew what I could and couldn't do.
Flexibility played a pivotal role too. I received substantial flexibility, allowing me to manage unforeseen challenges like sick kids or family emergencies. This freedom motivated me to give back more to the company. Having a flexible schedule meant I could still excel in my role, even if it meant working unconventional hours, like evenings, to balance my responsibilities effectively. Being adaptable and open to unconventional working times made it all feasible.
While it's clear that organisations promoting work-life balance benefit everyone, why do you think so many companies still lag behind in this aspect?
It's a perplexing situation, isn't it? Providing support and fostering a healthy work-life balance is undeniably vital, especially for women dealing with the additional challenge of balancing personal and professional lives. Personally, I was fortunate to have an empathetic boss who, being a parent himself, understood the complexities. He grasped that my motivation remained intact, even in different time slots.
It's baffling indeed that despite numerous examples and research demonstrating the positive impact of support systems and flexibility on a company's success, many businesses still lack these essential structures. It's more than just a shame; it's a loss of valuable talent that negatively impacts both the business and society at large. What's even more concerning now is the shortage of digital skills. There's a vast untapped potential in individuals who left the job market due to these pressures, and not harnessing these talents is a missed opportunity for companies and the economy as a whole. Addressing this issue is not just about supporting employees; it's about unlocking a wealth of skills that can drive innovation and growth.
You mentioned grappling with self-doubt, a feeling many women, especially in tech, can relate to due to imposter syndrome. How do you manage and overcome these thoughts?
Oh, absolutely; self-doubt is a companion I've known well, and truthfully, it still creeps in from time to time. It's something I've noticed is particularly common among women; it's a topic that comes up frequently in groups like Women in Tech. Being part of such communities has been a game-changer for me. Sharing experiences and challenges with other women who understand those feelings has been incredibly reassuring. I've also been fortunate to have a mentor, someone I can turn to for support and guidance. My advice to younger professionals is always the same: build a robust network and find a mentor or coach who can boost your confidence and offer guidance.
Another strategy for me has been to actively manage my thoughts. I've realised that these self-doubts don't come from a helpful place; they hinder me from delivering my best work and being my true self. When these negative thoughts emerge, I acknowledge them and swiftly dismiss them. I remind myself that I'm here to do my job, and then I consciously move forward. It's not always easy; managing negative thoughts while being kind to oneself can feel overwhelming. But it's this practice that gradually builds confidence, helping me navigate the challenges and uncertainties with a more resilient mindset.
You mentioned having a mentor, but you're also a mentor yourself. How vital is mentorship for women in the tech industry?
Mentorship is absolutely crucial, not just for women in tech but for professionals at every level. I've been involved in mentoring schemes since I was quite junior, and I can't stress enough how significant mentors have been in my journey. They serve as invaluable sounding boards, especially during those crucial decision-making moments or when doubts cloud our minds. Having someone to provide feedback, answer questions, and guide us through various ways of working is immensely empowering.
When we come together, we can tackle complex problems – not just the technical ones but also the challenges life throws at us. Having that experienced voice of reason can make a world of difference. Mentorship creates a supportive network that fosters growth, confidence, and resilience, helping women navigate the often intricate tech industry landscape. It's about more than just career guidance; it's about shared wisdom and collective problem-solving, which can be truly transformative.
As a manager, what practices and approaches have you found to positively impact your team?
Open communication is absolutely key, in my opinion. I actively promote it within my team, and I encourage everyone to share not just our successes but our failures too. Technology is ever-changing, and mistakes are inevitable, but they can also spark some of our best ideas. That openness to discussing failures and learning from them is vital.
Collaboration is another cornerstone. Encouraging team members to work together, share ideas, and explore diverse perspectives often leads to innovative solutions. The way we communicate has evolved significantly over time. Nowadays, there's a greater inclusiveness and acceptance of diverse viewpoints. I've seen this shift in many organisations, especially in larger multinationals like the ones I've worked for. These companies are increasingly aware of diversity and inclusion matters, offering training and classes to manage communication and eliminate biases.
While there's still progress to be made, workplaces are becoming more inclusive and open. I've noticed a positive trend towards encouraging mentorship, fostering an environment where learning from one another is not just valued but actively promoted.
Would you encourage girls to consider a career in tech? What advice would you give to women who want to enter the tech industry?
Absolutely, I wholeheartedly encourage girls to explore the world of tech! It's an incredibly dynamic field filled with endless opportunities and exciting discoveries. What's fantastic is that tech isn't just about coding; there's a vast array of roles that allow for creativity and innovation. Looking ahead, technology is set to become even more intertwined with our daily lives, opening up numerous job prospects.
My advice to women aspiring to join the tech industry is to follow your passion. If tech intrigues you, dive in and explore this path. Being passionate about what you do is the driving force behind every successful career. Stay determined and focused. Just like any other profession, tech rewards those who are persistent, dedicated, and disciplined in pursuing their goals. Don't be afraid to venture into the world of technology; there's a place for everyone, and your unique perspective and ideas are incredibly valuable in shaping the future of tech.
What is the best professional advice you've ever received?
I always remember something that my very first manager told me: "Don’t come with problems; come with solutions." This simple yet profound wisdom has shaped not only how I approach work but also how I tackle life's challenges. Having an entrepreneurial spirit and a proactive problem-solving mindset has encouraged me to view problems as opportunities. By shifting the perspective, challenges become pathways to growth and innovation. It's about stepping out of the problem and into the realm of possibilities.
Another important lesson I've learned is the power of asking for help. We're all here to support one another. Sometimes, we just need to reach out. I often remind myself of this. When you seek help, you'll be amazed at how many people are willing to offer their support. It's a reminder that in both our professional and personal journeys, there's a network of people around us ready to lend a hand, guide us, and contribute to our success. So, my advice to others is to embrace challenges as opportunities and never hesitate to ask for the support you need; you'll find a wealth of help just a question away.
A big thank you to Alessandra for sharing her inspiring career and life journey with us.
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- Empowering Women in Tech – An Interview with Chibuzo Igwe
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