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9 Things That I Learned from Women in Federal IT

As a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, I often get to hear women in federal IT talk candidly about the highs and lows of their careers. But now as a first-time, working mom I find myself listening less for good sound bites and more for sound advice that I can use.

That was the case while covering a recent women in tech event hosted by the Federal CIO Council. For those who aren’t familiar, that’s the primary interagency forum for improving federal agency practices around design, acquisition, development, modernization, workforce and all things IT.

The newly appointed federal CIO Suzette Kent promised there will be other events like this in the future. In the meantime, I pulled together some of the key takeaways that resonated with me.

1. Start acknowledging the “badass” work you do.

As Kent put it, women in federal IT have one “badass mission to serve.” Collectively, they are embarking on the largest transformation in the world, to ensure that citizen services are properly supported and delivered through technology.

2. Women are more effective collaborators.

To produce results, you have to work as a team to break down silos, Kent said. “Women are more effective collaborators, and what we deliver is actually better.” That’s what agencies need as they embark on complex IT modernization efforts. Kent noted that 40 percent of federal CIO positions are held by women.

“The issues that we have in the government aren’t technology issues,” noted Joanne Collins Smee, Acting Director of Technology Transformation Services and Deputy Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration. “They require collaboration and persistence to be able to make the technical changes we need.”

3. Tell yourself (and others) that you can.

As the youngest of four daughters growing up in the Bronx, Collins Smee was raised to believe she could do anything. So it came as no surprise that when she started parochial school at 13, she started a rebellion and got into the physics class. But “there are a lot of smart women who are being left behind,” she said.

NASA CIO Renee Wynn added that her economics degree isn’t the kind of qualification one would expect for her role, but she believed in herself. “I certainly know how to persevere,” she said.

4. Create a space for synergy.

Jason Gray, CIO at the Education Department, shared how his agency hosted a lunch on International Women’s Day. He was a few minutes late to the meeting and was surprised when he got there to feel so much energy in the room and to hear organic dialogue. To keep that conversation going, Gray’s deputy stood up quarterly meetings to gather the thoughts, ideas and synergy of the women on his team.

5. Always be curious.

“You always have to be intellectually curious,” Collins Smee said. Never get too comfortable. Her advice? Assume that your current job isn’t going to be here in two years. Know where you industry is going and how it will be impacted by technology. “It is not good enough to say, ‘I work 12 hours a day,’” she said. Invest in yourself and in your career.

6. Look for those oddball jobs.

SBA CIO Maria Roat’s career has taken a zigzag approach to her career, including time in the Navy and at DHS. She proudly shared that she graduated four years ago with her bachelor’s degree. “Sometimes it’s someone tapping you on the shoulder and telling you about a job,” she said, noting that’s how she became chief of staff to IT leaders at DHS. “Look for those oddball jobs.”

“Careers are seldom linear,” said Deputy Federal CIO Margie Graves. Never limit yourself, and understand that you can do things that aren’t your resume, part of your current job or what you did in school.

7. Find the balance that works for you.

HHS CIO Beth Killoran remembers sleeping with a pager under her pillow so she could respond to work calls at odd hours. But after she got married and had a son, she made adjustments. “I have a time that I leave (work) every day,” said Killoran. “I actually have an off button.” She still checks in on work issues from time to time, but the key is finding the right balance for you and your family.

8. Strive for a stretch career.

“There is no job or position that I’ve had that I walked into being fully equipped,” said Mia Jordan, CIO for Rural Development at the Agriculture Department. “It truly stretches you to be something more than you imagined.”

9. Leaders set the pace and tone.

Jordan shared advice she got from her mentor upon settling into her current role. He told her that the most difficult task she’ll have is going from a manager to a leader. Jordan explained that as the CEO of IT, the way in which you operate is about establishing vision and setting the course that you want the organization to take. Managers are given tasks, and they execute them. The difficult part as a leader is delegating and reinforcing the vision, especially when there are many outstanding tasks. You have to constantly set the pace and tone. “It’s not a one-time briefing with slides,” she said.

For more coverage on women in government, check out our “GovFem” series. Or for stories focused on  the people and processes of IT, take a look at “The Intersection” series 

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