Cyndi Williams

Cyndi Williams is co-founder and CEO of Quin, a mobile medical app for people with diabetes.

Over her 25+ year career, Cyndi has been a managing director at ThoughtWorks, a global $500M software and services company, working across the US, UK, Europe, China, India and Australia. She has a deep technology background in software and chemical engineering.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska, then studied Chemical Engineering at Northwestern University. I soon realised, however, that I didn’t want to be a chemical engineer, so I trained myself as a software engineer instead. I was part of the Java engineering group at Sun Microsystems and then moved into more leadership and management roles. For the last 15 years, I’ve been in a business role, starting as MD at ThoughtWorks UK. I then went on to build and run their global software division (ThoughtWorks Studios) for several years.

Today I’m the CEO and founder of Quin, a consumer-led mobile medical app and biotech company. My goal, along with my co-founder Isabella, is to revolutionise diabetes management by helping users decide when and how much insulin they should take daily.

The science of diabetes is still incomplete. No one knows when and how much insulin to take. For most people, it’s a matter of trial and error – resulting in a massive cognitive and psychological load. So, we’re trying to ease this load by using algorithmic insights and machine learning in our app to help users decide when and how much insulin to take each day.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

No, I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing right now! However, at ThoughtWorks, I did have a plan of what I wanted to develop myself into and what gaps I needed to close to achieve those things. While not every step in my career was planned, critical stages with 360 feedback, reflections, and formal plans have been in place to help me progress.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way, and how did you overcome these?

There’s been two standout challenges, both related to being overpromoted. In my first job at Sun Microsystems, I was underqualified. Still, my boss saw talent in me and hired me regardless. Everyone I was working with was 15 years-plus older, so it was quite daunting. However, it was the making of me as an engineer.

The second overpromotion happened when I became MD of ThoughtWorks in the UK. Again I was underqualified, and the biggest challenge was in my first year as MD, when the company’s topline shrank by £5 million! It was a bitter pill to swallow but also a defining moment in my career – extreme failure helps you to see the bigger picture if you allow yourself to learn from it.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Founding Quin and getting it to where it is. While I’m still an engineer at heart, witnessing people fully express themselves with all the gifts they have is what really motivates me. I love seeing our customers getting freed up from diabetes so they can do what they want.

Although Quin is still in the early stages of development, it’s already impacting so many people’s lives. By using our app, 76% of our users feel more confident and find living with diabetes easier, while 35% have improved their HbA1c, which is healthcare’s target measure. Facts like these drive me and make me feel successful.

What do you believe has been a major factor in your success? 

Many opportunities to overreach and fail. In my previous roles, you could try something new even if you didn’t have the experience. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. There was the freedom to do big things and get them wrong, but having good mentors around me was also critical.

What tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

Build a macro level understanding first. Once you have a conceptual basis, you can figure out how to store and organise information, even if things move very fast. Secondly, focus on critical thinking and problem-solving. Know what is important to focus on and what’s not. The ability to communicate and articulate ideas, build relationships, work in teams, and to be able to influence and persuade people, is a crucial part of being successful.

Do you believe there are still barriers to success for women working in tech and, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, there are still barriers, and I believe overpromotion is at least part of the solution.  We don’t necessarily have the best people in the most prominent jobs, so I’m totally fine with women being in management roles they grapple with, as it gives them a better chance to succeed.

What do you think companies can do to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Overpromote in an environment where mentors and feedback are readily available. Being over promoted can be painful, but doing so in an environment where mentors and feedback are available makes it less so. I think we should invest in mass training for everyone in the entire workforce about how to give and receive mentoring and feedback.

We need to change attitudes around failure and learn how to communicate about it. If you fail, move on and do the next thing – this should be how we think. This will help women flourish in the working world.

Women working in tech currently makes up a paltry 17%. If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry? 

The situation is as it is because of historical inequality and we don’t have to accept it. If we want to level the scales, we have to see more women for the roles we have available, and we have to hire more of them. That means thinking outside the box about how we source, assess and support them too. I am a product of affirmative action myself, so I’m not afraid of hiring talent over experience.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech? 

Read books on design patterns and things we see over and over again in technology. Learning about conceptual models will help you walk into any problem-solving situation, help you understand what’s going on and prepare you for greater success in our rapidly changing world.  Build your own framework for thinking and organising when there is a ton of information coming at you.

I also recommend Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup and Steve Blank’s book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, to help you learn how to discover a product quickly in co-creation with the people you’re making the product for.

Become familiar with design thinking, and doing things in a way that you’re diverging and looking at a broader array of possibilities in an inter-disciplinary problem-solving mode before converging into solutions that could actually work. Learn to not cut ideas off too quickly before giving them a proper chance.

Ground yourself in basic principles and don’t get caught up in industry hype. For new technologies on the horizon, find one or two humble low-key people who have a consistent dependable viewpoint and shut out the rest of the noise.

I also recommend starting or joining a peer mentoring group for women who are looking to develop themselves in different ways, then get to know each other by sharing work and life experiences. I have been with a women’s peer group for over ten years and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has been absolutely fundamental to my career.