Debby LeisnerDebby’s focus on people, process, and potential have guided her 20+ year career in technology to help make a positive impact on transforming businesses.

She’s passionate about helping people see the possibilities in the work they do, the talents they bring and the advancement that can be made on all fronts.

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

In my current role at Widen Enterprises, I am the Vice President of Business Operations, leading the teams that support all our Wideneers to provide great products, support and service to our customers. My areas of responsibility include Business Process & Systems, IT, Continuous Improvement, Human Resources, Talent Development, and Central Operations. I came to Widen in 2018, in part to be closer to home and travel less and in part to experience a different vertical in tech. My experience at Widen thus far has been fun and challenging in different ways than I expected.

I started my career in tech in 2000 at a technology startup in Madison that provided software to the automotive industry. That organisation was acquired by a Fortune 500 company based in the Chicago area, where my career options expanded dramatically as I was able to advance by working hard and using a practical application of problem-solving to help advance multiple teams and the company. I took on roles that were progressively building upon one another, and I was gaining great new and unanticipated skills. During this time, I was provided with the opportunity and challenge to establish and grow a large offshore office. I became a business champion of 3 acquisitions (responsible for execution and integration into my areas of responsibility), spearheaded project management activities to drive operational agility practices that would align with the R&D transition and development practices, as well as grow into a role with direct P&L responsibility for seven growing product lines. My own career was transforming as a part of this; I was worked to become more aligned with general management functions and overseeing large groups of employees, working more on strategic activities and significant financial oversight.

Beyond providing software to our customers, I found a love for using technology to solve everyday issues in house. I honed in on how to streamline and optimise how work was getting done so we could bring value to our customers more expeditiously. This is still something I really enjoy, looking at a process and envisioning a faster, more optimised way to get it done.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really. I knew early on that I wanted to lead people; that always felt natural to me. I figured I would wind up in some type of financial or accounting role though. I gained some team management experience in a few roles, and I always took whatever I was doing with a ton of zeal and excitement. I was going to change the world…. somehow.

That energy and those entry-level leadership roles came in handy and were ultimately what got my foot in a door at a tech start-up. My technical aptitude and organisational skills helped as well. But I really just enjoy leading and helping to make an impact which the CEO of that company saw, and needed that while in start-up mode, so the stars just seemed to align. I was very fortunate.

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

Of course! One of my biggest early challenges was having my voice heard ‘round the table’ as a reasonable perspective versus an emotional perspective. I often equated that type of feedback as being targeted because of my gender; there were no tears shed during these meetings, yet, as a female, I recall hearing those words from my male superiors. Over the years, I have learned to change my tone and stylise my message while remaining authentic to who I am and what I am trying to convey. Additionally, a challenge for women in tech (maybe all industries) is having a direct communication style, this is still something that I have found to be a challenge in how it is received. That being said, there is more openness to different voices and perspectives today than there were years ago.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I think my greatest success has had less to do with profits and process and more with the people I served while in a leadership role. The growth of the company and profits did enable this to be possible, of course. I travelled extensively and spent a great deal of time in India for work in the early 2000s. During this time, I was provided with the opportunity to help create a mentorship network for women in technology. Many of these young women were the first in their families to work outside the home. They had no understanding of how businesses functioned or had practical business experience and often were disregarding the wishes of family members by getting a job in technology. To be able to sit down and explain business issues, or to talk about their career aspirations and maybe more personally to discuss how to overcome the adversity they were facing in their lives was what I consider a success. Maybe more of a blessing to have been able to be a part of their journeys.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

One, wow, that’s tough. I don’t think I can say only one thing. For me, it’s all about resilience and my faith. Life is not easy for anyone; we all have a story, the good and the bad. Being able to progress forward on my journey despite challenges and being grateful in all situations (and that is not always easy) are the most significant factors in my life.

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

Be authentic first and foremost. Be a sponge, learn not just about the technology from a technologist’s perspective, learn about the business, about the customers you serve, about how the company runs. If you have an opportunity to listen in or participate in strategy discussions, do it. There is so much more to the business than the application of technology that is being delivered. This will serve you well in your career in tech later.

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

Yes, there are barriers in every industry. Some of this is driven by external forces and biases, and some are self-imposed to a degree.

The barrier of bias can be overcome with knowledge and awareness. We all have biases, and if companies invested time and energy in helping all employees (from the top down) learn about their unconscious bias, I feel many of the barriers could be alleviated in the workplace.

As for self-imposed barriers, I have found women who really work to build self-confidence and articulate what they need is so important.

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

Create a mentoring program or get engaged in a mentoring network. I believe this single thing could really help any employee get a different perspective and feedback and to feel supported.

I am a huge fan of mentoring programs that do not place limits on who should be mentoring as well because my best business mentors were all male. I think matching the needs of a mentee with the skills and knowledge of mentors is imperative. Companies can take a greater role in asking senior leaders (men and women) to engage informal mentoring relationships; there is nothing more supportive in my mind than providing your time and attention to help someone on their journey.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, 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?

I think the wand I would wave would focus on getting young girls more interested in technology and the sciences without feeling ashamed that they have an interest. This might change the perceptions within our communities, schools, or in our homes to be more accepting of girls who engage in activities traditionally seen as activities for young boys. When any young person shows an interest in something positive, we should all be encouraging them to pursue whatever that may be. Who are any of us to place limits on what someone can achieve?

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

  • PEX Network (Process Excellence Network) – articles, conferences, blogs – a nice blending of business and technology topics.
  • Boss Files with Poppy Harlow
  • The Disruptive Entrepreneur with Rob Moore
  • I enjoy Lean In circles; they are always great in building my network.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here