Ilya Espino De MarottaIlya Espino De Marotta earned a degree in Marine Engineering from Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, May 1985.

In 1996 she obtained a Master´s in Economic Engineering from the Universidad Santa María La Antigua in Panama.  She has successfully completed Managerial Development courses in: The INCAE Business School, Managua, Nicaragua (February 2000) and, The Kellogg School of Management, in Illinois, U.S.A. (July 2006).  In May 2007 Ilya obtained her Program Management Certification (PMP) from the Program Management Institute.

She has worked for the Panama Canal for more than 30 years, and held multiple engineering positions in several of its’ departments.  In May 2002, she was selected to the Canal Master Plan coordinating team to participate in the development of the Panama Canal Master Plan and Expansion Proposal. In 2012 Ilya was appointed as Executive Vice-president of Engineering and Program Management tasked with leading the execution of the Panama Canal Expansion Program. As Chief Engineer of the project, Ilya completed the Panama Canal Expansion on June 2016.

Ilya was awarded “Outstanding Woman of the Year” by the Panamanian Association of Business Executives; “Global Chairman’s Diversity Leadership” by Stanton Chase.  She made the cover of Forbes Magazine Central America, recognized as one of the 50 most powerful women in the region.  Additionally she was the 2016 honoree for Women who make a difference, by the International Women’s Forum.  She was also honored with the Distinguished Woman Award from the Association of Professional and Business Woman of Panama.

Ilya is a member of the Board of Directors of the Ronald McDonalds Charity Organization of Panama; She is also a member participant of  Women Corporate Director (WCD) and the International Women Forum (IWF).

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

My name is Ilya Marotta, I was appointed as Deputy Administrator of the Panama Canal earlier this year – the waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through a 48-mile, man-made cut across the Isthmus of Panama. I will begin working in this role in January 2020 – which is the second highest position in the Canal. In February 2019, I became the Chief Operating Officer of the Panama Canal – leading all operations including the locks and transit of the ships, amongst other responsibilities.

I always had a love for the ocean. As a child, I was a fan of Jacques Cousteau, a French explorer who opened my eyes to the beauty of this environment.

Since I was skilled at physics and maths, and my desire was to be near the ocean, I opted to study marine engineering. I earned a degree in the field from Texas A&M University in 1985 and a master’s in Economic Engineering from the Universidad Santa María La Antigua, in 1996.

I started working on the Panama Canal in 1985. The Canal itself was first opened in 1914 and since then, has become a key conduit for international maritime trade.

I began my career at the ship repair facility in the Panama Canal Commission and also worked as a valuation engineer for the Canal Accounting Division in 1994. I became a Capital Investment Program Coordinator for the Department of Maritime Operations in 1998. Since 2002, I was involved in planning the expansion project and in 2007, became Executive Manager of Resources and Project Control. In 2012, I was appointed as Executive Vice-president of Engineering and Program Management, tasked with leading the execution of the Panama Canal Expansion Program – until its completion in 2016.

Additionally, I am also one of the judges of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, an elite prize which provides a £1m reward to an engineer(s) responsible for a ground-breaking innovation that has been of global benefit to humanity.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, I never planned on being where I am today. Every time there was an opportunity for me to move around within the Panama Canal, I took it. It was very much a matter of progressively building one block upon the other, endorsing various different roles as well as looking for opportunities.

Hence, when the Deputy Administrator of the Panama Canal offered me a position to participate in the Panama Canal Expansion project years ago, I accepted it without any hesitation. In 2012, when I was given the opportunity to lead the project, I didn’t think twice before saying yes.

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

Yes. I would say that working in a male-dominated environment was somewhat of a challenge I have had to deal with over the years. There weren’t many women working in engineering in the Canal at that time. As I applied to different jobs during my 33 years, it was always men I replaced. Similarly, each opportunity offered to me came from men – I’ve had very few role models that were women.

 I realized a good reputation within an institution can open many doors. As a woman I had to demonstrate my competence and professionalism, I had to constantly demonstrate my accountability, ability to compromise, as well as discipline. Once these skills were recognised, I was expected to demonstrate strong leadership skills. In a way, I would say such challenges were self-imposed.

Moreover, as women, we are required to prove ourselves further than men to attain our peers’ recognition – I always needed to go the extra mile. However, the wide support I’ve received from both my peers and superiors throughout my career has helped me navigate those dynamics and made my experience much easier.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The completion of the Panama Canal Expansion Programme.  Initially, some individuals were skeptical of a woman heading that project. My boss, who recommended me for the role, received various comments questioning his choice of selecting a woman over a man.

I successfully led a team of over 800 people, whilst completing the project with a delay of 18 months. We also had a $5.2 billion budget – and ended up with $5.6 billion dollars in expenditures, which for a project of this size was a relatively small overspend.

I like to celebrate my role as a woman in this field, wearing a pink safety helmet and vest as a statement that we can do this job.

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

My sincerity and frankness. I consistently share my honest opinions with my colleagues, compromise when needed, and remain accountable at all times. I believe I have a reputation for being a dedicated and committed leader.

More generally, I strongly believe that communications skills are critical in the professional world, especially when holding higher positions where managing people becomes one’s main focus.

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

Being on top of new developments in the technology industry, and the world in general, is essential – especially in an ever-evolving environment, as is creativity and innovation.

I also strongly believe that having mentors as well as a large network of supportive people around can go a long way in one’s workplace. It is also important to offer assistance and help when working as part of a team.

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

There are still barriers for women. However, women are excelling especially in the technology industry, more so than in other male-dominated fields.

I personally think that for certain barriers to be overcome, women need to demonstrate their capabilities, skills and worth. This proactive attitude should be supplemented with networking – which will undeniably assist women in their rise to success.

I’ve also joined various associations empowering women – a valuable route for us. These include the Women Corporate Director (WCD) and the International Women Forum (IWF).

On a more personal level – I’m particularly involved in succession planning where I create equal opportunities for people to prove themselves. In fact, I believe that companies should increase their investment in this.

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

I think that enabling employees, and women in particular, to work from home – especially in a time where technology enables such flexible working – can make a big difference. The introduction of facilities for day care facilities in the workspace, should also be considered.

Such innovations would help avoid situations where women need to take time off from work, thereby making their lives much easier and enhancing their productivity as a result.

Most importantly, this can also lead to the reinforcement of employee loyalty to the firm as they will feel that their basic needs and concerns had been satisfied.

There is currently only 17% 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 would definitely like to see a rise in the number of women in decision making positions. Whilst a diverse and balanced workforce improves the decision-making processes, this would also enhance women’s abilities to be recognised.

I strongly believe that both women and men have differing perspectives and opinions which, when combined, have the potential to considerably enrich any decision-making process.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Learning and developing through a combination of these mediums is essential, and networking events in particular can be extremely productive in producing the end result.