Nikki BairdTell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have done everything you can do in retail tech – I started out working for a retailer, implementing technology for point of sale, back office and order management. I went from there to consulting, helping retailers select and implement solutions. I have worked for software companies on product marketing and go-to-market, selling technology solutions to retailers, and I have been an industry analyst commenting on all those dynamics. Right now, I look after the future of retail for Aptos – what it means for our customers and what it means for our solutions.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Nope. My career has been defined more by what I learned I DIDN’T want to do than by what I wanted to do. I started out as a physics major, interested in astrophysics. But it required a lot of programming and modelling, which I did not enjoy. I was predicting at the time that space exploration would be an international affair and the next biggest space-race nation would be Russia, so I was studying Russian at the same time. When I decided I wanted to change my major, the counsellor suggested international affairs. It made sense – until I got to the foreign service exam and decided the federal bureaucracy would not be the right place for me. In the meantime, I was working part time at a local retailer. I was the only person in the company who knew anything about technology at a time when the retailer bought its first computerized cash register system, and the rest – is history!

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

When I was hired by Forrester, I was very excited by the opportunity, but the travel ended up being way more than I expected, and I had a preschooler and a toddler at home. I was recruited by Retail Systems Alert Group – a company in transition from an events-based business to one focused on retail industry research. I joined the company, and six months later the investors pulled the plug. That was definitely the biggest career challenge I faced. There were three other people in the same boat as me, and we scrambled and pulled together a new company out of the ashes in less than a week – including securing a big new client as well as delivering on commitments that the old company had made but never fulfilled. Very challenging, but we just stayed scrappy and determined and focused on doing what was right for our customers, and that pulled us through.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Being invited to speak on a global stage. The fact that my perspective carries weight and recognition around the globe – that I can go to Australia or the Philippines or Italy or Russia and be recognized as a voice for navigating the impact of retail disruption – that is the career achievement that I am most proud of.

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

Having passion for what I do – having passion for retail and the disruption caused by the impact of technology on retail. I’ve had people ask me whether it’s really right to care so much about what happens to retail, like consumerism is a bad thing (too much of anything is a bad thing). But the reality is, retail is at the heart of our ability to operate a differentiated economic model, where workers can specialise. I can tell you where I would not be if I had to make my own clothes or grow my own food. I would not be where I am today. Or anywhere close. Retail is important, in so many ways. It deserves our attention and our passion.

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

It’s not enough for you to understand the technology. What really makes the difference is when you understand it well enough to explain it to someone who does not understand the tech at all. The more that others understand the value that you provide, the more secure you are in your ability to provide that value.

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

I’ve definitely encountered gender discrimination. I’ve definitely been the only woman in the room. I think one of the biggest barriers is the 24/7 always-like-a-startup operating mode of a lot of tech companies. Women still bear the brunt of home work and child-rearing, and if companies don’t make space for people to have lives outside work, then almost by definition a company has created an environment that erects additional barriers for women. The longer I’ve been in retail tech, the more I’ve seen that the extra hour or two – or four – a day doesn’t really get you to market faster. It gets you burned out faster. And that’s true for everyone, not just women. Successful companies build sustainable work cultures – for everyone.

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

I appreciate mentorship programs that seek to develop women’s careers, but I’ve never been a fan of ones that overly emphasize women mentors for women employees – I’ve found that being open to learn from anyone and everyone provides for more opportunities ultimately. Sometimes you can learn how NOT to do things from other people (career-limiting rather than career-progressing moves), and sometimes finding the right executive who values diversity, woman or not, can open doors it might’ve taken far longer to get to otherwise. Encouraging and facilitating that kind of openness has the most impact that I’ve seen.

Currently, only 17 per cent of women work 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 do more to encourage young girls in STEM. I know that’s more like a long-range plan than a “wave the magic wand” type of thing, but I saw the impact on my own daughter firsthand. I took “all the math” in college. Never once has my daughter heard me say anything other than that math is a powerful tool, can be full of fun math tricks, is the language of science, is something she can be and actually is good at. And yet, she still came home from elementary school saying, “I’m not good at math” and “science is hard”. If I could get rid of those thoughts in every girl, that would be my magic wand. If girls can be discouraged from science and tech THAT early, corporate programs aren’t going to be enough. We have to do more – much earlier.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I spent six years as a coach and mentor for a high school robotics team. Rather than reading more, or talking more, I would encourage women to do more. Programs like BEST Robotics and FIRST Robotics have mechanical, electrical and software components to the competitions. Being a role model can help you define what you want from a mentor yourself and can make a huge impact on young women – hopefully silencing a lot of those negative “I can’t” voices before those voices turn into career choices.


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