Inspirational Woman: Marilou van Doorn | COO, Leaseweb Global

Marilou van DoornMarilou van Doorn is an experienced operations leader with a passion for data, and a solid understanding of the technological landscape.

Having started her career in art, she pivoted into tech after falling in love with the tech scene in Amsterdam. She holds a master’s degree in New Media and Digital Culture and an MBA from INSEAD.

During her career she worked in operational roles as part of the management team in several global technology companies. By experiencing all different sizes of organizations from startups to global enterprises, and going through two acquisitions, she understands what is needed to build a solid operational foundation to safeguard the success of a company. Her focus is on operational excellence and customer centricity, bridging the gap between business and IT.

Since 2019 she has been working as the chief operations officer for Leaseweb Global, where, together with her team, she is successfully streamlining the cross-departmental processes, increasing the operational quality and efficiency, and working towards a data-driven operation.

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

My background started in art, but I fell in love with the startup scene and pivoted into tech. After going through two acquisitions as part of the MT of a data startup, I decided to do an MBA at Insead business school and continued into operational roles in the tech industry. Most recently I moved into the role of COO at Leaseweb, a global IaaS provider headquartered in the Netherlands, where I focus on the operational excellence of our data centres and the service we provide to our customers.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Only at a later stage. If I did plan the start of my career, I must have been a pretty horrible career planner, since I actually wanted to become a fashion designer. I started at art school but switched to technology after falling in love with the passion, innovation and creativity of this industry. My first job in tech, bearing in mind I had no background at the time, was in technical support at Vodafone. Fortunately, I found that I had a knack for tech, and was quickly able to pick it up on the job. Only after finding out my sweet spot of operations within tech and doing an MBA, I started really thinking about my career path. But to be honest, I don’t think I would have changed anything about my route to tech. There are plenty of things that could have made my path easier, quicker, or ‘better’: for example, by studying computer science or starting my career at a consulting firm. But in the end, the route I took gave me an incredible set of experiences I still benefit from today.

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

Of course. I think it’s impossible to advance in your career without hitting a few walls. For example, I worked at one tech company where they installed a ‘pink quota’, resulting in the company just hiring women for the sake of their gender instead of their skills, which actually reduced the respect for women on the floor. This was early on in my career, and my response back then was just to double my effort and prove them wrong. Nowadays my response to most challenges is to initiate the conversation; I have come to realise that if you don’t speak up about these things, they will never change.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I would say that I am very close to the career ambitions I have always had; to be a COO for a larger IT company. However, in terms of what I would like to achieve within this position, I’m definitely not there yet. For now, my ambition is to learn and accomplish as much as I can, and after that, most likely a new goal will come up.

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

I’m not sure I would necessarily describe where I am today as achieving success. However, I believe that a large part of why I ended up where I am today is because of my passion and positivity - the two are closely intertwined. I love what I do; for me work is more than just a way to pay the rent, and that same love also inspires me to always look for ways to improve things. I don’t believe in things just being a certain way because ‘that is how we always did it’, or accepting something just because we seem to be stuck. I will always look for ways to improve the status quo, because I actually honestly believe that things can be better. Of course, this does have its limits, and if I reach a point where I don’t feel this love and passion anymore, I know it is time for me to move on.

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

Have a goal in mind. It’s impossible to know exactly where you will end up, but having an objective will create opportunities. This doesn’t have to take the shape of the exact position or the exact company you want to end up with, but for example having a specific industry as a goal, will allow you to be open to opportunities. This is both psychological and practical; psychologically in a similar way to the ‘frequency illusion’ that if you hear something you will encounter it a lot more often, and practically because when you start targeting this goal more, you will get more exposure.

Also try to work out which aspect of the industry you’re passionate about. IT is an incredibly broad field, so finding the area you are truly enthusiastic about will not only ensure that your job will give you energy, but it will also make you more attractive to the job market. Passion and enthusiasm show in an interview.

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

Unfortunately, my answer has to be most definitely yes, and this actually goes beyond just tech, but for many other industries and women in management positions in general. To be honest my start in tech made me slightly naïve as to the extent of this issue. I worked at a startup that gave me all the possible opportunities and support I could have wished for, but it was only after switching companies and being exposed to a more diverse group of people that I started to realise the reality; women being referred to as ‘little girls’, managers stating male as a recruitment requirement since they ‘know what works for their team’, a woman in her 30’s being evaluated as a ‘risk’ for a c-level position since she might get pregnant. The only way in which we can overcome these barriers, is by bringing them out into the open. You might not succeed - I actually didn’t manage to convince the manager that he was discriminating in his recruitment requirements (and there were quite a few more discriminating demands in there) - but if you don’t speak up you can be certain things won’t change.

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

Aim for objectivity; in recruitment, in evaluations, in promotions, in pay rises. Try to make it measurable, equal, and as transparent as possible. This is the only way in which you can try to battle both conscious and unconscious bias. Also, take a moment to think about whether the decisions you are making are truly based on skills and competence, or influenced by other factors. Try to reflect by replacing the gender in the decision. If you perceive a woman in her early 30’s to be a risk because she might get pregnant, ask yourself whether you would make the same decision if it was a man who would announce that they were expecting a child.

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?

Change the unconscious bias. This is the one thing that sometimes discourages me, and that is coming from a person that always sees the opportunity in things. Women are unconsciously judged unequally in many aspects. In one study for example, mothers were asked to rate how high their child could climb on the playground; boys were always overrated, while girls were underrated. Other studies have shown that for certain positions (for example higher management) the same resumé reflecting a male name instead of a female name is perceived as more competent, even by women! This makes me realise that I am biased in similar ways in my decision making. So yes please, I would definitely go for that magic wand, and until that time, I’ll just stick to my approach of trying to get as much subjectivity out of decision making.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

There are tons of good tech books out there, but it largely depends on what you’re interested in. That said, there are a few general resources that I enjoy on a daily or weekly basis. Some examples include Software Lead Weekly, a newsletter offering curated weekly content on people, culture and management in tech, and the CBInsights daily newsletter, which shares great information on startups, new tech, venture capital and fascinating data insights, all with a good dose of humour. And finally, a Podcast that is not really tech related but with topics that would benefit anyone: Freakonomics radio. This is the podcast behind the book Freakonomics, discussing socio-economic issues, or as they describe it ‘discovering the hidden side of everything’.

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Focusing on proactive change: our best chance to even the balance between employment opportunities and need

Article by Svenja de Vos, CTO, Leaseweb Global

desk-with-laptopEveryone agrees that technology will continue to exert a major influence over the future of society in general and employment in particular.

But drilling down into some key employment issues, it’s clear that we are still training more managers than technicians. Where are the specialists? Take a development such as Artificial Intelligence alone. We will soon have to deal with that in all parts of society, but there are relatively few people in our country who really understand it.

The need for more specialists is perhaps most urgent in the cybersecurity industry, where there is no shortage of evidence that the problem is both widespread and of significant impact. Looking at the global picture, it’s an industry that has become a victim of its own success, with growth so fast that research from Cybersecurity Ventures says it will see 3.5 million unfilled positions by 2021. And, according to the security certification organisation, (ISC)2, the shortage of those sought after cybersecurity professionals, “has never been more acute”. It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that  a Gartner survey revealed that 61% of organisations admitted that they are struggling to hire security professionals.

Part of the problem is the unavoidable need for specialists’ skills, with employers looking for candidates with just the right level of security experience, education, and abilities. Yet, how many people are out there on the jobs market with more than a few years of solid cybersecurity experience behind them? Not enough, is the simple answer.

This is not just an inconvenience for employers - the economic impact is very real. According to the consulting firm Korn Ferry, in its report ‘The Global Talent Crunch’, the US technology market as a whole can expect to lose out on $162.25 billion in revenue by 2030 due to skills shortages. As a result, “these talent deficits may imperil America’s status as the global tech center.”

The STEM of the problem

The reasons why we find ourselves in this situation are varied, and clearly, it’s not easy to predict the rapid rise of an industry like cybersecurity, but we can look to our education systems as a root cause behind the wider shortage of tech specialists.

STEM education, for instance, is a really important source of supply into the technology workforce. Yet, not only do we see a continual shortage of STEM expertise coming into the industry, but the gender imbalance is a particularly egregious issue and serves only to underline the need for systemic and cultural change.

UK government data, for example, shows that in 2019, one million women were working in STEM occupations - that’s a mere 24% of the core STEM workforce. However, looking at the tech sector specifically, the situation is worse, with women in tech only making up 16.4% of the that industry in 2019 - down from 17.4% in 2018. As the community interest company, WISE, put it in their report on the issues, “The proportion of tech roles filled by women has flatlined at 16% since 2009 – so further action is needed to encourage more women to get into a category of jobs which make up a quarter of the STEM workforce.”

Yet, addressing the problem presents an obvious win-win. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, “Closing the gender gap in STEM would contribute to an increase in EU GDP per capita by 2.2 to 3.0% in 2050. In monetary terms, closing the STEM gap leads to an improvement in GDP by €610 - €820 billion in 2050.” In addition, their report says that STEM equality would have a major impact on employment levels, with total EU STEM roles rising by 850,000 to 1,200,000 by 2050.

In practical terms, the issues of skills shortages and long-term shortcomings in our education systems present serious problems for companies. In response, some train technicians themselves, but that costs a lot of money that cannot easily be earned back. For an average SME entrepreneur, for example, an investment of tens of thousands of pounds in new employees can’t easily be budgeted for.

As a result, businesses look beyond their borders, with one option being to outsource work to other countries or bring in foreign specialists. That in itself brings advantages of working in multicultural teams, and people from other cultures often view things from a different perspective and that can lead to important insights. The question is of course why other countries have the skills that are in such demand, and this could be partly due to the fact that those countries have a better tech environment. But, with UK immigration rules set to change, the situation is becoming more uncertain - at least in the short term.

It’s a challenging situation that will continue to cause problems for employers and will also mean that countless talented people miss opportunities for fulfilling careers. But, in a future where many important careers are based around specialist knowledge, an ongoing emphasis on proactive change offers the best prospect of balancing employment opportunities with need.

Svenja de VosAbout the author

Svenja de Vos, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Leaseweb Global, is responsible for the Product Management, Product Engineering, and System Administration departments. Together with her team, she is responsible for setting Leaseweb’s technical vision, scaling Leaseweb’s technology, pushing innovation, and further developing the company’s cloud hosting and cybersecurity services.

Prior to joining Leaseweb, Svenja was involved with the telecom industry for almost 20 years. For the last 14 years, she worked as CIO in Austria and the Netherlands at Tele2, and as Director of Transformation for the Tele2 group.