On the fourteenth entry of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Vonda Page, an organizational change leader at PayPal, about her entrance into the tech space and her experience being the only in many job settings, and Vonda talks to the fact that even individuals without a STEM background have spaces for them in technology. Check the links in the show notes to connect with her!
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate. Now, look, for those of y’all who are new here, the purpose of Living Corporate is to create a space that affirms black and brown experiences in the workplace, right? There are certain things that only we can really understand, and when I say we I mean the collective non-white professional [laughs] in corporate America. And when we look around–if you, like, Google being black and brown in corporate America, you may see, like, a post in Huffington Post or something that kind of communicates from a position of lack, but I don’t know if we necessarily see a lot of content that empowers and affirms our identity and our experience, and that’s really the whole purpose of Living Corporate. It’s with that that I’m really excited to talk to y’all about the See It to Be It series. Amy C. Waninger, who has been a guest on the show, who’s a writer for Living Corporate, and who’s also the author of Network Beyond Bias, she’s actually partnered with Living Corporate to actually have an interviewing series where she actually sits down with black and brown professionals so that we can learn about what they actually do and see ourselves in these roles, right? So it’s a variety of industries that she’s–she’s talking to a lot of different types of folks. You’re gonna be able to see what they do, and at the same time you’re gonna hopefully be able to envision yourself in that role, hence the title See It to Be It, okay? So check this out. The next thing you’re gonna hear is this interview with Amy C. Waninger. Y’all hang tight. Catch y’all next time. Peace.
Amy: Vonda, welcome to the show. I’m so glad to have you. How are you?
Vonda: I’m great, Amy. Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.
Amy: This is exciting for me, ’cause you and I have had so many conversations on these topics alraedy, and every time I talk to someone and we get going and we’re on a roll I’m like, “Oh, I wish that I had recorded this for the show,” so now we get to, which is exciting to me.
Vonda: That’s great. I’m happy about it. Thank you so much.
Amy: Good. So Vonda, how long have you been working in the tech space?
Vonda: It’s so funny. You know, I was thinking about it, and I’ve really been in the tech space for about 24 years, and the last 20 exclusively, and it’s interesting because I really got into tech organically because I never was necessarily oriented towards math, towards science or, you know, digital technology, and the way that I got into the tech field was I originally started working in the restaurant business, right, in bars and restaurants, some chain places, some local places, and as different restaurants were getting online with different computer systems, they would need a person that could teach everybody how to use it. And I was always a really good trainer. My background is communications, always really good at, you know, processes and helping people learn how things work, and so they’d say, “Okay. Well, you know, we’re getting a computer system, and we need you to train people.” And I’m like, “What?” So they give me the big fat book, the big fat manual, you know, the operating procedures, and I have to review that, and it would be interesting because after looking at “Okay, this is how the technology works,” I had to compare how are we currently working and what is different, right? So in a restaurant back in the old pen and paper days, right, before iPads and all that fancy stuff, people would come to the table with a paper and a pencil and they would write it down. So when we started to adopt computers and different types of technology, I had to look at “What’s the delta between how we’re operating in a non-technical way,” right, without technology, and then when we move to using technology, what’s that difference? So the way I got started was really helping people move from, you know, the paper and pencil onto using different computer systems.
Amy: I think that’s fascinating. I have a story that I would love to share with you if you don’t mind. I went to one of the–you know the really cheap hair-cutting places? I took my kids there one day, and their computer system was down and they didn’t know what to do. They were frozen. And I looked at the woman–and I was an analyst at the time, you know, kind of like what you’re describing–and they’re like, “Well, we can’t cut hair because our computers are down,” and I said, “Why do you need a computer to cut my kid’s hair? Can’t you just use scissors?” And they kind of laughed and she’s like, “Um, yeah, okay,” and so she got out a piece of paper and the first thing she said was, “What’s your phone number?” Well, that’s the identifier they used in their system to look up what haircut he’d had the last time. I said, “You don’t need his phone number. You need a #2 guard. Cut his hair.” But they were just so lost ’cause they had been training on how to use the system, not how to do the job, right? And so what you’re talking about is the reverse of that, where people come in not already indoctrinated to the technology and now they have to learn to do their job with it.
Vonda: Exactly, and then there’s that balance of using the technology with the actual process. So the process of cutting hair in your example is perfect, right? You use scissors or you use clippers or you use a combination. You use a comb. Maybe you have a spray bottle with some water. You need that whether you have a computer or not, right? If you’re in a restaurant, you need pans and pots and food, right? And you need that, right, whether you have a computer or not. So, you know, it’s a very similar thing, and it’s so interesting, but that’s really kind of how I got started, and for me, I grew up with computers, right? I learned as the technology advanced, and later on in my career I worked exclusively in tech. So now for the last–yeah, since 2000 I’ve been exclusively in tech, and a lot of what I do is really helping companies when they decide to change a technology, whether that’s through an upgrade, whether we are retiring something to bring in something new or just adding new features, I help the company or the team determine “What is the strategy we need to implement that technology change so that we don’t have an adverse impact on the business, on the employees or on whomever that change is gonna impact?”
Amy: One of the things I think is so interesting about that, Vonda, is that you didn’t come in from a technology standpoint–and I think I’ve had some other folks on the show that have worked in technology, that are pure technologists, but I think it’s important for people to understand you don’t have to be a technologist to work in technology, and in fact, the tech sector needs people people, right? If you say, “Oh, I’m a people person,” my goodness, does somebody in tech need you.
Vonda: Absolutely. And it’s so funny because, you know, even now every now and then somebody will ask me some kind of technical question. Like, a friend of mine yesterday was asking something and I said, “Listen, I really have no idea.” Like, “I’ve heard of this thing you’re asking me about, but I’m not–” And she was like, “Well, you’ve been in tech for, like, ever,” and I said, “I’ve been in tech, but I’m not a techie.” And so what’s interesting in the tech field, and what I do is I work with a lot of engineers, a lot of extremely technical people, a lot of architects, and while their expertise is really based in the system and how things are built and how things are connected and put together, they need support from the standpoint of somebody who can take all of that, what they’re talking about, and help the business as well as, you know, the community that’s gonna be using that technology understand what is it, how does it help or impact me, and why do I want to use it, right, and what is the benefit of it, and sometimes a technologist will say, “Well, it’s great. It has all these great features. It does this,” and they’ll say, “It does,” right? So they’ll say, “The tech does this,” and my question to them is, “Okay, so how does that affect, you know, Suzy? How does that affect Rohit? How does that affect Carmela?” So you’re making changes to technology. You’re putting enhancements in. You’re building things on top of apps or creating features, but what is the people side of that? So one of the gaps that I have seen over my career in the technology field is that people sometimes leave out that we are creating technology for people. The technology is to be used by people. So you have to think–okay, if we take the example of earphones, right, or listening devices, right, and you think about “People need to use this for what? To either block out sound, to focus sound, you know?” What is it that people need it for, and then how do we build it or talk about it so that it matches what that need is? And that really requires, you know, the ability to ask a lot of questions and to be–like, I take a lot of notes. I pull in different people that have different areas of expertise for a particular technology. So sometimes in a phone call or in a conversation there will be an engineer and an architect and a product manager and a project manager that’s somebody that’s kind of herding the cats and all of that, and then you have other subject matter expertise that may be connected to that particular application, right, or that particular business process. So it’s really important to have the soft skill of communication, that you can pull in those different perspectives, you can ask those different questions, you can get, you know, people talking, because a lot of times, technologists, they kind of work inside their own head, right? And so helping them come outside of their head with certain questions, especially open-ended–you know, how will this help John get his work done? How will this make it easier for the customer to execute a transaction? And really helping to articulate that for the technologist so that the business can say, “Oh, we know why you’re making this change, and we’re gonna make sure that we support it.”
Amy: Absolutely, and I’ve spent so much time in those roles. I’m just nodding along like, “Yes, we need a translator between the two worlds,” becase they do speak different languages often. So I want to switch gears just a little bit, Vonda, and I want to ask you, especially 24 years ago when you started working in tech and, you know, sort of had a toe in the water but still way too much tday, I would imagine that you are not swimming in a sea of other black women at work.
Vonda: No. It’s so funny. So I just moved to a different team, and I was the only, only black woman. And I’m in a new team that has more women, but still the only black woman, and what I have found is that throughout my career I’m usually the only black woman–and every now and then there may be a support staff person, like a project coordinator or an administrative professional, but not usually. And so, you know, I’ve learned to be comfortable in that role, right, and to just really not let it hamper how I’m gonna perform. I don’t shy back if I have a question. I ask it. If I’m running the meeting I’m running the meeting, you know? If I am trying to accomplish specific outcomes for a project or a meeting, I state what they are, I let them know “These are the critical success factors for getting it done,” and, you know, no matter what I kind of keep on fighting, right? But it is very difficult, because what happens–and I’m sure, you know, in your work and in this inclusion space have had conversations with other black women who, you know, you get into this space where you know what some of the obstacles and challenges are going to be, but what you have to do is just drive ahead, right, and as you experience more and more circumstances, right, whether it’s in meetings or whether it’s in presentations or whether it’s in, you know, any kind of group effort where you have to do things, you have to kind of go into it knowing that you might not get the support or the cooperation.
Amy: So where do you get the reserves of energy that it must take to walk in every day knowing that–and forgive me for saying this. I mean, I’m gonna just kind of lay this out, right? Knowing no matter how good you are, no matter how great a job you do that day, no matter how great a job you’ve done for 20 years, there are probably no people who look like you above you in the food chain at your company, and your shot at getting there is pretty low.
Vonda: Yeah, and it’s interesting, ’cause–so I do two things. So one thing I do–and it’s funny. So one thing that I do to mentally prepare myself is when I know I’m gonna have a challenging day, especially a day that I’m gonna be expending a whole lot of energy, I really make sure that I kind of have a ritual that I do, right, and part of it is the way I take care of myself, right? So I do a lot of physical exercise, ’cause I feel like when my body is strong, that helps me be mentally strong and emotionally prepared. That’s one thing. I try to also listen to motivational music. So, like, I listen to a lot of hardcore–not hardcore, but, like, inspirational rap music, right, and I call it my mental warmup. So I have a playlist of, like, Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar and Drake and, you know, Jill Scott and different people, but I have music that kind of talks about, “Hey, things are hard, right, but you can do it,” and so I use music and my physicality to help with that, but the other thing I do, Amy, is I have friends, right, and colleagues and associates that I’m close to that I know I can call to vent, right, and I can say, you know, “So here’s what’s happening. Am I looking at this, you know, in a way that doesn’t seem right?” So that really helps. And I also go to therapy. I love therapy. I am a big advocate for people trying to take charge of their own mental health and mental well-being. And I talk to my therapist, right, and my therapist is a white guy in his 40s, and, you know, I look at it as–and we have a great relationship, right, and I look at it as–you know, and I think he does too, as he’s my sort of–like, sort of… I don’t want to call it a check, but my support from the standpoint that I can describe a situation or what it is, and he’ll say, “Wow, that is really terrible. That must be really hard for you. How do you feel about that?”
Amy: So I’m really glad that you brought up therapy, because I know, you know, among–particularly among my black friends there’s a lot of stigma around seeking therapy because it’s viewed as weakness or a lack of faith, and so I want to thank you for sharing that. That’s very vulnerable. And, you know, I think it helps people when other folks come forward about those kinds of things, right? About prioritizing mental health, and particularly in a community that has cause for, you know–I mean, you’re in a lot of collective stress, especially right now. I do think it’s so important. Where do you go at work to find community when there are so few people who look like you in this place?
Vonda: Yeah. So I’m funny like that, Amy. I seek out the black people. Like, I literally look for the black people. So I look for any face that I see that is of any shade, and I say, “Hey,” and I walk up to people–you know, pre-COVID, right, I would walk up to somebody, a stranger, you know, and be like, “Hey, I’m Vonda. Who are you? What team do you work in?” Sometimes I just get on LinkedIn and I look for people that work for my company, and then I reach out to them on LinkedIn and I’m like, “Hey, we work at the same company. Here’s my User ID. Why don’t you Slack me when you get to the office?” Or something like that. So I make a purposeful attempt to reach out to people, and then I just kind of build it up from there. So I’m–and I don’t know where I learned this. You know, I guess–my under-grad degree is in communications, my graduate degree is in communications. I’ve always been a very communicative person, you know, and so I will just reach out to somebody and say, “Hi, I’m Vonda. We haven’t met. Can I put 20 minutes on your calendar just for, like, a 1-on-1 intro chat?” I’ve never been told, “No, you can’t put 20 minutes on my calendar,” I’ve always been told “Absolutely,” and then I just kick it off like that. “Hey, I’m new here,” or, you know, “I saw you on campus,” or “Hey, I stalked you on LinkedIn, and I just wanted to say hi and find out what you do. Are there any other black people in your department? What’s your experience like? If you ever need to talk, let’s talk.” And fortunately, you know, a lot of companies nowadays have ERGs or employee resource groups. Some companies call them affinity groups. That’s a really good way to meet the only, because in a large company, you know, especially in tech and in high tech, they’re probably the only in their team or the only in their department. So, you know, everybody is sort of craving that sense of “Oh, there’s somebody that gets me. Oh, there’s somebody that looks like me.” So I bet you they’re experiencing some of it, right? So when you’re looking at gender the experience is a little different, right, for black men versus black women, because the way we’re perceived, you know, in society is a little different, but we still are, I find, in tech usually the only. I would say, other than my colleagues who work more in the non-technical spaces, right, my colleagues who work more in, like, customer operations type of roles, you’ll find more black women, right, in those roles, right? So it’ll be more in those teams, but in the highly technical ones, everybody is usually the only, and when you are the only, you know, as you said, you do feel like “How am I gonna get to that next level? Because there is no one that looks like me,” right? And if there was, you know, a black woman that might have had, you know, a high-up job, maybe she only stayed at the company for a couple of years or maybe she moved on–and it is difficult, but there’s a part of me that feels like even if I can’t make a significant enough change to maybe see it, I’m at least helping the next generation. So for me–and I guess it’s part of the mom in me, right, is I want to help the next generation so that when they get to high tech in the corporate world they’re not the only, but if they are, they know “Okay, here’s how you need to navigate,” right? You have to walk in realizing that the same perceptions that people have out of the corporate space, like, those are the same perceptions that get carried into the corporate space. And really, as you said, there’s no amount of excellence and tenacity and accomplishment that will, you know, change that for people, but what you can do is change for yourself, you know, how you approach it, and if you have the information, right, to be able to say, “Okay, I am prepared that my ideas might not get traction. Okay, so then how do I start to build a coalition of advocates, right, and other, like, friendlies to help build that up? I know that if I’m presenting I might get interrupted, so what do I need to do about that?” So I have lines already memorized and prepared in my mind, right? So if I’m speaking and someone interrupts me, I say “Hey, can you hold your thought, John? Because I wasn’t done,” and then I finish, right? And I serve as an advocate to everyone. It doesn’t matter male or female, black or white, Hispanic, Indian, it doesn’t matter, and those things I think make a difference.
Amy: Absolutely. So just in closing, what advice do you have for people who are maybe wanting to break into tech who maybe are not technologists but certainly, you know, have questions about how to get started. Where would you send them to kind of start this journey?
Vonda: Yeah. I’ve thought about that a lot, because tech is here, and it is going to continue to grow and move into a bunch of different spaces. One of the really growing areas in tech right now is really around data science and data analytics, and I would encourage people to do at every stage of their career, right, whether they’re in college right now, just finishing up high school, early career, mid-career, is really just start looking at some of those trends, right? So for example, you could just do a quick Google search on technology trends, and you’ll see AI, you know, automation, artificial intelligence, and data science. Those things will pop right up, and the recommendation is really know a little bit about a lot, right? But just enough. You don’t need to know, you know, all the deep down nitty-gritty details of what everything means, but if you have some familiarity, you know, “What’s the conversation around automation these days,” right? What’s the conversation around Cloud? What’s the conversation around data science? Have familiarity with the conversation around that. LinkedIn is a really great resource to go in in the search, and you can either type in, you know, the title “jobs” and type in, you know, a couple of titles, right? You can type in “data scientist,” you can type in “automation,” and then you can start to see, “Okay, these are some of the fields, and these are the criteria.” But I would tell people even if you don’t have a STEM, you know, type of background, science, technology, engineering and math, even if you don’t have a STEM background, there’s a space for you in technology, because we have to balance out the technologists, right? We have to balance that, and you really need strong communication skills, strong engagement skills, the ability to think not all the time at the detailed minute level, but to be able to look at things from a macro level, from a 30,000, 50,000-foot level. Be able to think about strategy. So if somebody asked me to do X, why did they ask me to do that? What other goals does it match up to? What’s the bigger picture? And if you can understand the bigger picture, then that is a leg up, because in my experience folks that have a very specialized area of expertise and they only–let’s say they know 90% about that and they know very little about other things, those are the people who really struggle. So you want to be–you know, not a jack of all trades because you can’t, but you want to know a little bit about the big things, right, and then when you need to deep dive into them you do more. So, you know, I was on a call yesterday about some cryptography stuff, right? I haven’t worked on cryptography–which they say crypto–since last year. So I had to go back and kind of read some of my notes and refamiliarize myself. “Okay, so for crypto here’s what we’re looking at, right? We’re talking about how things are transmitted and are we making sure that the protocols are secure.” So it’s just a matter of knowing a little bit, and sometimes I’ll be in a conversation and I’ll say, you know, “I’m the least technical person here,” and they’re always like, “No, you seem like you understand it.” Well, I understand it enough, right, to be able to articulate it, but if you ask me to, you know, write the scripts for it or–no, I’m not doing that. So I think it’s really a few things, really understanding them, and just using your communication skills and your personality. And don’t feel like, you know, because you’re not an expert in something that that doesn’t mean you’re not valuable, because really most of those people aren’t experts, right? And so I guess that’s kind of where the impostor syndrome piece can come in for people. You’re not an impostor, right? You know what you know, and there’s enough resources out now that you can do research, right, to get the amount of knowledge that you need necessary to do it and do well.
Amy: Vonda, thank you so much for sharing your experience and your wisdom with our audience. I really appreciate you.
Vonda: Thanks so much for having me. It was a pleasure, and I look forward to talking with you soon.