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Profile: Michelle Huff, CMO at UserTesting

Diversity talk: Not everyone wants to be a ‘pioneer’ and be the ‘first female developer’ or ‘first female VP’

Gabriela Motroc
diversity
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Michelle Huff, CMO at UserTesting.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Michelle Huff, CMO at UserTesting.

Michelle Huff, CMO at UserTesting

Michelle Huff, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at UserTesting, brings nearly 20 years of experience leading marketing and go-to-market strategies at high tech companies, such as Act-On Software, Salesforce, and Oracle. Gaining insights directly from customers and prospects has always been essential in past roles – from leading product marketing and management teams to launching websites and marketing campaigns. At UserTesting, she’s responsible for driving our go-to-market strategy, building the UserTesting brand, generating demand and strengthening customer engagement and advocacy.

What got you interested in technology?

I’ve always been a tinkerer and loved technology at an early age. I had a Commodore 64 when I was in grade school. Later on, I was introduced to HTML programming and database design while at the University of Washington in business school. A turning point for me was working at a small consulting firm during my senior year. My colleague was starting up a recruiting arm in the business and was managing all her contacts in Outlook. I looked at her process and thought… there has to be a better way!

Since I had just taken a class on Microsoft Access, I decided to design her a recruiting database. And then I bought Microsoft FrontPage (I know, I’m dating myself now) and redid the website to add the new recruiting services to the website. After graduating, I got my first job in tech doing web marketing and have stayed with tech ever since!

My degree was in Marketing and International Business. Yet, I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. As mentioned, I first started out in web marketing (and this was back in the days when the concept of businesses owning a website was still quite new). This eventually led me to doing product marketing at the web content management company. A growing, mid-size tech company was an awesome place to be early in my career, as it let me try many different roles and take on projects and initiatives that might have required much more experience at larger companies. Most of the roles early in my career were product or marketing focused, which gave me an opportunity to work cross-functionally across the business, talk directly to buyers and customers, and better understand how companies work. I like to be challenged, learn new things, and I never said ‘no’ when an opportunity was thrown my way. All of this experience was a great leg up to eventually becoming an executive leader of a tech company today.

Inevitable obstacles

I suppose there are always obstacles and opportunities at every major turning point in your career. When I was in my early 20s it was difficult to build credibility with older buyers on the tradeshow floor – some of it was due to my age and level of experience in business. But at that time, there also weren’t as many women demonstrating software and answering technical questions – and that had an impact on my credibility as well.

Sometimes, the obstacle is only in how I’m choosing to see the problem… other times, it’s actually an opportunity.

In my 30s, I started to lead larger organizations and I struggled with learning how to better do that role in addition to starting a family. Early on, most of my peers and upper management were all men, and most had stay-at-home wives. As for my female colleagues, none had started families yet – so it was a bit intimidating. Later on, I started interacting more with fellow working mom leaders and it was great to just talk through the balancing act. Now in my 40s, I’m learning that the only thing you have complete control over is how you choose to respond to something. I’ve realized that you can choose what actions you need to take and how you want to interpret the intent of others and the situation. Sometimes, the obstacle is only in how I’m choosing to see the problem… other times, it’s actually an opportunity.

A strong support system

Yes, I have an amazingly supportive husband and group of family and friends. For the majority of my career, frequent travel has been a large component. Until this year, other than my two maternity leaves, the longest I had been in one city since 1999, is 6 weeks! Raising two kids takes a village and my husband is a great partner in life and my mom has been invaluable. She lives nearby and takes care of the kids during work days. Thanks, Mom!

Also, my Dad has a ton of experience running companies and heading up sales departments – so he has always been a great sounding board for all my career ups and downs. I’ve never really had a single role model that I’ve aspired to be. However, I do try to glean as much as I can while watching others lead their teams, present to different audiences, discuss their marketing strategies & techniques, or hear about various parenting styles and tips and tricks. I’m surrounded by some pretty incredible people at work and at home.

A day in Michelle’s life

Well, I recently became the new Chief Marketing Officer at UserTesting, and I love it already! Right now, I’m focused on learning a ton! I’m diving into the business, my marketing team, the sales and customer success orgs, our product, customers, market, budget, marketing tech stack, reporting, and customer data. I’m putting together the list of all the challenges and opportunities I see, getting aligned with other leaders, building relationships, and putting together my plan. So basically, my typical workday means a lot of meetings and customer visits!

I’m proud of the connections I’ve made along the way and hearing from past colleagues when they’ve told me I made a difference. I think ultimately people want to feel a part of something larger than themselves and to make an impact in the world. I also feel lucky that I’ve been able to be a part of many growing and successful tech companies such as Oracle and Salesforce –  and see what it takes to run a large tech company at scale.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

I feel pretty fortunate that I’ve always had great men and women in my network who have opened doors, made connections, and given me opportunities to help me grow in my career. But I do think that the marketing department tends to attract more women than in other departments in a tech company, such as product and engineering. And if there are roles that focus on problems lower in the tech stack (infrastructure vs. business applications), I tend to see fewer women. I do think this is related to there being a smaller percentage of women entering STEM fields early on in school and therefore fewer women entering the workforce with those skill sets.

Women in STEM

Imagine the number of solutions that would be invented for half of the population that is totally under-represented today. That change alone would have an enormous impact. Tiffani Bova wrote an interesting article in the HuffingtonPost saying that “the key to success is having diverse perspectives sitting at the table in order to encourage and support innovation.”

Having a diverse board, leadership team, and workforce helps other women find role models and mentors and better plan their career paths.

Challenges

People often look around at their leaders internally to see what kind of management and leadership styles they should emulate. And when they don’t see people like themselves – it makes the transition that much harder. Plus, not everyone wants to be a “pioneer” and be the “first female developer” or “first female VP” or “only female sales rep.” Having a diverse board, leadership team, and workforce helps other women find role models and mentors and better plan their career paths.

I’ve already started to see some change over the last 20 years – along with leaders of companies starting to make diversity a priority and a topic of discussion. This is great because if you don’t talk about a problem, it’s hard to solve it. And right now you can sense that the topic is picking up steam. However, this level of change can be slow – we’re influencing hearts and minds and cultures – and needing to grow a diverse talent pool. It will take time. Sometimes it’s easier to reflect on change after a generation to see how far we’ve come!

Tips & tricks

If you want a job in tech – you should go after it! It’s such a great industry and time to be in it. I am always amazed by the people I work with and inspired by their creativity and how they want to change the world. The industry is fast paced and evolves quickly.

Technology has become so ubiquitous. It is so much easier nowadays to connect your passion and past experience with a tech-related role – such as auto, banking, customer experience, design, fashion, food, entertainment, healthcare, marketing, the list goes on.

Tech is being built for all these different industries and disciplines and even disrupting them. You can work for a tech company or make a move to a tech-related part of an industry you already know as a starting point. At the end of the day, most technology is being built to solve a business problem or a customer pain – and if you know the problem well or understand the customers (and like learning about technology) there’s usually a role for you.

 

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Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.