Profile: Amal Johnson, tech veteran

Diversity talk: “You need to take accountability for your own success”

Gabriela Motroc
© 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 tech veteran Amal Johnson.

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 tech veteran Amal Johnson.

Amal Johnson

Amal Johnson has extensive experience in the high-tech industry, from Application Software to Cloud Computing and Hosted Services.   She is the former Executive Chairman of the Board of Author-IT Inc, a Software as a Service private company that provides a platform for creating, maintaining, and distributing single-sourced technical content.

She currently serves on the boards of Mellanox Technologies (MLNX), CalAmp (CAMP), Intuitive Surgical Inc (ISRG), and Essex Property Trust Inc (ESS).  She is also a venture advisor to Illuminate Ventures.

In 2008, Mrs. Johnson was recognized by The Corporate Board Member Magazine as one of the top 50 women in Technology, and in 2011 she was voted one of The Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business by the San Francisco Business Times.  In October 2012, she was named in Agenda‘s Compensation 100 – Top Board Candidates with Pay Setting Skills.

Amal led MarketTools, a Software as a Service private company as CEO from 2005 to 2008 then as Chairman until the company was acquired in January 2012.

Prior to joining MarketTools, Amal was a Venture Partner with ComVentures, a communications venture capital firm, where she provided strategic guidance to the firm’s portfolio companies.  Previously she was a founding partner of Lightspeed Venture Partners. During her five-year tenure with the firm, she focused on e-commerce, enterprise software and infrastructure investments.

Before Lightspeed, Amal served as President of Baan Supply Chain Solutions, President of Baan Affiliates and President of Baan Americas guiding the company through its initial public offering and from $60 million to $800 million in annual revenue. She also held the role of President of ASK Manufacturing Systems and held various executive positions with IBM.

Amal holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Montclair State University and studied computer science at Stevens Institute of Technology graduate school of engineering.

What got you interested in technology?

My undergraduate degree was in math with a minor in physics. I did graduate work in computer science. A few years later, my first job within technology was a programmer for IBM systems 3 and was then recruited full time at IBM in late 70s. I was intrigued by computer science but most notably, the moon landing in the late 60s, early 70s was what caught my attention. The whole world seemed focused on the moon landing, the hype around it and the surrounding coverage. I was only a young high schooler but it truly intrigued me and I wanted to learn more.

I came to the United States as a foreign student from the Middle East. I had just graduated from high school but the Middle East was in turmoil. When I came to the US, I had to learn an entirely new way of life. I had to learn the US culture, a means of “fitting in,” finding my way around a new job, etc.  when I was finally recruited by IBM, it was a major stepping stone in my career. They offered fabulous training and gave women the opportunity to learn about a number of things including computer science, the art of purposeful communication, client relations, and how to manage a new and budding industry. Most importantly, they taught us how to show big enterprises the positive impact of technology and how to move toward that direction.

My first job in technology was a System 3 programmer at Bank of America. At that time, IBM was looking for young recruiters.  I was recommended by an IBM system engineer who was working me at Bank of America. I went through numerous tests, was interviewed and eventually accepted into the IBM training program. That essentially entailed 18 full months of training, and eventually, I had my first assignment which was to manage the implementation of the first ATM network for Wells Fargo Bank.

At the time I started my career, IBM was THE company to join. Today we think of Facebook and Google as tech innovators, but in the 70s, IBM was that company. Being hired and trained by them was like winning the lottery. IBM not only trained us for 18 months but gave us additional training every year following. Additionally, it was a company that wholeheartedly believed in diversity particularly in advancing and developing women. We had access to technical education, in addition to managing client projects and internal resources. One of the key jobs I had was assistant in the office of the Chairman and CEO of IBM, John Akers, for nine months. My experienced amounted to a better education than any degree at any university and those role models were some of the best in the business.

My last position with IBM was managing the field operations of sales, marketing, and services in Silicon Valley. I was the key IBM executive interfacing and selling to the largest tech companies in the Valley. I was lucky to be able to learn from them and serve them.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

I think this is more of a question about, “did you allow anyone to get in your way” and I think that’s really on you. I got married, had a child, and really had to learn how to balance career and family, but that was on me and I had to manage through that. It should never be an external force that will help you or hinder you from going there.

A day in Amal’s life

I currently serve on four public company boards and also mentor young female, first-time CEOs. For me, no two days are alike, it all depends on the needs and requirements of the companies I’m working with.

What I’m most proud of are the teams I’ve built, the people I’ve touched, the guidance and mentoring I do, both in formal setting (on boards) and also informal settings as I mentor young first time CEO’s. I have managed groups of people for the last 20 years and being a first time CEO can be a lonely job. You have to build an external community to help you think through the risks and challenges. I was one of those that women reached out to for that kind of support and it was easy for me since I have been a CEO at one point. I was able to give back and mentor them until they had the experience necessary to grow their companies. We all build communities that help support us in different areas of our life. I always suggest building communities and networks you can tap into to really help you navigate the balance you need.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

Trying to maintain a demanding career, while also having a healthy life balance is not easy. There are lots of women interested in this industry and they take the first steps necessary but tend to get to a certain point where they have to make choices. We’re actually starting to see more and more families where the father gives up his upward trajectory to provide more balance while the woman is moving forward. I’m noticing more and more women in leadership roles, and more female colleagues on boards.

Time is working in our favor as there are definitely more women in science and technology. For example, the CEO of IBM is a woman, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard was a woman and the CEO of GM is also a woman. From my personal experience, we’re seeing more and more women in executive positions as a result of the work and pipeline that was built in late 70s early 80s.

Women in STEM

The world would definitely be different if more women worked in STEM. This implies women have equal seats and equal voice around the table. There are a number of situations and topics where a woman’s point of view needs to be heard. I truly believe the world would be different and we would have more balance overall.

Challenges women in tech face

In an industry still predominantly led by men, I think the biggest challenge is how do you develop your own voice and style without being “one of the boys.” We all have our own styles, so you need to develop and maintain your own approach.

How do you have your voice heard without losing identity or authenticity? How do we not lose that style? You have to be authentic and that’s a key challenge. I feel that in tech, we are breaking those barriers.

We are already starting to see results from t. We have a new law in California, that by 2020, requires boards with 5 members or less to have at least 2 female board members, and boards with 6 or more, at least 3 female members. The more we talk about it, the more people are seeing the value and the more they move forward with conviction and actually implement. It will have tremendous impact in every field.

Tips & tricks

We work in a very demanding industry that is extremely fast moving. You have a responsibility to constantly educate yourself and make sure your knowledge base is current if not two steps ahead. You need to reach out to learn more and take accountability for your own success. There’s no room for complacency and you can’t rely on knowledge or past experience. You need to keep up to date and engaged or we can become stale very quickly.

Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

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

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