Profile: Dr. Karen O’Brien, Global SAP Product Development Director, HCL SAP Practice

Women in Tech: “Don’t ever doubt that you have a place in tech”

Dominik Mohilo

Three years ago, 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 Dr. Karen O’Brien, Global SAP Product Development Director, HCL SAP Practice.

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?

Three years ago, 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 Dr. Karen O’Brien, Global SAP Product Development Director, HCL SAP Practice.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Dr. Karen O’Brien, Global SAP Product Development Director, HCL SAP Practice

Karen is a seasoned pre-sales and product marketing professional passionate about technology-enabled business transformation.  An expert in strategic communications, her 20+ year career started in academia and moved to the tech industry, where she has held a range of leadership roles across marketing, pre-sales, alliances and business development.  At HCL, she works closely with global leadership to define and execute the SAP practice’s go-to-market strategy. Responsible for the practice’s thought leadership and content strategy, she helps the SAP  team give voice to – and amplify – their innovations and insight to benefit enterprise clients. She has a PhD in History from Northwestern University, USA, and resides with her family in London.  Karen has been the recipient of numerous prestigious fellowships, including a Pew Foundation Fellowship from Yale University and a Mellon Foundation research grant. She has been a member of HCL’s SAP Practice since 2010.

When did you become interested in technology?

My initial interest in technology was historical. I originally trained as a historian and my early research focused on how changes in 19th-century technology redefined workplaces, home and family – the core institutions of modern life. Understanding the transformative potential of technology still fascinates me and is central to my current role as a Global Product Management Director at HCL Technologies.

How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

My journey into a technology career was certainly non-traditional! I have a PhD in history and started my career as a history professor in the US. While I loved teaching and research, within a few years, I was unsatisfied. I needed a more dynamic career that continuously challenged me. A career in technology seemed to offer that and more. So at 35, I made a major career change and became an SAP consultant.

It was a hard transition. I went from being a recognized expert to a junior consultant. Also, my non-traditional background caused me anxiety. I focused on what I didn’t know or skills I lacked rather than on my own “unique selling position” – the skills and experience I had that brought value to the organization.

My most important career catalyst came at HCL. After five years of managing large and strategic pursuits, I was struggling to define a clear career path. I enrolled in HCL’s months-long program called “Ascend”, aimed at helping mid-career women advance in the organization. I was assigned a brilliant woman mentor from HCL’s Digital & Analytics practice. She told me that the beauty of tech is that it is constantly changing. The skills and knowledge that are valued today will likely be obsolete tomorrow. So I shouldn’t stress about what I didn’t know about existing technology – but instead should seek a level playing field and either gain expertise in emerging technology or capitalize on the skills that made me unique.

Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?

Although many questioned why I was leaving academia, my friends were incredibly supportive. Perfect strangers were incredibly generous with their time and patient with my questions – I am thankful to this day for their advice and insight.

I have several role models– both obscure and well-known women whose actions, taken collectively, made it possible for us to be having a conversation about women in tech today. We should remember that many of the early pioneers in IT were women – ranging from Ada Lovelace in the 19th century to Katherine Johnson, Grace Hopper and the other pioneering women programmers in the 20th century.

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

I am thankful that I can answer “no”. This is not to say that I haven’t been conscious of gender bias – it certainly exists.  I have been lucky to have had extremely supportive managers.

I am also lucky that HCL invests heavily in several effective career programs for women. We regularly get communications highlighting women in the organization and every geography has active networking and development groups for women. Having a bright, dynamic and talented female chairperson (Roshni Nadar Malhotra) also helps set the tone internally.

Our experience tells us that people aren’t stereotypes and our skills and interests don’t fit so neatly into gendered categories.

A day in Karen’s life

I work for the leading global technology company HCL Technologies, which I joined in 2010. I am a Global Product Management Director within HCL’s SAP Practice. In this role, I work closely with our practice leadership, solutions and offerings (or product) teams, marketing and HCL’s analyst relations and partner alliances teams to define and execute our go-to-market strategy. At heart, my role is one of translation – I try to give voice to our technical innovations in a way that’s meaningful to our customers and help develop strategies to bring them to market.

A typical day might start with reviewing our current initiatives and strategy with our Global Strategy and Offerings lead. This might then lead to some market research on a given technology or product. I might then sit with a product/offering owner or solution SME to understand technical features, solution differentiators and how we are addressing market demands. It will involve working with marketing on the planning, messaging, and executing of our campaigns. I might also contribute to an analyst briefing. I also develop our thought leadership content and programs – I still like to get my hands dirty editing and writing. If I am lucky, I might even be able to fit in some online learning so I can keep up to date on emerging SAP technology.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I have been able to carve out a career in tech that I love at a great organization (HCL), which has always provided room and opportunity for growth. I am proud that I trusted myself enough to take a leap of faith into a tech career and that I’ve been able to make a positive contribution to the growth of our company.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

I think there are several reasons – both cultural and social, compounded by a lack of flexible work environments, role models and mentors for women in science and technology. To understand the cultural reasons, we might also ask why we don’t see more men in so-called “caring” professions like nursing, early years education, or social work. Gender stereotyping starts early – I see this with my young son and his peers. “Boy” books and toys tend to focus on “facts” and developing technical and spatial skills, whereas girls get princess-themed toys and stories that focus on relationships. As children age, peer and sometimes parental pressure to conform to gender stereotypes increases – girls start thinking they are “bad” at math around age 12, boys that they aren’t naturally “nurturing”.

Our experience tells us that people aren’t stereotypes and our skills and interests don’t fit so neatly into gendered categories. A well-publicized Microsoft study a few years back found girls in Europe gained interest in STEM around age 11 – but lost it at age 15, largely due to lack of mentoring and role models. Discouraging girls from pursuing well-paid, highly-trained jobs in tech not only has huge economic repercussions for women throughout their lifetimes but also represents a massive loss of talent for the industry.

I do see things starting to change. There are companies making STEM toys aimed at girls. HCL does a great job at recruiting smart, talented young women and keeping them in the organization with flexible work models that work for young parents. This flexibility matters and I hope it will become an industry standard.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

Specific to tech, I think there are two main related challenges. One is structural, stemming from a lack of women in senior and middle-management positions to help mentor and encourage more junior women. The other is cultural. Men in STEM careers have primarily spent their education and careers surrounded by other men, so can be blind to the issues of having women not equally represented in the workplace.

It’s probably obvious to say that it can be challenging for women to see a future in an industry that lacks many women leaders – so they either leave or don’t enter tech in the first place. What is often overlooked is how this lack of representation also perpetuates work cultures that help men succeed at the expense of women’s advancement. Senior men are more likely to mentor junior men. A lot of mentoring happens informally – going out for after-work drinks, playing in after-work sports clubs, going out for coffee/lunch. In my experience, these activities tend to be done in same-sex groups, often unintentionally. As a result, women miss out on these informal networks’ benefits – such as knowledge of opportunities, business insight and the friendships from which careers are advanced.
Good employers are aware of this – I’d encourage any woman starting in tech to seek out companies with strong female mentorship programs in place.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

Quite simply, yes. Extending women’s access to well-paid, highly-skilled tech jobs can transform women’s lives economically. With a more equitable access to wealth comes increased social power and choice. I’d also like to think that more women in tech would lead to the development of products and that would positively impact women as a group.

A few years ago, I read a chilling article that showed how most product development, medical research and safety trials are based on the size of an average male – affecting women negatively in everything from seat belts to cancer research to voice recognition software to the fitting of PPE. For example, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash as cars have been designed for male bodies.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

I think we are starting to seeing results, even if the political backlash in some places has been strong. I certainly have witnessed positive changes in my career. Many of my friends have daughters who are now in their late teens. It’s great to see them pursuing STEM careers without a second thought. I hope that increased recruitment of women in the tech industry will continue to create more equitable, diverse and innovative work cultures and foster a whole new generation of female leadership.

Having a network will help you stay on top of change and remain aware of opportunities.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?

There is so much opportunity in tech. No matter what your other interests are, it is likely that they will correlate to a tech career in some way. Don’t ever doubt that you have a place in tech. You do.

Talk to as many people in the industry as you can at the beginning of your career. Use LinkedIn to network, reach out to more senior people at your company and invigorate your networks. Ask for advice, guidance, a cup of coffee – people love to help and it will help you build a network. Because tech is a dynamic industry, people tend to change roles and in emerging technologies, promotions come quickly. Having a network will help you stay on top of change and remain aware of opportunities.

Remember that your career is indeed your own – take advantage of learning opportunities, get out of your comfort zone and ask for what you want and feel you deserve. These are all the characteristics of a successful leader – so embrace them.

More Women in Tech:

Dominik Mohilo
Dominik Mohilo studied German and sociology at the Frankfurt University, and works at S&S Media since 2015.

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