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Profile: Alison Tierney, GVP EMEA at Snowflake

Women in Tech: “Stay curious, honest, and open”

Jean Kiltz

Four 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 Alison Tierney, GVP EMEA at Snowflake.

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?

Four 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 Alison Tierney, GVP EMEA at Snowflake.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Alison Tierney, GVP EMEA at Snowflake

Alison Tierney is Snowflake’s Global Vice President (GVP), responsible for Snowflake’s market operations and sales
teams in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), where Snowflake currently has over 600 employees. She has over 20 years of experience in the tech industry, having worked for tech veterans such as IBM, Oracle and HP, as well as startups such as AppDynamics. For these companies, she has acquired hundreds of new customers, developed revenue growth strategies, and led large sales teams.

When did you become interested in technology? What first got you interested in tech?

That was in 1999. I was looking for a long-term perspective in a field that develops quickly and changes frequently. I don’t really feel comfortable in a static environment—I like the constant need to move, change, and adapt things.

At the time, the tech industry appealed to me because it was just starting to open up and become accessible to a broader mass.

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

To be honest, I ended up on this career path by accident. I have a degree in criminology with minors in sociology and political science, so I have anything but a technical background. I’m very interested in how people work together and make decisions, and of course how to help them make the best decisions possible. With that mindset, I was tailor-made for sales, which is how I ended up in the technology sector.

In terms of obstacles, I had to overcome one thing in particular, which many people from different backgrounds have probably experienced: Prejudice – be it based on gender, disability, or ethnicity. First, there was my age. I was very young when I started in sales – and when you have to lead a team, the objection that you are too young is a challenge. But there were also prejudices because I’m a woman. Sales in particular – not least in the technology industry – has traditionally been dominated by men. These prejudices were not always obvious. For example, I was told that I couldn’t get this or that position because I was too loud – which is often code for “you’re too female.”

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

Yes, definitely. I have a very strong mother. When we were very young, she went back to school to get her degree, and I’ve seen her balance family and career. My entire family has been very supportive of my career decisions, even though I’m the only one doing anything in that direction. Sometimes it was hard for them to comprehend what I was doing because they don’t necessarily know anything about technology or sales. They did raise eyebrows and have questions, but always with the attitude of, “Whatever you decide to do, we’ll support you because we know you’ll get there.”

Over the years, there were always role models. Customers, people in the industry, and colleagues became my mentors. They all helped me develop and get to where I am today.

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

Not directly, but that’s the interesting thing about prejudice and why it’s so hard to fight it today: it’s never obvious. If it was one person or a small group, then it would be easier because you could name them directly. I could just say, “Hey, these people won’t let me do what I want.” But instead, what always resonates here is prejudice about what women should be and do versus what men should be and do. While there was never a person or a hurdle that I couldn’t overcome, sometimes it took longer to move forward because I had to fight the prejudice at the same time.

A day in Alison’s life

I am responsible for Snowflake’s market activities and sales teams in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), where Snowflake currently employs over 600 people. I participate in developing our strategy and have been leading our sales teams for 18 months.

For me, there is no typical workday. Like everyone else, I’ve had to adapt myself and my daily tasks to the corona crisis measures. But in general, I spend a lot of my time helping others find the right way to close a sale or achieve a business outcome in the customer’s mind. Sometimes it’s working with a customer to figure out how they can leverage Snowflake’s Data Cloud and what that might mean for their company’s bottom line. Part of my job is understanding our internal data: How does data drive our daily decisions to be more successful in the marketplace?

I’m very interested in how people work together and make decisions, and of course how to help them make the best decisions possible.

What are you most proud of in your career?

What I’m most proud of as an American in Europe is leading an extremely high-growth company – and doing so successfully. Snowflake generated over $35 million in product revenue in the EMEA region in the second quarter, growing over 185 percent year-over-year.

Prior to my current role, I was responsible for building some of Snowflake’s global functions. In that role, I had the opportunity to spend significant time in Europe. So when I was asked to relocate to Europe to help Snowflake expand its market and sales organization in the region, I immediately said yes. Despite the pandemic and everything, it’s been a great 18 months living in Europe, moving to Amsterdam, and building this organization with my outstanding colleagues. I have a great team that I have contact with every day in different places. It’s fantastic!

I am very proud to be in a position where I help make really important decisions in EMEA. This is not the culture I grew up or learned sales in. So it’s really exciting for me to learn something new every day and be part of a different culture.

And I have Snowflake to thank for this opportunity. I just love this company; if I could get Snowflake tattooed on my face, I probably would! I believe in who we are, what we are, what we have brought to the market and that we will continue to grow.

Why aren’t there more women in tech? What’s your take on that?

There are a few reasons for this, such as the historically-grown prejudices that still exist. But things are changing. There is a greater awareness of this, and not just towards women, but towards people from other backgrounds in general. But I am convinced that the gender gap in the tech industry is getting smaller. In any case, there’s already more support for women who want to choose a technical profession and become data experts, for example.

But one reason why there aren’t more women in tech is the industry’s reputation. It gives the impression that you have to be “always ready” and work around the clock. That seems incompatible if you also want to have a life outside of work and have personal commitments.

Of course, sales can be very demanding. I think women look at it from the outside and think, “I don’t want to work from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and then go play golf to get promoted.” Accordingly, people have these preconceived notions about what a career in sales looks like. But that’s simply not the case today. People still picture a salesperson as someone from the 1980s trying to sell used cars or vacuum cleaners.

If more women talk about what their jobs are actually like, that would in turn encourage more women to enter the industry. For example, I have an extremely flexible schedule. Of course, it’s exhausting and I often work long hours, but I can take the time to take my kids to school. From my perspective, more people should stand up and say, “This is a great job.” I love every minute of my job and wouldn’t change it for the world. We need to support women who want to enter male-dominated professions and make sure they can be more flexible in their work.

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

Despite its innovative spirit, the tech industry still has its problems. For example, there is low diversity in management positions: According to a recent study by PwC, only five percent of management positions in the industry are held by women.

In part, there is still the opinion that women have no place here. They say we should focus on “softer” skills and work in healthcare, marketing, or editing. So as more young women express interest in science, math, and technology, others should get behind them and say, “Fantastic, this is a great profession, I love it.”

I’m cautiously optimistic that terms like data science, Python, and software development will soon become increasingly part of our common language and be seen as exciting professions—not just niche technical skills.

Talk about what you want to achieve and ask the people you respect and trust to walk this path with you and support you.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM? What would be the (social, economic and cultural) impact?

To give you an example: My partner and I once had a long discussion about a decision we were making about our house. Later, as I was walking with my daughter, she said, “What if we did it this way and that way?” That was the simplest answer, but also the right answer to a question my husband and I had pondered about for hours and days.

This is exactly why we need more diverse people in technical jobs. People with the same background and the same thought processes will usually come to similar conclusions about problems. But a person who was raised differently or is of a different gender might come up with an answer that I wouldn’t have thought of. The more different opinions you have, the better the company will be.

So my answer is: Yes, our world would be a different one. We would definitely have a better worldview. The more diverse the people who make decisions, the better and more comprehensive they will be.

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

We are achieving results now but they are small, incremental advances. But even small results can bring about big changes. When we look back in history, we think of big changes in culture and society, like voting rights in the 1960s. But it was small steps that brought about those big changes. Even if progress is only gradual, it can lead to another big step forward. We must not let the debate die and keep up the momentum to ensure that change continues.

Companies clearly have an important role to play here in bringing about this change and creating a more diverse, equal work environment. However, they should not feel that they have to do this alone. There are many excellent nonprofit foundations and independent organizations they can partner with. For example, companies can help grow the WeAreTechWomen network and provide them with mentorship and training opportunities. In EMEA, we support Women In Data, which is doing real pioneering work to increase the representation of women in data professions.

As for the tech industry as a whole, I don’t know if we’ll ever achieve full equality, but I hope so. And until that happens, I will continue to fight for it.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career? What should they know about this industry?

My first piece of advice is to do it. Just start. Don’t let your own fear, concerns, or other people’s words stop you. We often stop ourselves from doing something by simply not starting—so just get started.

The second point is: find people you trust and admire. They are likely to be male because men still dominate the industry. Find these people, ask them questions, and ask for support. Convince colleagues whose status you aspire to or who value you to promote you.

Once you start down this path, stay curious, honest, and open. Talk about what you want to achieve and ask the people you respect and trust to walk this path with you and support you. Often, it’s the conversations behind closed doors that will move you forward. If you’re not in the room, it’s, “Hey, this person is an amazing developer or a great salesperson, and we need to support them in their career.” These advocates will take you further than you ever could on your own.

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Jean Kiltz works as an editor at S&S Media since March 2020. He studied History at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

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