How On-the-Job Training Can Bolster Gender Diversity in an IT Organization

Don Tennant

In my experience, companies that have a disproportionately low number of women in their IT organizations cite one reason more frequently than any other for the lack of gender diversity: There simply aren’t enough women coming through the IT academic pipeline, so the availability simply isn’t there. Suppose you and your colleagues were tasked with brainstorming creative ways to take that reason off the table. How successful would you be?

What might help would be to look around to see if any other companies have managed to get creative in that regard. And you may have to look no further than Randstad Technologies.

Randstad, a global IT staffing services provider with its U.S. headquarters in Woburn, Mass., has taken an innovative approach that seems to be working remarkably well: They’re inviting women who lack a traditional academic background in technology to dive into the deep end of the pool and learn how to swim. These women are learning how to navigate the complexities of IT on the job.

I had the opportunity to speak last week with Ingrid Wade, delivery director for IT infrastructure managed services at Randstad, who shared her own experience in having taken this non-traditional approach to learning the nuts and bolts of IT deployments. Wade opened the conversation by explaining the challenge she faced when she joined Randstad three years ago:

In order to manage and deliver the services that I’m delivering to my clients, I have to understand the technology, and be able to peel back the onion a couple of layers, to have a conversation with a CIO or a CTO. I’ve had to understand from my engineers what they’re doing, and how and why they’re doing it, so that I can make sure we’re doing what we said we were going to do; we’re doing it the right way; and we’re following best practices. So when I joined Randstad, it was really ‘roll up your sleeves and figure out what you’re delivering.’ I knew how to spell Unix, but I didn’t know what it was. There are just a plethora of technologies that I didn’t have visibility into before. But they believed I had the ability; I knew I had the ability to manage a team, and it’s proven itself out.

Wade explained that gaining that knowledge and understanding didn’t involve a formal process:

It’s asking a tremendous amount of questions, and eventually I’ll formulate what I need to know based on the questions I ask. There were times when I would say to [the engineers], ‘Show me what you’re doing. I want to see it. Show me the VM interface that you’re working in, so I can understand it.’ I also went to a lot of conferences to get myself familiar with this space, and I’ve done a lot of my own independent research.

I asked Wade if she got any pushback from engineers who may have been disinclined to accommodate her lack of a heavy-duty technology background. She said that was never really a problem:

I would openly say, ‘Guys, you’re smarter than me. I want you on my team—that’s the reason I’ve compiled the team that I have. I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. If you guys are more knowledgeable about a subject, that’s excellent. I have no problem with that. But I can help you get to where we need to go, and what we need to do, and how we need to do it. I’ll help you do that, because that’s what I’m good at.’ So it balanced itself well.

Wade went on to explain the prerequisites that need to be in place in a company in order for this OJT approach to be successful:

Culturally, the business has to be open to allowing the leader to come in and have the ability to take the learning process on, and to facilitating an environment that gives enough of a ramp into the role, just as any new role requires a bit of a ramp into it. It needs to enable people to ask the right level of questions, without feeling intimidated by asking the questions. And enabling an environment that says, ‘OK, you’ve got it. Now execute and deploy.’ Our leadership enables that, for sure—they encourage it, from my direct management, all the way up.

Wade summed up what the approach is all about this way:

I think the biggest opportunity that I’ve had here, which has made me successful, is they’ve given me the opportunity to learn. It’s enabling people who have the right business acumen to apply it in the IT sector. As long as you marry those resources up with the technically capable resources, you’ll get a good result. So I would encourage other organizations to open up their environments to enable this. I think they’d be pleasantly surprised. It’s definitely possible, and you get new blood into the business that way.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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