At Texas Conference for Women, an emphasis on working in tech

The 17-year-old networking and motivational event is an opportunity for women in tech to tell war stories and dispense advice.

Posted November 15th, 2016

When consulting and tech services firm Accenture decided to make a concerted effort to recruit and retain more women, one key decision made all the difference: The company extended its maternity leave to four months. 

"It's such a strange thing; it's one little change," said Tamara Fields, a managing director for Accenture in Austin. "That, more than anything, proved to people we were serious. That actually attracted a lot more women."

Those four months meant that combined with vacation time, most women at Accenture could take between five to six months of paid time off to care for a new child, Fields said. 

She disclosed Accenture's new policy while sitting on a panel called "Culture in Tech" at the Texas Conference for Women. The 17-year-old mega-networking and motivational event for professional women is known for its big-name speakers, featuring this year human rights attorney Amal Clooney and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. This year, 7,250 women attended the daylong conference. The American-Statesman is one of the event's sponsors. 

In recent years, the conference has increasingly focused on issues of women in tech, with at least two breakout sessions specifically about women in tech, and at least 20 major panelists representing the tech industry. 

DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFKaren Quintos, chief customer officer at Dell Technologies, speaks at the Texas Conference for Women at the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. 

This emphasis on tech is a practical result of having so many tech sponsors: of 33 non-media sponsors, 14 are tech companies, such as Dell Technologies, Rackspace, Cisco Systems, HomeAway and IBM. Each company typically brings hundreds of employees who are eager for tech-focused panels. 

And both Dell and Rackspace have executives that sit on the conference's board of directors. 

Sponsors help dictate the conference agenda and who the moderators and speakers are. For instance, Karen Quintos, Dell's chief customer officer, talked up Dell's diversity efforts before introducing Von Furstenberg. 

"Companies are seeing that the conference helps not only with retention and development for current employees, but also with talent acquisition and recruitment for potential employees," said Karen Breslau, a spokeswoman for Texas Conference for Women, noting that the number of tech sponsors has increased over the years.

She said this year the conference is for the first time hosting a tech networking reception, and the 300 reserved spots to attend it were filled up within an hour.

But Breslau said she wanted to be "very clear" that the Texas Conference for Women is not becoming a traditional "tech conference," saying only a fraction of the event's speakers represent the tech industry. The majority of the conference's panels focused on general business topics, such as how to switch careers. 

Executives for San Antonio-based cloud computing company Rackspace, one of the lead sponsors of the Texas Conference for Women, says they've sponsored the event for several years and like getting involved because it helps them recruit and retain women. 

The company brought 175 Rackspace employees to the conference, according to Carla Piñeyro Sublett, a senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Rackspace. 

"It has served as an awesome retention tool for key female talent at Rackspace," Sublett said. There are about 500 Rackspace employees in Austin, and about 4,000 total between San Antonio and Austin. 

She said it also helps the company recruit; three women approached her about jobs at Rackspace after the "Culture in Tech" panel that she sat on along with Fields. "They asked me about opportunities (to work at Rackspace) right off the bat, and I usually will get follow-on messages in addition to that."

Dell Technologies executive Trisa Thompson said her company has sponsored the conference for 10 years. For Dell, it's also a retention opportunity because Dell brings 700 employees to the conference. 

Thompson said the conference gives Dell a chance to network with and meet female entrepreneurs, who might one day want to use Dell's computer and IT equipment as they build their businesses. "It's great exposure," Thompson said. 

The tech-focused panels were a chance for women -- usually a minority at the companies where they work -- to share war stories about surviving in tech and give advice to younger women on climbing the tech career ladder. 

Qualcomm senior director of technology Susanne Paul has worked as a hardware engineer for 28 years and said she's only worked with another woman one other time - and she's never had a female boss.

She said she believes women and men think differently when it comes to solving engineering problems, and that having people with more diverse approaches to problem-solving on one team is a good thing.

"The male engineering environment is very homogeneous and everyone thinks the best engineers are exactly like them," Paul said.

DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFRoundtables are available in the trade show at the Texas Conference for Women at the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. 

April  Downing, chief financial officer and head of HR for Austin-based WP Engine, said during a panel called "Making the Tech Industry a Fit for Your Skillset," that she had to "play the game" throughout her career, drinking Scotch, smoking cigars and learning how to play golf in order to network with men. 

"It helped me get to where I got in my career," Downing said. "I'm so fortunate now that I'm on a leadership team where over 50 percent are female," saying she can now "be authentic."

Many women who rose to the executive level at tech companies spent time reassuring the audience that you don't have to know how to code or know anything about technology to work at a tech company. 

Courtney Skarda, a vice president at Rackspace who sat on the same panel with Downing, said she started her tech career at Dell in a sales job and "didn't know what a server was." She was put through a training program and educated herself by taking knowledgeable people out to lunch or a coffee to pick their brains. 

Downing said for her job she actively tries to not to learn the technical details. "I'm a horrible techie," Downing said. "For my role, what was really important was understanding what drove the business."