By Editorial team
“They say that in life you make decisions that lead you down a path and then another and another, until it is impossible to know how things would have ended if you’d chosen a different path.” Delia Sieff, PR communications for Microsoft MEA started her journey in the ICT industry through a series of coincidences. Read more on her experience as a woman in ICT.
What attracted you to the ICT industry?
Honestly, I didn’t proactively seek a career in ICT. My entrance into the industry was more a series of coincidences. After studying communications, I worked for a number of PR agencies before starting a small agency with a friend. We focussed primarily on PR, image management and graphic design for the performing arts; a far cry from the high tech world I now live in. During that time, my business partner was approached by a personnel firm to do a three month maternity cover at Microsoft. She had recently launched a trade magazine and was focussed on getting that off the ground, so she suggested I go along for the interview, do the three month stint and then we’d focus on growing the agency again on my return . They say that in life you make decisions that lead you down a path and then another and another, until it is impossible to know how things would have ended if you’d chosen a different path. That’s how I view going for that interview at Microsoft – it changed the course of my career and my life. Shortly after joining, the marketing organisation went through a restructure and I was asked to stay on as the consumer marketing manager. I had never worked in ICT before, nor had I worked in a corporate environment or in a broader marketing role. Based on all of those considerations, the opportunity was simply too good to pass up, and the rest, as they say, is history. That was in 2000 and in the fifteen years since, I have worked for Microsoft both in South Africa and the UK, Intel Corporation, Nokia and now Microsoft again in a Middle East and Africa regional role. I suspect that once you’ve worked in tech, everything else seems a little boring.
What do you love most about being a woman in the ICT industry?
There’s no doubt that the ICT industry is still heavily male dominated, although that is changing slowly but surely and I feel I can also contribute to that shift. What I love about the ICT sector is that it is full of incredibly smart and competent people, not only tech smart but experts in their specific field. The industry seems to attract the best of the best in terms of talent and that means you get to work with dynamic, passionate people in marketing, sales, logistics, business development, finance, legal – in fact every possible function. When you work in environments like that, I think you challenge yourself to be better, to think differently, to make a greater impact and that means you are always learning and growing. As a woman, I have always felt I had a special ability to bring balance to the environments in which I have worked. The ICT industry attracts a lot of the same personality types – “Drivers” as defined by some research methodology. Perhaps it’s a combination of being both a woman and a different personality type, but I am often the person focussing on some of the softer skills, looking at things with more empathy and from a different perspective. I think the strongest teams, especially leadership teams, are ones with diversity, because you can draw on many different views and experiences. Decisions are made more thoughtfully and usually with better outcomes by diverse teams and this is a key opportunity for women in ICT.
What challenges have you experienced as a woman in the ICT industry?
I have been very fortunate in the roles I have held and the companies I have worked for. There has always been a huge respect for diversity, whether gender or otherwise, so I have not experienced too many challenges. There are times where I have found myself literally as the only woman on a leadership team. That can be interesting, simply because men tend to have different interests, and my knowledge of sport and cars is fairly limited for making conversation at team building events. Men also tend to behave differently in groups and sometimes feel uncomfortable when a woman is thrown in to the mix. But once you find common ground and build a network of support, it is far easier to fit in and even make the team dynamic better. I also find that many men in senior positions have wives that do not work, or have significantly less pressurised jobs and carry most of the responsibility for managing the home. Sometimes it is difficult to be the person who says “I can’t do a call at 7am because I need to drop my daughter at school”. There’s not always an appreciation that you are trying to juggle two jobs – the corporate one and the home one, but that is the reality and you tend to need to work a little harder to prove your commitment at senior levels.
Why is it important to encourage more women to pursue STEM subjects?
The reality is that women are still marginalised, potentially even more so in Middle East and Africa. Women don’t always get the same opportunities, starting with access to education, time to focus on their studies and even access to funding for further studies. Because of all these things, women sometimes don’t believe that they can do the same things as their male counterparts, that they can excel in subjects traditionally dominated by men, that they can hold senior roles in any sector. That is only a perception, because women can do absolutely anything they set their minds to. Sometimes women also feel that it is inappropriate to pursue STEM subjects because those are “for boys” so there’s also a stigma attached to not doing what is conventionally accepted. That means women need to have more courage, to stand up against the norms, to be proud to have an interest in STEM and pursue those areas with passion regardless of what others say or think. In the same way that women bring diversity to the workplace and to decision making, women also bring fresh perspectives to the study of STEM subjects. This change in thinking is sometimes the very spark that can result in a major breakthrough in research or development, something that can literally change the world.
How can a woman achieve a good work / life balance? (Having time for your work and your hobbies)
This question is relevant to absolutely all working women, regardless of the industry sector in which they find themselves. Being a home maker, being a mother, being a friend and being an employee/manger/leader are all roles that compete with each other for your time and attention. It’s not easy to be all things to all people; and the reality is that you make compromises on your work life balance, on both sides of the equation. I am very fortunate in that most of the companies I have worked for have had incredibly progressive policies around managing your workload and personal life. I feel that I am measured and rewarded on the impact that I make, not on how many hours per day I spend at my desk. Flexible working hours save you time by not sitting in peak hour traffic to be at the office at a specific time, being able to work from home from time to time, allows you to have a day without distractions to get on top of some pending items. Being able to access tools and information from anywhere anytime is an advantage in being able to manage when and where you work. For me, personally, I have set some ground rules to manage all the areas of my life. I drop my daughter at school in the mornings which gives us some quality time to chat in the car and also gets me to the office about an hour and a half earlier than most other folks. That is a very productive time to get on top of things before the day kicks off. I try to leave the office in time to get home to have dinner as a family, do bath time, story time and bed time. I am disciplined about not switching my laptop on again until my daughter goes to sleep. After that, I will connect again for an hour or two to attend to any urgent tasks. It’s difficult when you work across timezones and you have to make allowances for evening calls at times. When I travel on business, I tend to work really long hours. Being alone in hotel rooms provides the perfect opportunity to work for several hours at night without taking time away from your family at home. Because I travel a lot, I then try to increase my quality home time on my return by going to watch a ballet class or swimming lesson in the middle of the day to surprise my daughter. It’s all about setting your priorities, understanding what is important to you and making the time for those things. I say “making” the time intentionally, because no one will ever “give” you that time. Every area of our life can become all-consuming if you allow it. I would have to say that the areas I don’t make sufficient time for are exercise and relaxation. I can hold nobody except myself responsible for that and there’s always room for improvement on work / life balance.
What advice do you have for women looking for a career in ICT?
Go for it!! If you have any interest whatsoever in a career in ICT, at least take the time to research the options a little more and understand how or where you might like to get involved. Being in the ICT industry doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to specialise in deep tech. There are so many opportunities to be part of the tech industry while becoming a functional expert. As an example, more and more ICT companies are targeting consumers. We see marketing and sales professionals from other sectors such as FMCG or entertainment moving into ICT because they bring this deep understanding of consumers but are drawn to the fast paced and exciting environment of ICT. The industry is so multi-faceted that you can truly have several different careers here without leaving the industry. The only constant is change and as things change, new opportunities open up. That makes ICT an exciting place to work. And if young girls have an interest in ICT, find a mentor or someone who can help you navigate the possibilities. Nurture that interest and pursue your dream. It is not an industry reserved for men and every women who takes a chance makes a difference for others.