A CAREER DEVELOPMENT PODCAST FOR TECH WOMEN BY TECH WOMEN
Interviews with leading tech women about their careers and lessons learned
GLOBAL VP OF DATA, AI + NEW TECH AT HEWLETT PACKARD ENTERPRISE
When Beena Ammanath was ready to get back into leadership after taking what she considered to be a “step back” into an individual contributor role, she used her strong tech foundation to propel herself forward. Now, as the Global Vice President of Data, Artificial Intelligence, and New Tech Innovation at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (whoa!), she is using her own experience to inspire other women in tech to continue working hard to move ahead in the industry. On top of that, she has established a nonprofit aimed at demystifying and humanizing artificial intelligence. With that, we come away with some serious career advancement points.
Accelerate your growth process and your upward trajectory.
Accelerate your growth process and your upward trajectory by demonstrating your skillset outside of the box. Offering senior leadership and executive abilities to a startup and creating a “give and take” situation creates a fast-track after a “step back.” To move forward, you have to pull back a little bit.
Leverage your strengths and understand the problem or pain point.
Leverage your strengths and understand the problem or pain point to build your reputation. Ask questions, understand what your peers are trying to solve and help them get there, whether you are doing it or you’ are guiding your peers.
It’s not only what you do that is important, but who knows what you do.
To build your influence and establish your credibility and reputation, you need to start early to see pay off. Make sure the right people know how awesome you are, or you may miss out on opportunities.
As women, it is up to us to step out and speak.
It doesn’t matter what career stage you are in, because there will always be someone who is looking for a role model that they can relate to. There are many people going through similar challenges.
Hi, I’m Lauren Hasson, and this is The The DevelopHer Show, a career development podcast for tech women, by tech women.
My guest today is Beena Ammanath, who is the Global Vice President of Data, Artificial Intelligence, and New Tech Innovation at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. She’s also the Founder of nonprofit Humans for AI. In this episode, Beena and I are going to talk about her own journey, how she leveraged what she initially thought was a step back in her individual contributor role and how she transformed that experience into something that ultimately accelerated her path back into senior leadership and made her even more effective as a leader. We’ll also get into how to build influence when joining a new company, and how it’s not enough to do a great job. You have to establish yourself as a thought leader too.
Start of the Interview
Lauren: Welcome to The DevelopHer Show everyone! Today I’m excited because we have Beena Ammanath here with us. She is an award winning Senior Executive who is currently serving as the Global Vice President of Data, Artificial Intelligence, and New Tech Innovation at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. She’s also the Founder of nonprofit Humans for AI. She’s had an impressive career in both leadership and independent contributor roles. She’s produced revenue-generating data and analytics products for companies that include Fortune 15 companies and startups alike, like GE, E-Trade, Thomson Reuters and Bank of America. She’s been recognized for her work with the Women Super Achiever Award from World Women’s Leadership Congress, and she’s even been inducted into the Women in Technology International’s Hall of Fame, amongst many other honors and recognitions. She’s an impressive, smart lady who holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Computer Science and she even has her MBA in Finance. Today I’m happy to say that she is our guest of honor on The DevelopHer Show. Beena, welcome.
Beena: Thank you. I’m so excited to be on your show.
Lauren: I am so excited – I cold-called you and asked you to be on our show. It’s a testament to, “you get 100 percent of what you don’t ask for.” So, I did. I reached out and asked and it’s fantastic to have you here. And, as our listeners know, The DevelopHer Show is all about top tech women having open and candid conversations about their careers, the lessons learned, and how they got to where they are today. So, with that, help us read between the lines in your impressive career and give us your own take on how you got to where you are today.
Beena: Lauren, you give such a fantastic introduction. I studied Computer Science at the undergrad and grad level. My first job out of college was as a Data Analyst and I’ve had a number of roles, but the underlying theme has always been in data. So, from being a Data Analyst, to a DBA, to a SQL programmer and leading a data team, it’s always been about how to use data to derive value and insights from it. I’ve seen this whole space evolve so much in my time over the past 25 years. My domain expertise has been from financial to retail, e-commerce, and industrial. What’s not there, which you won’t see on my LinkedIn or resume is, I started as an individual contributor and then I was leading a fairly large team back in the early 2000s, and I had my son. I wanted to be a super mom and it was all in my head. At that point in my life, I wanted my job to be an eight-hour job so I could focus more on my little one. So, I went from a management level position back into an individual contributor role. It was a conscious decision and I have no regrets about it. As my son grew, I started realizing that I really missed being in leadership and that was when I joined a startup and came back into a leadership role. I feel that in my career I have been both hands-on and hands-off, and have been able to see the data space wall.
In the past it was all about transactional databases and then we started adding in data warehouses and business intelligence to derive intelligence from the data. And now it’s really about data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and how we use the data to drive new revenue channels to make ourselves more productive. We still have the old systems, they still exist, I just see this enhancing the data space that we all live in today.
Lauren: I must add that one thing that we were talking about off-line is that you initially thought this was a step back in your career, but, it was actually a strong tech foundation for you that ended up propelling you forward. Walk us through what was going through your mind as you were making that transition and then how you rebranded that into something that was not a step back, but something that instead enabled you to bond and communicate with individual contributors across the organization.
Beena: Yeah, I think that strong tech foundation really helped. When I did my computer science undergrad and grad, there was no Hadoop; Hadoop was not yet there, we didn’t have programming languages like the ones we use today. My first programming language was Pascal. We studied Pascal, C, Foxboro, dBase, and Access databases. A completely different world. But we also studied strong computer science theory. So, when I took that step back in my career and went into an IC role, I didn’t plan for it that way, but the timing was just so right because it was around the time that Hadoop and big data was coming to the forefront. I got to experience being more hands-on and learn about these newer technologies which I didn’t really study when I was doing my graduate studies. So, I think it helped me a lot. If my career had continued on that vertical trajectory, that straight line that you see rising up, I don’t think I would have gained the depth I currently have in my technical skill set. I also think it helped me a lot because I got that hands-on knowledge in those eight years, when I switched into an IC role.
The way I lead my team and the way today’s leaders inspire is not through bureaucracy or org structure, it is by earning team members’ respect. I can still walk around my team and point out coding mistakes or see some architectural gaps, which naturally earns me the team’s respect and it gives me the ability to be able to speak at any level within the organization. I can have a meaningful impactful conversation with the engineers and I can at the have impactful conversations at the C-level as well. I think that my strong foundation, computer science, plus having that hands-on experience really helped me accelerate my career.
Lauren: I have to thank you for being honest about how you initially thought it was a step back and for owning that and sharing that story with other women, because I think we’re too hard on ourselves thinking that that path to success is a straight vertical line. And it really isn’t. What both you and I know, and other top tech women know, is that it isn’t. The analogy that comes to mind is that it is almost like an arrow. In order for an arrow to move forward, you first have to pull it back a little bit. And it’s your perspective on it.
Beena: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I love that analogy. I did feel that, and one of things I didn’t mention is when I was ready to come from that individual contributor role, back into the same level that I was at in my previous job, it was tough. It was almost like I had to climb up that arrow again, climb up that vertical line again. Most organizations try to fit you into a box and they look at only your immediate previous experience, and aren’t willing to look at it and say ‘oh, you used to manage a team in the past, and then you went into an architect level role.’ They consider you to be starting back from being an architect, to a team leader, to a manager and so on.
So I found that quite interesting, but it was something that I had to do. But here’s the thing, Lauren, because of the depth I had, the foundation I had, it actually accelerated my journey back, even though I had to almost reset it.
Lauren:Right, and you didn’t just leverage that, pulling that to go forward, but you also joined a startup, right, when you started rejoining the leadership role. That’s one of the things that I recommend; maybe a big company isn’t where you jump back into senior leadership, but you can accelerate the process and that upward trajectory by thinking outside the box and figuring out where else you can get it. So, I would love for you to talk about how you managed that. We talked about the challenges you face, but you did some clever things to overcome those challenges and I’d love for you to share that with everyone.
Beena: Yes. So, I think in a startup you get such an opportunity to expand in different ways. It’s really that you’re limited by your own time limits and the restraints you place on yourself because there are so many gaps to fill. I was at a largish company and as I was interviewing, I noticed that large companies are more rigid, and for good reason, on fitting you into that box, looking at the previous experience. And I think it’s important, I think the swimming lanes are much clearer at a larger company. But I also realized at a startup I could truly shine and grow faster, which would actually help me get back into my leadership position. So, it was a very conscious decision to go back into a startup and almost restart; reset my journey and start from there. It helped me a lot.
Lauren: And it’s not just the startup that you benefit from, but the startup benefits from you as well. Your value proposition is even more valuable to a startup, so you have to remember it’s not that they’re doing you a favor, you have to also remember it’s a give and take situation. That you were doing them a big favor by bringing someone with senior leadership and executive abilities, who also can work at the independent contributor level and pull other team members up. Therefore, you were able to accelerate that process.
Beena: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Lauren, you’ve had a similar journey too, right?
Lauren: I did, and that’s why this really resonates with me. I took a seven-year break between doing internships in technology at IBM and Applied Materials in undergrad, and then I took a seven-year break and got back into tech. It was hard. I started at the intern level but I was paid as a full-time employee. And I’ll tell you, it’s hard when you have young software engineers telling you to your face that you are their minion. It’s very difficult. But you know what, I kept my head focused on where I was going to go, knowing that I’m going to play my game, and for a while I did see it as a step back, for a period of time. And, in time with these conversations with other women, including yourself, I realized that it wasn’t a step back; it was how I was labeling myself that made me think it was a step back. It really was me propelling myself forward and learning how to be an independent contributor so that I could be an even more effective leader and communicate. It’s all in how you position it within your head and your mindset and your perspective on it.
Beena: You are so right. I think a lot of times we have to remove the restraints we place on ourselves mentally, whether it be restraints because of our title in the company, or the box that we’re being forced to sit in. Right? I think we have to be able to push ourselves out to what we want to do.
Lauren: I like to use the analogy, of when you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. I always take that really seriously going, ‘OK, what’s my role in this? How am I holding myself back?’ I can’t change the world but I can change myself. And, if I can change my mindset, how can that change the role that I’m in?
Beena: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it.
Lauren: I like analogies. I’m a very visual person even though I’m a programmer [laughs]. So, I want to switch gears a little bit here so we don’t have to bear with too many more of my analogies. Now, you are leading up innovation at a Fortune 15… that’s 1-5… not 5-0… company. So, you’ve made the successful leap from getting back into leadership with a startup to transitioning into a large company. But, I’m sure building influence and establishing your credibility and reputation didn’t come just by putting your foot in the door. So, how did you build from getting your foot in the door to where you are today? Can you walk us through that?
Beena: Yeah, I think that besides stepping back in the career, there’s also the reality that as women, we must work 10 times harder to prove ourselves. So, no matter where you are in your career, that’s the reality. It’s something that you notice every day. But, it was only much later in my career that I actually found my voice and started to really realize how I could establish this credibility and reputation by leveraging my strengths. My strengths lie in building relationships. So, for me, as I joined a large company, I needed to identify the key stakeholders, understand tipping points, help them leverage my strength, which is around data analytics, and actually bring them value for their business. It was all about building one-on-one relationships to get that buy-in, to show value you and then network. I don’t mean network, as in just adding a LinkedIn connection, but actually build a relationship.
At the end of the day, most people are nice. There is a “nice” point that you can identify in almost everybody. And, how you actually build that human relationship and how you focus on the strengths of that person in front of you is crucial. The other thing that really helped me was through public speaking, which I have an interesting story about that we can get to later. But, public speaking and being a voice not only internally within the company but externally helped me in my career as well. I think it’s not only about just doing your job well, which I think we all do. It’s going out of the way to build those relationships, to understand people’s problems, help solve them, and then establish yourself as a thought leader, because we all are good at something, we are all experts at something. So, how do you help companies and the people you interact with internally and externally using the expertise and strengths that you have? Going in with that approach really helped me.
Lauren: I have to double down on two things that you said there, and unpack them.
One is figuring out the problem or the pain point and how you provide value, and establishing credibility. That’s one of the quickest ways I’ve found to build reputation; ask those questions, understand the problem the business and your peers are trying to solve, and help them get there. Part of it isn’t necessarily you doing it, but rather helping others be successful.
I know you had a lot of that in your career, of helping other people get there as you got that buy-in. The other thing that I want to unpack is that it’s your network that matters. It’s not going to networking events and handing out your card, but rather that reputation within the company-wide network. I actually learned this lesson the hard way. I was fortunate enough to learn it at 23 years old, so I was able to carry it forward in my career. I was not in tech at the time. I was an investment banker, and investment banks rank their analyst class into about five different tiers. The tier you were in, from the top to the bottom, determines your annual bonus. The difference between bonus in those tiers could be on the order of five figures, so it’s really important. At the end of the year I got the review, and I didn’t hear anything negative. In fact, I heard everything positive; ‘we love you, you’re fantastic, keep doing what you’re doing.’ And then I was placed in the second to top tier, and I was smart enough at the time to ask what held me back. The answer was – because I was in the Silicon Valley Menlo Park office and headquarters were in New York – ‘You’re awesome. Not enough people at headquarters know how awesome you are.’ And I learned then and there, it’s not what you do that’s important, but who knows what you do that’s important. That’s part of building your influence, and establishing your credibility and reputation. You have to start early to see it pay off in the end.
Beena: Yeah. Yeah and you’re so right.
Lauren: So, we have to end with your public speaking story and how you first got into that, because it’s too good of a story not to share. I’m going to just leave it right there and let you tell that story from your own perspective.
Beena: Yeah. So, one of my friends was organizing a big data event, a conference, and he said, ‘you’re doing great stuff with big data, why don’t you come and do a keynote?’ So, I’m more of the type of person who just believes in getting the job done and shining on a professional front from an organization perspective, right? I agreed because he insisted, and the idea was I would go in, give my speech and then go back to work. But after my speech, there were 10-15 women waiting to speak with me. They loved the presentation, but more importantly they thanked me so much for coming and speaking. They said that there were no other real women speakers for the whole day. So, I took a closer look at the agenda and realized that, yes, there were no other women slated to speak that day. And that’s when my eyes really opened. I was like ‘OK, there’s something wrong with this. This is not right.’ And, you know, it’s funny… you notice it, but you just kind of get used to it, right? As you attend conferences, that’s what you are used to seeing and it doesn’t register as off until somebody points it out to you and you take a second look. Now, if there were 15-20 women that I could speak to and be a role model to because I spoke at an event, then I knew that I needed to do something. Before that, I used to always say that there were enough women role models out there. I mean you think of women role models and there’s Sheryl Sandberg, there is Reshma Saujani, there are so many female role models that everybody knows.
I just wondered what value I could add by doing this. I didn’t feel that I could inspire anybody. So, the huge takeaway for me was that it doesn’t matter where you are in your career. As women, it’s up to us to step out and speak. You’re going to be a role model for someone else, no matter what stage you are in in your career. There is always somebody who is looking at somebody they can relate to for inspiration, and if there is just one person, one woman who continues in tech because she could connect with your story, it’s worth your time to speak up. I think all women should look at being able to contribute some time so that they can speak at events or meet ups or whatever it is, where there are other women who might be going through a very similar challenge but they just haven’t heard that story, or they just haven’t been able to connect with another woman.
That is my speaking engagement story, and that’s when I realized that I really needed to put myself out there. I couldn’t just sit back and say that there are much bigger female role models. I needed to be part of this, too, because I could be inspiring somebody else who was more junior in their career. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to jump into public speaking. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, as you know with your podcast, there’s a lot of homework. It will eat into your weekends, it will eat into your free time. It’s very difficult because usually it’s mostly male speakers. It’s very difficult to find your voice.
But, my thinking is if I can inspire even one woman to continue in their tech career and not give it up, or take up tech as an option, that would be one of my greatest achievements. So, I really put myself out there, and I’ve found my voice, and I enjoy public speaking now and I make the time and effort to do it.
Lauren: You’ve inspired me. I would not be surprised if you get a call saying, ‘will you be my mentor?’ because you own it from every perspective and you’re willing to say, ‘look, even I, at my level,’ you didn’t say it but I’m going to say it, at your level, you have imposter syndrome, comparing yourself and you’re telling yourself why you can’t do something, yet you are running all of innovation for a fortune 15 company. So, I think that just makes it more real and you understand that it’s not something that you struggle with at the junior level or the mid-management, that it follows you wherever you go.
The keyword is, ‘and you move on, and you do it.’ And, yes there are bigger fish in every sea, and you are also an important part of that, and you’re going to take action and own your role. Because of that, you are impacting lives around you. And with that, I have to have you end with talking about what you’re doing with Humans for AI., because that’s your nonprofit that’s near and dear to your heart.
Beena: Yes. It actually stemmed from a struggle that I’ve had: how do we get more women and minorities into tech careers? I think we missed the boat with the Internet and mobile. Internet and mobile technologies started in the computer science world but they impacted everybody. And I see it happening with AI. Artificial Intelligence is going to impact everybody’s job. It might be slightly different or significantly different, but no matter what your job is today, it’s going to look different. What I’m trying to do with Humans for AI. is to really humanize and demystify it. To be able to attract more women into tech careers. To be able to attract not only just women, but also minorities, because I think even though women are the largest diversity group, we do need more minority representation to build better AI products. And this is important for AI’s own good. So, please take a look at HumansForAI.com. We’re trying to demystify and humanize AI so that everybody can be part of the AI journey.
Lauren: Beautifully stated. I love how you understand that it impacts everyone. It’s not just women in tech and techies, this is pervasive. So, my ask for our audience is to go check out Beena and her work for HumansForAI.com. Beena, thank you for joining us today.
Beena: Thank you, Lauren. It was a pleasure to chat with you.
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“We have to remove the restraints we place on ourselves mentally, whether it be restraints because of our title in the company, or the box that we’re being forced to sit in.”
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