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Federal Leaders’ 3 Pieces of Advice to Women Technologists

Federal women across government shared advice for how other women can grow their careers in technology and public service.

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Women Tech Leaders Summit
Leaders on the lightning round speak at Women Tech Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., May 15, 2024. Photo Credit: Capitol Events Photography

Federal and industry women technologists shared advice for other women seeking career growth in their roles. The leaders gathered at the Women Tech Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. last week.

Know When to Coach

Nicole Gilbride, chief strategy officer in Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology, said that shifting from the role of team captain to coach can be a difficult process. As women progress down a career path, she said, it’s important to separate jumping in and doing things oneself from taking a step back and offering guidance to one’s team.

“I had to learn to coach the people on my team so that they can fix for themselves, and they can troubleshoot for themselves. It’s the hardest lesson in leadership I’ve had to learn, and it is something I still have not yet figured out. I think it’s a lifelong skill set that I’ll be developing,” said Gilbride. “Balancing when should I be in team captain mode and when do I need to be the coach. Not stepping in and not suiting up because coaches don’t suit up, they coach from the sidelines.”

Karen Howard, executive director in the Office of Online Services at IRS, echoed the sentiment.

“Dare to dream big and seize opportunities to lead. Don’t be afraid of the ‘big bad wolf’ project that no one wants to step to. That’s your opportunity to step in while you’re learning,” said Howard.

Never Stop Learning

Continuous learning is critical while developing leadership skills. Equinix Director of Federal Civilian Sales Christine Pacheco outlined three areas of development for continuous learning: personal, professional and proficiency.

“One of the biggest things that I wanted to do was make sure that every person on my team had an opportunity to be a subject matter expert,” said Pacheco. “We’re making sure that we’re setting examples and we’re not coming into the room just telling you what you need. We’re working with you as thought leaders.”

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Deputy CIO Debbie Stephens likened the value of mentorship and feedback to a photographer looking at a subject from multiple perspectives.

“You can be the photographer, be a mentor. [You can] be that leader, be that person in that room empowering your team and or you can be photographed. You are learning from your team, they’re learning from you. Likewise, it’s humbling to be a mentee. In different parts of your journey listen to others who are maybe critiquing you,” said Stephens.

Stephens said this adjustment can change the way leaders see things.

“If you don’t know, grab a team member. That’s where that again goes back to being a mentor or mentee in your career. The focus on you can be either one and then change roles. What does it mean if my role as deputy CIO if I can’t be on the team as somebody who’s doing user acceptance testing?” said Stephens. “Reach out to others and be that mentor and be that mentee at different times. Don’t be afraid to adjust and change your lens.”

Laura Prietula, deputy CIO of VA’s EHR Modernization Integration Office, said to think of it as overcoming fear through focus, education, adapting and reshaping.

“Focus on what you are afraid of and then educate yourself. Read about the topic, take a class or get a certification,” said Prietula. “Google it, read some blogs or listen to podcasts. Get the information so that it is not as foreign as you initially thought it was.”

Find a Mentor

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Deputy Director of the Marketplace IT Group Kathryn Wetherby said everyone who is striving to lead an organization should find sponsorship. Wetherby said being surrounded by a good support system can boost the chances of taking a career to the next level.

“There has to be someone on your leadership team who is willing to go to bat for you. You need to tell them what it is that you want because we’re not mind readers, but we will help you,” said Wetherby. “You need to have that group of people who is going to remind you how awesome you are when you’re going to do something that’s really scary. If you are applying for a job that you have 100% of those credentials, you need to surround yourself with mentors, your hype squad, or people that will push you to remind you that you can do more.”

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