In this installment of our Above the Glass series, WWCode Monterey Director Nia Cortes spoke with Honey Williams, Senior Director of Technology at Liberty Mutual, about the unlikely path of her tech career, her philosophy on management, and her hopes and vision for the future of women in tech.
Can you tell me a little about your background? Where did you grow up? What is your family like? What did your parents do? Do you have brothers and sisters?
I grew up in Woolwich, Maine. After my dad got out of the Navy, my parents made the bold move of buying 100 acres of land, a mile down a dirt road, with no electricity and no house, in their early 20s, while also having two kids. I grew up for the first bit of my life without electricity.
My dad now works for the postal service, and my mom just retired, but she worked for Army Recruiting. Neither of them had a college education, so it was pretty exciting being the first member of my immediate family to go to college. I also have a younger brother who is an amazing mechanic.
Considering that environment, what was your first interaction with technology or coding?
My first technology job was when I was attending the University of Maine. I was a salesperson at our University computer store, which was a stretch for me because of how I grew up. I had to learn a lot in that job, but it ended up being a great introduction to computers. It also let me get one of my own at a discount, which was awesome.
Before that what did you think you were going to do when you grew up?
When I was younger, I made the mistake of being very specific about what I wanted to do when I grew up. Even into high school and early college, I wanted to be an astronaut. Pursuing that dream, I joined the United States Air Force Academy with a major in Biochemistry.
What I learned there is that I don't like small spaces at all, which obviously meant that small quarters on a spacecraft were not the career path for me. I also learned more about what I wanted out of college and that I missed the East Coast, so I ended up dropping out.
I was worried that this was going to be an epic fail. But I did end up going back to college and finding my path so ultimately it was actually a win.
During that period when you were re-planning your future, was there anyone who helped you gain the confidence you needed to take this step?
I relied on my mother who was very supportive of me. I also had some great teachers from high school who had helped me get onto the technical path of Biochemistry, and who were also very supportive at this time.
When you got out of college, what was your first step into a technology career?
I'm still at the same company that I was working at when I graduated – Liberty Mutual. I switched my major in college to math and business with a minor in MIS, which I felt would be a versatile combination.
Then I got into a three-and-a-half-year rotational technical training program, where I was taught computer science while being able to rotate through different parts of the technology organization. They also provided leadership training. That program was a really good path to the next level of technology for me.
When you started working there did you think you’d be there so long, and gain the title of Director?
I did not. When I started there weren't a lot of women in leadership roles. Like the saying, “if you can see it you can be it,” but I wasn't seeing a lot of that, so I didn't think that it was feasible. I also didn’t have a long-term strategy for my career at that point. I had been very specific and had learned that being very specific wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to go.
In my career, I want to make sure that I'm keeping my skill sets relevant and setting myself up to be able to do different things in my future. The nice thing about Liberty Mutual is that they are a large company so if I want a change, I can make it here. I’ve been able to change the things that I've done in my career every three to five years without having to change my company, which is great.
How did you decide to stay there? A lot of people would keep looking just to try out other places.
I have looked externally, but I have never been unhappy at Liberty. The company supports us really well, we have challenging work to do, and although insurance isn't considered sexy as a product, our products are meant to support our customers in times of crisis. I know that first-hand. I feel good about the end game of the work that we do.
How long have you been the Senior Director and did you apply for the position or did they come to you?
I haven’t been Senior Director for very long, but I was the Director before that for about three and a half years. I was promoted in place from my current job and it was very cool that the company recognized that the scope of the job I was already doing meant that I should be at another level.
What is the most common challenge that you’ve seen women facing at your company?
A common challenge is not feeling like you can get the balance as you move up. I know a lot of women have decided not to try to go for leadership roles because they feel their kids are too small and they don't feel like they can balance everything. If you look at their male counterparts, they're not having that same discussion necessarily.
We need to make it clear that you can lead in different ways. Just because you see somebody spending 90 hours a week as a leader, doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. You can do it in a way that works for you and your family, and if the people hiring don't want you to do it that way, then they won't hire you for it. Go for it anyway.
A friend once told me that during a job interview she was told that they were looking for women, especially married women with kids. They didn’t consider it a problem but a plus because they knew that they would be on time since their kids forced them to be on a schedule.
What makes you happy about the future of women in tech? What worries you?
I have a nine-year-old daughter and one thing that worries me is when she says she can't do math. My son has never come home from school saying that. Is there some sort of systemic thing that is causing them to have different experiences, or is it really just that she got frustrated?
It's something I'm keeping my eye on, but we need to do more to make sure that we're encouraging girls at a young age. They don’t have to play computer games to be cool and be techy, they can be in this field and not be a bro programmer. Until we are able to keep more girls interested in technology at younger ages, we won't be able to get larger numbers later at the leadership levels in technology.
Something that makes me hopeful is my experience at Grace Hopper a couple of years ago. The sheer volume of women is amazing. It was more women than I’d ever seen in one place and they were all pumped about technology. That kind of thing makes me really hopeful about women in tech supporting one another.
What should we be learning now if we want to continue working in the technology field for the next 10 years?
The most important thing is to be in a learning mindset all of the time. That's potentially exhausting, but also great fun and a great challenge because technology is going to continue to evolve at a crazy pace. We have to keep finding those new things that are coming out and keep understanding if they mean something to us and might make our business better, and if so, be open to integrating them. You can't get stuck in your ways and you can't put your blinders on when you're in technology or you won't be successful for the long term.
As a Director of the Women Who Code Network in Monterey, Mexico, I went to our community to find out what our members wanted to ask a woman with the title of Senior Director of Technology. These are their questions.
Maria asked: What was your first experience in a leadership role, and how was the change in mindset going from being an employee to having people working under you.
My very first experience with really being a manager of people was going into my first one-on-one with an employee who was reporting to me. I had been the recipient of these meetings before, but I wasn’t sure how to execute one and be the boss. I was nervous.
Then I realized that the person was shaking and getting hives and it hit me. I’d suddenly become intimidating just because I had that title. It was an interesting revelation that authority just comes with the position. The important thing is what you do with that. Having a mindset that focuses on how to help your people do their best in their careers is what sets apart a great leader.
How do you connect with the people on your team? How do you create a rapport while still being their boss?
It’s about making sure that you're getting to know them, asking about their family, asking about their day, and if they don't want to talk about that, that's okay too. You should also make sure that you're sharing back, so it's not like you're this scary person who only does the job, and you have real-world problems.
The next question is from Resin: Who do you turn to for support when you have problems at work?
I've been at my company for a long time, so I have a great peer network. I have a number of folks that I've worked with over the years who I trust and who have good insights. I also have a very interesting and robust friend group of women outside of work who are all lady bosses in a variety of different fields, and I think it's nice to have that because they bring different perspectives.
The final question from the community is, what specific programs or systems are you using or implementing to create a more fair and equitable work environment for women?
I have participated in Mentoring Circles, which are really great because they help you to create networks of women who you can talk to about things, and interact with leaders, and ask them questions about how they're managing their careers.
In technology, with so few women, and so few women at leadership levels, it becomes difficult to provide mentorship to all of the women who might want it. The mentor circles concept was really good because it was a team of three to five mentors working together to go through various topics, and then you get different perspectives from different mentors.