With a background in data processing, analytics, and finance, Sharon Kaiser started her career in the oil industry and spent nearly 20 years working her way from her beginnings in programming to eventually leading the IT department. After trying out different industries, such as finance and retail, she has comfortably settled into the life sciences industry in her current role leading IT at New England Biolabs. Over her esteemed career, Kaiser received recognition for her accomplishments with a CIO of the Year Award for Healthcare/Life Sciences by the Boston Business Journal (in 2014) and as a finalist for CIO of the Year for the Boston Orbie Awards (in 2017). In this Q&A, Kaiser opens up to the SAPinsider Community, sharing her experiences that led to her current role, answering questions on diversity, and offering advice for women to succeed as tech leaders.
Q: What initially drew you to technology, and what do you love most about your career?
When I started at the University of Arkansas — in the engineering department where I began learning scientific programming languages — I found I enjoyed using logical thinking and a set of rules to write programs as well as the sense of accomplishment I felt when the programs actually worked. During my second year, I heard about the information technology program being offered in the business college and decided that was the right fit for me. There I learned about business, programming, data modeling, relational databases — all the logical things that made sense to me.
I have always loved technology because there is always something new to learn. I am a lifelong learner, and this field provides ample opportunity to learn something new every day. I also have been able to use and share my technology skills and experience across many industries and fields. I have appreciated learning about each industry that I have had the opportunity to work in as it has helped me to broaden my business knowledge.
While I am a technologist, I’m also a people person. I enjoy working with others and sharing my experiences. I have been a frequent speaker on various topics around IT and leadership, served on several industry advisory boards, and serve on different boards of directors. Several of the companies that I have worked for have had global offices all over the world, affording me many opportunities to travel abroad, which has enhanced my life, both personally and professionally. A side benefit is that many times I have been able to take my family with me. They would sightsee while I worked. From that, I believe all three of my children love travel and learning about new cultures.
Q: What has your personal experience been like working in a predominantly male-occupied industry?
I have always worked in very male-dominated industries. I started my career in the oil and gas business where there were not a lot of women in high positions. But I learned to thrive in a very male-centric industry and company. One of the company’s vice presidents, Biff Johnson, took me under his wing and gave me an opportunity to show what I could do. I left the IT department for a two-year rotation into the company’s product management department, which oversaw and executed mergers and acquisitions, economic forecasts and studies, interpretation of government regulations, and the development of the annual long-range plan. It was a perfect place for me to learn about the industry, the business, and what added value to the bottom line of an organization. I enjoyed it so much that the initial two-year rotation turned into six years. During that time, I went to night school and received my MBA. The CIO of the organization then asked if I would come back to IT and help oversee a huge initiative — to implement SAP ERP Financials and the co-development and deployment of the SAP industry solution for oil and gas.
I would not have been in the position to take advantage of the many opportunities that were open to me if Biff hadn’t identified me as a person to mentor and champion. He gave me sage advice on how to maintain my identity and grow my reputation, trust, and credibility as the only female on the IT leadership and management team. He was a thoughtful and caring man ahead of his time who saw something in me and helped me build the foundation that has led to my long and successful career.
While there were other times in my career when I had to deal with issues such as sexual harassment and wage discrimination, I was always able to deal with those situations and move on. Of course, there are still pockets of the “good old boy” network, and it will take a few more generations to get past that, but I have been very fortunate to grow and thrive, despite those limitations.
Q: Will the next generation see an increased rate of women entering the technology field?
I’ve been dismayed watching the low percentage of females going into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. We all know it isn’t because females aren’t as smart as their male counterparts, but they tend to choose fields where they can utilize their social, communication, and organizational skills instead. Perhaps they don’t feel like STEM degrees are fun.
Today, women still account for less than a third of STEM degrees in many countries across the globe, and especially in engineering and IT. However, I was talking to a recently graduated female mechanical engineer who said 40% of her class was women, which is very impressive. Interestingly, even though she got her degree in engineering, what she really wanted to do — and what she is doing now — is designing shoes for a major footwear brand. She loves using her creativity and her technical background.
I think it is important for parents and role models to encourage children to learn and understand more about STEM degrees. There are many variants of STEM that require different skillsets and maybe they can help steer children to find a match to their strengths. My husband is an engineer, and our household has always leaned toward STEM. Of our three children, one is an engineer, one is a medical doctor, and one works in cybersecurity. They all decided on STEM careers because they saw their parents flourishing and talking about interesting things, and I’m proud of them all for it. They never were afraid to make a go of it.
Q: What does having diverse, equal, inclusive perspectives mean to you, and why is it important in the tech industry and SAP space, in particular?
Innovation requires diverse perspectives so you can hear alternative ways to look at problems. As an example, several times, after discussing some technical issue with one of my male peers, he would look at me and say, “I never thought of it that way before.” I was definitely not smarter than he was, but because my experiences differed from his, sometimes my brain would think about a problem in a different way. Now, whenever he has a problem, he wants to draw it out on my whiteboard and have me ask random questions so we can trigger a different thought process that might lead to a solution.
I find that cross-functional teams provide a very diverse set of critical thinking that is invaluable when designing a solution or trying to solve a problem. Diversity can be in gender, in race, and in functional departments. For example, when a scientist and a marketer work together — talk about different insights and perspectives being used to arrive at a solution!
It’s important for everyone to have a voice and contribute. In the SAP world, the key to successful implementations is having resources involved who understand the big picture and the overall business processes. It is invaluable in working with SAP software to know the end-to-end process of how a piece of data is entered and transformed throughout its life cycle. My best SAP resources have been people who started out on the business side and then transferred to IT. Those individuals are key because it’s easier to teach people the technology than it is to teach them the business at the in-depth level you need.
Q: Have you seen a change in women’s impact in the technology industry? Are the opportunities for women increasing?
My current company is very gender diverse in the scientific area, and I see women climbing the career ladders who, in time, will be a part of the leadership team. We are very open and caring to ensure there is no bias regarding who is awarded opportunities or promotions. In the IT department, I make sure we hire new people based on their skillsets and experiences, not on their gender or race, and that there is no wage disparity based on gender or race.
Unfortunately, I see very few resumes from women in the IT field. However, in the IT industry in general, I have seen women gravitate toward project management where their communication and organization skills are highlighted. I have seen good women developers, but the ones I know don’t seem to want to continue in that capacity long because they seem to crave working with people more than they enjoy the back-end programming life.
Some companies are making a conscious effort to encourage, promote, and nurture many women into top leadership positions. For example, SAP itself is aware of the gender gap and is trying to address it by making diversity a priority. For a brief time, we had Jennifer Morgan as co-CEO of SAP. In 2013, SAP started a strategy to build women in leadership to 25% by 2017, and the target was hit six months ahead of schedule. It is now extending its commitment and increasing the percentage by 1% each year, with a target of 30% by year-end 2022. SAP is making it happen and becoming a better company for it.
While I think change is happening, it is slow-going. Women are still over-represented in support functions, such as HR and administration, while men tend to concentrate in operations — which is a critical experience needed for top-level CEO positions. Specifically in the IT field, I don’t feel women are being excluded because of gender, it just doesn’t seem there are enough of us in IT to move the needle and get to the top CIO roles. But we are seeing more and more major tech companies promote women in leadership, such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and others. While there is still room for improvement, I do see a shift happening. As these women lead the way, more women will have opportunities to advance in their fields.
Q: What can women do to ensure they have the best chance of success in a career in technology?
My best advice is to be true to yourself. You don’t have to be aggressive, overconfident, or self-promoting to succeed; you need to prove yourself to be competent and trustworthy. Build a strong track record of accomplishments, and demonstrate the traits that people love to see — intelligence, curiosity, and integrity. That will get you noticed, and that will get you promoted. You should always be coachable. Feel confident enough in yourself to know that you can always improve. Seek opinions from people you trust and ask them what you could have done better. Take constructive criticism as it is meant to be given and use what you learn to tweak and tune to be a better you.
Now more than ever, corporations need the skills and strengths that women typically are good at. Interestingly, the skill that has the most value to me as a CIO is communication. In my job, I do have to understand technology and how it can be used as well as manage budgets, people, and projects, but what I am recognized for the most is my ability to speak to colleagues about technology in a way that they can understand the problem and the proposed solution. I speak in business terms rather than “geek” speak. The CEOs of my last two companies have expressed appreciation for that more than once. They don’t need to know the specifics of how the technology works or the capacity of a device. They just want to know that issues are being handled, the company and its data is secure, and that technology is an enabler for growth and innovation.
As I moved up in my career, I realized that those at the top were just like me — human beings who didn’t know everything and could make mistakes. Once I realized that, I stopped putting them on pedestals and tried to learn what made them successful. I looked for characteristics I could emulate and incorporate into myself in a positive way. The best part of this thinking is that it helped me communicate with top executives and leadership in a very easy manner so they felt comfortable around me and I around them.
More women need to be at the forefront of digital transformation journeys. To be successful, this requires what we do best — that we collaborate, coach, communicate, and build the right teams. As we grow in our careers, there is a time when we have to stop being the technical expert. You should stay technically knowledgeable, but let your teams handle the day-to-day operations. This will allow you to focus and spend time with your business partners building trust and credibility.