Newly minted NetApp CMO Julie Parrish bounded into the meeting room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in downtown Toronto. “Am I late?” she called while extending her hand in greeting. Julie was in fact early. Not surprising since arriving early is a trait she embraces and one that has helped shape her personal philosophy, “against all obstacles, show up and do the job”.
It is an attitude that has served her well. Julie recently joined that elite group of women who have landed a coveted seat on top of the glass ceiling. There are only a few. About fifteen percent according to the latest research released by http://www.20-first.com/ an organization committed to building gender diversity in the workplace.
Her colleagues describe her as intelligent, enthusiastic, a great mentor and team player. I found her to be generous, unbelievably candid and imbued with a terrific sense of humour.
Julie was in Toronto to host a fund-raiser for St. Baldrick’s Foundation (a charity focused on helping children with cancer, NetApp volunteers have raised over $3,400,000 in just 6 years). In parallel, she was sponsoring the NetApp quarterly meeting for their Canadian community of channel partners and managed to find the time to squeeze in a speaking engagement at a Women in Technology dinner. Not bad for only 48 hours.
Did You Recognize You Were Breaking Ground When You Graduated as the First (and only) Woman in Decision and Information Science at Santa Clara?
Not initially. I took classes that interested me. While I enjoyed both arts and sciences throughout school, in college I was intrigued by computer science, statistics, quantitative theory and math. The first time I became aware I was the only woman was at graduation. I looked down the line and realized there were only boys standing there with me. It caught me off guard and I felt for moment that I was blazing something new. I graduated on a Friday, started at HP on the Monday and have been in high tech my entire career. I love it.
How Many Firsts?
(Julie laughs) There was the degree of course. And Hewlett Packard didn’t typically hire undergraduates – they preferred their placements to have Masters or Engineering degrees – so I believe I carved out new ground there. But I set my patterns early. I will recall the time I marched into the principal’s office to insist that the girls be allowed to have a football team in 1972. This was right after Title IX was passed which was a ruling to the Equal Opportunity Act and focused on educational institutions no longer being able to discriminate offerings based on gender. I’m sure there were more important elements of the ruling, but I saw this as an opportunity to play football!
Was Your Mother a Big Influence on your Career Decisions?
Mom was a stay-at-home mom but was involved as a volunteer in every capacity – the community, school, church – she did everything without being paid. I watched and learned from her discipline, work ethic and the way she prioritized our family while still balancing other tasks. She had enormous energy and was always pleasant to be around – even while managing the multiple roles of volunteer, wife and mother. Raising children well is a mammoth task. I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for everything she accomplished. Personally I found staying home to be very challenging – I went back to work relatively soon after each of my children were born – driven somewhat by financial need as much as for sanity reasons.
Did You Feel that You Have Had to Sacrifice to Have the Career You Enjoy?
Absolutely. For example, I am divorced. That was never in my master plan and while the career was not the cause of the divorce it has been tough to balance the job, children and find the right relationship. But I definitely don’t feel that I had to give up everything that mattered. I’ve worked hard to make sure that I’m present as a mom. I focussed on being home for dinner and homework. I made it to the soccer games and other events that were important for my children and our family. I structured my travel around times when my children were with their father. I have the view that if a man can successfully handle several roles – as a husband, father and a provider, then a woman can equally be a wife, a mother and a provider. You don’t have to give up one to be good at the other. Having said that, trying to achieve balance is on-going.
Balance – It Seems To Crop Up Whenever Women Get Together – What Does It Mean to You?
I’ve learned to change my expectations. My job requires international travel. I look at my month and break it down trying to manage to a “home” and “away” persona. I know when I am on the road there will be very little balance. I usually throw in my runners and if I get to the gym it’s a bonus. When I’m not travelling I make it a point to be home by six, have dinner with family and friends and find time to work out. I focus a lot on healthy lifestyle when I am home and can control it, and don’t sweat it as much when I travel. Besides, if you get to be in Paris for business, wouldn’t you rather indulge in the food and wine and worry about the calories later?
Did You Notice the Glass Ceiling? Was it Tough to Break Through?
I always felt that every door was open to me. I never felt any discrimination from within my industry. I was supported by my colleagues and my immediate family. The pressure for me came from society. My extended family, in-laws, neighbors, teachers who couldn’t understand why I might be late to a parent/teacher meeting. The PTA. There was pressure to participate and certainly a lack of understanding around how I might be able to contribute. There was very little tolerance for a parent who couldn’t take time off work to volunteer at the school. At the time the perception seemed to be –you don’t need to work, why not stay home with your children.
So Society in General is the Bigger Obstacle?
I think so. I am seeing corporations doing the right thing in terms of providing opportunities for women. It is our society that is still pushing back. Men are never asked if they can handle the pressure of work and home. It is only women who get that question. There is an unfair burden placed on women to “do it all”. I’ve watched some capable women move up the corporate ladder, only to opt out. Is it because they are feeling external pressures? Or is it because they truly want to opt out?
When you move into senior management there are different challenges. Travel for example is typically part of the territory. There are some women who simply don’t want that as part of their life. And that is fine if they are consciously making that choice because they want to.
What is not okay is if women are making choices because they feel pressured by external forces to turn away from an opportunity.
Do You Think Companies are Doing Enough to Help Women Opt In?
I’m not a believer in special treatment. There are some concessions of course. And those have typically led to programs that are good for both genders. But if you want to make it at a senior level you have got to put in the hours and be willing to accept the stress that comes along with it.
At NetApp we foster a very female friendly culture with lots of opportunities. In certain organizations like marketing, you see a lot more women – and in others like engineering and sales – more men. However, as you move up the chain the number of women drops drastically. I don’t believe it is discrimination, I think women are opting out.
What Is The Most Difficult Part About Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Industry?
Men talk differently, use different analogies, value different strengths and bond differently. Some people might consider this controversial, but until I got some great advice from a male colleague, the most difficult thing for me used to be going to the bar, or sporting events or figuring out how to play golf. These are male bonding, and not really female friendly activities. I always felt I had to hang out with the guys to prove I was part of the team. It was awkward and felt forced. But a male colleague pulled me aside one time and told me that I would be judged on my work, on my contribution – not on my ability to bond over beer. He said that if I wanted to build a relationship with male colleagues, it would be better for me to do that one-on-one. To schedule a lunch or coffee meeting. He was right and it was a relief. It’s not that I don’t enjoy business socializing – it’s the male bonding rituals that are sometimes part of the experience that simply don’t work for me. Adopting this philosophy has worked. I’ve never felt left out and I’ve been able to develop good strong business relationships with the men I work with. And that is an important point. To emphasize that I have never felt left out by not participating in everything that my male colleagues are doing.
You Now Hold a C-level Position at a Fortune 500 Company – What Does That Mean to You?
This was not a specific goal I had set for myself. My whole career I focussed on doing the best I could with what I was given. I tried to add value, follow instructions, deliver what was expected and when possible, deliver more. For me, I worked hard and followed my own passion. I always chose to pursue and do what I wanted to do. Being offered my current position was a welcome surprise but one that I had earned.
I sometimes feel amazed when I sit in the weekly leadership meetings and realize that my voice is shaping the future of a Fortune 500 company. I am now at the highest possible level with my peers running a company where each week we examine every aspect of our business -what was booked, when will it be built, quality control, back-log, cash flow, new hires, etc. We are really running the company and I have an important seat at this table of only 10 people. This is both exciting and a little overwhelming. Now I understand what the “C” means – it means “on” all the time.
But in spite of sometimes feeling the pressure of this position, I know that I have grown into this. I come to the table with a lot of good experience which makes me comfortable that I can do the job.
What Would Be Your Advice to Women Who Want to Follow Your Path?
You have the opportunity to architect your destiny. Let your passion guide you rather than a pre-determined plan. It can be very hard to control when and how opportunities will be presented to you – it’s important to be ready, but also to know what you really want. Work hard and follow your desires. There are more doors open to you than are closed. You simply have to knock on them and walk in – and you might not always have to knock.
Make the choices you want to make and stop thinking of yourself as simply a capable woman, think of yourself as a capable member of the team.
Why Will You Be Attending Microsoft WPC?
Microsoft is incredibly important to us. Globally we invest more with Microsoft than with any other partner- we have more people assigned to Microsoft than to any other alliance team. However, with the breadth of Microsoft business we drive through our mutual partner channel, it can be difficult to get the mindshare of all the players who are involved.
WPC is a critical conference because it brings all the stakeholders together in the same place for 4 days. It gives us the opportunity to get more focussed and get in front of the right people both at Microsoft and in the partner channel to align and set the foundation for strategies that will drive business.
Our customers and our partners want better choices and better solutions. Our deep technical integration has created a value proposition with Microsoft that is very strong and continues to strengthen as we bring more innovation to market.
WPC helps us get above the noise and fast-track our business momentum by enabling us to deepen relationships and align our strategy for the coming year.
Join in the conversation with Julie at the WPC WIT luncheon! Be sure to register soon due to the limited number of seats.