Marian Cook: Tell me about your current position and responsibilities. How did you get there?
I am doing research for a stealth-mode startup. This product is one I have needed at multiple companies in the past and have not been able to find.
Some of my best work has been on projects where I built something I needed and could not find. My first experiment and paper in graduate school in computer science were based on the experimental design I learned in my undergraduate behavioral psychology major. I could not find a benchmark for databases that used an experimental design, so I developed one.
When I was a server systems Architect in IT at Sun Microsystems, I was looking for a TCP-IP product providing privacy and authentication without application change. I could not find a product that met these requirements. I moved to the newly formed internet commerce group and managed the development of the first stealth firewall appliance, Sunscreen SPF-100. This project included SKIP—Simple Key Management for the Internet Protocol—for site-to-site privacy and encryption with no application change and an offline certificate authority.
In pursuing my passion, I frequently come up with ideas that are an accumulation of many seemingly unrelated experiences. I step above the noise of checklist items, buzzwords, and specific products to figure out an explicit or implied, strategic objective of existing and nascent products and offerings. I build something that can currently address and evolve toward that objective. In the case of Sunscreen SPF-100, the objective was to enable internet commerce.
MC: Did any particular person, event, or experience change your career trajectory? What did you learn?
Dr. Dina Bitton affected my career tremendously. If I was asked to invent my ideal PhD advisor, I could never have imagined someone so intelligent, worldly, compassionate, nurturing, generous, and tough. She became a mentor, PhD advisor, colleague, friend, and family member to me in one of the toughest times in my life.
Dina co-authored "Benchmarking Database Systems: a Systematic Approach," which introduced a performance benchmark based on an experimental design to compare the performance of different database architectures
. The publication was given the Best Paper Award at the ninth Very Large Data Bases Conference in 1983.
Dina was generous in giving credit and believed in my potential when I had doubts. She was doing for me what she ideally would have had a mentor do for her.
In thinking of examples of what I was given and what I learned from her, there are many specific situations I don't discuss publicly. When sharing stories with someone, I tell them about an experience that informs the story: "I don't know about you, but this is what happened to me, how I dealt with it, and what I learned."
Fame and reputation frequently look better from a safe distance.
MC: What are you learning now? What do you recommend others learn?
One report and one book set a foundation for me in working in a male-dominated discipline and world. The report is "Women in Computer Science: a 1983 MIT Report."
I read this report when it came out in 1983. I was in my second year of graduate school in computer science. The report lifted a burden of believing the self-doubt that comes with believing my experience as a woman in computer science was unique to me and somehow my fault. The revelation that I was not alone was an indescribable relief.
The report did not change the way I was treated as much as it changed how I behaved and felt about myself. The report provided a basis for sharing experiences with other women.
The book is "Games Your Mother Never Taught You" by Betty Lee Harrigan. The subtitle is "Corporate Gamesmanship for Women." The book was published on January 1, 1978.
The book is still relevant 40 years later. Power games and discrimination against women are a legacy much older than 40 years. The book has a list of 10 behaviors you should never display. When I was in graduate school and first read this book, I had already committed the 10 behaviors. Thankfully, I was not too late.
I am learning to be quiet—physically and mentally—and tune into people and the environment without being distracted by a desire to act, filter, or control the experience. I am tempering the defensive and offensive behavior I have used to set boundaries before any encroachments have occurred. This control is something I am working on personally and professionally.
MC: How do you determine if someone has leadership potential? How do you help them grow?
People are not plug and play. Good leaders see to it that individuals are given opportunities to do what they are good at and to provide opportunities for growth.
Sometimes you have great people in the wrong job. They may be failing. Leaders find positions where a person can perform well.
Leaders are good at identifying and differentiating personal issues and work issues. They have a sounding board to objectively help them differentiate the two.
Leaders want input from others even when it is not delivered in a diplomatic way. They encourage honesty and can embrace alternative behavior as an experiment and an improvement.
There are many ways to be a leader.
- Lead by example. Beware of anyone who hands you a book on leadership because they cannot do it by example.
- Lead by synthesizing input from multiple sources. Take noise and glean actionable information.
- Help and mentor others. You can spot a natural leader by the number of people in their office asking for input and help.
- Build effective teams and organizations. Effective teams and organizations negotiate achievable objectives and accomplish them with minimal bloodshed.
- Lead without authority. A good leader should be able to influence activity and outcomes without making everything an order. Better yet, solicit input, ask questions, and lead people to define and implement an objective. You might find they have a better idea. Sometimes, a suboptimal solution that the developer owns is better than an imposed, optimal solution.
- Make a decision. Sometimes any decision is better than no decision. Keep people on an acceptable path as opposed to succumbing to analysis paralysis. An acceptable path may be building a prototype, taking or teaching a class, going to a conference, or participating in team-building exercises. Make progress on some front.
Leaders come in many shapes and sizes: female, male, introverted, extroverted, technical, entrepreneurial, artistic, visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. Hopefully, people feel empowered to choose the lives they lead.
Catch people doing something right, and support them on a path they choose. Supporting them is how you make people successful.
Marian is currently an Artificial Intelligence Strategist for Ageos. Immediately prior, she was the Chief Strategy Officer for Innovation and Technology for the State of Illinois, having moved from the private sector to public service in 2015. She started as a systems engineer with IBM, re-engineering processes, implementing systems, and creating business and technology strategies. Moving to international consulting firms, she worked globally, developing business growth and turnaround strategies.