Interview with Lauren States on Technology, Innovation and Women in Tech
For this month's perspective, Mobiquity had the opportunity to sit down with Lauren States, former Vice President, Strategy and Transformation for IBM's Software Group. Currently, States is an Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) Fellow at Harvard University. The ALI program is designed for executives who want to apply their experience to significant issues such as education, gender equality, public health, economic development, environmental issues or other ways to impact society.
Tell us about your leadership style and philosophy.
For me it's very simple. I believe in inclusive leadership, collaboration and coaching. Motivated, passionate employees make anything possible. Watching people grow gives me great satisfaction, but more importantly it creates enduring organizational capability and capacity.
One thing I am so grateful for from IBM is the gift of leadership and management development that was a staple as I grew in the company. Coaching and mentoring was a significant piece of the job responsibility and we were trained for it. When you have that foundation it becomes a natural part of not just your work but your life behavior. To this day, I spend a significant amount of time weekly coaching both women and men from all over the world.
Women in the field of technology are definitely in the minority, so why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?
I went to The Wharton School with the goal of becoming an accountant, just like my dad. However, it just wasn't happening for me! I started searching around for other majors and took a course in programming. I loved it and ended up majoring in Decision Sciences. After graduation, I joined IBM as a Systems Engineer in New York. It was one of the best jobs I ever had, working with clients, helping them apply technology to their businesses and assisting them with the installation of hardware and systems software. I was hooked.
How has your unique background prepared you for success in the industry?
In my studies at Harvard, I've learned that you need access to high quality education, strong parenting and great teachers as early in life as possible to put you on a trajectory for success. Reflecting on my own career, I was lucky to have all three. My mom was my greatest advocate. She was an incredible woman and very keen on educational achievement, having attended Boston Girl's Latin and then graduating from Boston University. When I was in fifth grade, she was unhappy with my placement in math class and was constantly at the school advocating for me until I finally was placed in the highest section. It's so important to have people in your life who care deeply about you and will encourage you to achieve your full potential.
What was your most interesting job?
One of my most interesting roles was CTO responsible for strategy. It involved taking disruptive ideas, determining if and when the market would arrive, and then understanding the model it would take to be successful and the multitude of transformations the company would have to make to be embraced. The work led to a redirection not only on technology, but also to other areas of the business.
What advice would you give to women looking to break into the field of computer technology?
Make sure you take the full math curriculum necessary to get accepted into technical degree programs like computer science, engineering and the new data science disciplines. Also find a mentor. Just reach out. You'd be amazed at how many women and men are passionate about this challenge and want to help.
What is the greatest transformation in technology you've witnessed in your career?
That's a tough question because I have participated in several disruptive transitions, but I'd have to say the transition to client/server computing. It not only changed the IT sector, but also changed IBM. I had the unique opportunity to work as an 'intrepeneur' in the company, helping drive the change we needed to reposition the company for success.
What are your thoughts on the next transformation in the tech industry?
I think the next big transformation is happening right now around the customer experience. The combination of the user experience provided by smart phones and tablets, the personalization that is possible with analytics, the ubiquitous access to information made possible by the Internet and the near frictionless access to products and services globally create an intensely competitive environment for customer acquisition and retention. Being nimble with go-to-market approaches supported by robust IT infrastructure is difficult, but essential to win in this environment.
You were an early player in the cloud computing movement. How would you describe the cloud and what it is able to accomplish?
I see the cloud as a means to delivering IT services in a flexible, cost effective manner. The availability of public cloud services allow startups to stand up businesses without having to raise significant capital to implement the IT systems they need to get their businesses going. I love what I'm seeing in the studentled venture accelerators at Northeastern and Harvard, and how quickly they can move given the availability of affordable IT infrastructure provided by the cloud.
Companies are enhancing the IT systems that manage their critical business processes to provide new services that are possible because of the current technology, creating robust hybrid IT systems. My favorite example is how manufacturing companies can instrument their vehicles to provide information on usage that can be consolidated into a cloud based system and made available to their ecosystem partners to innovate additional products and services for their end customers.
In my current nonprofit work in the education sector, we're assessing how cloud based services can help us deliver mission critical business systems more effectively and affordably.
Why is the cloud so attractive to businesses?
Cloud computing enables organizations to get their innovations to market faster. In one of my previous roles, I led a team that worked with early adopter clients who wanted to use the cloud to deliver new function. In one particular project, we teamed with several industry partners to demonstrate a cloud architecture that was agile enough to support spontaneous mission requirements for the military. While the technology work was interesting, the project also highlighted the changing nature of partnerships and ecosystems. Many more players will come together in the future to deliver services to their clients, and creating the business models needed to monetize at scale will be exceptionally important work.
How does cloud and mobile enhance or impact your personal life?
I can't believe how efficient I am. My mobile device is my own personal assistant, powered by the cloud! I use it for everything-banking, shopping, traveling, news, reading, communications and more. And best of all, it fits in my handbag! I love to read, so two of my favorite apps are Goodreads and Audible. I must confess that I still like a hardcover book, but these apps are part of my reading regime.
Much of your volunteer work involves foundations in Africa. Is there any particular problem you believe technology can help address in that region?
I'm keen on supporting efforts to provide clean water, public health services and education through the wonderful nonprofits I am privileged to support. For me it's about access and the degree to which technology can improve access to fundamental needs, and I want to support it. I'm really hopeful that technology can help those who are underserved and that the new business models that are emerging from the bottom of the pyramid will provide practical and affordable solutions that will make people's lives better.
What are you seeing with organizations that have a social mission?
I'm amazed at what is happening in the social sector. Last semester, I took a class on innovation in education. The students had to identify areas for innovation and create business plans during the semester. The final exercise was a competition. One of the winners, an experienced educator, targeted teacher professional development. Her solution allowed experienced teachers to coach less experienced teachers in the classroom-live-using a smart tablet to observe the classroom and an earpiece to provide real time coaching. Her preliminary data demonstrated that these teachers were more effective than they had been without the coaching. How cool is that? But what's more cool to me is that the app economy is being imagined and delivered by professionals working with software developers to create and distribute the apps and services. This will greatly expand the possibilities now that a larger, more diverse population is participating in innovation.
What's next? What are you watching?
Having a background in Decision Sciences, I like working with data. I had the opportunity to work with an analytics startup which helped provide insight into the changing technologies and the impact on business models and value chains. We know that given how fast global markets move, organizations will need to effectively use data to attain a competitive edge. They will also have to keep iterating because it's not possible to maintain a competitive advantage anymore for longer than a couple of years.
What's next in mobile?
I think we have to think about what is mobile. If mobile is about the user experience, technologies like the Apple Watch or embedding software into physical devices to perform specific tasks open up the aperture for innovation. We're at the tip of the iceberg for what is possible.
> The next big transformation in technology is centered on consumer experience, using big data and analytics-combined with ubiquitous access-to create an experience more personalized than ever before. Being nimble is essential to being competitive in this market.
> New, unconventional and forward-thinking partnerships will enable more efficient delivery of services to clients, creating the agile business models needed to monetize at scale.
> To realize sustainable success in innovation, the technology industry needs to be mindful about how technology is accepted culturally and where-and why-it enhances quality of life.