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Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry identifies as a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in tech? In this interview series called Women in Tech, we spoke to successful leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead flourishing careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I spoke to Celia Wanderley, CTO of AltaML.

Celia holds a Bachelor's and Masters's degrees in Computing Science and has over 25 years of technology, business, and management consulting experience including senior executive leadership positions. She has solid competencies in digital transformation, enterprise architecture, data, and solution architecture, strategic planning, IT service delivery, and program and project management, as well as vast experience in leadership and delivery of large and complex technology transformation programs. Prior to joining AltaML, Celia worked for Deloitte Consulting in the Technology Strategy and Transformation service and co-led the Architecture practice for Deloitte Canada.

Thank you so much for joining us for this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s probably worth diving into some context and perspective first. I grew up in Brazil, in one of its poorest states. All of my grandparents were farmers and only a few of my aunts and uncles had access to a high school level education. It was then up to my generation to aim for a  post-secondary education.

In a family with cousins from 20 siblings on my father's side and seven on my mother's, I was one of the first to graduate from university. Why that context is important is that when it came time to choose a career path, the amount of pressure on me was extremely high. Having always done well in school across all subjects, there was a huge expectation that I apply to med school—this could not have been further from where my interests lied.

Even though I really enjoyed most subjects, it was in math and physics where I would find the desire to go deeper. Initially, I wanted to pursue engineering—until I had the opportunity to hear a talk hosted by a computer science professor at my high school. He focused his talk entirely on Artificial Intelligence, and I was hooked. The funny thing here is that I had never touched a computer in my life… so, I was taking a leap of faith that that was going to be a field I would be willing to dedicate my entire professional life to.

Can you share a story about a funny mistake you made when you were first starting, and what lesson you learned as a result?

Mistakes are an inherent part of the journey, and regardless of it being when we are first starting or when we have decades of experience, we keep making them! I suppose that’s what makes the journey interesting—i.e. the fact that there is always more to learn.

As I dig through memory lane though, I have a hard time remembering the  “funniest” mistake, but maybe there were some “embarrassing” ones?!

Throughout my life, I have been quite emotional, I’m the type of person that cries while watching a TV commercial. It has gotten better with age, but not by a lot. I remember this one occasion in which I was working with my master's supervisor and he gave me some very matter-of-fact feedback about a piece of work I had completed. I remember crying in front of him and then crying even more because I was so embarrassed that I was crying.

As I started looking back at this and trying to understand why it had happened, it really helped me with perspective. The lesson I learned was that I had an area of growth I was going to need to work on if I wanted to have any chance of having a successful career and frankly, a happy life. Life and careers come with risks, challenges, and failures. If I were to be closed off from those experiences because I couldn’t handle constructive feedback, that would mean missing out on too many opportunities.

What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.

In some ways, I feel like there were several, but I will pick one to talk about here with the hope that it can help others.

After immigrating to Canada, I was working on a job that turned out to be very different from what I had imagined and I was fairly unhappy. The irony was that the job description was perfect, the application process was highly competitive and the salary and working conditions were almost hard to believe for a recently-landed immigrant. I felt incredibly lucky that I had been the selected candidate.

As my unhappiness around the job grew, a very exciting opportunity came up and it was my husband who brought it to my attention. I was very quick to dismiss it as the job description highlighted knowledge of a specific piece of technology as a requirement, and I had never worked with it before. I was ready to keep on going and let it pass. It took other people questioning me to bring me to my senses as the worst that could happen would be that I wasn’t the successful candidate.

As it turned out, I applied and competed not only with external candidates but also with an internal candidate who was originally supposed to be selected. In the end, I was chosen for the job. It turned out to be an amazing experience, where I met amazing and incredibly bright individuals. That chapter of my life led me to what I consider to be phase two of my career. That was a huge learning about risk-taking and confidence building, as so many skills we have are transferable and, with hard work and the right environment, we can always be better.

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Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?

The drive to persevere and be successful has always been deeply rooted in me, so I can confidently say that I am not much of a “giving up” type of person.

There is a personal story that has always stuck with me as well. My mother gave up on her career ambitions when she got married. She always regretted it and constantly talked about going back into the job market. She had cancer and died when I was still a young kid, so she never had a chance to fulfill those dreams. I remember she often said, “When I get better, that is the first thing I will do.”

With that experience at an early age, I was very determined that there was no time to spare.

If I wanted to do something, I wasn’t going to wait for the next day, as that day might not come.

To realize my own career ambitions, I had to move away from home, from my city, my state, and later my country. Every move came with its own set of worries, uncertainties, and challenges, but it did help me build resiliency and encouraged me to be OK with being humble and comfortable with not being able to control every step of my life.

We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? How does your company help people?

AltaML is an Applied AI Studio, likely the largest pure-play applied AI company in Canada.

There are two sides to our business; on the services side, we create custom software solutions for enterprise-level clients in the private and public sectors. On the ventures side, we incubate and spinoff companies that build and sell AI-based products in specific verticals. The work we do is guided by our purpose of “Elevating Human Potential Through AI,” and the main pain point we are helping address is to increase the adoption of AI in traditional industries so that those industries can take full advantage of AI as a horizontal enabler. There is immense untapped potential to increase productivity, efficiency, and transform services across all industries by leveraging data to empower individuals and businesses to make better decisions.

If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?

At AltaML, we use a set of core values that highlight a set of behaviors we believe are core to being successful—Gritty, Humble, Agile, and Happy. In a world where change is constant and where the pace of innovation continues to accelerate, building great products and companies requires that leaders are nimble and never take anything for granted. We have to always seek to understand how to be a better version of ourselves, what I like to call being an “undisputed leader,” and being Agile and Humble to pivot as required. Succeeding in the pursuit of undisputed leadership requires practicing awareness and vulnerability to be able to truly see what is around you and act when change is required.

Let’s talk about teams. What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?

We have adapted multiple versions of Agile frameworks to create a product development process that seeks to incorporate the voice of the customer at every step of the way to reduce the risk of falling in love with products that have no market. In this process, teams are empowered to make the detailed decisions that are needed to operate at the top of their performance. We timebox most phases of the process to create an environment that is fast-paced forcing results and we try to resist the urge to reach perfection. We constantly talk about “done being better than perfect.”

When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together?

I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with and/or help build high-performing teams for most of my career.

High-performing teams have high-performing individuals and an environment where there is no requirement or room for micromanagement. The leader sets the tone and removes roadblocks when those come up, but the team is pretty much self-managed and aligned on the focus of achieving the outcomes set out and agreed upon. That requires an alignment of the mission and a sense of belonging, value, and purpose.

A few years ago, I was asked to lead a large technology-based transformation program that included the full digitization of processes and a reinvention of interactions with internal and external stakeholders of a very large organization. For that, I was able to build and lead a team where every individual had not only the best interest of the client in mind but also of the team.

The hours were often long, but we were able to achieve every single set target. We were able to build a relationship with the client that made it seem like it was all one large team, fully aligned on the same mission of supporting and enabling the change to the benefit of the organization and its members.

If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools do you consider to be mission-critical?

This is a very hard question as it truly depends on what one does. For my role currently, it would have to be a collaboration and communications tool as part of a productivity suite. Long gone are the times when work was done completely independently. The ability to collaborate in real-time, and incorporate different perspectives leads to stronger ideas, strategies, and plans.

Given the field I work in and what I am seeing happen, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I also believe that in a not-so-distant future, AI will be part of pretty much every software we use. It will drive a different way of interacting with those tools compared to what we have historically been used to.

Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?

I am often reminded that my work ethics and habits are high, so much so that those around me worry about burnout. My common answer is that those behaviors are driven by how much I love the work that I do.

However, there are a few practices that I use to achieve a better work-life balance. The first one is focusing on family and friends. I love our rituals that require spending time as a family and I love socializing with our large group of friends. That creates a natural need to spend time outside of work.

Another practice I have found to be very effective is yoga. It forces the mind to focus elsewhere and I feel it restores my balance and replenishes my energy.

Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?

1. Validate that there will be customers who will love it.

Many times we start with the tech first, but it really doesn’t matter how successful or sophisticated the tech is if nobody will use it and love it.

2. Validate that there will be a way to monetize it.

If someone loves it but there is no path to monetization, it will be hard to survive.

3. Validate that there will be enough stickiness that the monetization will be sustainable.

If the monetization is not sustainable because the product is not sticky, there will be limited life for the product. We need to have something that customers will keep coming back to. 

4. Confirm technical feasibility.

Once we know that there will be customers and a sustainable monetization path then we should take steps to confirm that the concept is feasible, that we can actually build the product. A prototype that focuses on the major technical risks might be sufficient to prove that.

5. Release as early as possible and continue to improve it based on real customer feedback.

It is easy to fall into the trap of delaying getting something into the hands of customers because there is always one more thing we can do to make the product better. The risk is putting effort in the wrong place and missing out on the opportunity to be guided by customer feedback.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The status quo is clearly not where we need to be. From when I started in the field more than two decades ago to today, the numbers do not show much improvement. We need more role models, mentorship, and sponsorship. Just waiting for things to gradually change will not be sufficient. We are missing out on an immense opportunity by having such a small representation of women in tech and also in leadership positions. Both men and women in positions of leadership need to keep diversity in mind and do their part in supporting change. That should start from childhood, in families and schools all the way to universities and workplaces.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

A name that comes to mind in the industry is Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO. The story of how he gradually rose through the ranks, the humbleness with how he carries himself, the personal stories about his upbringing, his family, his vision, and the culture he was able to drive at Microsoft since joining has all been quite fascinating and inspiring.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.