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November 17, 2017updated 05 Jul 2022 12:39pm

Tech=Icon: Sandy Carter, AWS

"Women in technology is a big focus for me because I want to give back. I've dedicated a lot of my career to doing that, to helping women and diverse candidates, and I think we need more champions like this, both men and women," Sandy Carter told CBR.

By Ellie Burns

Next in CBR’s Tech=Icon series is a true icon of technology, having consistently been recognised as one of the most influential and powerful women in the industry. Sandy Carter, ex-IBM general manager and award-winning author, took time out of her busy schedule to talk with CBR’s Ellie Burns about inclusion, confidence and her role at Amazon Web Services.

EB: Why did you choose a career in technology?

SC: I initially went to school to be a doctor or a vet. It is what I had always dreamed of becoming, but as it turns out, I’m allergic to the chemicals used in a doctor’s office. I actually pass out, which is not a great thing if you want to be a doctor. I was crushed when I discovered this because it had been my dream, and I had studied and done everything possible to become a doctor.

My advisor at the time hooked me up with the head of the computer science department at Duke University. He was working on a computer science project to show how you could do testing of medicines on a computer instead of on animals. I went over to work on this project and fell in love with computer science. I started taking computer science classes, and my first programming project was to use a computer to simulate the testing of drugs versus using animals. So it was through what I called somewhat of a disappointment of something I thought was my lifelong dream that I actually found my lifelong dream.

EB: What were the main challenges you faced at the start of your career and how did you overcome them?

SC: There were probably two significant challenges. The first was confidence. When I started programming it was all men, I was the only woman, and the men would continually challenge me. I was just coming out of school, and my first big test was being confident enough to challenge technical ideas and to debate them in a male-dominated culture. I overcame this by learning to work backward from the customer.

I was working on a project for a bank, and we were developing new software for the tellers and the back office systems. I knew I had the technical capability to do what was needed, but recognized that we lacked the ability to empathize with the customer.  So I went to work as a teller in the bank for a couple weeks and then worked on the cheque processing desk for a couple weeks more.

My confidence level grew with the ability to understand the customers perspective, and combined with my technical background this approach is what catapulted me forward. I found that because I had real-world knowledge, I had more confidence and could credibly challenge things. Even though it was only a few weeks of experience, what it meant was that I understood more than most of the guys in the room who were simply trying to read off a requirements document, and use that for the development of a new product.

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The second big challenge I ran into when I first started was a big project I worked on for a bank in Japan. They were having a challenge with one of the applications we were developing. My boss and I flew to Tokyo to answer their questions, and we were sitting in front of the CIO, and his translator trying to answer his questions. Whenever I would answer the CIO (and his translator) would ignore me. Only when my boss restated the answer would the translator start the translation.  So even though I was the one with the technical knowledge, because I was a woman he wouldn’t listen to me.

My boss at the time realized what was happening, and he excused himself from the meeting to go to the restroom, and just never came back. This forced the CIO to ask me questions and to listen to what I had to say. It was at that time that I realized that women supporting women is great, but you also need men to support women to really instigate change in the way people view women in technology.

EB: Tell us about your current role, what motivates you and what has been the driving force behind your career strategy?

SC: In my current role, I lead a team that runs enterprise workloads for Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers. What this means is I help enterprise level clients to get some of their most mission-critical workloads into the cloud. I am responsible for getting the workload to run and work in AWS so that the customer can innovate on top of the platform. What motivates me about different roles, but in particular this one is solving the customer’s problem. This is why I love AWS, and one of the main reasons I chose to work here is because AWS is so customer obsessed.

Starting backward from the customer is something I have always done naturally, even in my early career, I try to understand what a particular customer need is, and then try to either scale the solution to meet that need or figure out a way to innovate and solve the problem the customer is having. The driving force behind my career has been thinking outside the box, thinking creatively about how to help the customer, how to help our partners, how to help our ecosystem, and how to grow and keep moving forward.

EB: What has been your most significant achievement in the IT industry in the past year?

SC: I was humbled by the recent recognition by industry peers for the work I had been involved in, which uses technology to help innovate for customers. I’ve written a number of books; the first was on service orientated architecture (SOA) and the most recent is called ‘Extreme Innovation.’ It is about how to use technology to innovate, not just about how to use the latest technologies, like AI, IoT, and Big Data, but how you can really innovate in your company.

To write this, I undertook a research project with Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley, and as a result, I was recognized as a top three innovation influencer at South by Southwest (SXSW). I was also recognized as a Chatbot influencer by Bot Camp for work done using machine learning, and as a digital influencers by Forbes. For me, this kind of recognition is significant because it goes beyond just the technology, and recognizes the innovation the technology enables.

EB: What is your proudest achievement to date?

SC: Working with the team at the AIT United Nations to provide internet access to farmers in Africa so that they can regularly access crucial information needed to raise crops and support their families, is one of my proudest achievements.

In particular, we looked at a solution for getting the right information to farmers in Africa. The farmers didn’t have an internet connection, so we figured out a way to drive buses in a specific route so that the Internet could come on for a certain amount of time, and data could be downloaded. We would do this twice a day so that the farmers could get the information they needed to raise crops and support their families. This is not just about technology to help a customer; it is technology for good.

The second thing I’m most honored about is I am chairman of the board of Girls in Tech. We help the next generation of girls and women in technology. Not only do we do things like setting up robotics camps, and teaching girls how to code, but we also work with millennial women to teach them how to use technology to run companies and businesses. We have a whole set of programs for female entrepreneurs so that they can take that information and go out there and make a difference. Female entrepreneurs are fifteen percent more profitable than their male counterparts, but they’re forty percent less likely to be funded.

In fact, I’m currently working with one young woman who is the CEO of a phenomenal startup, which is growing incredibly quickly, she has real customers and a profitable business,  but compared to some of her male counterparts, hasn’t been able to get funding.  Part of what we do in Girls in Tech is to help to teach those young women entrepreneurs how to get funding.  Helping young woman like this is probably amongst my proudest achievements because it’s about giving back.

EB: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

SC: It might sound trite, but networking and getting to know other people is such a big accelerator. Table stakes today is performing at your job.  A lot of women will sit at their desk and eat lunch because they know they have to get that next project out, or that a paper has to be perfect. But they miss the opportunity to get to know their colleagues at lunch or to go out for drinks in the evening. Just taking those moments to get to know people as people is so important.

I looked at over three hundred different leadership books, to identify the top attributes of leadership. I read all the books about women in tech, and the only thing that was common in every book that I looked at was the ability to connect with people, form relationships, and network.


That was the number one thing that everybody talked about. It’s not something taught in school, and it’s why here at Amazon I’m leading a Women of EC2 compute group, focusing on networking and how to form meaningful relationships, i.e., networking in a way that is not self-serving but in a way that serves others. I’ll give you an example.

I met an extraordinary woman, a fellow adventurer for National Geographic, one of only seven women to have achieved this level, and even though she’s not in tech we formed a working relationship, and she ended up writing the forward for my book on innovation. What I discovered through getting to know her was that adventurers are similar to innovators. They are always looking beyond the bounds, and they have to solve problems. It was such a phenomenal analogy that I ended up using it in

my book.  It’s important to understand that I didn’t form this relationship because I wanted something, but because of the relationship we both benefitted.

EB: What would be your top tip for women looking to start a career in IT?

SC: The first one would be to really figure out a way to be a continuous learner to stay on top of tech. Technology changes so quickly, being a continuous learner is fundamental. There are some phenomenal women in AWS who before AI became the next big thing, were learning about AI. Then when it became hot, they were able to move into some of the best jobs. They became data scientists and experts because they had seen the trend and they’d stayed on top of that trend versus waiting.  I think if you’re going to be a woman of tech you need to do that and that for me is one of the top skills. Regardless of what you’re going to do, you need to be a continuous learner.

EB: How would you encourage more woman into the Tech sector?

SC: We’ve been trying to get more women in tech by having women work with women for so long. At Amazon, we’ve got a multitude of women in tech groups such as our Women in Engineering group or Women@AWS group. There are lean in groups that Sheryl Sandberg started, but it’s all been about women connecting with women. The way to really break through, because we really haven’t made that much progress, is to get men to help women. I’m not saying that we should be dependent on men because I think women still need to help women, but I also think we need to engage the men.

I started a group for women, and one of the ways we accelerated the women in tech agenda was to engage with men who were strong technologists, but who also had daughters. We went and talked to them about what was going to happen to their daughters if they chose a tech career, and discussed the challenges women in tech are facing today. They immediately jumped on board and helped to accelerate our path because of the emotional connection for their daughters. I think one of the ways we need to encourage women into the tech sector is we need to get more men to help us.

Secondly, we need more media showcasing strong women in tech. If you look at something like the show The Big Bang Theory, it has only just started to showcase smart women who are scientists, but initially it was four dorky guys who were seen as the smart technologists. CSI Cyber Security is a show where the lead cybersecurity investigator is a woman. She used technology to crack down on all the cybersecurity criminals. The show aired for two seasons and what we learned was that the number of young girls who wanted to go into cybersecurity increased dramatically.

I did some research with the medical field, and the legal field and both of them said they had made significant strides in diversity by showcasing under-represented minorities and woman on TV to play these roles, for example in shows like Law and Order which has district attorneys who are women, and ER which has strong women doctors, and strong women role models. While we don’t like to think that role models come from TV, they do, and I for one would love to see a couple more shows featuring strong women who have technical skills. I think that will really move the ball forward.

EB: How do you think businesses should approach diversity and inclusion?

SC: A lot of times people just focus on how to get women into a company. This is still a challenge, and I advocate for using technology to help break down some of the unconscious biases associated with hiring. There are several startups that are using machine learning to help identify candidates based on their performance and their credentials. Atipica is an example of a company run by a woman, who is making big breakthroughs in this area. On the recruiting side, it’s about figuring out ways to use technology to innovate.

For inclusion to really work, you have to look at your culture. This is one of the harder things to do, and can’t be forced. If you’re a startup you’re trying to form that culture, but if you are an established company you’re trying to change the culture, and changing the culture is so much more difficult, but it must be done. If you don’t change the culture you might be able to recruit some great diverse candidates, but they won’t stay, and so how you get that inclusion is really important.

One of the first things is just admitting that there is an unconscious bias that does exist. Harvard Business School has a test that enables anybody to go through and figure out where their unconscious biases live because everybody has them. Once you recognize you have them, you can then figure out how to deal with them. There’s no panacea because every company’s culture is different and you have to see how you change that culture to fit with your current culture.

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