Sondra Ashmore is an assistant vice president – business partner at Berkley Technology Services LLC. Prior to that, she held leadership roles at Principal and IBM, and was an adjunct professor at her alma mater, Iowa State University. She has a doctorate in human-computer interaction from Iowa State University and is the coauthor of Introduction to Agile Methods. Berkley Technology Services LLC is a member company of W. R. Berkley Corporation.
The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Berkley Technology Services LLC or W. R. Berkley Corporation.
Can you share a bit about your background in the Iowa tech industry? How have you seen the tech scene evolve?
I moved back to Iowa in 2010. I was working from home for IBM and was wanting to get more involved because I didn’t have local colleagues. I reached out to several people, and was referred to Leann Jacobsen, the former president of TAI. She recommended that I participate in the Women of Innovation planning committee. It was ten to twelve women from all over the state, a really wonderful group. One participant, Susie Thomann of Principal, is still a mentor of mine.
I got involved with that committee and a lot of great things happened as a result.
I also met the coauthor of my book, Kristin Runyan. We were on the committee together, and were talking about Agile and the need for a book on the topic. One thing led to another, and we ended up co-authoring a book together, which was a wonderful experience. I was asked to chair the committee; which I did the last three years the event was held. It’s amazing what’s going on in Iowa, what women in our state are doing. I was blown away, really inspired.
What is your role at Berkley Technology Services, LLC?
I’m a business partner at Berkley Technology Services. The great thing about that role is I’m a liaison between some of W. R. Berkley Corporation’s specialty insurance units and the IT organization. I get to work with the insurance units to understand their technology needs and challenges, and then I partner with my IT colleagues at Berkley Technology Services to help them meet those needs, overcome challenges, and move the businesses forward. It’s a role I really enjoy.
So with your expertise, what’s the most significant change you’ve seen in regards to holding diversity and inclusion as a priority?
I don’t know that the demographics of IT have changed dramatically. I would say there are more women in leadership roles than I remember previously, which is great. When I was chairing the Women of Innovation, it was important to me that we include a diversity category and celebrate those who were pushing STEM professions and those with differing backgrounds — not only those in leadership roles but those encouraging STEM in general.
There are a lot of things making IT more approachable to all, including the fact that many people are learning IT skills much younger, which is fantastic. I think everybody can find in their niche in IT. Those who are really great at speaking about technology have an important role to play. Those who are analytical have an important role to play, especially in areas such as data analytics. I’m looking forward to it.
What are some tried-and-true processes that have helped you across companies, or that have stayed with you throughout your career?
One thing that really helped me with coding was learning a foreign language. When you’re designing something, you have to think about, “What am I trying to say? What am I trying to produce?” Learning another language trains your brain to hear something and then translate it into something else. And many times in programming that’s what you’re doing: “I need this button to do this. What code do I put in place to make that happen?”
Another area is communication. With technology being so prolific these days, having somebody who can speak about IT in approachable terms is valuable. It’s helpful when you’re speaking to executive management, when you’re speaking to customers and trying to sell a product. I don’t know that people talk about it a lot, but some of the best people in IT communicate very, very well.
Another thing is designing a product and thinking about it from the user’s point of view. I’ve seen people who can create wonderful interfaces, very sophisticated code, and often times they’ve created it in a way that’s not consistent with the mental model of the person using it. And so I think empathy is a critical skill set.
It seems like those things are all important not just as processes but for innovation, too. How do you encourage innovation and idea-sharing at Berkley Technology Services, LLC?
Over the last couple years, innovation has been an important focus at our company. I’ve participated in many workshops and brainstorming sessions, but what’s central to innovation at Berkley Technology Services and W. R. Berkley Corporation is that we’re all working on a variety of competencies. One example is reflective listening. In order to come up with the next great idea, you’ve got to be really good at listening to others. It’s not enough just to have some genius idea yourself; innovation comes through all interactions. It’s a mindset. I would say we’re all working to build competencies that help encourage innovative thinking and open-minded approaches.
One thing I’ve done to encourage innovation is start a “Women in IT” group with some of my colleagues. We bring in speakers who cover topics related to innovation and career development. We have a book group too. In a couple cases, we’ve brought in the authors to speak to our employees. One in particular you’d likely know is Erin Rollenhagen. I loved her book, Soul Uprising. We also have volunteer activities and a great mentoring program.
That women’s group is so interesting. Have you noticed a culture shift since that group started? Is that the goal of that group, or is it more to provide another resource for women to connect?
Well, certainly one of the goals is to support and encourage women to grow in their careers; and the group has made some strides in that space. These things don’t happen overnight, but I’ve seen a lot of the women who participate raise their hand. I’ve heard about women connecting who may not have connected otherwise, even across locations. And certainly I’ve seen participants get promoted — but I don’t know if that can be attributed to the group; they have a lot of talents that have helped them get there. I’d like to think the group helped in a small way.
The nice thing is that it’s provided a platform for women to shine. For example, I have a mentee who’s a fantastic artist. I am not a fantastic artist. One thing I’ve been tasked with is sending out the newsletter about all of the Women in IT events. I had it in a very organized bulleted list, the kind a non-artist would put together. She and I were talking one time and she said, “I have some ideas on how we could maybe do this newsletter differently.” I said, “OK, I’d be happy to send you the content and you can send me what you have in mind.” She sent back the most beautiful newsletter I’ve ever seen. Every month, well over 100 to 150 women look forward to seeing it because she has a different theme each issue. To me, that’s the exciting part: taking somebody who’s relatively new and helping them get involved and share their skills.
Tell me more about your relationships with your mentors and mentees.
Mentoring is very dear to my heart. I speak with my mentors on a regular basis, be it quarterly or a couple times a year. I’ve learned so much from them, and I appreciate the trust that we have. I think a mentor is important in a career, like how a coach is important on a sports team. I don’t think anyone can go at it alone.
One thing I’ve learned from all of the great mentors I’ve had is how to be a better mentor myself. To me, mentoring also means being an advocate or sponsor for your mentee. So not just teaching a particular skill set, but helping someone get to the next level — getting them in front of the right people so that they can get the visibility they need to get ahead. I’ve had a lot of different types of mentoring relationships. Sometimes the mentee has wanted to achieve a particular certification, or earn a degree. I try to make myself as available as they need me to be. It’s important that they feel they can trust me and that I’m there when they need me.
Outside of mentoring, and your leadership roles at Berkley Technology Services LLC, how do you share your time and talents?
I live in a historic home and am passionate about preservation, so I’m on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. I’m in the process of writing a book about my neighborhood. This is the first time I’ve written about something other than IT, so I’m excited about this new experience.
I’m also a mother of two boys, and they certainly know how to keep me busy. I’m in a book club with some friends and neighbors, and it’s been fun to get out of my comfort zone and read books that other people choose.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in tech, or someone aspiring to a tech business leadership role?
Well, a couple things. It’s important to build your network. You can get involved in IT-focused groups at your university or in your local community. TAI, of course, offers a lot of things as well. But there’s an IT group for almost anything you’re interested in, be it QA, Agile, programming. You can also get involved by helping young people learn to code or educating them about IT. You’re going to meet a lot of great people, and they’re going to help you by telling you things you may need to know to get either to your first IT- or STEM-related job or to the next level in your career.
Next would be to get a mentor. It could be somebody at the university, somebody who works at a company you’re interested in. I met one of my mentees at a career fair. She came up to me and shared that she was an MIS major and wanted to do the types of things I did. She flat out asked, “Will you be my mentor?” I’d never met her before, but I loved her boldness. Of course I agreed — and I learned as much from her as she did from me. But you can’t be afraid to do things like that, to put yourself out there.
Why do you think it’s important to have people of different backgrounds in technology?
I think there’s a lot of different ways to define different backgrounds. You have people who have different skill sets, whether they’re a great project manager, or an analytical thinker, or a good communicator, whatever it might be. You have people of different generations; maybe they worked on IT-related projects in the 1980s and they’ve seen IT change, and you can learn from them. And then of course you have people from different cultures. A lot of teams are global these days. You have people who work in different countries, who have different values and norms. All these different backgrounds bring something unique to the table. They allow a team to challenge conventional wisdom, and that drives IT forward.
How would you like to see talent development and the workforce grow in Iowa, specifically in the Iowa technology industry?
The great thing is that there’s a lot of demand for tech talent in Iowa. And I think there’s going to continue to be more and more demand for top talent in IT. Iowa has some great programs at all levels — the universities, the community colleges, and the local elementary schools through high schools. They also have clubs, such as Girls Who Code. IT is more and more becoming a career path that is very welcoming of all.
Technology is going to continue to play a seminal part in what organizations do and how they grow. I’d love to see us keep our top talent in Iowa. Iowa has a lot of great things to offer, and if we can keep showcasing that by celebrating innovation and celebrating people who are moving things forward, we’ll be able to do that.