To say that Margaret Dawson, Vice President, Portfolio Product Marketing, Red Hat has a passion for mentoring women and men in tech, and is unapologetic in her drive for increased equality and diversity, doesn’t begin to describe this technology guru’s arsenal.
Dawson has driven new global initiatives, including cloud at HP, security at Microsoft, international e-commerce at Amazon, and now, portfolio product marketing and strategy at Red Hat. She’s a frequent speaker and author on technology trends, digital marketing, and living life to the fullest; all accomplished while snorting when she laughs and staying true to her straightforward communication style. In 2016 she was awarded the Stevie Award for mentoring fellow business people, and in 2018 she was awarded the Women in IT USA Award for Business Role Model of the Year.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What are the most important traits a tech leader can have in this age of digital transformation?
The most important thing for technical leaders is to balance their business and technical capabilities. I always talk to customers about starting with a vision, and it doesn't matter if that vision is for one product or applies to an entire portfolio or company. So often, we jump into new technology to solve a problem, but we haven't identified the problem entirely, and we haven't identified what the destination is that we're trying to reach as an organization.
When I talk to customers, there are probably ten different areas I’ve seen that digital leaders are doing differently from laggards or people that are just emerging into their digital transformation, and vision is one of them. Another one is embracing open source technologies. You cannot possibly build everything yourself from scratch. You can't move fast enough. You can't innovate fast enough. Companies that have relied entirely on proprietary technology just aren't going to move at the pace they need to transform and to make sure they're not being disrupted.
We did some research that showed digital leaders are much more focused on innovation and user experience, whereas those who have barely started transforming, it's still all about cost and simplicity. You've got to get out of that state of scarcity where all you can see is how much cost you need to reduce, or how to make something simpler so that you can start moving faster and start to innovate. When I talk about open source, it's not only the technology but the way of doing things — the cultural aspects.
It’s important to recognize that no one technology is going to be a panacea for the transformation. It’s figuring out how to pilot a lot of things, how to set goals with those and be very iterative and agile and start moving things forward and having that vision in place. Then it comes to improving your user experience, accelerating service delivery, and improving application development, including focusing on the developer and choosing relevant technologies. But so much of it is culture and process and leadership.
I think the other part of this conversation is that technical leaders need to be able to put their results, and what the goals are, into non-technical terms so that people who are not well-versed technically will be able to understand what the benefits will be to them. Am I correct on that?
That is 100% correct. It's not enough to say this technology is going to make sure our applications move data faster, or we are using new APIs or whatever, to the line of business. Remember, the business or functional leaders now have a huge influence on the IT budget, and they often have a huge technology budget themselves. The business is approving or disapproving most technology investments.
What does that mean? That means the business is going to invest in technology so when a customer comes to your eCommerce site, they're going to be able to purchase something faster, and we think we can increase not only the speed of revenue but how much they buy during any one eCommerce interaction. Technology investments need to show business value and return.
Putting that into business metrics is measuring for their success and why that technology is going to help them. Increasingly, I have a line of business leaders ask me about containers because they think they need to get more involved in a decision about a container platform.
So, it's going both directions. I’m sure you've seen it, where business leaders are starting to be much more involved and wanting to understand the technologies that are driving these transformations. And the IT and technical leaders have to be much more savvy about the business impact that those technologies bring.
How do you explain to these folks the benefits of containers? When do you use a container versus when do you use a virtual machine?
What I first ask them is, what problem are you trying to solve? Which is the question I ask on either side because so often when we are entering these transformations, as I mentioned, we are so quick to think that a specific technology or a platform is going to solve everything. As opposed to making sure we're asking the right questions and that we have a business priority or initiative or challenge identified and outlined correctly. If the answer is, we're trying to build applications faster, that usually leads to more questions, such as what kind of applications? Do you have in-house development, or are you outsourcing that? Why do you think containers are the answer? Maybe it’s because they've heard from their developers that they can set up a container fast. But what we also know is the vast majority of existing and new applications are still on virtualized infrastructure. Now, that doesn't mean they can't be containerized. That still might be the right answer, but I think we've just got to quit responding so quickly with the technology answer until we've truly identified what it is we're trying to do. By the way, it’s also not either/or, since you run a container platform, like OpenShift, on virtualized infrastructure.
The other example that I hear 99% of the time when I go into customer meetings, across the board is, “We have a cloud-first strategy.” What they mean usually by that is, they want to move every single application into the public cloud.
It becomes cloud-only.
Right. But the reality is, when I then ask them, “Great, what is your criteria and application capability decision process? How are you determining whether that application is appropriate for the public cloud? Do you know all of the dependencies and data connections that that application has and that when you move it into the cloud other things won't break? How do you think about disaster recovery?” Again, I try to back them out of a mandate that is a technology-driven mandate to what is right for the business. Because I will tell you, most of the time, no company is going to be 100% public cloud; there are always going to be some dependencies, or some workloads, or some capabilities that remain on premises, and for very good reasons.
If you haven't established the governance and criteria around that, if you make it a mandate that we're going to put everything in the public cloud, it's a ridiculous mandate. Unless you're a digital native company, literally you're a startup, and you're just going to start there from scratch. For enterprise IT, it’s not realistic.
Now that you've brought up startups, what special skill sets do startup leaders need?
First, you need to understand what motivates and retains developers. While nearly all organizations need to have in-house development, a startup leader needs to know how to recruit and retain good developers. They had better understand open source communities because chances are they're going to be using a lot of open source in the solution they're building, regardless of what the business is. I think they need to have that technical savvy, all the way down through the developer stack. But as we talked about before, they also need to have the business capabilities and the ability to provide a clear vision. The thing about developers today is they want to be part of something important, so the leader has to be able to speak to both of those areas.
You're starting to see a different kind of CEO come into startups that either knows development, or were developers, or are very technical, as opposed to coming up through more of the sales side of the house.
In 2015 you wrote a piece that said that startups were not ramping up their marketing efforts quickly enough, and acknowledging that it's difficult bringing on dedicated talent. Has this changed?
No, I don't think that's changed at all. I think, while development is important, understanding the market opportunity and how to bring your product to market is vital. First of all, are you building a product that people need? The piece that is more important than ever is having that really good market context, the market research, the input from customers, making sure that you're constantly getting your product in front of your target customer, to see what's working and not working. One of the hardest marketing challenges that are facing many companies is they need to market to a community of developers, which you need to be careful of because it's not marketing. But it is because it's a different kind of marketing.
We need to do traditional demand generation to enterprise IT, or even to the CIOs. Understanding the difference in that marketing and go-to-market, and that developers are an incredibly influential group, even if they aren't writing the check. But to not communicate with them and not build community with a developer group as you are selling and building demand from your other enterprise targets is a mistake. The way you balance that, the way you build that, is very different in the processes and communication styles and how you do it and what you do. Few people understand those two sides.
I can see that. I find a lot of misunderstanding between how you address a developer community versus how you address customers, versus how you talk internally, versus how you do outreach to journalists. It's all very different.
It's different, but it should be all aligned, again to that same vision. It's not changing who you are, but altering the marketing tactics you use, the way you talk to them, the language you use, so much of that is all different. It needs to be. That's just smart persona marketing.
How do you recommend leaders adapt to a recent acquisition of their company, especially if it's a culturally different acquirer?
The first thing is just recognizing that there's going to be a cultural difference. Often we pretend like it's not going to happen. With this, it's just about clear messaging and over-communication. For acquisitions I've seen, that I've been a part of on both sides, you have to be very open, communicative, and consistent in your communication. Because what people fear, in any acquisition situation, is that things are going to change or that they won't be able to be doing the same thing.
The faster than you can say, "Here's what stays the same. If there is going to be a change, here's what it is. But this is what we're doing for you,” the better. Also, they need to have access to leaders. This goes back to just cultural aspects overall, companies that are succeeding are those that realize that transparency, over-communication, and clear messages are what humans want to hear, especially ones that maybe have scarce skill sets that you're trying to keep, you have to communicate with them. It's hard for leaders to transition from that command and control mentality to one of transparency, sharing and socialization - more of a meritocracy just because they’re a CEO, or the president, or the vice president that doesn't give them some special authority to dictate.
What are you most excited about with your Red Hat cloud product portfolio, and why?
We have been delivering against a clear vision we've had for over six years, which is open hybrid cloud. We've always believed that the future is going to be hybrid. We knew that open source, open APIs, interoperability, and security throughout was what enterprises and governments and organizations needed. Our portfolio is now at the point where we are delivering that, and we can work with our customers so they can achieve that. We have the partner ecosystem to achieve that. What's exciting is that the entire market is saying, "Yes, this is the future."
Whether you look at Gartner data or other major industry analysts, if you talk to customers, they're saying, "Yes, the future is hybrid." They want containers and application portability; it's all about innovation. I feel like there's been an inflection point where we're all moving in that same direction.
The reality is it's also a competitive world. We have to partner with the companies that we're also competing against, but that is part of hybrid. No workload or application or even data set is going to be in a single place or a single vendor stack. The vendors who are going to succeed are those that know how to play nice with each other, are committed to open source, to open APIs, to interoperability and how they achieve security and compliance across those heterogeneous environments.
Customers that succeed are the ones who are going to pick the technologies that allow them to move fast, to move things where they need to be when they need to move them. It's any application, anywhere, at any time.
You're an advocate for women in tech. What are the two to three most critical pieces of advice you have for women executives?
My number one recommendation is you must intentionally support other women. We are still seeing too many female tech leaders that are just not empowering other women. It's gotten better, but the thing is until every single woman is intentionally supporting and empowering other women, it's tough for us to point fingers. How are you helping fill the pipeline with diverse candidates? How you are helping coach, mentor, and promote qualified women? How are you working across your organization to encourage diverse candidacies in all parts of the organization? Intentional support is number one, by far. If nothing else, focus on that because we have so much work to do.
The other thing is, think about diversity a little more holistically. While gender is very important, think about building out diverse teams from personality, or ways of approaching things, ethnicity, geography. Diversity, to me, means some very broad areas that when you get those different people together, that's when the magic happens. You get all these different perspectives working together. You are a lot more creative, a lot more innovative, and can grow a lot faster because you're, in some ways, saving time getting those perspectives up front. I love watching diverse teams operate together.
You started Snort Out Loud. Talk to me about that.
This started a few years ago actually when I was giving a presentation to a room of women tech leaders; senior people at a conference. The whole premise that began this was my hypothesis: that the reason we're not seeing more women in tech, both at the leadership level and overall, is because the industry is telling women when they get into tech, that you can't be yourself. You can't be a good mom and be a technical leader. You can't be social and also take computer science. There are all these messages that literally start to limit what a woman thinks she's capable of. To be successful in tech, you have to be a certain way. You have to act like a man, or you have to act like, whatever.
However, what I’ve learned since is this is a much bigger phenomenon than I realized when I first put this out there. The question I would always ask is, do you know your true light? Meaning that thing that makes you uniquely you. You see someone that's fully comfortable in who they are, and everyone knows these people. They shine, they illuminate, because they have this humble confidence about them, and they are very comfortable in their skin, and they want to share it with other people.
That light is actually quite a rare thing. My metaphor of that is snorting because when I laugh, I snort, and when I was young, people would laugh at me. There were times throughout my life where I would try to hide that because it would shock people, it would scare them. I would snort, and they would say something like, "Oh, my god. Why are you doing that? Stop it. It's horrible." I would be like, "I don't know. I've always laughed that way. I can't help it." Similarly, I sometimes swear, and I should be able to stop that. For some reason, that's almost the same as snorting now.
Snorting Out Loud is saying, "Be you. Be you with every ounce of your being." It's not just about showing up part way; it's about showing up 100% and letting that true light shine and celebrating it. Celebrating how we are all different, that every light is different, and that that's okay. This was going full circle to the conversation we had before. Embrace whatever light it is that you bring. As leaders, we have to encourage people to discover or rediscover that light, to shine it, and then to shine it on others.