ASUG Women Connect: One Personal Path to Technology

Kris Cowles
Kris Cowles in ASUG Women Connect May 19, 2019

I frequently get asked, “How did you get started in technology?” If you would have asked me 30 years ago if I’d ever see myself as the vice president of global applications IT at Topcon Positioning Systems, I probably would have told you, “I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’ll figure it out.”

I’m Kris Cowles. A little more than five years into my current role, I’m still figuring things out, just as I have always done throughout my career—and that’s not a bad thing.

Life often has a different plan than the one you decide you’re going to follow in college. The key to success, in my opinion, is being able to navigate your path as it presents itself—and sometimes being able to deviate from it, too. Failing can be a gift if you learn what you don’t like and use it to look for other things at which you can succeed. I had originally set out to work on Wall Street. I learned very quickly, however, that wasn’t the right environment for me. The question then was, what next?

A Temp to Permanent Plan

From a young age, I’d always had ambitious goals and set out to meet them aggressively. But as life would teach me, I had to start where I could and work my way up to where I wanted to be.

My first job out of college came by way of a temporary placement agency. I tracked all the “hot” Silicon Valley companies and was determined to join one. My first opportunity was in a business admin role in customer service with Cisco, which at that time—believe it or not—was still considered a startup. I didn’t get hung up on the title. That didn’t matter as much as the opportunity I saw. The company was still young and growing fast, and I was ready to find my way.

Cisco was getting ready to implement its first ERP system. Anyone who was involved in the order-to-cash process needed to go through a full week of training. I went into the company at such a junior level that I wasn’t allowed to participate, so I approached others who did participate and offered to help them if they showed me what they learned in the training. They did, and that’s how I began to get noticed and more importantly, supported by my peers.

The Power of Persistence and Opened Doors

During this time Cisco was hiring for an international customer service representative position. I had already applied twice for that role and had not received an offer. The hiring managers had their pick of candidates for the position and were looking for someone more experienced with a master’s degree and who spoke multiple languages. It didn’t matter that I was already doing the same things required for this job—I just didn’t fit that mold.

The third time I applied—because I had quietly gone about teaching myself the job behind the scenes—I was offered the position. During my time at Cisco, I had made it a point to build relationships with people both in my department and in the groups I’d supported. When it mattered most for me, I was able to turn to the support of my peers as one key factor to help me get the position.

My next role after that, running the global pricing program, was fascinating because I had literally zero experience and it was a big step up. Again, I had good working relationships with the business stakeholders who ultimately made the decision to want to work with me in this role. Remember to build those relationships whenever and wherever you can, because you never know who will open the door for you down the road.

In many organizations, key staff members influence who they want added to the team. Do your best to be someone they would pick. That doesn’t mean be everyone’s friend. It means communicating who you are as a professional and living up to your commitments to the team.

Keep Learning, Always

You don’t always have to have the experience to get the job, but you should always learn from those who do so that you’re better prepared for the job. In my next role, I had an IT team that supported my specific function, and I learned a lot from them.

Find your mentors and put yourself in that circle. Ask a lot of questions and go into anything you do with the sense of openness. You may not understand the exact technical code one of your team members is working on, but try to understand how it affects the project, the solution, and the goal that you’re all trying to achieve.

Even if you do have the experience, you need to acknowledge that there is expertise outside of yours. You need to have the ability to listen, the ability to question, and the ability to absorb information.

When You Become an IT Person

As I kept moving into different roles, I initially felt out of my depth. I had a breadth of global business experience, but I also recognized that other directors of IT had come up through an IT path and earned their IT chops. And I didn’t have that same experience.

Externally, it took me about three to six months, and probably a full year internally, to think, “Oh yeah, I’m an IT person.” It wasn’t that I felt like I wasn’t going to eventually get it or be able to contribute, but more that I had respect for the expertise of my new peer group.

You’re More than Just a Title

At the end of the day, you need to trust that you are where you want to be and that you can get the job done, or you wouldn’t be there. It’s not about the title on paper, but more about the skills you bring to the table and what you learn while you’re sitting there. See yourself in that role, really.

In the end, I worked at Cisco for more than 20 years in various roles, traveling the world and learning something every step of the way. Sometimes the opportunities presented themselves and other times, I found them. The path to technology and all the roles that support it is different for everyone, so learn how to navigate yours and then own it. Even if it means having to go a different way than you expected to.

Each step I took eventually led me back to the beginning: Joining a growing company at an inflection point. Now at Topcon, I get to use all the amazing experiences I have had to add value in new ways, and see where it leads me this time.

If you or someone you know has something to say about the work you’re doing, your accomplishments, or how other women have helped you on your journey, submit your idea or reach out to ASUGNews@asug.com. Find out how to get involved with ASUG Women Connect  year round.