Establishing A Niche. Developing my niche in project portfolio management progressed organically along the way in my career. As I moved into leadership roles, project management was essential to gain expertise in successfully managing the resources, time, and scope of small- to medium-sized technology initiatives. The transition from projects to programs to portfolios requires the same solid foundation in managing projects, however, at a much larger scale. Staying the course and evolving my expertise within this niche has been key to my success thus far.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deanna M. Laster.
Deanna is the president and CEO of DeannaMichel, Inc. She started her professional career in information technology and progressed into business consulting making her mark as a proven leader implementing and managing technology portfolios of global distributed teams that deliver strategic business value for Fortune 500 clients. With extensive consulting experience leading key multi-million dollar projects in several industries, including energy, travel, and health & beauty, she has become a highly sought-after consultant, speaker, and thought leader.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I declared my major as a college undergraduate, technology seemed the most interesting degree program to pursue. I excelled in problem-solving and advanced my career from a position as a programmer into project management. Fast forward years later, I am a digital transformation leader for Fortune 500 companies and have continued to evolve as a continuous learner pursuing my love for technology.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
As an analytical person, I have always been driven to know how technology can enable things. When I launched my company, DeannaMichel, Inc. in 2014, it allowed me to also incorporate my creative side and blend the best of both worlds.
While excelling as a consultant in the oil and gas industry, I asked myself, what else can I do? That moment of introspection led to me teaching computer science courses as an adjunct professor at Houston Community College. I had my class create a vision board at the end of each semester around their goals, what they wanted to achieve, and how they saw themselves in the next few years. One of my students surprisingly created a vision board on fashion design, and I was so impressed with his creative expression and tenacity that it inspired me to also enroll as a student at HCC to learn more about design.
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? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I started my company, I wanted to do it all and make a gumbo of different offerings, but one of the things I realized is that I needed to scale down my vision. I have so much passion as a consultant leading large technology initiatives, but on the flip side, I am creative with a love for fashion design.
I shared with my husband how I wanted to incorporate a little bit of everything I love into my company and eventually found a way to blend my creative and technical passions into a marketable brand. The process took a few years, but I now have a more concise elevator pitch that describes the diverse segments of my company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The process of consulting full-time and growing a company can be very demanding, which led me to burn out at one point. I began to question myself and wonder should I continue as an entrepreneur or join another company.
Coincidentally, my client at the time mentioned that they were running out of budget but wanted to bring me on as an employee. When you are burnt out as an entrepreneur at times that opportunity can be attractive. I shared my challenges with balancing entrepreneurship, and she offered me an opportunity to take on an internal role in the company. She negotiated a path for me to help grow her program management organization and gave me the lay of the land to execute that. That took the burden off of having to produce and manage financially as an entrepreneur, allowing me full accountability and responsibility to manage a team internally to move the organization forward.
Eventually, I transitioned back out on my own. It was really interesting to shift into an internal role assisting a corporate leader in their role as an executive and then shift back out. It seemed like defeat at first because I thought to myself, “Oh I’m not going to work for myself any longer.” However, the experience was so rewarding. Looking back, we are still friends to this day, and we talk about how that opportunity positively impacted my career.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “Be the Change You Want to See in the World,” has always been near and dear to my heart. When I want to see a difference in diversity in a profession where I have typically been the minority in both gender and race and feel a company should be doing better in this area, this quote helps me to remember to implement those same best practices in my own company. So not only do I expect greatness, I need to deliver greatness. Being the change that I want to see is important to me, so that is how I hold true to that.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
The pain point that I help clients address is implementing their digital transformation strategies to streamline their processes to enhance the customer experience. If a company is not easy to do business with, they can risk any competitive advantage, and if they don’t remain competitive, it can be tough to stay in business, particularly in these economic times.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
We have an extensive background in technology and understand the platforms and best practices to help establish a client’s digital transformation roadmap. We also are very strong in reverse engineering existing business practices in order to map out technology enablers. Once we are able to work with a company to identify and define a strategy, we have the ability to manage projects making sure the client’s commitment to delivering value to their customers is realized.
My company is uniquely skilled in portfolio and project management with the expertise to manage technology initiatives while also implementing process improvements and change management to achieve success for our clients.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on a major one right now helping a Fortune 500 company reshape the way they do business with their customers. We are streamlining their processes to make things easier by enhancing the customer experience and modifying inefficient back office processes
Q. Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. 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?
No, I am not satisfied with the status of women in technology. When we think about women in the tech space and in C-level executive roles, it makes for great optics and visually shows some social responsibility for companies to place women in leadership roles, but is not enough. What raises the bar from the status quo is inclusion, which means empowering women not only to have a seat at the table but to also have their voices heard as decision-makers.
It is essential for women in tech to have more substantial roles as leaders with ownership, accountability, and responsibility as well as equal credibility, equal pay, and all the benefits that come along with executive roles. Diversity is the minimum expectation and inclusion should be the bar companies use to increase the roles and opportunities for women in technology.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Women in leadership roles in our industry are often treated like figureheads. Companies should set up the same organizational structure for men and women in technology leadership roles based on their experience, regardless of gender.
The number of women in executive roles in technology is increasing and providing more doors of opportunity for women. Companies should have a social and moral responsibility to continue in this direction. Talking about it is no longer good enough.
What would you advise to another Tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
I would say that continuous learning is important. Technology is a very fluid industry and what is hot today may not be hot tomorrow, so professionals in the space need to always be evolving and learning and keeping up with the latest technology solutions. Not necessarily the latest trends, which can be short-term, but being a continuous learner in the areas of methodologies, frameworks, platforms, and best practices is important. I would encourage leaders who feel they are at a standstill to restart their engines by continuing to always have value-added services that they can provide that clients may not be able to leverage from their internal teams.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Sales teams may not have the expertise in continuing to stay relevant on technology, but they need to understand the trends and what is important to intelligently convey how that company can solve problems for their clients. They need to really understand the latest and greatest ways that technology can enable companies to leverage either the strength of their existing processes or remove and recalibrate the weaknesses of their existing processes by leveraging technology and improving their space competitively.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Referrals and word of mouth are important methods to attract the right customers. Technology is a very big industry, but it is also very small, and people know people, especially in the decision-making space. Before the pandemic, whenever a project was winding down, I would meet with a former client and get an update on what they were currently doing, which often led to a future opportunity. Think about sharing stories, keeping your network very valid and intentional, and then doing great work. When you do great work, people know and talk about it.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Using what is called information radiators is an important customer service tool. Anytime you are doing work for a customer, they should never have to wonder where you are on things or what is next. There is always some portal or hub that I can provide for the customer to pull information from so that at any time they can know where things are in terms of my role in delivering value for them. We use Kanban boards, Teams, BaseCamp, Confluence, SharePoint, and anything that can be recurring to let the client know where we are in the project management process. And not only to let the client know where we are, but it serves as a bridge for my teams so they can know what is being conveyed to the customer and what customers are understanding in order to assess the effectiveness of a particular process or to identify the need for feedback. To summarize it, I would use a dashboard to let the customer know what is going on and also to assess if team members are delivering on customer expectations. Below is a list of of some of the l tools my teams have used in the past to enhance the customer experience:
- Dashboards to display information
- Setting up Information portals for customers to access information
- Recurring communications and status updates.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Great work eliminates customer churn. Doing great work and identifying customers who are willing to be a reference for you serves as a testament to your services. Other ways to retain customers are to be transparent, deliver on what you are an expert in, outsource and collaborate in areas outside your expertise, be a go-to person for the customer, and serve as a trusted adviser.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Having Expertise
An expertise in a product or service offering that has a market demand is key. Without a marketable expertise, it is almost impossible to run a profitable company, technology-based or otherwise. Expertise in technology can span from platforms and coding languages to business functions and methodologies/frameworks, etc.
2) Establishing A Niche
Developing my niche in project portfolio management progressed organically along the way in my career. As I moved into leadership roles, project management was essential to gain expertise in successfully managing the resources, time, and scope of small- to medium-sized technology initiatives. The transition from projects to programs to portfolios requires the same solid foundation in managing projects, however, at a much larger scale. Staying the course and evolving my expertise within this niche has been key to my success thus far.
3) Delivering Results
Delivering results in my profession speaks volumes. Sharing your track record of project delivery based on measurable results is key to be considered for significant new client opportunities or larger opportunities within the same client organization. These indicators could be based on cost savings, increased revenue, market share, etc.
4) Know Your Customer Base
The problem that technology solves centers around the needs of a broad customer base. In the quest to build systems that make processes seamless, remember the needs of customers change so your methods and processes may need to be modified and adjusted to respond to the evolving needs of the customer.
5) Use Failures as Teaching Tools
Don’t view an ineffective method or system as a total failure. Rather when you encounter challenges, see them as helpful cues that enable you to improve your processes and enhance the services that technology delivers to the customer. By modifying how you respond to glitches in certain technical processes you can remain flexible to make needed adjustments that serve the customer without becoming critical and impeding your ability to perform.
Wonderful, we are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to open up technology programs for girls in various parts of Africa and am currently contributing to and sponsoring schools in South Africa and Uganda. The world is global, so all it takes is an internet connection and we are one. I would like to sponsor more technology schools/labs and develop curriculum for girls around the world to serve as a conduit to inspire them to pursue a career in technology.
My goal is to empower under-served girls and women in a way that does not infringe on their cultural beliefs. A lot of times when you try to modernize people and change them in order to develop a trade, it impedes upon their beliefs and values. I think that what I do in technology does not do that; it just provides innovative processes that girls and women can implement in an area of their choice to allow them to establish their own boundaries in engaging with technology. Such camps would generate value, revenue, and allow young girls and women in these countries to be in touch with things outside of their space from the comfort of their communities.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah. I want to have lunch with her and interview her like she does on Super Soul Sunday; she sits on a tree and interviews prominent thought leaders from various fields. I would love to converse with her like that. For me, faith and spirituality are so boundless, and I think that the practices that she discusses, the way she articulates and communicates, and the way she brings leaders together in different spaces allows her to serve as a conduit. I would value the opportunity to listen to her thought processes on how she does that and how she responds to her own highs and lows in life. I would like to soak up her wisdom on the value of keeping your circle tight and staying true to your mission and purpose. Gaining insights on how she makes decisions that help her to remain centered, calm, and still accountable to her purpose in life would be a blessing.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!