“Pursue STEM.” With Penny Bauder & Amber Christian

I want every little girl and woman to know how amazing it is to be in STEM. I want women to have the confidence to pursue STEM if that is what they want. I also want them to know that if they wanted to run their own company someday, that would be normal. Of course […]

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I want every little girl and woman to know how amazing it is to be in STEM. I want women to have the confidence to pursue STEM if that is what they want. I also want them to know that if they wanted to run their own company someday, that would be normal. Of course it is a little scary sometimes, embracing the scary parts is what brings the fun!

I want our current and next generations to step forward to create the solutions of tomorrow. And to trust that the help will be there when they are brave enough to ask for it. We do not have to be perfect- we are already enough.

Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amber Christian a technologist turned entrepreneur. She’s worked as an analyst, project manager, and implementation consultant. Motivated by a passion to bring human centered design to software, in 2017 Amber founded Wonderly Software Solutions. Wonderly builds Bella Scena, productivity software that helps run more effective meetings, plan your time, and focus on your highest priorities. Amber and her husband Matt live together in Minneapolis, MN. She holds a B.B.A in Management Information Sciences and an MBA in Finance.

Amber has 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, management, and software development. She’s an experienced leader, writer, and speaker on a variety of management and technology topics.
You can learn more about her product Bella Scena at https://meetbellascena.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Mycareer in technology started in college. I took a class in business school called Introduction to MIS (Management Information Systems). My professor Dr. Harold Pardue made the course incredibly interesting. This sparked a passion and curiosity for technology. I love solving puzzles, and I saw technology is a giant, continuous changing puzzle. This kindled my love for solving business problems with technology.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

When I started Wonderly Software Solutions, I knew I wanted to build software alongside customers. I wanted customers involved in providing feedback for my products. I didn’t know how exactly to go about doing this, but I had 20 years of technology experience to lean on. A lot of my used my gut feeling about the best way to approach building a software product. Along the way I learned the process of engaging customers in the process is called Human Centered Design. Our software product is Bella Scena. Near the end of this two year journey I started writing and speaking more about the process we used to build Bella. The most interesting part for me is how often I would hear, “Oh this process makes a ton of sense!” In hindsight, sure it makes sense and I can repeat it now. But at the time it was simply me getting in the trenches and navigating it!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on in my career in the SAP industry before I launched my startup, I supported Accounts Payable. One day we had an issue with a payment file that didn’t process to our bank. I was able to fix the issue. I accidentally sent all the email remittances to suppliers from my email address instead of the Accounts Payable group. Oops! For years to come some suppliers wanted me to be their personal help desk. I received all sorts of invoicing questions I couldn’t answer. I learned a few lessons from it- be careful when you are fixing problems! But the more important lesson was how much people like knowing having a human on the other side of processes.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our processes for building Bella’s technology make us different. We focus on using human centered design to build our software products. This means regular conversations with existing and prospective customers. These conversations help us ensure we have a clear understanding of the problem. While we can’t solve every problem, it helps us understand which problems are the most important. We gathered feedback on our product during the initial build from over 150 people. Over half the feedback was from women. Different perspectives in the conversation allow us to approach endemic problems with fresh eyes. It allows us to create products that are more representative of the customers that will use them.

One example of this is our to-do list in Bella Scena. We heard from customers that each item on the to-do list doesn’t require the same effort. Some may take 30 minutes, others may take 2 hours. Yet most products treat them the same. Our product includes a visual design for your to do list. It lets you add the amount of time a to-do takes. It then visually adjusts the height of the to-do to reflect it is a greater effort. Now when you are planning out when you will complete your to-do you can account for how long they will take. We have examples like this embedded throughout our product.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We have completed our core functionality to help improve meetings. While we continue to improve this, we are also working to help you gain one complete view of your time. We are adding integrations to bring tasks in from third party systems. Examples include CRM and project management systems. This will give you one visual view of all the items you need to get done so you can plan better. We call it the last mile of scheduling.

Individual departments and functions have been advancing in their internal process optimization. Anyone working with multiple functions are drowning under these results. Each group often has their own systems and processes. And we should “just” look at all these systems to figure out how to plan our time. We are adding integrations from these systems to Bella. We want to help you gain overall perspective on your work so that it is easier to prioritize.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I am not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM. In technology, we are really struggling to strike a balance. It’s hurting our innovation and our competitiveness.

We need to have more conversations with our male counterparts and allies in tech. We need to focus on how to create positive change. This is not about holding hands and singing “Kumbaya”. It’s not trying to boil the ocean with impossible goals. It’s creating a dialog for what the world looks like from the viewpoint of different genders. Then we can craft a plan to move forward together. We need to honor the strengths and gifts we all bring to create something different. We cannot simply ask women to “fix” the status quo regarding women in STEM. It has to be a multifaceted effort. Oh yeah, and we have to do it while still delivering our business outcomes. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Some areas within technology are ready for this conversation. I am 100% certain of this because I am asked regularly how men can make a difference to help keep women in STEM. I want us to start with the dropout rate of women in STEM. We often hear about a “pipeline” problem, but don’t talk so much about the dropout rate for those in technology. If we can improve the industry dropout rate, this is a positive step. We should also try bring dropouts back to the industry. This might necessitate more flexible or different work arrangements. We are facing critical labor shortages in different areas of tech. We need to be creative together to addresses these problems.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

When I talk with many women about taking new technology roles or starting their own company, there is a lot of fear. Fear about being good enough, or fear about what we don’t know. It’s not about being fearless. It’s about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. We need to start seeing fear as a helpful guide telling us when we may need additional outside expertise. Creating a strong supporting network can help diminish some of these fears. But we need to create our networks long before we need them. This requires us to get outside of our comfort zone or at least expand our comfort zone.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

First, tech is not synonymous with writing code. There is a perception about working in technology. It means you are locked in a basement cubicle writing code and never talking to another person! I’m not sure where this comes from, but I hear it quite a bit. There are many different roles in technology. Analyzing data and processes, design, project management and coding are all important. There is an incredible variety of opportunities available in tech.

Second, you can’t be a “people person” and work in technology. We need more people that love working with people in the technology field! We all come with different gifts and strengths. Some technology roles may require deep technical work. Other roles require strong communication skills. Innovation occurs when we put all the skills and perspectives together. When we make space we can create something new.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Invest in your team. Make sure your team is continuing to learn and grow. It’s easy to throw training and development out the window to reach short term goals. This may not even impact the team in the short run. We all have larger problems to solve right?

Within a few years of this pattern gaps will begin appearing. Team skills will not be up to date, and it will seem like work is harder than it should be. Team members also start disengaging if they are receiving no investment. With a plethora of online and low cost materials, there is no reason to skip this investment in people. The key is to plan ahead. Give yourself plenty of time to complete training. Waiting until the last moment often ensures an emergency will occur. Then training goes out the window until next year.

As a company building software, it’s important for us to keep technical skills up to date. A couple times a year I step back with my CTO and look at where we are at. We talk about what technology skills we need to keep growing. We talk about what we should know internally, versus what we should hire for contract skills to fill gaps. We look at our product and company road map. For anything we will learn internally, we build extra time into our plans. This allows us to make sure any training occurs before we need the skills.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team.

Large teams can be particularly challenging, because of coordination and time management. Create and leverage pockets of expertise among the team to allow others to shine. This frees up time to work through challenging aspects of the team.

Empower and expect the team to communicate but putting in place the structure for it. This isn’t a structure where the individual managing the team is delivering all the updates. Updates should come from different members of the team. It is simple in theory, but requires planning and organization to be done well.

One example from my company was how we managed our initial product development. We believe in transparency, even when it’s painful. We have internal employees and contractors. Different companies manage different components. Each week we would all have meetings to talk through all aspects of the project.

Transparency is hard when you encounter problems and challenges in different areas. It shines a light on issues and is the key to progress and improvement. For us, it allowed everyone to march to the same drumbeat for what we needed to deliver. It also allowed us to be proactive in addressing problems.

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?

My mother. When I was growing up, my mother insisted I become proficient in writing and public speaking. In her eyes, this was non-negotiable as it was necessary for me to develop a solid foundation. She enrolled me in speech as an extracurricular activity in high school. At age 15, I was memorizing serious poetry and serious prose. More importantly, I was getting comfortable speaking in front of others. No coach was as tough on me as my mom. I excelled at speaking and enjoyed it, which helped.

I didn’t understand what a gift those skills are at that time. Later it led me to Toastmasters where I continued refining my speaking skills. As my career has progressed, both speaking and writing are now second nature to me. These gifts have opened doors to write for publications. It has also provided opportunities to speak nationally and internationally. As an entrepreneur, it is one less barrier for me to overcome as I build my company.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve always believed in the being the change you want to see in the world. I’m an introvert by nature, and jumping on stage was something I had to learn how to do. It is very difficult for women to embrace the entrepreneurial journey if they never see it. We need to see it to be it. I make sure to write and speak so that other women don’t feel so isolated. This is one way I give back.

As a company, we donate back 1% of our revenues to causes that support the advancement of women and girls in STEM. This is our way of paying it forward for the next generation of women in STEM.

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 want every little girl and woman to know how amazing it is to be in STEM. I want women to have the confidence to pursue STEM if that is what they want. I also want them to know that if they wanted to run their own company someday, that would be normal. Of course it is a little scary sometimes, embracing the scary parts is what brings the fun!

I want our current and next generations to step forward to create the solutions of tomorrow. And to trust that the help will be there when they are brave enough to ask for it. We do not have to be perfect- we are already enough.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be the turtle” is my favorite life lesson right now. The journey to building a team, a product, or even a company is a marathon. If you try to run sprint fast all the time you will burn out. Embrace being the turtle. It’s okay to steadily plug along as you grow and grow your company.

I initial spent two years working my full time job while building our software product on the side. It was hard to embrace being the turtle and steadily continuing to build. It allowed us to bring a stable product to the market to build a base upon which we can grow.

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 🙂

Warren Buffett — I really respect and admire the Oracle of Omaha. His business sense for building profitable steady companies is remarkable and I would love to ask questions about this, even though I know he doesn’t often dabble in software. I would still love to listen to wisdom about building companies well.

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