“Walk in your customer’s shoes.” With Douglas Brown & Judith Spitz

Walk in your customer’s shoes. Make sure you understand their needs. Be a business anthropologist and do ‘field work’, enter their world.Involve your customers in the design of your productDrink your own champagne — don’t ask your customers to do anything or use a product that you wouldn’t be delighted to use yourself. Asa part […]

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Walk in your customer’s shoes. Make sure you understand their needs. Be a business anthropologist and do ‘field work’, enter their world.

Involve your customers in the design of your product

Drink your own champagne — don’t ask your customers to do anything or use a product that you wouldn’t be delighted to use yourself.

Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Spitz.

Judith Spitz is on a mission: to create a world where women not only gain access to the technology field, but also feel a sense of belonging once they’re there. As a Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Verizon, she worked to cultivate the next generation of female leaders. As the founder and Executive Director of Break Through Tech, she is innovating new pathways for women into the tech industry by activating and aligning both sides of the supply chain — universities and businesses — to create ecosystems that span classrooms, workplaces, and the community.

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?

Asa CIO at Verizon, I had to have my eye on talent development and who was coming up behind me. When I asked my HR team to debrief me on the women who were on the promotional track but still a few levels below me — I couldn’t believe how few there were. In an organization of over 5000, I could count them on one hand. Being a scientist at heart, I started to do my research on what was happening in terms of women in tech — specifically women studying computer science at college — and I was shocked to find that the gender gap had been getting worse not better. The more I read the more shocked I was. One day, I remember saying to myself, why isn’t anyone doing anything about this? And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: You have 30 years of management experience driving large scale change. Why don’t YOU do something about it? And that was it — I was off and running — figuring out where the biggest leverage was to drive change at scale — how to approach the challenge differently than others had — and Break Through Tech was born.

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

The most interesting stories along my journey are the ones steeped in serendipity which I believe is an incredibly important component of success. The first is the story of how I got connected to Cornell Tech which is the home of my organization. As a matter of pure chance, I was asked to attend a ribbon-cutting event at Cornell University for the new Gates Hall of Computer Science because the invited representative from Verizon couldn’t attend. At the reception after the event, I happen to be chatting with the new Dean at Cornell Tech and told him about my ‘big idea’ about how to address the challenge of gender equality in tech in the New York market. He gave me his card and told me to come talk to him when we were both back in NYC — and that’s how Break Through Tech landed at Cornell Tech. A few months later I was at a conference about K-12 computer science education and started chatting with the woman sitting next to me. It turns out that she was a senior leader at the City University of New York and when I told her that we were looking for a large public university partner for Break Through Tech, she said “I’m in”. And that’s how the partnership between Break Through Tech and CUNY began. All the planning in the world won’t deliver transformational results without a dash of serendipity.

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?

It isn’t exactly a ‘mistake’ but early on in my career, I went from work location to work location holding ‘town halls’ — meetings in which I would talk to all the folks who worked for me in that city. During one of those events, there were a few hundred people in the audience and as I walked onto the stage to begin talking to the crowd, I tripped and fell flat on my face. I wasn’t hurt — other than a bruised ego as I was profoundly embarrassed. I gathered myself and gave the talk and then invited the next speaker up. As he was walking onto the stage he did this incredible ‘prat fall’ (on purpose, of course) and everyone became hysterical laughing — including me. What did I learn from that? The power of empathy, of sharing yourself and your vulnerabilities with others so they know they you are in the boat with them. It was an incredible lesson about how generosity of spirit can bind an organization together and that all boats rise when just one person is willing to demonstrate that they are in it for the group and not for themselves.

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?

Early on in my career, there was a search for a lead for the small team that I was on. After some time, management decided to offer me the job — my very first promotional opportunity — much to the chagrin of my teammates. They actually sat down with me, on multiple occasions, to try to convince me to turn down the promotion as they thought it would be better for the team to hire someone from outside the company. I was devastated and confused about what to do. These were my colleagues and friends and I felt like I was being selfish and letting them down if I accepted the position. After weeks of soul searching I finally decided to take the leadership role because I felt like I could do the job. It took a while for everyone to ‘get over it’ and in the end, I was sensitive to their needs and earned their respect. It was painful but I really believed that I would be a good leader and felt like it was more important not to disappoint myself than not to disappoint others. I’ve never looked back — it was the first of many promotions — and the first of many lessons I’ve learned about listening to yourself and about leading from the heart.

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?

There were three people along the way that held up a mirror for me that reflected what THEY saw, a ‘hypothetical version of myself’ that changed my life: 1. A math teacher in high school who told me that I had answered a question that no one else had ever answered, 2. A college professor who scribbled in the margins of a paper I wrote, “You should consider getting a Ph.D.” and 3. A corporate executive who offered me my first ‘big’ promotion. Each one changed the trajectory of my life and I didn’t even realize it until years later that the moves I made were the outgrowth of the seeds they had planted. But perhaps more concretely than any of these is my gratitude to Lowell McAdam, then CEO of Verizon, who said ‘Yes’ when I asked him to be the first corporate sponsor for Break Through Tech. In fact, he said, “You had me at ‘hello’ ☺”. The organization wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for him and his enthusiastic support in those earliest of days.

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

“The secret to happiness is to want what you have.” To me this is incredibly powerful because it is all about passion as a driving force in life — not about HAVING what you want but about the WANTING what you have. It is not about passively being happy with what life hands you. It is about being active in the expansion, development and growth in your own life. The lesson is that true happiness is found in the journey — not the destination or the accumulation of achievements. For me, it meant that as I was trying to balance a career and family, trying to follow my heart instead of the chorus of voices advising me how to ‘get ahead’ — understanding that what I was passionate about was learning new things, inspiring the people who worked for me, and dedicating myself to my family — as long as I had those things — I WANTED what I HAD. Without passion — nothing else matters.

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 demand for technology talent is significant and growing. By 2026 there will be 3.5M computing-related job openings and we will only be graduating 17% of the needed tech workforce. The unprecedented growth in the need for technology workers is coming at a time when the percentage of college degrees being awarded to women is at an all-time high of 58% and the percentage of college degrees in computer science and information technology awarded to women is near an all-time low of 18.7% — and the participation of Black and Latinx women in tech is in single digits. In Artificial Intelligence, one of the fastest growing areas in the tech world, the participation of women is even lower than in computer science as a whole. We cannot meet our global challenges and we cannot compete as a nation if we leave half of the available talent pool sitting on the sidelines of the tech economy. In addition to the workforce challenge, study after study has shown that no matter how you measure it (ROI, ROIC, bankruptcy rates, etc.) product development teams, investment portfolios, corporations and start-ups that have better gender diversity, perform better. Moreover, there is significant economic opportunity in tech careers and we need to prepare more women to take advantage of this opportunity.

Break Through Tech works at the intersection of academia and industry to propel more underrepresented women into higher education and careers in tech. We are a corporate-sponsored public/private partnership and through curriculum innovation, career access and community building, our goal is to achieve gender equality in tech by casting a wider net to draw more women into the undergraduate technology pipeline and then supporting and incenting them to enter and stay in the technology workforce. In each of these core program areas, we innovate to deliver programs that meet the needs of the particular demographic and socioeconomic population of students that attend large and highly diverse public colleges and universities.

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

Break Through Tech is unique in our approach to propelling more women into tech because we work to activate and align both sides of the supply chain — academia and industry. We are as comfortable compelling faculty and university provosts to do things differently as we are telling CIOs and CTOs that they need to change as well. There is a broken supply chain when it comes to ‘women in tech’ and the only way to address the challenge is to look in both directions — to the supply side and the demand side of the equation — identify where the barriers and leaks are — understand them and fix them — together. One example is a program we created called a ‘sprinternship’ that does exactly this. The results have been amazing in terms of women getting that first ‘foot in the door’ of a tech internship. What is interesting to me is that whether I am giving a talk to an audience of academic leaders OR a talk to an audience of business leaders, when I show the impact of the program both audiences always break out in applause. This is unusual to begin with at a professional conference — but it is really interesting that these two completely different audiences have exactly the same reaction which is — wow, why haven’t we tried this before? That’s when you know you’ve touched on something that really matters.

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

Break Through Tech was lucky enough to secure funding from Pivotal Ventures, the Cognizant U.S. Foundation and Verizon, to start expanding the model that we built in New York to cities across the country. We just launched in Chicago and will be announcing our next city later this year. Beyond just being able to drive change in more cities and impact the lives of more young women, this now opens that door for collaboration across cities — companies will be able to recruit Break Through Tech students from more cities and students will be able to form a network of women in tech that they can leverage throughout their careers as they grow in their professional years — serving as rocket boosters for each other.

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?

If you follow this area you know that the problem is not just that we don’t have enough women in tech, it is that the numbers have been getting worse over the last 30 years. The participation of women in undergraduate tech education decreased from 37% to 18% between 1985 and 2006 and remarkably, the numbers have been relatively flat for the last 15 years. In spite of the fact that virtually every business says that it wants to diversify their tech organizations in general and in particular to close the gender gap, they continue to recruit new talent in pretty much the same way as they always have. In order to get different results, we need to do things differently. I believe that there is one simple move we can make that will help change the status quo. We know that businesses use summer internships as a talent pipeline program along with on-campus recruiting. But let’s face it — companies will hire the ‘typical’ tech students (i.e. white males) who goes to a pedigree institution, and have strong personal and professional networks to leverage,whether they came through their summer internship program or not. It is the atypical, underrepresented student who needs a way to get their foot in the door — a way to level the playing field and show what they can do. If companies really want to move their diversity in tech statistics, they should reimagine their summer internship programs to focus specifically and exclusively on bringing in students from underrepresented populations — the groups that are disproportionately left out of the recruiting pipeline. Give them a ’10 week’ paid interview and a resume credential worth gold when job hunting (all the data shows that summer internships are strongly tied to a student’s ability to land a job when they graduate). If companies across the country made this move — I believe they would usher in a generation of women employed in tech which in turn — would change the culture of tech industry writ large.

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?

I think the biggest challenge that women in tech face is the brutal combination of a lack of confidence and a lack of allies. We all know the challenge of ‘imposter syndrome’ and of doubting your own capabilities. This can be particularly challenging in tech since the whole culture is built around finding mistakes that you or your colleagues have made (so-called ‘bugs’) and fixing them (‘de-bugging’). Built into this process and culture is having others look at your work and find the mistakes that you’ve made — something that requires a thick skin and a strong sense of community support. But the culture of tech has grown up over the last 20 years as a ‘brogrammer’ culture and women rarely feel the sense of belonging and ally-ship that is needed to persist through these tough times. Until we get more women in the tech ranks of companies so that the culture itself becomes more supportive — we need to establish and grow networks of women in tech who can be there for each other — beyond your own company’s four walls — who can encourage and cheer each other on — tell each other not to retreat in meetings or shy away from taking on challenging opportunities — or worse yet — to leave the field for one where you feel more welcomed.

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”?

Being on your second career is an interesting use-case of ‘restarting one’s engine’. My advice is simple: Talk to lots and lots of people and get different perspectives. Sometimes we can be too involved or invested in something to see that there is an entirely different, and often better, way to look at it. Second, check your ego at the door. Just because you got to where you are doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to get to where you’re going. Pivoting can be hard. The challenge is how to take all of that seasoned ‘wisdom’ and expertise you’ve developed and realize that you may have to go back to square one, roll up your sleeves and do the detailed ‘grunt’ work all over again, before you can resume your leadership role.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

I have worked in both academia and in industry and I’ve learned that one way or another, we are all in ‘sales’. To me the success of a high performance sales function is really knowing and understanding your customer. To walk in their shoes, understand their challenges, and share their goals. Selling someone or something is less about what you have to offer than it is about understanding what they need. That’s a culture that has to be infused throughout a sales team. If customers really feel like you have THEIR best interest at heart — you are more likely to close the deal.

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?

In the world of Break Through Tech, our students are our customers and our challenge is more about helping these young women see THEMSELVES as having a future in a tech career. We ‘attract’ them by opening their eyes to what tech careers are all about. We help them see that coding and computer science are not an end unto themselves but are merely tools to solve the problems they really are passionate about –from climate change to fashion tech and everything in between. We also have to work hard to break the stereotypes that have grown up around tech — that is a ‘loner sport’ (nothing could be farther from the truth), that it is ALL about coding (not true — tech jobs include designers, user experience experts, tech writers, data analysts, etc.) and that it isn’t a good job for working mothers (again untrue — tech careers are more conducive to working from home than almost any other career). Our job in attracting these women is to blow away the stereotypes of what it means to be ‘in tech’. We run a summer program for rising freshman women headed for college that is intended to do just this. We immerse them in the entire digital product development lifecycle to show them that ‘coding’ is only one part of the process and that all tech work happens in teams — not ‘alone in your basement’. The results? The women who go through this program are twice as likely to ‘see themselves’ as having a career in tech and go on to take a computer science class in college.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Walk in your customer’s shoes. Make sure you understand their needs. Be a business anthropologist and do ‘field work’, enter their world.
  2. Involve your customers in the design of your product
  3. Drink your own champagne — don’t ask your customers to do anything or use a product that you wouldn’t be delighted to use yourself.

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?

The best ‘retention’ programs I’ve seen are focused on having such a deep understanding of what motivates your customers and what they value that you know before they do that they are likely to ‘churn’. Know your audience! Throwing promotions and discounts at a customer will not help if what they value is the world’s best customer support. With that said, the single most important predictor of churn is the customer’s view of your ‘customer service’ That often depends on having a holistic view of your customer’s journey — the so-called and elusive ‘omni-channel’. The ability, whether through technology wizardry or old fashioned personal attention — to know that the customer who visited your website is the same human being who called your 1–800 number or walked into your store. Treat that person as whole person and you are more likely to have a customer for life.

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.

When I first started my career, the leader of my organization said something I’ll never forget in response to a question like this. His answer was that the 5 most important things in the success of a company are 1. the people, 2. the people 3. the people 4. the people and 5. the people. I think he was right. Nothing is more important to success than surrounding yourself with great people because they will bring all the other critical ingredients: smarts (always hire people smarter than yourself and who make up for your weaknesses), passion (why spend the majority of your waking hours working on something that you aren’t passionate about?), innovative ideas (this is one of the many reasons why diversity matters — because innovation comes from a diversity of ideas — not ‘group think’. I remember a world-renowned tech mentor of mine telling me that if two people in an organization always agree — one of them is unnecessary), and culture of teamwork (I don’t believe that we are two different people — the person at work and the person at home. We are who we are — some people may just hide it better than others. But I believe that all boats rise and companies soar when people bring their whole selves to work and treat team members like their lives (or at least livelihoods) depend on it. One thing women in tech have to learn is how to be great teammates without being deferential. It is not about singing kumbaya and letting your teammates take all the credit — but it IS about realizing that we win together and we lose together.

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. 🙂

We cannot meet our global challenges and we cannot compete as a nation if we leave half of the available talent pool sitting on the sidelines of the tech economy. We cannot compete as a nation if we leave half of the available talent pool on the sidelines of the economic opportunity for good paying jobs in tech. And we cannot meet our global challenges if we don’t understand that the people who make our technology, make our world and that more equality in tech means more equality for all of us. So how do we get women off the sidelines and into the game? I firmly believe that having some idea how software gets written is basic literacy in today’s digital world. You may never write a line of code in your professional life but you will most certainly be working with and/or impacted by those that do. Just as we require every college student to take a basic course in English composition and a Humanities course, etc., we should require a basic introduction to software development as a core requirement for a college degree. If you did that, every one of the women who make up 58% of the undergraduate ranks would get exposed to computer science. If only 3–4% of them discovered their interest and capability in this domain and realized that learning how to write code is not an end unto itself but instead is a tool that will allow you to solve the problems that they really ARE passionate about — we would close the gender gap in tech. That’s it — one move and the gender equality problem in tech will be a thing of the past.

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 🙂

Barack Obama, because he is the most inspirational speaker I have ever listened to and I want to know how he does it. His voice, his way of communicating can move nations. I would love to know how he would describe what makes his oratory abilities so unique and if others can learn something from him about this incredible skill.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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