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Adapting intelligent technologies for business innovation, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, is a critical step for companies to fuel their long-term transformation to an intelligent enterprise and stay competitive. Equally important is having a team with the right skill sets in place, not just for today, but for the next five years. The ever-changing technology landscape requires a continuous upskilling and reskilling of team members and finding the right technology partners who help turn a technology promise into business impact. The changing skill set requirements have blurred the lines between traditional career paths. This has opened up new career opportunities for women.

I recently sat down with Maria Riehl, a Project Manager in SAP’s Application Innovation Services team, to discuss how she decided which steps to take to build her career as a woman in the technology industry. Maria’s current role is a balancing act between two formerly separate positions: technology expert and project manager.

Did you always know you wanted to work in technology?

At the beginning of my studies, I didn’t know what subject and career would be the best for me. Following my father’s footsteps, I started off with studying commerce and business science. During the years, I gravitated more and more towards computer sciences.

My father had been an early adopter of computer technology. At home, we started with a Philips P2000 computer that was connected to our TV. This is where, aside from playing Pac-Man, I wrote my very first coding lines, so I guess you could say that technology and its potential had fascinated me from the early days on. Still, it took a while for me to realize that I could pursue a career in technology as well.

One year after I started my first job, I applied for a leadership position at that company. During the job interview, I was astonished and shocked to be confronted with dubious questions regarding my political position and trade-union affiliation that had nothing to do with my personal motivation or aptitude to fulfill the job requirements. This is where I came upon the very first fork in my career path: Should I swallow my anger and still apply for the position despite  my doubts? Or should I decide in favor of my own interests and beliefs and take the occupational risk? I followed my conviction and went for the latter, thus protecting my own integrity. That, right there, was my first lesson in leadership: Always stay true to yourself and never betray your own principles. There’s no need to bury one’s head in the sand – we can change the way we deal with uncertainty by looking at it as an opportunity for change. The experience lent me courage and confidence, and I allowed myself to be more demanding in my claims. This is how I took my future into my own hands by turning my interest in technology into a career, and in 2003, I joined SAP in the support area.

What was it like learning to code for the first time?

It was exciting and like a game. I remember the thrill of finding the correct storage area on the data cassette, and the joy of finding the necessary cables my mum had hidden in the hope of luring me away from my hobby after hours of searching. When I started my job in product support at SAP, I instead felt like I was playing a game of Sudoku. In the support area, you need to understand what the customer really wants, match it against the existing functionality, and find a good solution that does not only fit to this customer, but to all.

After accepting a fellowship as a process and technology advisor for a custom development project, I realized that I had found my calling: Defining new custom processes, building whole system landscapes and support structures from scratch, thus also providing the basis for successful negotiations with the customer – all highly individualized and perfectly trimmed to fit the customer’s needs… This is what inspires and drives me to this day. The fellowship was my first career breakthrough and at the same time my personal access point to custom development. Now I’m filling a project management position, combining an IT expert role with a project management lead role, but minus the human resources responsibility. Expert roles and team management roles are traditionally two separate career paths, but with changing customer requirements, customer support today requires a mix of both skillsets: expert knowledge and project management. You also need to be comfortable with changing IT landscapes and business requirements. You don’t always know what to expect at the beginning, but you can find the right path step by step.

Why is it so important to attract and retain women in technology leadership positions?

The more women we have in leadership positions as role models, the more women will recognize technology as a good career choice and follow suit. I had the good fortune of working with a number of female managers throughout my career. They taught me how to sell myself in the professional world and, most importantly, not to hide my light under a bushel. The women I had the pleasure to work with brought much needed soft skills for team leadership to the table, in addition to hard skills.

These soft skills can keep teams together. They connect and empower team members across the organization.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in tech?

The career paths and opportunities for women in technology are growing. Believe in yourself and you will be successful. You may need perseverance, but it pays off. You need to play your cards as they’re dealt and take the chances you get but stand to your convictions.

A career is not always a linear path. It can have turns along the way. Technologies and job skills change constantly. Take challenges as opportunities to learn and explore new paths.  Build a strong network of colleagues, male and female, along the way. Last but not least, communicate your goals for your next career step clearly.

You said earlier that you’ve fulfilled your dream of working as a project lead in an organization. Any new dreams?

My next goal is to develop my leadership skills as a project lead. To find the best solution for customers often requires shifting mindsets within and outside the project team. I work closely with my team manager on developing and applying leadership skills to enhance my project management capabilities, all in an effort to follow in the former project manager’s footsteps who set the bar for excellent customer support very high. As a project management lead, I don’t have a team of direct reports. Instead, I collaborate with colleagues across departments on customer projects. In such an occupational area, there can be no paved roads, but this is exactly why it’s so intriguing for me.