Women CTOs are rare in the technology industry. Here's how one cracked the glass ceiling and took on this tough management role.

By Sonia R. Lelii
Dice News Staff | October 2008

Gianna Giavelli is chief technology officer at privately-held Blueturn Media, a San Diego technology services company that offers IT consulting and software engineering to government and commercial clients around the world. A 20-year IT veteran, Giavelli recently talked to Dice News about being a female CTO in a predominately male industry.

How many female CTOs have you encountered during your career?

I believe there are a few others out there, but none whom I've met personally. I read something recently that a lot of sharp women chose law over technology for the stability. While you can do very well with a law degree, it really comes down to what do you enjoy. Unfortunately, today a lot of people are being driven away from technology since it's one of the areas under attack.

How did you end up being a CTO?

My education wasn't as important as showing responsibility and leadership early on. Even on my first jobs and first projects, I took charge and initiative and was soon leading a project. You have to add to that being the technical expert on your projects that people can come to for solutions. For a lot of engineers, management seems foreign, but really the best management is very sharp technically. There are actually very few technical managers out there since writing code can seem like the be-all and end-all, but I like the diversity of being thrown a lot of different problems in the same day.

I assume you have plenty of experience hiring IT workers. What are some of the biggest mistakes job candidates make on their resumes, and in interviews?

In the tech market, people focus too much on listing buzz words and acronyms, and not enough on what they've done, what problems they've solved, what they've done to innovate.

What general advice can you give to women in technology?

You do see some female managers with short hair and gruff exteriors. I think that's changing now and becoming an outdated model. Just be yourself.

Do you have any particular communication techniques that you use to build a relationship with your male co-workers and those you supervise?

Directness and no politics.

What are the top challenges your IT operations currently face?

In a successful startup it's always been about managing growth, but more common nowadays is implementing correctly complex new approaches like Service Oriented Architecture. That's one area we are helping other companies with as well.

How do you approach an interview?

An interview should be an interactive exploration, not a canned questionnaire. I had this one interview where a guy was reading a list of technical questions without looking at me and trying to type in the answers in a very clinical way. His wheezing was so loud it distracted me and I couldn't think. It was like being interviewed by Darth Vader. Long story short, don't be clinical. Interact and respond.

How do you judge a candidate?

I always look for knowing how to apply technologies and their limitations and problems, not just book smarts about a technology. What's the difference between J2ee 2.1 and 3? Okay, why did they make those changes? What were the drawbacks of earlier versions? Candidates who understand technologies and how they have evolved will better understand where to apply them.

On the other hand, everyone gets flustered or tip-of-the-tongue syndrome under interview stress. Never discount someone just because they missed one simple area. Spend the time to explore what they know.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting a job search?

Get senior people to review your resume. It's always very hard to know if it's working when you're the one who wrote it.

Do you see any particular emerging area in technology where IT workers can get a head-start?

It's getting more critical to know everything. Java and C#. Systems work and front end. Mainframe computing and iPhone. For someone starting out, really learning the insides and out of object relational mapping and cacheing is a good foundation.

Right now SOA is one of the emerging technologies and also one that companies are struggling with. The big consulting companies who produce the products want to come in and sell everything, and end up with impossibly complicated solutions. Again, it isn't knowing the product or technology in-depth that makes the difference. It's knowing the right application of that technology.  People who are good in technology are increadible learners - and it definately gets harder as you get older.

Sonia R. Lelii is a Dice News Staff Writer. She can be reached at sonia.lelii@dice.com.