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STEM-Sational: Meet Rani Johnson & Autumn Manning

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Innovative women working on the cutting edge of Austin’s tech community continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in this long male-dominated industry while laying the groundwork to make the field more welcoming to women.

By Mauri Elbel, Photos By Kara E. Henderson

It’s no secret women are underrepresented in the field of technology. Although females make up more than half the U.S. workforce, they represent less than 20 percent of U.S. tech workers. But for women wanting a career filled with innovation and creativity, poised to solve some of the world’s most complex problems, the tech industry offers endless opportunities. From a female chief information officer who embarked on a tech path from an early age to a female CEO who draws from her knowledge in human behavior to drive positive change through technology, these two corporate tech powerhouses prove what women can do in this male-dominated field and are paving the way for more enterprising women to follow in their footsteps and continue to dramatically impact the industry.

Autumn Manning |Co-Founder and CEO of YouEarnedIt

Autumn Manning never envisioned a career in technology— much less heading up a tech company.

“I wouldn’t have ever dreamed of being a CEO of a fastgrowing tech company,” says Manning, the co-founder and chief executive officer of YouEarnedIt, an Austin-based tech company that provides real-time recognition, employee rewards, performance management and enhanced analytics to build better cultures and companies.

While Manning doesn’t have any formal training in the tech field, she doesn’t believe it’s a requirement to experience a fulfilling career in the industry. After she grew up as the oldest daughter of five children raised by a single mom who worked around the clock, Manning’s primary role was to look after her younger siblings until she went off to college at the University of Arkansas, where she earned a degree in psychology. Throughout her childhood, her family moved a lot, relocating at least once a year, sometimes as often as every eight months.

“I learned at a very young age how to be adaptable and adjust to your environment,” Manning says. “I learned how to read the cues and clues in whatever environment you are in to be successful, which is especially relevant in the fast-paced tech world.”

It was early in her career while working for a consulting company that built human-resources technologies for large enterprise corporations that she developed a passion for technology and the impact it can have.

“For me,” Manning says, “there is something magical about the fact that tech allows you to do anything at scale: to pivot quickly, to innovate, to dream up whatever you feel is important and to build it quickly and see if there’s relevance to a market.”

Drawing from a lifelong curiosity about understanding human behavior and an educational background in behavioral psychology, Manning has been able to enhance corporate culture and improve the lives of employees throughout the world. While she was never the one doing the coding, she was the one leading the product design, applying her understanding of human behavior to solve questions about how to make better leaders, how to build better cultures and how to drive better connection for employees in their companies.

It was during lunch with an entrepreneurial-minded colleague seven years ago that the opportunity arose to cofound and lead YouEarnedIt, a company that now partners with more than 500 global organizations to create high-performance cultures and motivated workforces.

Females should really be intentional about searching for a company that sees the value in women in leadership and supports them.

“He suggested I start YouEarnedIt, become the CEO and build the product from there,” says Manning, who turned down the leadership position for three months before accepting it. “During lunch, two things crossed my mind: One, I had never been a CEO. I assumed this serious title came with all of these things I didn’t know how to do, and that simply wasn’t true. Two, I had this inaccurate belief that if I was in the No. 1 spot, all the pressure would be on me. But when I am incredibly passionate about something, there isn’t a second gear. I am going to be extremely focused, no matter the role I am in.”

Manning says women, far more than their male colleagues, have a tendency to question their ability to take on tech leadership roles. As a volunteer for causes focused on females in technology and working mothers, she often discusses this with other women in the field.

“It’s hard to believe you can move into tech unless you see others like you in tech. It is hard to believe you can be a CEO unless you can see other women as CEOs,” she says. “If a female is looking at a company or engineering team without other females, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t belong there. Just because you don’t see it modeled in front of you, it doesn’t mean that we don’t belong.”

Manning encourages women to avoid compartmentalizing themselves. She says to be an effective leader and have a sustainable career, women have to show up authentically. Rather than segmenting the different aspects of her life from her career, she identifies with being a co-founder and CEO of a tech company, with being a woman, with being a mother of two, with being a person who is incredibly passionate about culture and driving positive behavioral change, and with being a leader in the tech field.

“These components all make up who I am and they certainly influence how I lead,” Manning says. “But from a very young age, I didn’t compartmentalize my personal life from my career. Being a female in leadership is not the only thing I identify with. I was never hiding the fact that I was a mom. I didn’t shy away from being clear about my priorities, but I was also confident and clear in the performance I could deliver in my role.”

Though Manning is leaving YouEarnedIt to pursue new opportunities, she will remain engaged with the company as co-founder and “chief evangelist.” And regardless of her position, she will long be known as a change-maker in the tech industry.

But creating change and increasing diversity in the field of tech is twofold, according to Manning, who says it’s hard to talk about how to help women without equally discussing the responsibility of corporations.

“I also think it is the obligation and responsibility of the company to seek to create a more inclusive environment with more inclusive operational and people practices,” she says. “Companies need to be intentional about bringing about a culture that brings out the best of all employees, one that is inclusive of women and diverse team members and the culture you want to drive success.”

At YouEarnedIt, for example, common challenges are mitigated by regularly reviewing pay equity for all employees, removing names from resumes to eliminate the potential for unconscious bias and holding open dialogues to drive awareness across the board.

“If a woman feels she cannot fully be herself because she’s afraid that she might be perceived as too emotional or she’s afraid she will be judged for having to leave to pick up the kids, she might hold herself back from the leadership positions she is qualified for,” Manning says. “Females should really be intentional about searching for a company that sees the value in women in leadership and supports them.”

Rani Johnson | Global Vice President and Chief Information Officer for SolarWinds

When Rani Johnson was a young girl, she liked to take things apart. Whether it was the family TV set or video games, Johnson had an innate desire to see how things worked.

“My mother pointed me to computer science. It was less destructive,” laughs Johnson, who credits her father, a mechanical engineer, and her mother, a health-information officer, with nurturing and guiding her interests from the very beginning.

From an early age, Johnson was exposed to technology. She grew up in the Clear Lake area of Houston, where most of her peers had parents who were engineers working at NASA, in the oil-and-gas industry or in other science- and tech-related professions. This, coupled with her parents’ commitment to her interests and education, was a major driver influencing her decision to pursue a path in STEM. From the time Johnson was 12 years old, she spent her summers enrolled in STEM camps at various colleges. She decided her educational path early on and earned a computer-science degree from Spelman College and an electrical engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology.

Before long, she was leading various global IT teams in the private and public sectors, including directing the IT team for Austin Energy and working as chief information officer for the Lower Colorado River Authority. She even worked as a NASA computer scientist at Johnson Space Center.

In 2017, Johnson became the global vice president and CIO at SolarWinds, an IT-infrastructure-management company head – quartered in Austin with more than 30 offices and 2,500 employees worldwide.

“I have been in software for over 20 years, and when given the opportunity to join SolarWinds, it was a dream come true,” says Johnson, who currently leads a global IT team of more than 150 members. “What drew me in was the opportunity to lead an IT team for an IT software company.”

But there was another bonus that accompanied taking on her new role at SolarWinds. In Johnson’s decades-long career in the male-dominated tech industry, she has never worked with so many other women.

“There are more women at SolarWinds than at any company where I have ever worked,” Johnson says.

Women have to have a pioneering spirit to succeed in technology. You can’t be afraid to be first or to stand out on your own.

SolarWinds employs 217 women in its Austin office alone, including 58 female executives and leaders. It’s a far stretch from Johnson’s first position in Austin, when she was the only woman in the entire office. Throughout her education and career in the tech field, Johnson says she’s had to learn how to get comfortable standing out in order to turn challenges into opportunities.

“I had to get comfortable with being different,” Johnson says. “There were very few women, if any, in most of my engineering classes, and certainly when I was starting my career. I had to become accustomed to being the only woman, and also African American. I had to find my voice and become confident and assertive in a room full of people who didn’t look like me.”

When it comes time to hire or promote employees, managers often gravitate to candidates they can identify with or relate to. Johnson encourages women to find a way to overcome that bias. Otherwise, they can be excluded from opportunities they are perfectly qualified for.

“Tech is all about innovating, doing some – thing that no one has done before,” she says. “Women have to have a pioneering spirit to succeed in technology. You can’t be afraid to be first or to stand out on your own.”

She also acknowledges women, unlike men, have a tendency to question themselves: When men are given an opportunity, they don’t overanalyze their qualifications to the extent women often do.

“When I got my first CIO opportunity, I had been doing that role for a while but just never had the title. I knew I could do it, but why did I question myself? Women often need to know everything before we feel confident enough to accept a new opportunity. Women need to get better at this, to teach girls to be more confident.”

Johnson encourages more women to consider jobs in the field, even women without tech-focused degrees. For women without a tech background who are interested in the field, Johnson suggests pursing technology project management, which requires great organizational and prioritizing skills. Cybersecurity is also a hot market and offers interesting opportunities for women with psychology backgrounds. For Johnson, who is married and has a stepdaughter, the key to creating a manageable work/life balance has been prioritizing the things she values most and learning to say no to the things that compete with them.

“Women tend to be more giving and are reluctant to decline requests for our personal time, which can get overwhelming,” she says. “Prioritization is something I had to learn by saying no to things that interfere with what is most important to me.”

Her priorities include getting enough sleep to have the brain power and patience to tackle daily challenges and be a good leader to her team, as well as setting aside time on the weekends for recouping, relaxing and being with family. She also says it’s important for women to have a team of family and friends who can encourage and nurture them. The 12 women who were on the same scholarship dual-degree program as Johnson comprise her biggest support system and remain her cheerleaders to this day. And every morning before work, she calls her mom.

“She reads a daily devotional to me as I drive to work in the morning,” Johnson says. “She lives in California and it’s usually 5 a.m. her time. Our routine schedule is slightly ridiculous, but so very sweet.”

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