Dell acquired co-founder Paula Long's storage area networking company EqualLogic for $1.4 billion in 2007 - history’s largest cash payout for a venture-backed firm. By Paula Long (Co-Founder & VP Products/Strategy, EqualLogic)
My path to a career in technology was not straightforward. I didn’t start out knowing what I was going to do, and I certainly didn’t think about how being a woman might influence my career. I was just a typical kid growing up in the 70s - back when we had terrible taste in music (think disco) and school was something you did because your parents made you. The role of women was just starting to change.
My college career was – umm – “scenic”. I changed majors multiple times, and colleges almost as often. I even took a sabbatical in the middle of my college career. During my sabbatical, I ended up working in the accounting office for a department store counting money (of course, machines do this today). Landing in this dead-end job was probably the best thing that happened to me. It helped me focus, and I realized that I needed to figure out what would make me happy.
My parents supported me through all the thrashing I was going through – they had the patience of a saint. One of my father’s favorite sayings was “Paula you can do anything, but you should do something.” In fact, he was the one who suggested I pursue a degree in computer science at a college near our home in Connecticut. In those days, computer science majors were sponsored through the math department, and I was good in math and puzzles. His theory was I might like computers. I figured it was better than counting money that wasn’t mine, so I went back to college and pursued a BSCS degree.
From my first computer class, I knew I found a place I fit. It was amazing. I went from someone who did just enough to get by, to someone who spent hours in the computer lab perfecting programs I’d built. I was one of only a handful of women in the program. The professors were clearly rooting for me to succeed and made sure I felt comfortable and wanted.
On the other hand, my fellow male students were leery of me initially. They weren’t sure how to treat me. There were lots of group projects so this was a problem at first. However, once they realized I wasn’t looking for them to act differently around me and that I was willing to do more than my fair share on projects, they warmed up.
The journey still continues, here are some observations I have seen so far.
Observation #1 - Don’t expect people to change so you can fit in. You should never compromise who you are, but you also cannot ask people to change the culture for you.
My first job out of school was working as a programmer on the Tomahawk cruise missile for the Navy. The number of people who thought I was a secretary in this male dominated southern environment used to drive me nuts. I remember being in the grocery store one day - wearing my work badge, when a woman in the checkout line asked me if I was secretary working on the base. I was so proud of my programming job, I passionately said, “No” and explained what my role was (I probably overstated it).
The next thing I know, the woman was lecturing me about how I was a war monger and that people would die because of me. This went on for 10 minutes or so, and she followed me to my car. The movie “The Day After” had aired the night before and scared some people. The next time someone asked me if I was a secretary, and there have been many, I’ve said “something like that”: I doubt this would have happened to any of my male colleagues.
Observation #2 - Accept that people might stereotype you. It doesn’t matter. You define who you are, not other people.
As one of only a few women in what was a male dominated workplace, it was definitely a dating rich environment. Mixing relationships at work was tricky. I did this twice. The first time didn’t go so well because we were visibly a couple at work. Our relationship made other people uncomfortable and folks assumed he was helping me be successful (unfounded assumption). When we broke up, it was awkward. The second time was more successful. I’ve been married to Richard for 23 years. We kept work and our relationship separate. Right after we were married, we found positions at two different companies. He’s an amazing person and we were lucky to find each other.
Observation #3 - Keep your personal life and work life separate.
I advanced quickly in my career, but it was clear some people thought this happened because of my gender and not my skills. This perception drove me to feel like I had to prove how smart I was and that I earned the right to be where I was. But then I remember something my father said when he found out once that I had worked all night to finish someone else’s piece of a project: “If you have to tell someone how smart you are, either you are not that smart, or they are too stupid to notice.”
Observation #4 - Some people will believe you are the token female - even today. Accept it and don’t kill yourself trying to prove that you belong. You do.
I got the startup bug about 13 years ago. Before taking on such a challenge, I discussed it with my husband and then nine-year-old son.
I told them I wanted to be a Founder in a company. I explained that my work partners and I would be taking money from Venture Capitalists (VCs) and hiring people to work for us. We would be responsible for other people’s livelihood. I also told them the hours would be brutal, and that even when I was home I would be focused on work a lot of the time. Basically, I told them that we’d all be Founders since this would change our family life. Because they both knew this was my dream, they told me to “go for it”.
Observation #5 - Your family needs to buy into your career choices. They are a big part of any successes.
I worked at a couple of startups before becoming a Founder in a startup in April of 2001. While trying to raise our initial round of money, I remember talking to a respected VC. He asked me what I would do to make sure the company was successful. I paused for a minute and said, “I’d die in the attempt to ensure the company would be successful.”
He then asked me what a successful company looked like to me. I said, “Happy customers, happy culture and product leadership in our segment.” He said, “You’ll do.” (Later I learned most people answered the question by saying “they’d kill to be successful” and that success was measured in dollars.)
I went on to help build a company that was considered best in breed in our space, was profitable and had a high retention rate. We were bought by Dell, and it has been a win/win for our company and Dell.
Observation #6 - You need to put the customers and people first to be successful. Never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do. Things will happen, but if you have the trust and respect of the people, you’ll make it through.
While I’ve had success as a Founder, I have some regrets as well. Richard took the lead raising our son, Andrew. Andy remembers his dad was the one who took him to soccer games and doctor appointments. He also remembers coming to work with me when his dad was traveling. Then, as my work life became more intense, Richard became a contractor so he could have more flexibility in his hours. This allowed Richard to take summers off to be with Andy.
Andy is 19 now and a terrific person. He’s smart, funny and very independent. Andy knew he was loved, but he also knew his friend’s moms did many of the tasks his dad did. We made this tradeoff as a family. Do I regret it? Yes. Would I do things different if I could? Probably not.
Observation #7 - If you are going to have children, you and your partner can’t both be on the fast track at the same time. Make sure everyone knows what they have signed up for.
I have had a successful career in technology; however, my choices may not be for everyone. Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion about women having it all – career and family. The truth is “having it all” is highly overrated. You are going to have to make compromises – at work and at home.
If I were to “net this out,” I’d say being a woman doesn’t give you an advantage or a disadvantage in any career choice. Some people will try to make being a woman an issue. But that only works if you let it. Success is up to you and everyone’s path to find success is uniquely their own.
Observation #8 - Make sure to remember what’s important to you and what things you won’t compromise.
Pursuing what makes you happy should be your goal.
This post was originally posted at Under The Microscope. About the guest blogger: Paula Long was co-founder and Vice President of Products and Strategy at storage area networking company EqualLogic. Dell acquired EqualLogic for $1.6 billion in 2007. She is currently co-founder and CEO at DataGravity, turning data into information. She has held numerous technical leadership positions at a variety of technology companies. Paula is on the Board of Directors for SugarSync and an Advisory Board Member for several storage related startups.