In anticipation of Catalyst 2016, we’re highlighting some of our incredible speakers. First up: Cheryl Porro, CTO of salesforce.org. Check out the rest of the inspiring speaker line-up, and read Cheryl’s full bio here.
What will you be speaking about at the Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference?
What it is like to build technology specifically for nonprofits, and about nonprofit technology in general. I’ll be talking about purpose-driven work, and how it can help accelerate your career. I’ll be folding in some data points, but many personal stories, too.
You started your career in chemical engineering. What led you to pursue chemical engineering?
Well, I was good at chemistry. In addition to being pretty good at it, I also heard it was the hardest of all the engineering majors at the time. It was the hardest major I could go for. I was always good at math and science. I pushed myself; my parents pushed me as well. But hearing how hard it was, that became a part of my identity. I just had to try to do something that I was told I couldn’t do.
And then what prompted you to move into software?
I got into the job market and I was like, “Ew—I don’t like this work!” [Laughs]. Looking back, every company I interviewed with asked me the same series of questions. Things like: Do I want to work on weapons testing? Animal testing? Work in oil fields? Nope. I wasn’t comfortable with most of those things. I realized, the lifestyle I wanted didn’t really fit in with the career I had initially chosen. I love living in a city. I like urban environments. I like music, art. I enjoy my life outside of work. When I moved to Silicon Valley, I became exposed to tech. And it hit me: I have to get out of chemical engineering. So, I essentially started at a tiny software company. I was a quality engineer. I taught myself.
You paved your own path.
Yes. And once I got going, I saw there was a pattern. I would be put into a manager role at companies within a few months. I’m a naturally social person. I like being around other people. But a lot of people on my teams didn’t feel the same, so as an engineer I stood out. I found out that I was learning quickly and I always wound up being the lead or manager fairly quickly.
And is managing others something you enjoy?
I was always good at one-one-ones. I like finding out what makes someone tick, what motivates them. What their goals are; how I can help them get what they want and where they want to be. Figuring out how to do that at a large scale was just fascinating.
What do you wish you had told your younger self? Maybe that you didn’t like chemical engineering?
[Laughs] My dad really wanted me to study computer science. But I was rebellious. I like to say that I rebelled into chemical engineering.
You’re passionate about education. Why is this particular cause so close to your heart?
Both of my parents did not get college degrees. My dad never finished college, but he managed to maneuver into a career in IT. My mom really pushed education on me and my brothers. Both my parents did. And, though they didn’t have degrees, they were hard workers. They came from a non-traditional past and managed to thrive. And they just really pushed us all.
But, out of my immediate family, I was the only one to finish and receive my degree. I feel strongly about education because I see the potential it has to transform people’s lives.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in tech?
There’s the feeling that I’m always being underestimated. Always. For example, many times I’m mistaken for an executive assistant. I recently checked into a CTO conference and someone said, “You’re a CTO?” I couldn’t believe he actually said that.
People tend to assume I’m not a CTO, and they assume I’m not being strategic. But there’s a lot I won’t let on. And I always have an agenda and a plan focused on delivering great products for our customers. While it’s frustrating to be underestimated, it can also work to my advantage.