Sasha Casas: Sasha here with Toni Buhrke, our Director of Worldwide Channel & Inside Systems Engineering. Wow, that is quite a mouthful. Tell me, how did you get into such a technical role?
Toni Buhrke: It was an evolution. I started out in high school taking programming classes and I loved math and science. As my career progressed, I ended up doing programming as a job. And then one day, someone came up to me and said, “You should really go into sales. You’re really good at articulating a technical message to people who aren’t technical.” At first, I was a little bit hesitant to go into it. Your first initial reaction when you’re 19 about sales isn’t always that positive. But I’m glad I took the chance, I changed roles and I’ve been a systems engineer in that field ever since. It was a good lesson for me to learn to be open to new challenges. Careers aren’t always linear. Sometimes you bounce around in different roles and it’s really good to have that experience.
Sasha: That’s great advice. You’ve been primarily focused on technical US-based roles and recently, you’ve taken on an additional challenge, or learning opportunity, of managing global teams. How has that experience been for you?
Toni: It’s been challenging going from managing a regional team to managing a global team. There’s cultural nuances when you work with different areas of the world: how they sell and how they interact with their customers and their channel. I have found that, for me, when building a team globally, it’s really best to rely on the local team to help onboard new hires and get that cultural assimilation, not only to the company but they understand the nuances of the sales cycles regionally.
I’ve done a lot of workshops globally and I’ve found that when I was in EMEA, they were attended primarily by men. But when I went to APJ, there were more women in the audience. Particularly in India and Australia, where I’ve had workshops. One workshop, specifically in India, caught my attention, because there was a woman in attendance and she came up to me afterwards and said, “You know, I wasn’t thinking about coming to the session until I saw that it was a woman presenter.” I thought that was really nice of her to say but it also made me aware of the fact that, not only do we have to be mentors in our roles as women in tech, but we also have to turn around and mentor and empower other women who are coming into tech. We keep in touch even to this day.
Sasha: I love that… inspiring women all around the world. There are many reasons why there’s a talent shortage of women in tech globally, largely in the US and EMEA. When it comes to hiring women, why do you think there’s an imbalance from APJ versus US and EMEA?
Toni: That’s a good question and being a woman in tech myself, it’s really important for me to hire other women in tech, or try to make that a priority. But frankly, I have open positions and I really don’t get that many women that apply. I read lots of industry studies and articles, and I talk to other women and my mentors, and I find that we as women don’t typically apply for a role unless we’re 100% confident that we can do the role. Or that we meet all the requirements of the job description. Which is a lot different than how men view applying for a role. When I hire somebody, it’s pretty rare that they meet all the requirements. There’s other things that feed into it too, in that there’s this perception that men get promoted because of their ability or their potential. Women get promoted because of their accomplishments. And so we equate leadership with men. We need to turn that dynamic around and empower more women to go up to the C-level, to the board level, and really give women that chance to apply for jobs. We as women have to take the initiative and go out of our comfort zone and apply for roles that we may not be 100% sure that we’re qualified for, but if you don’t try, you’re never going to get it.
Sasha: Do you think there are opportunities to bridge the technical gender gap earlier on in life?
Toni: I think we do have an opportunity, especially here in the United States. We have a lot of resources and there’s been a movement to have STEM brought on earlier in children’s education. I think that’s a great initiative. But we still have to address some of the gender-specific roles and impressions that we make on young girls as they go through their professional careers. Take, for example, my daughter. She was applying to medical school and she was thinking what specialty to go into and she chose one, only to be met with some feedback from her peers and mentors that that specialty wasn’t very gender-diverse. It was more like a good old boys club and it was going to be really hard for her to assimilate into that area of medicine. So after talking to her peers and mentors, she decided to change her specialty. I was torn. As a woman in tech, obviously my first impression was, “No, go for it.” But when you think about the complexities of going to medical school, on top of dealing with that gender bias, it kind of made more sense for her to change. It makes us evaluate as a society, how we look at different roles, and I think we subconsciously steer women, myself included, away from some of these roles where maybe there’s more of a ratio of men to women. We subconsciously steer them away from that, and what that does is, it continues the problem. It doesn’t let us face it head-on.
Sasha: Are people surprised to find that you are in a technical role?
Toni: Yes, and I really love surprising people, too. One of my favorite stories is when I was with one of my favorite sales reps, and we went to a customer meeting. We had worked together many years, so he knew some of the answers to the technical questions. The conversation started to get more and more technical and it came to a point where he couldn’t answer the question. He brought me in and it was funny to watch the reactions of the people in the room. Because up until that point, I was quiet. I think they assumed I was the sales rep who got their foot in the door when in actuality, I was the systems engineer. It took them off guard and I have to say, I kind of enjoyed doing that a little bit.
Sasha: That’s awesome. Speaking of awesome, I want to close out by talking about your bad-ass hobby. Share.
Toni: So, I’m a motorcyclist. I have two sport bikes at home, and two scooters. I just bought a second one. In the summer in Chicago, you will hardly ever see me in my car. I’m out on one of my motorcycles, and I have been known to attend meetings on my motorcycle. You know, shake off the hair, fluff it up a little bit, and walk in. It’s quite an icebreaker when I go into meetings and I talk about it. Through this hobby, I started volunteering. I’m a motorcycle safety instructor. I became one because I had a female instructor and I really wanted to pay it forward to the motorcycling community. There are more and more women starting to ride versus being a passenger. And from that, I started volunteering as a pit grid official for motorcycle Grand Prix races. That also led to being a pit grid official for car races like WAC. I’ll be doing F-1 this year, too. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.
Sasha: That is so cool. You’re amazing, rock on. Thank you so much for sharing with us.