Workday’s Chris Byrne on leading remotely and encouraging more women into tech

Having been with ‘born-in-the-cloud’ company Workday for just shy of 15 years, Chris Byrne is no stranger to digital transformation.

Workday provides enterprise cloud applications for finance and human resources and Byrne is the senior vice-president of operations and the site lead of the company’s EMEA HQ in Dublin.

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Byrne said she is a “software engineer at heart” and that two women in her school years were instrumental in guiding her towards a career in tech. “Mrs Sitzler encouraged me to go to third level education, while my maths teacher Sister Sara encouraged me to consider computer science,” she said.

“Technology can offer such an interesting career path.  It has given me the chance to work in diverse countries from Ireland to New Zealand and work with organisations like IBM, NASA and even the CIA.”

Women in tech

Women have traditionally been underrepresented in technology and this is a challenge that stood out to Byrne as she progressed, with just five women out of 30 people in her graduate class. “In my first job, I realised it was important to be assertive, speak up and be heard and give visibility into my achievements,” she said. “I learned that you need to put yourself forward for roles and not just expect opportunities to land in your lap.”

Byrne said any company building products that are reflective of users need to have true diversity among the people developing those products.

“From Bletchley Park to NASA, women have always played their part in the tech revolution. Workday joined the 30% Club in Ireland, which strives for greater gender balance on boards and executive leadership. I look at many data points now with that 30pc lens. When you have 30pc gender diversity, you’ve made a major improvement that is going to allow you to bring the best ideas and get the best from people.”

Byrne said technology and software development in particular is a team sport rather than an individual one. “One reason perhaps we don’t see more women in tech is that we don’t highlight the collaborative nature of what we do as much as we could. The encouragement and support of male colleagues can also help make a huge difference here.”

She also believes the perception that tech careers are solely about coding prevents some people from pursuing a career in the industry. “For every software developer, there are a host of interlocking roles such as product design, quality assurance, operations, user experience – and that’s just to name a few.  It would be amazing if we, men and women, could encourage more second level students to pursue these multi-opportunity careers, especially when considering college choices.”

The effects of Covid-19

As a seasoned leader in tech, I asked Byrne how she has found the experience of leading remote teams during Covid-19. “As a leader, you feel incredibly responsible for every single employee and their wellbeing, as well as making sure your customers are never let down.”

She said that while tech has been a great enabler, it cannot replace human connection. “The crisis of Covid means leaders need to communicate and influence like never before, especially with employees. This started with advice on health and safety, employee wellbeing, getting useful, factual information out to people and listening to their concerns,” she said.

“Over time, you then have to paint a picture of the future, giving employees hope that we can come out the far side of this global crisis. That includes motivation and a little humour. As we held quarterly virtual employee meetings, our ‘house band’ of employees, ‘The Early Twenties’, would play a theme song to give people a lift – ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ was a big hit!”

Outside of working life, Byrne said Covid-19 has also affected the Workday volunteering programme. “I am very focused on how we can get back safely in 2021 for our employees and see how we can jumpstart all our local community initiatives too.”

Tech trends 2021

Looking ahead, Byrne said Workday’s team of more than 1,200 is continuing to grow. “We continue to create new teams here in Dublin – like people analytics, strategic sourcing, analytics and machine learning,” she said.

“Covid has now forced acceleration of transformation for many companies – how they work, how they sell, how they manage employees, how they transact, how they manage customer relationships. It’s all about responding in a changing world.

“Organisations embracing transformation can not only get the best data and insights, but also ensure their employees can focus on the most meaningful and impactful work by, for example, automating more mundane tasks.”

Byrne also said that cloud adoption is growing rapidly, even though it’s still at a relatively young stage. “Digital transformation is much higher on every company’s agenda, regardless of size or industry, especially since ‘software as a service’ is available for organisations of all sizes. When the layer of machine learning is added to existing technology, I think it’s a game changer.”

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