Programming with passion

Programming with passion

ThoughtWorks' Rebecca Parsons is equally enthusiastic about helping organisations make the digital transformation and helping women thrive in the IT world.

Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya
Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

Rebecca Parsons loves the great outdoors, whether it's exploring the Dalmatian Coast in southern Croatia, the Galapagos Islands or the upper Amazon, to get an up-close look at a fascinating ecosystem.

The adventure getaways she takes with her sister make for a welcome break from her demanding work as chief technology officer (CTO) of the US software company ThoughtWorks.

"I think Croatia is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We did a bicycle trip down the Dalmatian Coast a couple of years ago. It is absolutely gorgeous," Dr Parsons, looking relaxed in a grey blazer and trousers, tells Asia Focus during a recent visit to Bangkok.

"I enjoy active outdoor vacations, particularly ones where I can learn something. I enjoy safaris and South Africa. Such places allow me to just interact with the real world and get away from the virtual world."


Chief Technology Officer, ThoughtWorks

- May 24, 1960, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

- Bachelor in Computer Science and Bachelor in Economics, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, 1980
- Graduate coursework, University of Texas at Arlington, 1984-87
- Master’s in Computer Science, Rice University, Houston, 1990
- PhD in Computer Science, Rice University, 1992

Career highlights
- July 1978-December 1983: Cooperative education student and systems analyst, Caterpillar Tractor Company, Peoria, Illinois
- January 1984-August 1986: Systems analyst and systems manager, United Technologies Mostek (Thomson Components Mostek), Carrollton, Texas
- August 1986-August 1987: Systems designer and project manager, Amdahl Communications, Richardson, Texas
- April 1992-August 1994: Directors’ fellow, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico
- August 1994-December 1999: Assistant professor, School of Computer Science, University of Central Florida, Orlando
- December 1999-present: CTO and vice-president for global innovation, board member, technology principal and senior architect, ThoughtWorks Inc, Chicago. Founding member of the Office of Technology.

- Most Influential Woman in Technology, Fast Company magazine, 2010
- Definitive List of Female CTOs, 2017
- Listed among “7 Outstanding Female CTOs You Should Follow” by Huffington Post
- Named one of 12 Women CTOs to Watch by Hackbright Academy - Finalist for Business Role Model of the Year at the 2018 Women in IT Awards (USA)

- Divorced with no children

In the real world, Dr Parsons has been the CTO for more than a decade at ThoughtWorks, a developer of customised software and large-scale, services-based applications for businesses, organisations and governments. In almost 20 years with the Chicago-based firm, she has earned international recognition as one of the most influential women in the IT business and for her dedication to promoting gender diversity in an industry not known as very female-friendly.

"We are now looking at solving problems using both hardware and software in different ways than we did before," she says of her work. "I can make changes in the physical world. I can sense the consequences of those changes and I can see in the virtual world whether I got the changes that I wanted.

"There are all kinds of things that are now getting involved in the visual world that simply didn't exist before.

"For example, one of the things happening in agriculture is that farmers are putting chemical and moisture sensors in their fields so they can determine how long they have to irrigate them to get the right levels of moisture. … They can analyse what kind of fertiliser they might want to put on the field and get the result they want.

"So the computer model is effectively making the decisions they want about how to alter the physical world and then feeding that back to them through the sensor network."

With 5,000 employees in 14 countries, ThoughtWorks has about 200 customers in total, most of them very big names. They include the Singapore government, the European Union, Bangalore Airport, Daimler, REA Group of Australia, Domino's Pizza, and Thailand's Siam Commercial Bank (SCB).

Globally, it competes with companies such as Accenture, IBM Global Services, Deloitte and France-based Capgemini. In some markets, the company finds its toughest competitors are local players employing just a few dozen people, compared with over 100,000 at Accenture.

"We are big enough to matter, but small enough to care," Dr Parsons says with a smile. "So a deal that for Accenture would be meaningless because they are so huge is something a lot more important to us.

"But many of these local firms, they only have 50 or a hundred people so if you have something that needs to be globally distributed and need 50 or 75 or 100 people, they can do it.

"We are actually somewhat unique in our positioning. There are very few organisations globally that are in this kind of intermediate size. And we occupy that little space."

India is now the largest operating market for ThoughtWorks, with five offices employing 1,200 people, followed by China. North America, meanwhile, is the largest market in revenue, followed by Europe.

"We tend to work in areas where organisations try to differentiate themselves from the competition," says Dr Parsons. Becoming a digital business, she notes, "is not just about the technology as a critical part but also about how the organisation reorganises totally. We look at the final end of digital transformation."


Listening to Dr Parsons explain how technology is changing lives, you can see how committed she is to her work. "Yes, I'm a geek. I'm definitely a geek," she says, chuckling. "I'm passionate about technology. You can tell when I talk about it."

But for many women in the IT industry, the way they are treated by male counterparts and viewed by general public is a source of frustration, even anger.

"It is primarily that they don't have the opportunities," she replies when asked about the reasons for low gender diversity in her industry. "For many women, they just get tired of the environment that isn't inclusive. They get tired of being talked over at meetings or seeing their ideas being dismissed when a man is proposing an idea.

"Many of them just decide this isn't worth it. Many women go off to start their own companies or move into less technological roles. They are very often pushed into people management roles, project management because 'Well, you know, women are more supportive, more emotional.'"

Dr Parsons describes the prevailing attitude in the industry bluntly: "We need the guy to do the hard-core technical stuff and women do the soft-skill stuff. There are very subtle messages that women receive throughout their career. You really have to be stubborn to stay on the technical path.

"Very often when women are choosing a university, they steer away from science and engineering, computer and science degrees because it's hard and, you know, 'girls can't do things like that'. It's very easy when you are that age to listen to cultural and societal pressure about what kinds of things you should study."

Dr Parsons speaks from long experience dating back to her school days.

"I had a university professor telling me that women were incapable of understanding maths and computer science. There were four women in the class out of 58. The four of us got together after that session and said, 'We are going to prove this guy wrong'," she recalls.

One of those four young women was being told by her parents that that no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't do computer science. But because the small group stuck together, she achieved high marks and completed her degree.

Dr Parsons feels she is lucky because she has had family support in everything she choose to do.

"My father was a bishop in the church. My mother was a social worker. My sister is a medical doctor. My brother is a biologist. They never really understood what I do but they've always been very supportive. They instilled the knowledge that if we want to do something, and we work hard, we will achieve what we want to achieve. That has been true in my entire life.

"I think people like me, who are lucky to have that supportive environment, need to be willing to help people like her so she can feel that she's got support around her," she says of her former classmate facing parental pressure. "If she wants to do that, she can. That's what I can remember from university.

"I want to encourage women and girls to be passionate about technology, to just go for it. You are not weird. People will always say, 'Well, but you're girls, how can you like math, how can you like science?'

"There is nothing wrong with liking science just because you are girls. And I really want to continue to encourage women and girls to be excited about this stuff."

In her corporate role Dr Parsons is often invited to speak at industry events and as a featured presenter at well-known conferences. However, encounters with bias persist.

"I have been told I couldn't get a promotion because the man had to have it because he had a family to provide for," she says. "I've also experienced the more subtle things. When I was a keynote speaker at a conference and someone come up to me to chat and said, 'Hey, is your husband speaking at the conference?'

"To overcome it, I just ignored it. Sometimes it's not easy. Sometimes you have to call it out and sometimes you have to seek help. A couple of times in the last 18 months, when I was at conferences, I had to go seek out males in front of me because I felt physically threatened," she elaborates, her voice shaking a little.

"In cases like that the only thing you can really do is ask for help. But some of this is just knowing that I deserve the seat at the table and knowing when to just ignore it and knowing when to say something."

Some people, she continues, apply double standards to the achievements of a man and woman.

"For many people, they don't realise how biased they are against women. And so I try to … make them understand how their comments are coming across or how their thinking is biased," she says.

"Humans are biased. It's not just men that are biased. All of the studies show that women are likely to judge a woman more harshly than a man. It's something we as humans all have to figure out how to do better."


At ThoughtWorks, Dr Parsons points out that it's a corporate norm to promote women to management roles. Five of the company's 11 global leaders are women, as are 40% of the board members.

In April, the company introduced its first female head of technology for Southeast Asia. Thao Dang, who is based in Singapore, is a Vietnamese professional who does not have an academic background in computer science -- before joining ThoughtWorks she worked in banking. However, she developed a keen interest in technology through her husband, who is a ThoughtWorker, and decided to build a new career as a software developer, eventually joining ThoughtWorks.

The message from Ms Dang for others is that you don't always have to follow the natural path if you have a passion, an interest, and you are willing to work and fight for it.

While Dr Parsons deserves a lot of credit, she praises ThoughtWorks founder Roy Singham and the current CEO, Guo Xiao, for empowering women at the company.

"It has been instilled from the top. It is partly because of me but also because of the support I got from our founder whose mother was an active feminist, so he was always a very strong advocate for women," she says of Mr Singham. "He pushed it initially and then he supports while I push it."

That said, sometimes the progressive environment at ThoughtWorks gets taken for granted, and Dr Parsons stresses the need to remain vigilant and committed.

"I would say there times that we are not so passionate about it, maybe almost passive. I wouldn't tolerate not doing something about (discrimination)," she says. In any case, "men recognise that sometimes they have to step back and allow the women to be in the spotlight too".

Meanwhile, the company has to ensure that it has a deep enough pool of female personnel capable of advancing, so training and support programmes are in place.

"One thing we launched a few years ago, and actually as a pilot for Southeast Asia, is what we call the WiLD programme, which is Women in Leadership Development," Dr Parsons says.

Launched in 2016, WiLD programmes were held twice globally before being introduced in Asia and recently in Brazil. It offers training for women in leadership roles, considered crucial to make the company inclusive and diverse.

"We started it when we tried to develop a particular leadership position," Dr Parsons recalls. "We have to make sure we have a diverse pool of candidates and we could identify the women in our organisation that we think are ready for that position."

As the company deepens its pool of qualified personnel -- both men and women -- Dr Parsons says she chooses to play the role of facilitator at the top.

"Within professional services organisations, and in particular ones like ours, we really try to hire the high-end technical talents globally for technology positions. Why would I ignore the opinions of all of these very smart technologists?

"And I feel like my job is to enable the environment externally where our technologists across the globe feel like they can express their opinions. And I'm sort of the facilitator at the top.

"I still sometimes have to say that, yes we're going do that or no, we're not going to do that, but in general I want to foster an environment where our entire technology community can contribute to our technical voice in the marketplace and be well positioned to make the technology choices for our clients."

"Collaborative" is how Dr Parsons describes her management style. "I want to enable the people around me and the people who technically work for me to bring their ideas and work with them to develop things," she says.

"I was a university professor for a while. When I worked with my PhD students, we would collaborate. I would obviously be grading them but it was a collaborative effort and I feel like I bring that to how I lead the team within the company now.

"I probably am definitely more of a thinking person so I bring more of the intellectual perspective to things as opposed to a more emotional perspective."

Ultimately, her goal is for every ThoughtWorker to receive equal respect and not only for the company, but the entire tech industry to show inclusivity.

"We make it clear to our clients that for a ThoughtWorker, it doesn't matter if they are a man or a woman, whether they are African American or Hispanic, white or Asian, they deserve equal respect. And we expect our clients to treat all of our ThoughtWorkers like that," says Dr Parsons.

"All of the people in our company feel passionately that we want the tech industry to be a more welcoming and inclusive place. That means it's everybody's responsibility to call out bad behaviour when we see it and our people take that seriously."

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