Women of Industry: Bruns a rare IT role model
Looking back, Teri Bruns laughs about the kind of computing machines that were dominant 35 years ago, when she began her information technology career. At that time, she worked as a computer operator while in school to learn how to be a programmer, Apple Computers was still in its formative stages, and the internet still was being developed by the military and in American universities.
Like everyone else, inside and outside of IT, she had no idea what would happen over the next three decades. “It’s funny because I think about when I was a third-shift operator, there were these two huge physical boxes [mainframes] that made loud noises in this glass room, and they had less computing power and less storage than what I have on an Apple Watch today,” notes Bruns, now vice president of global partner solutions for VMware and one of five local women to be honored in this year’s Women of Industry awards program.
No longer is the IT department buried down in the basement in a cordoned off area of most companies, at least those where the CEO and the CIO are smartly joined at the hip. In the days when techies were hidden, Bruns would attend a party or a picnic and tell people what she did for a living, and they would declare that they don’t understand computers and walk away. In 1983, who could have envisioned the way computing technology would evolve? “I continue to be amazed day after day,” she remarks, whether it’s the relentless advances computing speed or the 3D printing of a heart valve.”
Her career has taken her all over the world, but it’s been centered in Madison at companies like National Guardian Life, Core BTS, and now VMware, a virtualization software company that is a subsidiary of Dell Technologies. Today, she leads a global team of solution architects that is well versed in all aspects of technology, and her greatest contribution might be her ability to educate sales professionals and client partners, not only when selling technology solutions, but explaining their business value proposition.
The aspect of her career that she’s most passionate about, the thing that is a continuing focus, is the opportunity to use technology to solve problems for K–12 school districts that want to introduce children to IT, technical colleges that want to change their approach to distance learning, and international companies that are doing innovative things on a very large scale. “We work with companies in the Fortune 500 and partners that service those customers, all the way down to some of the smaller companies that are leveraging the cloud for consuming IT services,” she explains. “The big impact that I bring to that is the creation of a high-performing team that can deal with the complexities and requirements to support customers and partners of that magnitude and of that sophistication from a technology perspective — and being able to embrace emerging technologies such as what’s happening with mobility and where is internet of things is going.
“So it’s really the complexities out there in the marketplace and being able to take that, from a VMware perspective, and shape that team to be able to perform at high levels of effectiveness across a very complex, globally stretched need in the marketplace.”
Women Wanted sign
Asked about her own accomplishments, Bruns changes the subject to a highlight reel of accomplishments by people she’s worked with, mentored, and led. Not only have former team members forged successful careers in the IT industry, they have led their own teams across large IT firms and moved on to become entrepreneurs that run successful startups.
“What truly makes me smile are the women IT leaders who I’ve helped to shape along my 35 year journey,” she states. “They are role models on their own, blazing their own trails, and truly a force to bring change in a traditionally male-centric industry.”
The disappointing part, however, is there still aren’t enough of them. In 2014, women held 26 percent of computing occupations, and despite the growing number of programs focused on STEM education for young girls, this number has only increased 2 percent in the last six years. Meantime, women ages 25–34 are reporting greater dissatisfaction with their tech career prospects, citing a lack of inspiring role models, and 56% of them leave the industry at the midpoint of their careers.
Bruns concedes that part of this erosion is cultural in male-dominated organizations, but she believes women must be willing to go outside of their comfort zones. While it’s safer to be comfortable in a more diverse and inclusive working environment, she states that being uncomfortable is a small price to pay for achieving your dreams. Bruns cites the example of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who grew up in racially segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and in her adult life aspired to a position on the National Security Council as the top adviser on Russia and Eastern affairs.
“I don’t think there was anybody in the room who looked like her,” Bruns notes. “She was just an inspiration to me that says if you’re not comfortable being uncomfortable, and that if it’s better that other people look like you, then this may not be the field for you, at least right now. We’re still not to the point where 50 percent of the people in the room are of the same gender. It’s getting better, and what I would also add to that is there is some grit necessary.”
By grit, she means the courage and resolve to remain in an uncomfortable environment. “You have to work harder to get to the same place, and if you get excluded from participating in something because of your gender, that makes a number of us want it even more and work harder for it. That doesn’t make it right, and it shouldn’t be that way, but it’s the reality.”
More than 30 years ago, when Bruns walked into her first programming class at IBM in Chicago, there were 35 white males and her, but that has changed quite a bit. “A number of companies, mine included, are doing things to include women, putting them on committees and boards, and being aware that when you’re having an event and there is a panel discussion that not everyone should look the same,” she notes. “We’re bringing the diversity of opinion into it, not just saying it but actually doing it, and making sure there is a diverse set of candidates being interviewed for every role.
“We are being more inclusive but it’s not happening quickly enough, and frankly we don’t have enough women who started their careers 10 years ago or 20 years ago in the field. So it tends to get tougher and tougher.”
To Bruns, what’s discouraging is there are a lot of opportunities in technology for freedom and flexibility. In the old days, if a professional woman had a family and she needed to be in the office from 9 to 5, a sick child would trigger a difficult decision. Now, various technologies make it possible to take care of family and work at home, or work at home in the off hours.
“So that is why that [burnout] statistic is really bothersome to me,” she states. “Inside of our field, and it depends on the specific situation, but there is a lot of technology that provides flexibility and freedom that would encourage women to want to be in the field.”
When it comes to promoting diversity, Bruns envisions a supporting role for the remainder of her career. Today, she can devote time and prioritize her schedule to spend time with young women in training or entering the profession, and she can share her story. In her position with VMware, she is able to hire new grads and interns, and she intentionally brings young women into the field.
“I had a young intern this summer, and we went to lunch. She was all excited and she said, ‘You know, you’re the first female executive I’ve met with,’ and here she is attending a very prominent West Coast school. She’s in business school and she said, ‘I’ve had five people in leadership positions we’ve met with this year, business leaders, and they have all been men.’
“It shows how important it is from a role model perspective to sit down and have a cup of coffee and have lunch and share your story, and she’s gone on to take on a technical role at our company. I couldn’t be prouder of her, but it brings to light the importance of giving back.”
Global focus, local impact
Bruns is touched by the recognition in her home community because a lot of the work she does for a global software company takes her away from Madison. “I focus on customers and partners at a national or global level,” she says, “so the recognition where my heart and my home is, that’s really meaningful to me. Over time, the work that I’ve done has brought a lot of value to the community, even though today I might be spending a lot more time on a Delta airplane than I do driving around Madison.
“It’s really a recognition of this type that makes you sit back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve been an IT veteran for 35 years, and my first paying job in IT was as a third-shift computer operator, and I have been able to move my career forward to where it is today. There have been a lot of things I’ve been proud of in terms of blazing my own personal trail.”
Read the rest of our 2017 Women of Industry features:
- Christine Beatty, senior center and senior services director for the Madison Senior Center
- Deborah Gilpin, president and CEO, Madison Children's Museum
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