In a month when we celebrated International Women’s Day, the SourceFuse “Talking Out Cloud” leadership chat series was joined by two special guests from Amazon Web Services, Nieves Garcia Diez and Surbhi Sambi. Both having senior tech leadership roles, they shared their unique perspectives on the industry when it comes to this year’s theme, Break the Bias.

#1 What were your thoughts on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – #BreakTheBias?

I think breaking the bias is something that applies not only to women but also to other minorities. ‘Break the Bias’ goes to show that people are acknowledging that bias exists. Whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, it’s beyond just gender bias. It could be against religion, region, race, community, language, etc. I think it’s high time we break the bias, to see what people bring to the table beyond where they come from, and hiring needs to happen based on the most suitable person for the job. I think employers need to make sure that the workplace is a safe environment for everyone who works there.

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#2 In today’s world, what factors do you feel impact a woman’s ability to lead? 

I feel nothing really impacts a woman’s ability to lead – there’s so much talent in the world. Women are capable of leading an organization or a team just as efficiently as men can, but some factors are responsible for why we don’t see many women climbing the corporate ladder today. I still remember when I joined the corporate school way back in 2007 and I was a fresh campus recruit, almost 50% of those were women. But 15 years down the line, I don’t see that percentage in the meeting rooms that I walk in today. So, something somewhere goes wrong. Women are primary caregivers, whether you call it social conditioning, whether you call it reality, that’s really what it is. A lot of women at the peak of their career do make the decision to take a career break as they start a family – that’s definitely one of the major reasons why we see fewer women in leadership positions today.

Secondly, I feel women need to stop getting so harsh on themselves. I still remember when I came back from my maternity leave, I literally put in 100% because I didn’t want anyone to say my productivity had gone down; my organization never made me feel that, but it’s just we can be harsh on ourselves. We feel guilty for everything we do: for putting family first, for putting work first, or for putting yourself first. I think we just need to stop doing that.

Interestingly, there was a study in a Spanish university where they asked a group of people to do the same exam, and then later ask how well they thought they had done. The women always underrated themselves, while the men were a lot more confident. But when they saw the results and the opposite was true: the women were a lot more successful than the men. So yes, we’re always very demanding of ourselves and question whether we’re good enough. I think that we have to recognize that women’s strengths are not in opposition to what a leader should look like, and instead focus on the strengths needed for each team role, regardless of gender. Having a balance of different qualities and diversity in a leadership team can also attract more talent and different perspectives. At Amazon, we actively seek different perspectives when making decisions, and having diversity within a team contributes a lot to reaching better outcomes.

#3 How has the IT industry changed in the past 5 years and what do you predict will happen in the next 5 to 10 years?

The IT industry is so wide and there are things happening every day but what we’ve seen in the past few years is how the pandemic changed the course of the industry and the workplace. We saw a huge uptake in digital and cloud options due to the need for high availability, backup and disaster recovery, business continuity, and remote working. At the same time, if I really come down to the workforce level, we saw a drop in employees, especially with female employees, because the entire burden of housework, childcare, managing work, managing home-schooling, etc., just got too much. We actually saw a lot of women taking a few months off to tackle the entire burden that was falling on their shoulders and at the same time a lot of men taking more active roles in house chores and childcare. I think now is the time to be thinking about how we enable and encourage those women back into the industry.

Secondly, the way we view the workplace these days is very different. Maybe 40 years back, employment was a source of income, a means to provide a family with the basic necessities of life. We then progressed to a phase where people became more careeroriented – to build a career and maintain a standard of living. But today, people want more than just employment or a paycheck or a career, right; they want empowerment, flexibility, a sense of purpose in what they’re doing, and equity in the workplace. The generation of millennials and gen Z want something that’s more intellectually stimulating, even if that means hopping from one place to the other. So, I think that’s what employers would need to be providing in the coming months and years.

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#4 How did you get into the IT industry, and why did it become your driving passion?

I started out as a telecommunications engineer, involved with things like networking. Then I moved into a product management role, as I’ve always been obsessed with problem-solving and finding permanent solutions for customers – not just a patch, but really solving it in a very efficient or userfriendly manner. From there I had the ability to get in touch with different parts of the industry, working for a variety of start-ups and also big players, like Ericsson and Siemens. I recommend everybody to not be scared of trying different roles in different types of organizations because they do provide you with very different kinds of perspectives. For example, the methodology agility of working in a startup, compared to large-scale well-established processes in a larger organization.

One of the things that I would suggest to anyone is to think big – visualize yourself wherever you want to be, think two steps ahead and start going in that direction. You don’t need to know everything before you start – you will learn on the journey. Ask yourself, what is your passion? What is it that makes you wake up every day super happy going to work, knowing that you are doing your best? In my case, I like uncertainty and things that go unsolved – I love to explore and solve them. That’s why artificial intelligence was a perfect fit: it can solve so many very important problems, both socially and economically. That was my passion to do that, especially for public sector customers, which is AI for good.

#5 What is the best starting point for people wanting to dive deeper into the AI ML industry?

Start learning, be curious, and try to learn as much as you can. The internet has so many free courses and training – the information is overwhelming these days. If something really interests you, give it a try and dive a little bit and see if it resonates with what you want to do. You know, I always think that in 10 years’ time, how will I look back at myself: did I do what I should have done in my life? Am I going to be proud of myself or not? So, I would suggest setting yourself that objective and then start to talk to people who are already in that position.

I collaborate with universities to mentor women and I always tell them “You have to believe in yourself” and make sure that you have the resources and the mentoring. Involve yourself with people that can help you in your journey and that can give you positivity. There are a lot of people that will give you a lot of excuses for why you shouldn’t do it. But I think that sometimes you just need to follow the people that are a little bit more encouraging. Even if it feels crazy, even if you go for it and regret it later, that experience will never leave you. So, I think it’s worth it at least to try and see if it’s for you. And if it’s not, you can change.

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#6 What is the one piece of practical advice you would give to someone starting out?

I have three! The first we just mentioned: learn. We have a leadership principle at Amazon that we call ‘learn and be curious’. The first four or five years of your career are very important to lay the foundation for what you want to do in life. Don’t look at what organization you’re a part of or how much you are getting paid, but focus more on what skills you can learn. Moving forward, skills are what you’re going to be valued for in life. So just learn – I cannot emphasize that enough.

Secondly, build a network. You’re going to have a long career and you don’t know which people you would want at what stage of your life. So, it’s always good to have good coaches and mentors along the way. Network whenever you find an opportunity, connect with the people you work with, and always part with an organization on good terms – that will go a long way.

My third piece of advice for women starting out is just to stop feeling guilty. There are phases you will have in your life, where everyone will forgive and forget, and you will move on to maybe a new phase in life. It’s all fine. Don’t feel guilty about putting yourself first, your family first or your work first. As we said earlier, just trust your instincts, set your priorities and just go for it. 

#7 How do you actively promote #BreakTheBias theme within your team?

I think the most important thing is to support other women leaders. Women need to pull other women up, that’s as simple as it gets. You don’t need to step over someone to succeed in life or succeed in your career; everyone has their own goals in life and you can all reach the top together. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had a couple of very strong female supporters with me in my peer group as sounding boards, advisors, and mentors. Anything going wrong in my personal or professional life, I know I can go to them and they’ll be with me while I fight through the struggles of life. That is what’s important, just to understand and empathize – empathy goes a long way in your supporting teams and can make each other’s life easier. 

I am very glad to have a lot of women in my team, so we try to tell the world that ‘we are here’ – it’s important to recognize that we are contributing. We also try to socialize together to provide that energy and that reinforcement that some of the women need as well. We all have ups and downs, and sometimes we need reinforcement that you are doing a great job, and this is a contribution that you have. And this is a month for celebrating it, supporting the leaders, sharing ideas, brainstorming, and hearing lessons learned from others.

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