From Ireland to Brussels to San Francisco and everywhere in between! Services Sales Manager Sophia Byrne chats about her career to date, travel and role opportunities within the IT sector and the challenges of juggling motherhood and a career.
While I’m now proud to call myself a Cork woman, I was actually born in Dublin, raised in Carlow and went to boarding school in Wicklow, so travel has always been part of my life. After school I moved back to Dublin where I studied ‘International Marketing and Business’ in the College of Marketing and Design for my BSc.
At the time of my graduation (1991), the poor economic outlook in Ireland (25% unemployment), meant that emigration was the only option for most Irish graduates to gain experience and differentiation, so together with some of my friends we boarded a boat (we couldn’t afford the flight 😛) to Brussels where my IT career journey would begin as a Contract Coordinator with the European Commission in DGXIII.
After 2 years , I joined Anixter as a European Product Manager supporting 14 country offices sales and marketing teams. I knew that the IT sector was the perfect place for me to build my career and see the world at the same time as it was a growth industry and offered diversity in roles and opportunity.
In October 1995 I took a holiday to San Francisco and fell in love with the city and decided to move. By February, I had secured a role as Customer Marketing Manager with the Anixter Western Regional team, and later became Director of Business Development covering 15 states from Seattle, to Denver to LA and everywhere in between. I loved my time at Anixter, the challenge, the growth, the diversity of customers and colleagues and above all the support and mentorship to define my capability and value proposition to an organisation.
As a female in the sector it was very challenging to stand out and be heard at the time when there were 2-4% of females in senior sales and management roles. Women had to almost become men to be seen; they had to adopt perceived ‘male’ traits to be taken seriously. Experiencing this culture was a great benefit to my personal and professional growth, as it defined early for me how I wanted to engage with this industry and my core value systems. While things are improving in regards the gender disparity, there is still a long way to go for this to be eliminated regardless of the geography.
If I could give any advice to anyone thinking of a career in IT, it would be to build your network, and ensure you don’t burn bridges. It’s such a small world and I can’t tell you the number of times I have met colleagues or customers in different locations across the globe and secured roles or business as a result. The cliché of ‘people buy from people’ is so true, irrespective of the geography or market. Defining your personal and professional value systems and priorities early in your career and consistently following through on them, is hugely valuable.
In the late 90’s Anixter was acquired by a company called South Western Bell Corporation, a global telecommunications provider and the culture of the organisation began to change. I was approached by a former colleague to join her team in her new organisation, PeopleSoft, which was a Global ERP ISV, and I was delighted to take the opportunity.
A big difference I noticed between Ireland and the US is that the Americans were more inclined to look beyond youth, experience and education and instead backed belief and the ‘spark’ of potential in someone. I was very lucky in that my boss in PeopleSoft saw that potential in me and mentored me and ultimately sponsored me to take the next step within the company. At the age of only 29 I was made Director of Global Channels with PeopleSoft. That practise of mentorship and guidance is something that I try to pay-forward today – to support and nurture young females in the industry and help them achieve their full potential.
At 31 I had my first child, my beautiful daughter, and my priorities changed! My daily work at the time involved so much travel and long hours, and a work life balance simply didn’t exist. As company Director, it was hard for colleagues and friends to understand my decision to move back to Ireland, but before my baby girl was 1 year old I was back in Ireland and on the job hunt again.
Looking for work as a mother was a very different experience, and to this day (now with a second child) my family remains my priority. In job interviews I would of course highlight my experience, knowledge and value-add, but it is important to also confirm personal priorities and for me this was my family and so flexibility and the ability to work remotely was important for me. Working in the US taught me that the success criteria of any role is delivering on commitments and objectives, and how this is achieved should be irrelevant i.e. from an office, an airport or a home. It is important to find companies that recognise commitment to deliver and offer opportunity to employees to work in a model that most enables them to reach their full potential.
In 2011, after almost 20 years in the IT industry I considered closing the door on the Tech sector. It was then that Les Byrne, Asystec Managing Director reached out to me. I knew Les from my time in Sun Microsystems with whom Les in his previous company had been a strategic reseller partner. Speaking with Les regards his exciting new start up, I was re-inspired by the tech industry and its future, and so I joined Asystec in their Cork offices as a Sales and Business Development Manager. Thinking back now I think it’s a real testament to Asystec and the work we do that some of the customers we brought on board back then (PTSB, US Bank, Boston Scientific, AIB etc) are all still clients today!
I’m a firm believer that you can’t be all things to all people, and we need to prioritise! I’m just glad that remote working and flexibility means that I can do the job I love, without sacrificing time with the people I love.