In Praise of the Ferrywoman

Luca Giordano – The bark of Charon and Morpheus (Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy) (wikipedia, Commons)

I had the privilege of speaking at the Women in Presales conference in Brentford on April 27. Below you find the transcript of my speech.


Good afternoon, dear women and men in Presales.

Thank you very much for having me today. I am Stefan Zueger, and I run EMC’s Swiss Presales organization. Why am I here?


I have an idea I would like to discuss with you.

  • Gender diversity is great for business: McKinsey says chances to outperform are 15% higher in a gender diverse environment.
  • So far, we do not have enough women in technology because we have been successful at socializing our girls successfully away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs.
  • We are working on that by changing the way we educate our youngest
  • At the same time, the market shift we are experiencing is also changing our job profile – towards what we consider more traditional “female” qualities


Meet my daughters

Apart from that, I am here for three reasons:

  1. Alejandra promised me good food in fun company.
  2. I am married to Karin and proud father of twin daughters. My wife worked in tech all her life, and we have a deep personal interest that as many professional fields as possible are open for our girls to choose from when they leave school.
  3. Let me count: I am the only male at home with my wife and two daughters. Plus five cats, of which four are female. I know what it means to be part of a minority…

Ok, currently our girls are six years old. They’re more in Disney mode – like Princess Sofia, of which Disney says that she has plenty of dresses and sparkly shoes, but teaches us what makes a real princess is what’s inside, not outside. And that means to get along with siblings and how to be a kind and generous person.

Barbie will never be a Computer Engineer

They love Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls come never alone – they establish the need to buy DVDs, books, bags, costumes. “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” is one of those books. In the opening scene we meet Barbie in her kitchen, where she sits at the breakfast table working on a game she’s creating to teach kids how computers work. Barbie’s sister Skipper is impressed, she asks if she can give the game a spin. “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

Which teaches young girls: Good looks, kindness and generosity are great qualities – but when it comes to brains, male help is a prerequisite.

For my daughters, I am on mission, and everyone of you is an ambassador for women who have chosen the road less traveled. Tech.


Do the Math

Let’s do a little math experiment: Assume you have developed a premium service you intend to sell to 900 demanding customers of high income and education, 450 women and 450 men. You do everything right, segmentation, pricing, motivated sales force, the right marketing support, and then the numbers are in: You sold to 944 individuals: 900 male and 44 female buyers. Great success!

But think again: If the product is aimed to appeal to women and men alike, and it finds the interest of 900 male buyers, but only 44 female ones, haven’t we missed the opportunity to sell it to 856 women more – so 1’800 buyers in total?

We have got 900 male SEs in EMEA, but only 44 female SEs. Don’t accept this fact as unchangeable. Actually, it is a great business plan. Imagine the growth in our revenue and market share if there was space for 1’800 SEs instead of 944!

But after spending so many of your years as a woman in technology, you must really be sick of this discussion. There is such a tight net of assumptions, beliefs and semi-knowledge around this topic, it probably needs a real myth to clarify the situation.


One coin in the fountain.

As I mentioned, my home is in Switzerland. Our country is heavily dependent of its Financial Industry. About 35% of the Gross National Product are generated either directly or indirectly by the Financial industry, and every 11th FinTech startup company has its residence in Switzerland. That is why I will talk a bit about money.

The coin you see is not from Switzerland. It is an “obolos” from ancient Greece. When a person passed away, family members would put the obolos in the mouth of the dead body. It was meant to be used as payment for Charon, the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the departed from the land of the living to the resting place of the dead. Souls unable to provide payment would be refused by Charon, leaving the left-behinds to wander the wrong shores of the river without hope of ever entering the underworld.

Cash only, no cards accepted.


Meet Charon, the not so loved-one.

In the world of art, Charon is a very popular character, albeit not a loved one. The ferryman is usually depicted as a mean-spirited, gaunt and grim old man with rude, sometimes even demonic features, granting the souls access to hell only after being bribed with money.

However, Charon had not always such a bad image: Earlier depictions of the ferryman described his kind, simple nature, outlining his role in gently receiving the souls and providing them safe passage to their place of eternal rest. So to speak Princess Sofia goes Underworld.


Companions in transformation

You probably ask yourself why I waste your valuable time on some old guy in a boat. (You should have seen my other drafts of this speech.) I stick to him because every single one in here has something in common with him: We all are tasked to be trusted guides in transformation. Just like him, we have been trusted to lead colleagues and customers again through IT transformation, to show them the way to the new world of IT, to be the “tip of the spear”, if I recall Chris’ last Presales Update correctly.

Like Charon’s passengers, our customers need to let go their old habits in order to obtain their new, transformed state. And to both kinds of clients, transformation comes with a price. An obolos for the dead, a service opportunity for our customers.


It’s the differences that count

But there are differences: A: We’re better paid. B: O our job is far more complex than Charon’s.

In Greek mythology the perimeter is clear: Land of the living here, Hades over there, and a river runs through it. In our modern world, the days are long over when transformation meant letting go a clearly defined current state and follow a clean transition plan to a well defined future state. I do not know about you, but I sometimes feel that transformation itself has become the new state, the fluid has become the new solid, and the only things Frozen are Fairy Tales, never IT organizations.

Here is what makes the job of us modern times Charons so much more troublesome: If the weather’s great, the voyage is well prepared and the destination in plain sight, doing a ferryman’s job bears only limited risks, both for ourselves as for our passengers. But what if preparations are meager at most, the destination is floating and fierce storms are shaking our boat changing with thick fog hiding everything around us?


The Ferrywoman’s survival kit

In an environment as today’s, I doubt a coin will be good enough. So what makes a ferrywoman a good ferrywoman?

An important asset to master the cruise is empathy, the capability of considering other’s feelings, of putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Not everyone is on your boat because they wanted to. The majority is either sent by necessity or by their boss, and as objective and route remain unclear, your passengers will react with resistance, denial or even anger.

The next thing I’d recommend to pack is self-awareness. When boarding the boat, you’ll want to be sure on which skills will help you mastering the voyage? Which traits might disturb or hinder you? Do you have a way of compensating for them – maybe with another member of the crew? If you have trouble assessing your qualities, find yourself a mentor. There is nothing healthier than constructive feedback.

A healthy dose of social skill will help you underway. In order to find and set course for the objective, you will need build rapport with your fellow crew and passengers, you will need to play off the strengths of your crew members – because all of them will need to help, assist and cooperate. You won’t have long left shore when the discussions start if the course is right. Whereas communication is an important part, it is important that you jointly steer in a direction useful to reach the target.

Next we pack something I am not really good at: self-regulation, the capability to control disruptive emotions and impulses. It does feel good to blow off some steam from time to time, but the value of remaining calm in face of adversity is undisputed. Just because you are on a disruptive voyage does not mean that there is space for disruptive emotions.

That’s it – almost.

I would love to have come up this nice theory, but I haven’t; someone else has: Daniel Goleman in a book he wrote back in 1995: Emotional Intelligence.

All those traits are equally important, but in my opinion, the fifth one stands out: Motivation, the will to reach the objective against resistance, and sometimes against all odds.


The importance of motivation

Three questions: What motivates us to start such a journey, what keeps us motivated in transit – and how can we motivate others to join?

Let’s fast forward from Ancient Greece to 2005: The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston asks Dan Ariely and three fellow researchers to dig into the question if monetary rewards – the carrots in the carrot-and-stick model – are effective. Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist, which to me sounds like a mad bookkeeper on speed, so they devised an experiment:

They presented 87 participants with an array of tasks that demanded attention, memory, concentration and creativity. Tasks like solving , playing a memory game and or throwing tennis balls at a target. They promised them payment if they performed the tasks exceptionally well. About a third of the subjects were told they’d be given a small bonus, another third were promised a medium-level bonus, and the last third could earn a high bonus.

Now, researchers run on a tight budget, so in order to run the study, they went to rural India, where the cost of living is relatively low so that they could pay people amounts that were substantial to them but still within their research budget. The lowest bonus was 50 cents — equivalent to what participants could receive for a day’s work. The middle-level bonus was $5, or about two weeks’ pay, and the highest bonus was $50, five months’ pay.


Not so fast, buddy

Of course we expect performance to improve with the amount of the reward. But that was not what Dan Ariely found. The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But when we included a task that required even rudimentary cognitive skill, the outcome was the same as in the India study: the offer of a higher bonus led to poorer performance.

So: Would Charon row his passengers three times faster across the Acheron river, if offered three oboloi instead of one? Ariely says yes, as long as his task only requires physical strength, concentration and self discipline. But what if the job had not only involved rowing, but also guessing what the objective of the voyage is at all, divining the location of the destination port by looking at the lanterns he carried on board? As per Ariely, his rowing speed would have decreased, because narrowing in on gaining the higher reward would have obstructed his creativity and his view onto alternate solutions.


Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivators

So, if money is not the right motivator for a modern-time transformation ferrywoman, which traits are? Another researcher, Edward L. Deci, came up with an answer already back in 1975. He identified three different drivers of intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy answers your desire to be self-directed. When your job is to navigate a boat, you don’t want to have your manager sitting in the boat, breathing in your neck and telling you how to hold the divider. You understand your mission: Getting your passengers safe to a destination you currently don’t know through waters you cannot be prepared for. You want, no: you must to find the port of your own, as well as the way that leads you there.
  • Mastery describes your urge to get better and better at what you do. You might have spent your first two years on learning how to row a boat, but as by now you know how to hold the oars and drive the water, you want to develop better methods of reading and forecasting the weather, and once you’re good at that, you will teach your eye on how to find signs pointing to the destination haven.
  • The most important one comes last. Purpose. Purpose answers your yearning to be part of something larger than yourselves. This is the strongest driver of them all, and at the same time the one that can easiest be lost. Charon’s purpose as a ferryman was not to row the boat. His purpose was to grant people a safe, quiet resting place after a long life full of hardships.



Let’s try to sum up. Here are the facts:

  1. Engineering skills are great. But probably not so essential anymore.
  2. Emotional Intelligence is important to do our job already, but it will become more relevant in the very near future – in fact, it most probably will be our main differentiator in a world in which artificial intelligence competes with us for our jobs. And the data seems to confirm this: In the U.S., social skill tasks grew by 24% from 1980 to 2012, compared to only about 11% for math-intensive tasks.
  3. Guiding people through any kind of transformation requires emotional skills – irrelevant if it is a customer project, taking care of team members in a merger situation or helping your next one coping with a strike of fate.
  4. Gut feeling tells us that women are more competent when it comes to social interactions, but there is hardly any study that scientifically confirms this assumption.

Honestly, should we care at all who’s the EQ superhero, Barbie or Ken? The only thing that counts for our two generations is that as social skills win momentum, our job might be become more attractive to a broader, more diverse audience that has been socialized to shy away from tech jobs.

But what about my daughters and other girls who are in school right now? The key is socialization.


Begin at the beginning.

Reshma Saujani has an interesting proposal. She is an American activist, lawyer and author, living with her family in New York. In 2010, she was the first Indian American woman to run for congress. In 2012 she started the nonprofit organization “Girls Who Code”, teaching girls how to write applications. She has published a book about her experience running for office and in the Girls Who Code program and she tells one story: When new coding classes start, some girls start coding away, whilst others seem to sit in front of an empty screen. If the coach the presses the “undo” key, a whole lot of code reappears. Good, functional code. “It’s not perfect”, the girls answer when asked why they erased it.


A wish at the end.

Kindness, generosity and perfection are great personality traits, but I’d rather want my daughters to be smart, fast, brave and proud.

Thank you very much.

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