Talking tech since 2003

Do you remember when female leaders at the top of Silicon Valley companies were hard to find?  Or yeah, they still are.  But at least now, there are a few more than there were.  Only 14 years ago Carly Fiorina was the first.  She took the helm of Hewlett-Packard, becoming the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company.  Since then, she has become an active political voice, run for U.S. Senate and started the One Woman Initiative.

I had the opportunity to interview Carly Fiorina last week at the Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture in New York, where she spoke about diversity in the workplace and the challenges leaders face today in the current marketplace.  I was thrilled to get her take on a few hot-button issues, including Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent ban on working from home.  Fiorina, who served as CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, also gave me some insight on what she thought HP needed to do in order to succeed in the competitive tablet market:

Q. Marissa Mayer just recently said no more working from home anyone at Yahoo!, thoughts on that?

A. I think that- look- what we’re struggling with here is both the possibilities and limitations of technology. I tend to avoid black and white pronouncements.  I think work at home is a very valuable tool in the arsenal of helping employees be most productive by giving them  some additional options for balancing what is a complicated set of choices. There’s no question that there are times when you have to look and see somebody face to face. I don’t know the particulars of what Marissa is dealing with inside her company, but myself I tend to stay away from black and white decisions –it’s a tool, working at home is a tool.

Q. And how did you handle that kind thing at HP- was that something that even came up?

A. We had more of it over the course of my tenure than at the beginning of my tenure.  because we had a lot more job sharing for example, job sharing turned out to be a really attractive option for a lot of people, particularly women who wanted to stay in the workforce but couldn’t at that particular point in their lives give it full-time so for us it was a really great tool to help bring and keep talented people on board.

Q. Are you seeing more women in technology in the higher echelons than when you were at HP?

A. Well clearly, look at the people in leadership positions in some of these Silicon Valley icons Yahoo! Facebook- they’re women in leadership positions.  That wasn’t the case when I was there-so we’re making progress in terms of who’s in the head office for sure and we have a lot further to go as the general numbers about whats going on in the boardroom attest.

Q.  Who are some of the women that you are watching?

A.  I know most of them-whether its Marissa or its Sheryl -these are wonderfully bright and accomplished women, and I’m still struck by the fact that women in workplace are too often talked about in the context of gender.  When two men disagree, we don’t obsess about the fact that they’re two men disagreeing, we focus on the substance of the disagreement. (laugh) Yet, when women have a different point of view- it’s ‘oh my gosh’ women have a different point of view -well of course women have a different point of view- there are a lot of women and we don’t all think alike so I wish that we would get to the place where gender wasn’t always the first context in which we talked about very accomplished women.

Q. And in that context-if that were a male CEO of Yahoo! saying no more working from home how do you think that would have been perceived?

A. Oh I think it would have gotten a lot of attention, I really do.  Look, Yahoo! is a company in the midst of yet another turnaround, they’re an important Silicon Valley company so whoever the CEO is, is going to get a lot of attention.  Work-at-home has been such a part of Silicon Valley culture- Silicon Valley in some ways pioneered work-at-home, so to have a CEO say ‘we’re not going to do it anymore’ is going to be news no matter what. Unfortunately for her, Marrissa takes on this added burden, which may not be fair which is ‘but you’re a working mom- don’t you understand?’

Q. And she just had a child and she’s got an attachment on her office, apparently, where her child can be taken care of – so i think that’s part of the backlash….

A. Well, not every woman has the options that she has.  You know a lot women are really struggling to make it all work and I think its why work-at-home, telecommuting is a good option for a lot of women, it helps them balance a pretty heavy load.

Q. Do you still follow Hewlett Packard?

A. Sure

Q. They recently said they want to be the number one computer vendor in the world, and they’re jumping into tablets- do you think they’ll be able to do it?

A. Time will tell. HP has been the number one computer vendor in the world, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do it, but time will do it all depends upon the choices they make now, but it will require ongoing a very substantial investment in both innovation and marketing things that prior to Meg Whitman’s tenure were slashed too much.

Q. They’re coming out with their first tablet Slate 7, any thoughts?

A. No, not yet. We’ll see.

Q. Where do you see computing going? Wearable computers?

A. Well you know, way back in 2001, I began saying the future of everything is digital, mobile, virtual personal.  Everything physical is going that way, the reason book stores are going out of business is the same reason record stores are going out of business all of that physical distribution has gone away, it’s become digital, mobile, virtual and personal. And I think those four adjectives define the future of computing, the virtual experience, we’ve just been talking about work-at-home, but the future is, I think, that a virtual experience can be, will be, as authentic as a face to face experience in some ways.  I think more and more computing will become personal, wearable devices, face recognition devices, and I think that’s where its going. Its where its been going.

Q. Personal computers have been on the decline and Dell just went private.  What do you think about Dell’s plans to go private?

A. Why is the personal computer industry– the desktop–struggling?  Because its not mobile, and its not personal i mean its a big clunky thing, actually when you think about it, and you’re tethered to it, instead of it being tethered to you.  I actually think Dell’s move to go private makes a lot of sense because it gives the company time to regroup to reengineer away from the level of expectation of the public market.  I think it creates some interesting new possibilities in the PC space, I mean maturing industries need to consolidate.  All of a sudden you have this private entity that may be can attract some consolidation, so I think it was a smart move.

Q. Do you think they’ll go into services more?

A. Well, I think they’ve been trying that, they either have to get less into the device market or they have to follow the trends in the device market.  They have to go one way or another.

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