Women in Technology

Hear us Roar

Interview with CJ Rayhill

by CJ Rayhill and Tatiana Apandi

CJ Rayhill was recently named SVP of Product Management and Technology for Safari Books Online (a joint venture between O'Reilly Media and Pearson Publishing).

Tatiana Apandi: You were one of the first female graduates of Annapolis Naval Academy, how was that experience?

CJ Rayhill: It was a fantastic experience, and my experience there has served me well throughout my career. That's not to say that it came without hardship. Being a trailblazer in any realm is not something to walk into without a good dose of consideration and conviction. You need to have a great deal of personal passion and perseverance to overcome the many obstacles that will be placed in your way. It's important to do it for yourself and your own goals—not for anyone else. For me, that motivation was a top-notch education. And I was willing to do whatever it took to get one. The Academy was an amazing place to get not only a fabulous education but also to practice leadership skills before leaving college. I had the fortunate opportunity to serve as a company commander (three-striper) in my senior year, where I was fully responsible for the management and oversight of 120 midshipmen—everything from their academic and military responsibilities to approving weekend liberty—so it was a great opportunity for me to experiment with and to develop the kind of skills that have been critical for a successful career in management. I still network and maintain friendships with many of my female classmates (an amazing group of women, many of whom have been tremendously successful in their own careers). We are very supportive of each other.

TA: You have been in many high-ranking positions during your career. How has that been as a female?

CJ: Most of the industries that I have been a part of since the mid-'80s (technology, financial services, insurance services, and healthcare) have traditionally had low percentages of women in the senior ranks. I was fortunate in that my personal situation allowed me to be as flexible as needed in pursuing my career goals, including six long-distance moves to completely different states. I basically gave my employers no excuse for not providing equal opportunity to me when I had the passion and proven capability to pursue my goals. I believe that most employers are hungry for competent, motivated, and flexible employees. Not everyone—regardless of gender—can be totally flexible in the pursuit of their career goals, and achieving a balance between your work life and personal life is equally critical. The biggest challenge I see for women who pursue careers in previously male-dominated roles is the language used to describe their performance relative to their male peers. For example, a man might be evaluated as being "assertive," but a woman with the same skills and personality might be seen as "bossy" (or worse). I think the more we can influence the language around our performance, the more we can close the perception gap relative to our male counterparts. And being different is not always bad. I have seen many women awkwardly try to emulate the style and approach of their male mentors, only to lose sight of the wonderful and unique qualities women can bring to an organization.

TA: You've accomplished a lot that few others (especially women) have, do you feel as though you are a pioneer?

CJ: I think I was born with the genetic make-up of a pioneering person. I've always had the conviction that I should be limited only by my capabilities and dreams, not by anyone else's definition of what I should or shouldn't be doing. This is something I have felt since I was a child. If I was told that girls shouldn't climb ropes, I would climb one to the top faster than anyone else. And when the opportunity arose to attend one of the finest educational institutions in the country, regardless of the fact that I would be in the first class of women to do so in 135 years, I was bound and determined to do so. And when I had the opportunity to be a vice-president at Citibank at the age of 28 (in charge of a group consisting almost exclusively of men), I jumped at the chance. I didn't do these things because I wanted to "be a pioneer." I did them because I wanted to; the by-product of which has been to lay a path for other women to follow—but only if they want to! The key is wanting it badly enough to overcome any obstacles that might stand in your way. And someone's gender is only one of those obstacles.

CJ Rayhill at her Naval Academy graduation in 1980

TA: Have there been any challenges along the way that you have felt were uniquely attributed to your gender?

CJ: There are always challenges for being different and trying to change the status quo. Being seen as an outsider is a difficult thing to overcome, and it can be downright lonely at times. I think the main approach that I have taken to overcome these difficulties is to share my passion and commitment. Focusing on commonalities, as opposed to differences, helps a great deal in gaining acceptance and respect. I have worked in technology for over 20 years now and haven't found many men who can keep up with my love for gadgets and trying out new devices and software. Establishing a common interest and dialog is key to leveling the playing field. I think the most important lesson I have taken away from my experiences is not to take things too personally—sometimes you are not seen for the individual you are, but for the class of people you might represent to others.

TA: Do you have any mentors to whom you attribute any of your continued motivation and success?

CJ: Absolutely—and most of them have been men! I think the role of a mentor is to act more as a guide and sounding post. The best mentors I have had are those that continuously challenge me and broaden my view of the world, sharing their experiences and methods so that I can compare and contrast them to my own and others. I remember one particular professor I had in my MBA program. We had these three-hour classes and he was teaching us on the subject of organization development and behavior. He was in his late seventies and he would hobble in and sit on top of the desk in the front of the room and tell us stories for the entire three hours of class. These were all true-life stories that he (or his clients) had experienced throughout his professional career. I learned more from those stories and have applied more of the techniques and approaches he told us about than any other formal learning in my career. I think creating informal networks of managers and discussing common challenges and solutions is an excellent way to learn. No matter how many years you spend in management, you can always run into new situations and problems that can be solved with collaboration and sharing.

TA: What advice would you give other women who are embarking upon barely-trodden career paths?

CJ: I would probably sum things up this way:

  1. Make sure that if you are blazing a trail, the destination is one you truly believe in and that you aren't doing it for someone else. Your commitment and passion may be all you have to see you through the tough times.
  2. Find common language and interests with your co-workers, subordinates, and superiors. It's harder to ostracize others when there are common interests—and gender is usually ignored as a differentiating factor when that is achieved.
  3. Try hard to change your own language and description of performance around both men and women. Consistency is the key. If a man is assertive and you see the same kind of behavior with a woman, call it the same thing. The more we can influence the language around our performance, the less our good qualities will be perceived as negatives.
  4. Network with friends and co-workers. You never know when those connections can be useful and they can be very supportive through tough times.
  5. Be as flexible as possible while still maintaining a good balance in your life. Everything in life is a choice and has a corresponding trade-off. Understand those trade-offs and make your decisions with eyes wide open. And, most importantly, accept the responsibility for your decisions—good or bad. Move on when you need to—don't be a victim! You are the person at the helm of your own ship—steer it in the direction of your goals and the wind will follow.

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