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Mentor Monday: Cisco's Liz Centoni

Sarah Thomas
10/26/2015

If Liz Centoni weren't an engineer at Cisco, she'd probably be in the CIA.

Centoni is a self-described introvert who'd rather curl up with a spy book at home then address a large audience, but you certainly wouldn't know that from meeting her. Her 15 years as an engineer at Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and a concerted effort to develop business competencies as a technologist have made her an outspoken, effective leader and a mentor for and sponsor to women both inside and outside the company.

Centoni is currently the chief of staff for Cisco's head of engineering, as well as the leader of Cisco's Connected Women's program and sponsor for its Women in Science and Engineering program. She is one of the 15% of women who make up technical positions at the networking giant, and she learned early on that "if you aren't at the table, you're on the menu."

Having a voice at Cisco was important to Centoni, and she's worked hard to help other women at the company find their voices as well. She has been a long-time mentor, both formally and informally, but now she is spearheading a formal sponsorship program at Cisco as well -- asking everyone on the engineering team to sponsor two high-potential women.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg for Centoni's plans for Cisco and championing women at her company and beyond. Read the interview below for more of her ideas to level the playing field and improve the pipeline, advice for women in comms and much more.

Liz Centoni, Vice President, Strategy and Engineering Chief of Staff at Cisco and lead of Cisco's Connected Women's program
Liz Centoni, Vice President, Strategy and Engineering Chief of Staff at Cisco and lead of Cisco's Connected Women's program


Light Reading is hosting its next Women in Comms breakfast in London on November 5, ahead of the OSS in the Era of SDN and NFV: Evolution vs. Revolution show. Please join us for the free and fantastic morning by registering here.


Light Reading: Would you say that it's a good time to be a woman in comms, or are there still formidable challenges for women in our industry?

Liz Centoni: It is a great time to be a woman in the IT/telecom industry mostly because one of the key motivating factors is -- I love the idea of being financially independent -- that in this industry the pay gap between men and women is a whole lot closer than other industries.

Two, I think of myself as a pretty creative person, and many of the women I work with are very creative. This industry allows you the opportunity to absolutely do that. As an example, the last business unit I worked in, with the small opex budget I had, we did a lot of great things, but it required creativity and begging, borrowing and negotiating, which women are great at doing.

And, third, it's an industry actively seeking to make a change in things, especially about women in tech for a number of reasons, namely it's good for the business. More women at every level and in leadership roles leads to better financial performance and innovation. There is definitely an awareness and drive to change things; things that have been unchanged for many years. When I think of these three reasons, I think it's absolutely a great time to be in IT/communications space.

LR: What does a "pro-woman" workplace look like, and how can we achieve that in a meaningful way in large, oftentimes slow-moving companies?

LC: The first thing is it is a place where people think leaders and they see women. Why do I say that? The concept of women as leaders is uncomfortable for a lot of people. With women as doers, people don't have an issue. Women as leaders, there's a lot of bias that relates to that. A workplace that feels comfortable with that is a workplace I would say is friendly to women.

The second is more around men and women bring different skills to the table, and they bring some very much the same. So, it's the recognition of what women bring to the table without looking at it from a gender standpoint. You aren't doing it because it's gender based, but truly looking at what they bring to the table. You are not pigeonholing me into a space based on what you think I'm good at. Give people the opportunity, rather than pigeonhole, to go after anything. The preconceived notions are not there and women are given opportunities.

LR: How do you as a leader practice inclusive leadership? What does that mean to you?

LC: What I was successful at -- if I look at all the roles I had, it really -- put aside tech domain knowledge or business knowledge -- was about inspiring and connecting that came from the heart. It was the moments that connected us to one another on the team. It was a tendency to care and believe. I cared about and believed in along with the people I worked with and their gender didn't matter. You cherished the fact that they brought different perspective to the table. If you can do that, it is what inclusive leadership is about. It could be gender, race, different perspectives, experiences, all of that. Success came from doing this. I know I cared about and believed in people I worked with as well. If you can do work with inspiration and connection that comes from the heart and connect people emotionally to it, that's how I look at inclusive leadership.

LR: In your opinion, how can the industry both hire more women and improve the pipeline so there are more qualified women to recruit?

LC: The second question I feel really both passionate and upset about at the same time. In the first place, when we recruit women, we always tend to stick to the qualifications that are required. It's almost like you have to fill job description to a T. If you don't have a computer scientist background, but have electric engineering, it's like, "I'm not sure." But very good programmers that are guys come from English, history, etc. I would throw out hard and fast requirements. Domain knowledge is absolutely important, but it can also be learned. Look for drive, ambition and curiosity. It depends on if you're hiring out of college, do you have social intelligence and other skills? Domain knowledge skills can be taught. We hold those requirements that are hard and fast for women, and if you don't draw hard and fast lines and expand thinking on requirements, we can broaden the pipeline.

So when we talk about not being enough women in the pipeline, I call bullshit on that. It's based on ten criteria, and there are not many who meet all ten. Revisit the criteria. Throw out hard and fast ones. Do blind resume hiring. Gap Jumpers is an app that helps you do blind resume reviewing as well. That will help us broaden the pipeline. Look at social intelligence. Look at educational areas other than just computer science. My undergraduate degree was chemistry with a minor in physics and math. The computer science people wouldn't hire me for a job today.

The other is once you have women in the workplace, work really hard on retaining them. Fifty percent of women leave midway through their careers, especially in technology. There's a whole host of things related to the home. Marrying the right person makes a big difference. The company can't help there; it can't create an algorithm that says who your perfect match is. But at the work level, once they are here, create an environment that's conducive and allows them to go after the dreams and passions to change the world along the way, let's them experiment on way to success and give them the opportunities. If you can do that and retain them, that would be fabulous. It's not just about attracting. It's advancing and retaining women.

LR: As a leader, what is the number one piece of personal advice you would give to help women achieve their goals in a male-dominated field?

LC: It's a combination. When I talk to the 20 people that I formally mentor, and I do some informally and in groups, there's a "you" part of it and a company part of it. The company offers a lot of capabilities and help that you should leverage, but there also a "you" part that says you need to dream. If you don’t dream, you can't get it. Until you reach, you never know what's possible. That's one thing I continue to tell women. Don't opt out. You have to define where you see yourself, and you can use help from other people to find that, but don't let other people limit that. One of the toughest things women find is how to define that dream.

You have to dream. Once you dream, you should be able to share that dream with your trusted advisors. That helps define where you want to go. It doesn't have just be a role upwards; it could be lateral as well, but you define what's next for you.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas
10/26/2015 | 9:47:14 AM
breaking out of your shell
Liz makes (many) good points for anyone to keep in mind, but especially technologists who may be used to working heads down on tech by themselves. Even if that's your prefered way of working and you tend to be introverted, you still need to develop the business acumen and people skills to move ahead in your career. It doesn't come naturally to all of us, but it's important to advancing and making a name for yourself. Liz definitely excels at this, and it's advice I try to follow (ie. accepting every speaking gig even though I hate public speaking!).
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