Women in Digital: Sharon Mandell

Sharon Mandell, SVP and CIO at Juniper Networks, talks about her career progression, her love of learning and how the pandemic has been a challenge for women in the workforce

Posted 4 July 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I love school, so much so that I now teach in University of San Francisco’s Master of Science in Information Systems program and previously taught at Santa Clara University in their business school.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Temple University, attended Georgia Institute of Technology’s Computer Science masters programme and received an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

Since graduating college, I’ve always worked in technology in some capacity. However, over the years, my roles have spanned the media, communications and software industries and evolved from individual contributor to management. Through working across a variety of tech companies, I’ve developed expertise in the specific areas of cybersecurity and compliance, enterprise architecture and road mapping, data and analytics, digital transformation and customer service.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

The best career advice I can offer is to work hard, play hard, do what you love and are passionate about. If you showcase your passion strongly enough, those who naturally see that will help you find your place where you can make an impact.

Also, go where the world is going, not necessarily where it is today. I heard this simple yet powerful advice from one of my undergraduate professors at Temple University, who helped me make a confident decision about my first job. It’s advice I’ve continued to follow in my own career and try to pass along whenever I can. 

If you had to pick one mentor that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

The person who had the largest impact on my career would be Jeff Scherb, the then CTO of Tribune Company. He was the one who saw a spark in me and gave me opportunities to right the ship on some struggling, but visible, technology projects, ultimately leading to my first CTO role. He taught me to have high expectations of myself and others, and to learn how to get over obstacles that might have become excuses for failure for others.

From where do you draw inspiration?

Participating in programmes to uplift younger women in tech is a huge source of inspiration for me. Juniper Networks has a number of these programmes, empowering women to find their voice, build their confidence, and figure out what is holding them back from getting that seat. I’m involved in the Women’s Sponsorship Program, which provides mentorship from senior participants to more junior colleagues, with 2021 marking the graduation of the third cohort from the programme. The next step of this scheme is actively seeking opportunities for those women to put those lessons into practice.

Aside from my role at Juniper, teaching classes at the university level allows me to not only give back to the next generation, but learn from them. I believe younger generations’ usage of technology really should set the standard and expectations for where our experiences should be heading. In that same vein, I have an interest in driving the ethical and sustainable use of technology, as well as increasing the diversity of voices influencing how technology is provided to the enterprise.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

One of the biggest challenges I have faced has been the lack of representation of female tech leaders, or even peers, when I was starting out on my career path. I often had to look for women who were successful in other fields, such as newspaper publishers, marketing executives, and so on. I only noticed more women in positions of CTO and CIO when I moved to California in the early 2000s. Building and maintaining a pipeline of strong technical women remains a challenge to this day.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12-24 months been like?

For women in particular, the pandemic has been challenging. Rather than the increased flexibility that hybrid working was purported to offer women, it has often hindered their work-life balance, with many women having to bear a larger portion of the home workload with children at home in remote schooling. In general, the last two years have made it harder to be visible in the workforce. Everyone must put in more effort to be seen given the current circumstances. My advice is to ask for time of your leaders or others you think may be in a position to help you to share your work. If they don’t have time for a meeting, they’ll politely decline, but more often than not, will likely make time for it if you have a little patience. If you see a problem you think you can solve, raise your hand.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

The technology we have access to has immensely beneficial potential, however, there is still much fear and reluctance surrounding it when it comes to adoption. This is no clearer than in the case of Artificial Intelligence. Whilst there are many leaders who have realised the real game-changing impact AI can have on business, there are just as many organisations and executives afraid to dip their toes into the water. The obstacles to embracing AI vary from an absence of AI-ready technology stacks and struggling to ready the workforce, to the requirement of cross-functional and executive involvement, in order to effectively govern AI usage and risks. 

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I was in a previous life a ballet dancer, so that’s what I thought I was going to grow up and be. I tried to graduate from high school early to have a year to dedicate to auditioning and getting a job. My father had different plans. He said if I wanted him to continue to pay the bills, I had to go to college right away. So, while I was in the apprentice program at Pennsylvania Ballet, I also started my first year at Temple University.

I was always a good student, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study, so I went in as a liberal arts major. Ultimately, it was time to sign up for the spring semester and a physics professor of mine suggested a course in computer science, and I thought he was crazy. What would a ballet dancer want to do with a computer? He described to me how it was a growing field and that if the ballet dancing thing didn’t work out and I liked it, maybe it would be a good place to be. I took his advice and a technology career was born.