Women in Digital: Susanna Parry-Hoey

Susanna Parry-Hoey, chief marketing officer at SoftwareOne, shares the ups and downs of her career, as well as how to encourage more women into the industry, and the biggest tech challenges we face today.

Posted 17 April 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?  

I was a bit of a nerd and absolutely loved school. Economics, political theory, history, literature, computer programming, architecture… it was like being a kid in a candy shop. The beauty of a liberal arts education is that you get this grounding where you learn how to learn, which is the basis for everything that follows in life. Above all, I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent at school as it was where I found my love of writing. I was at university because of my background as a performer, and it was both a music conservatory and a great academic institution. My first internship while in college was in the press office of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. Increasing ticket sales involved everything from promoting concerts and issuing press releases to writing programme notes and interviewing artists for features.  

That turned into my first “real” internship with the online properties of Businessweek (back when that was a thing). In turn, this led to my first career step out of college which was to join Hill & Knowlton, one of the largest PR agencies in the world. Thanks to these experiences, I found my way into marketing on the client side.

What qualifications do you have?  

I received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Political Science from Yale University. It wasn’t only the exceptional academic standards of the professors; it was the sheer diversity of the student body from all over the world. As an undergrad I was also on the varsity track and field team competing in pentathlon. This was about perseverance, mental toughness and the bond you have when you are part of a team that is like no other.   

After six years in the work world, I got an MBA in Marketing and IT at the Stern School of Business at New York University. This is one of nation’s leading parttime programs, known for its real-world professors and applied approach. You get to meet fellow students from every part of the business community who are also going to school evenings and weekends. 

Lastly, I received training as a US Navy Command Family Ombudsman, which is a volunteer role I served in for five years during the middle of my career. We were a resource for families so they could access programmes and get support when their service members were deployed.  

They say that you learn 70 percent on the job, 20 percent through mentoring and 10 percent through actual coursework or certification. I would observe that while qualifications provide the basis and are immensely helpful, it’s what you learn from the pros who are doing it daily. It’s crucial when you’re recruiting to build a team to maintain an open mind about equivalent experience so you can attract diverse candidates from varied backgrounds.

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

My career has been a combination of both. Smooth: There’s a series of decisions where one thing naturally led to the next. Rocky: But transitioning into new fields and roles has required taking leaps of faith into the unfamiliar.  

As the saying goes, “when you come to the fork in the road, take it.” After having worked at a business association called the New York City Partnership that exposed me to not-for-profit, government and the private sector, I knew I wanted the ability deliver results that were measured by hard numbers, which is when I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers. This opened up a path in B2B professional services leading to Accenture, Deloitte and Cognizant. Similarly, after being at a PR agency, I knew that I wanted to go “client side”.  

On the other hand, sometimes events lead to amazing opportunities albeit they require a jump into the unknown that can be unnerving at first. For example, the SaaS startup that recruited me into my first CMO role. A leading national reseller headed for an IPO. A global systems integrator introducing up a digital business service line globally. All wonderful challenges for a marketer.

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

First and foremost, it’s that the tech industry is male-dominated.  

I used to work at a well-known international tech company. At one point, I was on an overseas trip with a senior female colleague as speakers. When I entered any of the meetings, I would first look around the room, and then do the “fingers on the hand” game. This meant I would count all the women in the room and usually it was less than two hands. After being in these meetings for two days, I compared notes and discovered that we were both doing the same thing. As leaders, we must continue to put women and diverse teams in place until no one has to count the room anymore.  Being part of a minority in the tech industry overall allows women to bring unique and diverse voices to the table. To have a perspective that few people in the room have, simply through a woman’s own lived experience, can let women have an edge and bring more value. For that reason, I look at it as an advantage to be a woman in the tech industry.

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

You only live once! So, make it count and take sensible risks. Connect with people smarter and better than you and seek their advice regularly. Learn from their example. Often the best advice doesn’t come in big ideas, it arrives in little nudges. Personally, the most useful advice I’ve been given is how to optimise any situation, rather than trying to change the situation wholesale. This helped me to always bring the best I could offer to the company I was working for, incrementally and within the culture, maturity level and industry realities. Give yourself permission and own it. also think it’s important for others to know that only they know what they truly want, and so big decisions must come from themselves first and foremost. When I had my first CMO opportunity, it was in a sector that was new to me and the first time in such a broad role. Could I do it? For women in particular, watch out for imposter syndrome. The best advice I received to get over that was: “just go for it” – my husband gave me that advice. This is an example of how often, the biggest help you can receive, is having that encouragement to walk through the door when the door is already open in front of you. 

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

Sometimes you need hindsight to know when a mentor has had a fundamental impact on how you go about doing things. For me, it was when I was an Ombudsman for SEAL Team Eighteen. Jacky Richards headed up the family resource program for Special Warfare at the time. The wife of an admiral now retired, she was universally respected for her own knowledge and strength. When I would visit her in a small, unassuming office in an unremarkable building to talk about the progress of the program, she would ask direct, tough questions and then give succinct straightforward advice. In quick order, the answers were there and the way forward was clear. I looked forward to the speed and certainty at which she honed in on the right outcomes, balanced with caring and humour in a trademark gravelly voice that suffered no fools.

From where do you draw inspiration?  

When I really think about it, it’s from other female leaders. Specifically, it’s the leaders who are following their hearts and staying true to themselves. One of those is Kara Swisher (an American journalist). If there ever were someone synonymous with the tech, it’s her. When she co-founded Vox Media’s Recode and did all those interviews sitting in the famous red chairs. Now she’s a contributing editor at New York Magazine. She’s always been so true to herself and has been advancing women in Silicon Valley for a very long time. People come to her for ideas, and she is sought after for understanding trends and for her perspective. That’s the type of person I truly find inspiring. 

I also draw inspiration from breakthroughs, things of beauty, things of wonder, mindboggling things, geeky things. Especially in tech (and I guess really, everything is tech now) it’s so important to keep up with things like generative and predictive AI, personalised medicine, quantum, blockchain, deep space… by constantly reading, listening, scanning.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?  

The number of hours in a day is certainly one of them.  

This is a function of being in a leadership position and needing to always keep evolving. Tech is such a youthful industry and so it’s a challenge to maintain freshness on trends while at the same time being able to sustain the 16-hour day. In tech, being someone who is older than the norm is common because many colleagues or team members are 10, 20 even 30 years younger. Personally, I believe we need to hold ourselves to a standard of being constantly conversant to make business changes and be relevant in new areas. This is where the energy and passion I get from the tech industry and amazing Swomies (as we call our SoftwareOne colleagues), is the spark and the engine.  

Working on the SoftwareOne rebrand has also been a massively challenging, but equally rewarding task. In just 18 months, we have conceived and launched a new brand reflecting our organisation’s transformation and history in order to reposition the company accordingly while simultaneously supporting business as usual.  

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?  

Authenticity and empathy. Leaders must let themselves be vulnerable and let employees see more of who they really are. The best leaders are the ones who are authentic rather than trying to be something or someone they are not. In my case, it’s not only what I bring as a non-male in the tech industry, it’s the experience of growing up poor, and of now being part of a military family married to a disabled veteran.  

Leaders must let employees bring their whole selves to their job, but only to the extent that the employee wants. They must respect the whole person including everything they have on their plate at that moment in time and then try and help them develop. 

Beyond this, leaders must provide a sense of common purpose, and a clear roadmap that is attainable and measurable.

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

In the last 12 months, I have had the opportunity to put marketing in the spotlight by modernising, professionalising and delivering more strategic value from the marketing function. This has involved building marketing up to be brand-driven, data-driven, buyer-driven and modern. 

I recently hosted our internal marketing leaders’ workshop that brought together our top 50 or so marketing leaders from around the world. Since our first in-person meeting post-Covid, six months ago, we have all progressed lightyears. It’s really amazing to see the results of the work we’ve all been doing.

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

I would say the biggest tech-based challenge we’re facing is the impact of AI at scale. If we look at ChatGPT and other generative AIs that are now going mainstream and can be used by almost anyone customers are struggling to know when they’re talking to (or reading from) a person or to a machine. However, the younger you are, the less enthusiastic you are about dealing with a human salesperson and less likely to find them credible. For someone working in marketing, this changes what we need to directly make available, versus when a human is brought into the loop. Humans will always be needed somewhere, but where they’re brought in is changing. 

As these different technologies are spiking, businesses must contend with what that means for them. They’re trying to watch these trends and stay relevant by finding ways to implement them. However, when it comes to AI and other new, innovative types of technology, the more they alter the way we work, the more important it becomes to maintain human connections. It’s crucial we don’t forget the value that personal relationships and conversations can bring to a business.

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?  

I have always learnt from people who knew more than myself, and who had the experience that I didn’t. While working at Accenture early on, there were some amazing female leaders that helped me along my career path. I found that surrounding female mid-level executives with female senior leaders was crucial in showing us what was possible. It is important for women to see the art of the possible right in front of them, and then provide them with the exposure, experience and training that comes along with it.

Starting with getting more girls into STEM so that they can be in more engineering and research jobs is key. SoftwareOne Academy reaches candidates from underserved populations where they can get hands-on experience and job placement combined with learning. These kinds of programs are so important to broaden out from traditional qualifications-based approaches. Recruiting female members from professional services groups is another thing the industry can so. Lastly, we need to continue to change the face and optics of the industry. If you see yourself in the room, you’re much more likely to want to be in the room and serve an example for yet more to follow after you. That’s what each of us can do to encourage women in technology.  

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

My husband and I love to do DIY home projects. We’re currently working on an off-the-grid hot tub that runs on its own in a simple closed system of fire, water, copper piping and self-feeding pressure. It’s also going to be a cold plunge tub! I’m super excited about planting out a fruit and vegetable garden this spring. We’re already conserving seeds from food and have a little nursery near the kitchen for seedlings. Next project in line is going to be turning a reclaimed tree trunk into a living room table. After that, who knows!