Aileen Ryan tells an anecdote that makes her colleagues at UltraSoC laugh. This Chief Strategy Officer, Chief Operating Officer and regular participant in marathons and endurance triathlons, has a 3 year old son. One day, at bath time, he turned to his mother and said, “you know Mummy, girls can’t be winners”. The incongruence of this outdated perception from ‘out of the mouth of babes’ is not lost on Aileen, to whom the term ‘winner’ applies in many different ways. Her story not only disproves it, but provides inspiration to any girl or young woman drawn to tech today.
1987 was ‘Year of Women in Engineering’ in Ireland, which encouraged a young Aileen to follow her instincts and “learn how to make a computer do something”. She was one of twelve girls in a cohort of 120, a proportion not much changed to this day. By 1993, Aileen found herself in Paris (French being another of her winning skills), writing mobile-enabling software for Alcatel. Even then, talk of everyone owning a mobile phone seemed far-fetched, and Aileen herself didn’t yet have one.
Her next move was to Motorola, then a firmly established global ‘tech giant’. Aileen now mentors students at Cambridge Judge Business School and enjoys telling them of the time when Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson were the Google, Facebook and Apple of their day. Nothing, she reminds them, is permanent, particularly in the world of tech.
A secondment in Vancouver gave Aileen her first brush with handling people rather than tech issues – an altogether different and “much less logical” sphere of expertise. This was 1998 and paging was dying. The technology and its people needed to be absorbed into the new regime and this required new and different skills. An MBA from the Open University expanded Aileen’s remit preparing her for a new role at TM Forum. Over the next 12 years, she transformed the organisation from a small organisation into an industry-spanning membership platform on a solid financial footing. It was the perfect tech cross-over role. Navigating change and growth through the dotcom bubble burst, Aileen recalls the metal filing cabinet in a New Jersey office that contained members’ details in a less than tech-smart fashion. The organisation’s function – as well as Aileen’s horizons – expanded. New, disruptive business models were emerging all the time, so success was no longer just about running a good company. Having a sense of the whole eco-system and its direction of travel was now essential too and Aileen made sure TM Forum could provide it.
A pattern emerges in Aileen’s journey. From small to big, to small… and now to big again in 2013: Huawei wanted Aileen’s help in understanding the challenges their customers faced on the global horizon, equipping the company to anticipate and adapt to them. This role took her inside one of the world’s most innovative tech hardware companies, including its Shenzhen HQ, solidifying her understanding of the ever-changing dynamics of the industry and its customers.
Following her pattern, the next challenge was to return to a small but growing company, this time in the semiconductor space. UltraSoC (described in more depth here) was new territory for Aileen. However, the chance, once again, to make quick, meaningful decisions, with immediate, visible results, proved irresistible. A startup, evolving into a scaleup business, with the inherent financial and resource constraints lacking in a tech giant, made for an exciting, “visceral” environment, with no hiding places. Aileen now finds the level of passion and engagement from everyone in the UltraSoC team an inspiration. The challenges of scaling, of preserving the one-team mentality, whilst allowing differences to emerge and grow, is now front and centre as the company expands with a new office in Warsaw, Poland.
Aileen’s son will no doubt be able to refine his world-view in just a few years time, but the fact remains that women such as his mother are still few and far between in tech. Whatever the barriers, Aileen’s continuing journey, provides all the inspiration anyone would need.