Women in Business Q&A: Dr. Rebecca Parsons, Chief Technology Officer, ThoughtWorks

05/26/2015 07:52 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Dr. Rebecca Parsons is ThoughtWorks' Chief Technology Officer. She has more than 20 years' application development experience, in industries ranging from telecommunications to emergent internet services. Rebecca has published in both language and artificial intelligence publications, served on numerous program committees, and reviews for several journals. She has extensive experience leading in the creation of large-scale distributed object applications and the integration of disparate systems.

Before coming to ThoughtWorks she worked as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida where she taught courses in compilers, program optimization, distributed computation, programming languages, theory of computation, machine learning and computational biology. She also worked as Director's Post Doctoral Fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory researching issues in parallel and distributed computation, genetic algorithms, computational biology and non-linear dynamical systems.

Rebecca received a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Economics from Bradley University, a Masters of Science in Computer Science from Rice University and her Ph.D. in Computer Science from Rice University.

How has your life experience and career made you the leader you are today?
Firstly, I was raised in an academic environment - my father was a professor and we were always reading as kids. It's because of this that I developed a lifelong quest for learning which is a strong component of the way I look at things.

When I was in my early 20s I went on a medical mission in Haiti that had an enormous impact on me. I saw firsthand what life was like for people less privileged than I; this gave me a sense of perspective and humility. This is an important factor in the way I view my role in the industry as I recognize the privilege I had when I started my career.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at ThoughtWorks?
I had a manager in my mid-20s whose management style stuck with me. His perspective was that it was his job to ensure I had everything I needed to do my job well. I try to practice this when I manage - my job is to protect my team so they can do their best work to achieve their objectives. All these years later, I still go back to this philosophy.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ThoughtWorks?
What we've been able to achieve working with various organizations to improve healthcare for the poor in Haiti, Pan-Africa, and India is definitely a highlight.

In terms of challenges, it's the culture of scaling. We grew organically - we had fewer than 100 ThoughtWorkers when I started and we now have 3,000 which is exciting but it can be difficult to maintain a culture of transparency and inclusiveness as you grow. You need structure but you also need to ensure it doesn't impede on individual empowerment when you're spread across 30 offices and 12 countries.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to be a leader in business?
Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. Have faith in your own abilities, don't be afraid to try something new and be confident. Part of being a leader is challenging established norms and helping people to take risks and try new things.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's important to carve out time and figure out what's really important to you whether it be family, a relationship or work. Work/life balance is a misnomer as it implies a tradeoff but it comes down to a matter of prioritization. My job is global, I spend a lot of time on planes - it's a tremendous learning opportunity as I get to see lots of countries and cultures, which I enjoy. As a result it can be difficult to have a home/work balance but I don't see it as trading off things that are more important to me.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Unconscious bias and the fact that people are so afraid of being seen as biased that we don't do anything about it. We should acknowledge and accept that this exists because if we don't, we will never recognize the impact it has on the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a mentor was eight years ago which was relatively late in my career. I realized that stating what I wanted to achieve wouldn't close other doors. My mentor helped me understand that just putting something out there wouldn't limit my opportunities.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Nora Denzel, the director and CEO of Outerwall. She transitioned from a day-to-day work role to not only being a role model but also being more active in helping people achieve their aspirations.
Also Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd college. She's a strong tech leader, an advocate for education and for people who want to pursue a career in the tech field; she's also been innovative in rethinking tech education and knows how to support people around her to make sure they have the tools they need to grow and learn.

What do you want ThoughtWorks to accomplish in the next year?
We're currently piloting programs in our offices in Pan Africa to bring more Africans into tech fields, including LevelUp and Young African Technologists. I'd like to see us start graduating some of these students and starting careers in tech.