Women in Tech: Deanna Swanson, Director of HR

Originally posted on ThinkIT, SingleHop’s blog, August 10, 2017. 

Recruiting in the IT industry is no easy feat. A high demand for increasingly niche skillsets makes recruitment challenging and competitive. Matching in importance comes the need to foster an inclusive, positive, and productive environment that encourages individuals to stay in their positions.

Fortunately, SingleHop has the person for job: Deanna Swanson. Deanna has overseen the growth of our company from a small startup to around 170 employees today, doubling the software engineering team in the past two years alone. In addition to her recruitment efforts, Deanna spearheads community outreach initiatives from marathons to toy drives and is passionate about promoting agile, collaborative, and inclusive work environments.

Earlier this week, I chatted with Deanna about how she overcame her reservations about jumping into the startup and tech worlds, her thoughts on recent HR controversies in Silicon Valley, and her advice to women in tech careers.

How did you come about a career in HR? 

My passion for working with people to solve problems has been a constant throughout my career. First, I worked with refugees to navigate their transition into the US job market. After moving to Chicago, I joined a boutique investment shop where I worked with an incredible team of HR professionals who were deeply engrained in the business. They taught me the fundamentals of HR, as well how to integrate our care for people with the management of the business.

My next career move took me to the sports industry, where I managed all aspects of our people function. I was also coached to rise above all of the preconceived notions about HR; I was lucky to have mentors who helped to bolster my confidence and push me to bring my best talents to the team. During my time in sports, I took on my most challenging and rewarding role: I became a mom of two amazing boys. In sports you work your typical front office schedule, plus the home games, which is fun and rewarding, but managing those hours with tiny humans who were quite disinterested in sleep began to wear me out. Like most things in life, when you are ready for a change, opportunity presents itself.

Was that when you discovered SingleHop?

SingleHop was strongly recommended by a friend of a friend. SingleHop was looking for their first HR person, but they were struggling to find someone with the right style for organization. Do you know that scene from the movie Trolls, where the bergens are trudging through town? That is how a lot of people think of HR people – dreary, negative and generally unpleasant to be around. SingleHop needed the requisite HR skills and experience, but a strong culture fit and an ability to understand all of our people was just as important to them.

SingleHop was described as a start-up in the tech industry, which was not an attractive prospect to me – “start-up” and “tech” conjured up memories of the tech bubble bursting in the early 2000s. After quite a bit of prodding, I agreed to have a conversation, and it was the best decision that I could have made for my career. My skepticism going into the interviews dissipated as I learned more about the team. SingleHop was no longer a startup. The company was bootstrapped, financials were tightly managed, and Zak & Dan [SingleHop’s co-founders] were down to earth and earnest in their desire to grow the business well.

The challenge of learning a new industry, establishing a healthy people operations function and advising the leadership team on how best to coach, develop and manage our very talented people has been rewarding and ever changing throughout my five year tenure. We remain focused on hiring and retaining talented problem solvers who want to help grow the business and have a little fun along the way.
Do the goals of recruiting for culture fit clash with goals of creating a more diverse culture?

No, I don’t believe they do. Problem solving, communication, humility, sense of ownership, hard work, passion for learning, honesty and a positive attitude are cultural characteristics that we seek out, and can be found in anyone.

The reports of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley are impossible to ignore. What’s your take on the recent events?

These events are deeply troubling, first as a woman and secondarily as an HR professional. The gross misogyny and level of entitlement that some tech organizations have running through their culture is hard to understand, especially given the fact that I have been lucky to have never worked in a place that operated in such a sick and demoralizing manner. At this point in my career, I have worked in financial services, sports and technology – all male dominated, but all with very talented women on the team. Culturally, there has to be an expectation of respect, civility, and awareness of your impact on others, in order to keep an organization healthy. There are plenty of companies in the tech industry who are inclusive and respectful. Hopefully, the sick organizations will be able to learn from their healthy peers to rebuild a culture that will allow them to repair their reputations.

When I think about SingleHop’s culture, I think about the level of openness that everyone projects. Everyone is focused on growing the business, which means that we each have to successfully and efficiently produce our part – this is far more important to the group than where you come from, who you love or who you know.

What advice would you give to women in tech?

My advice is to show up, bring your skills and talents, and be remember that you belong here. Technology, in my opinion, is the great equalizer. It does not matter where you came from, where you went to school, or who you know. What matters is what you know, how you figured it out and who you are, all of which you can control.

We need to recognize our strengths (and give them their proper value), and we need to recognize our weaknesses (and refuse to overdramatize them) so that we can confidently develop a plan to improve ourselves. The ability to hear and see different perspectives is critical, so establish rapport with lots of different people – men and women, to ensure that you are soliciting feedback from a diverse group. My final piece of advice is to take some risks, this is probably the most important lesson that I have learned during my time as a SingleHopper. If you take a risk and it works, good for you! If you take a risk and it doesn’t work, then you get to learn something. Good for you.

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