With a background in Russian language and literature, Noel Haskins-Hafer might have seemed like an unlikely candidate for a career in technology. But through her love for learning, she started out in the industry by reading IBM manuals and assembler programming books, often while on vacation. Over time, she explored and eliminated roles that she hated until she discovered where she fit, and what she loved, in the realm of audit and compliance. In this edition of our podcast, Noel explains why lifelong learning – and learning broadly – can be the key to a successful career.
Tell us a little bit about how you got started in the technology or the payments space. What led you to that career choice?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: I majored in Russian language and literature. And, when you do something like that, you need to find a job where you can make some money. Back when I started in technology as a software engineer, technology was a hot career, but a hot career was programming. I started out as an assembler language programmer and I realized that, while I was quite good at it, I hated it. And everybody around me hated being around me while I was coding. Little by little, I began to pull myself closer and closer to the front. I kept saying there's got to be a better way of programming. So, I explored quality assurance and then I explored requirements analysis. Then came the Y2K period. My husband and I moved across country. I did not have a cadre of people who could help me find a job. And I ended up working in the defense contracting industry, doing business process analysis for the Navy, then writing - ironically - security technical publications for the Navy and the Air Force.
And I was on a job in Hawaii. They needed to keep me over a weekend because they needed me there beyond the Friday. So, I was there on a Saturday and I was also doing some adjunct teaching in technology at the time. I was designing a course, looking out over my laptop at the beach and thinking, oh, in another hour, I'm going to be on the beach. I got a request from one of the big four auditing companies. Would I be interested in talking to them? And I knew that defense contracting was not going to be where I wanted to be. I spoke with them. They said, “we're really interested, but you need to move to Los Angeles.” I said no. And at Christmastime, I just sent a thank-you note to the recruiter and said, “I learned a lot from the experience, thank you so much.” The first week of January, he called me and said, “Your job just opened in San Diego. Would you come back and talk to us?” And that's when I discovered how much I love audit and compliance. I really came about technology and compliance very roundabout, but everything that I've done throughout my career makes an impact on what I do every single day.
Who has been your biggest role model in helping to shape your career path?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: This question really, really was one I struggled with because there've been so many different role models. I had a father who really, really wanted a son. He had three daughters. I was by far the youngest. So, I was his last chance at having somebody that he could mold. He was an engineer himself, a civil engineer, and then became a lawyer. So, I used to go with him to court cases and watch him develop his cases in products liability.
I had a manager who pulled me out of really heavy technical work and brought me into the business process and the Navy work and kept telling me, “focus, focus, focus” and more often than not when I'm finding myself struggling in a day, I'll think back and go, “focus, focus, focus.” And that's been a huge part of shaping my career path because the more I focus, the more I get done, the more productive I am, and the more the work I do, affects others around me, positively, I hope.
There was another professor that I worked with. He was my faculty lead. Everybody else who knew this fellow, a crazy German, and absolutely rock-solid smart, but you just never quite knew where he was going to go at the time. All the other adjunct professors would have a half an hour meeting with him and just walk out drained. He and I learned we had to schedule three-hour meetings one-on-one because we'd get started on a topic and just develop something fabulous and write articles. And he taught me that there really were no limits, that it didn't matter what I was doing, I had the skillset to be able to succeed.
Now we're going to get into some questions about women in technology, specifically. Do you notice a lack of women in technology? And, if so, why do you think that is the case?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: When I started in, what we then called programming, I was the only woman in a group of very highly technical men. I had one and a half years of programming experience in COBOL. The next junior person had 14 years in assembler, and I'll never forget the first meeting of the team after I was hired, the manager had all of us in the room and he said, “Now, guys, I've got a warn you, you need to watch your language. We now have a woman on board.” So, for me to look around and see so many women in reasonably responsible positions is quite a change. Yes, it's been several decades, but I see a lot of women in technology. And I think that's just wonderful. What I don't see are a lot of leaders in technology who are women. And I see even fewer who are truly devoted to helping build diverse teams, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of geographic location. It's a very difficult skillset. And it's not one that we tend to teach people in technology how to do. Being a manager is a very different skillset. I think that's an area where we could do a lot better as women.
Many women in the tech industry have felt that their gender has affected the way that they are perceived or treated. Have you ever been in a situation like that? And, if so, how did you handle it?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: Two stories come to mind. One is the one that I've already alluded to, where the manager said, “you know, gentlemen, you've got to watch your language. We have a woman on the team now.” And I wanted to say to him, “Do you really think I haven't heard that language before?”
The other was a little more difficult. It was during a performance appraisal with a vice president for whom I have extreme respect. And we were talking about some of our staff meetings. And I had to point out to him that I was the only female on his team. I was the one who had the lowest ranking. I was not a director. I was not a vice president. And he had a habit of almost every time I would say something during the meeting, he would denigrate it. I had to point out to him that that didn't help me work with his team. Now I will say, that over the years, I've worked with many, many of these people and almost every single one of them has said to me, in public, “You earn our respect. You know where to go to get answers. If you say you don't know, we know you really don't know, but you'll find out. You'll follow through. You work with us. You're collaborative.” But it was really tough looking this vice president in the eye and having to say, “You know, you don't have to make those snide remarks every time I open my mouth. If you want me to talk more in meetings, you need to give me the same respect that you give the men.” Now I will say he is still with us. And most of his staff is now women and they all just love him. And, so do I. He is a great guy.
What do you see, or hope to see, as the future for women in technology roles, specifically in the payments industry?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: I would really love to think that we could get to a point someday when we don't have to say I'm a woman technologist, or I'm a woman payments leader. I would really love to be seen and be treated as equals with everybody else in the industry. To me, that would mean that we are making the same level of contribution with the same level of effort. We don't have to work twice as hard to get recognized half as much.
Were you given any advice during your career that has stuck with you? As a result, do you have a personal mantra or a quote that you live by?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: I don't know that I can call this career advice, but it was an article that I read shortly after I got out of college. It was in the Reader's Digest of all places. And it talked about this author's experience of making sure he always had enough money in savings so that he did not have to compromise his ethics for a job. And, at the time, he pinpointed a million dollars and that seemed like I would never ever see a million dollars in my entire aggregate life. But I took from that article two things: One is there isn't enough money in the world for me to compromise my values. And the other was you should always have enough money to be able to walk away so that you don't have to compromise your values because when you start to compromise what is important to you, what you hold dear, you are compromising yourself. So, when I have young women, young engineers come to me and ask me for career advice, that's really the first thing I give them is understand what your values are, what really matters to you, and then make sure that you don't ever have to compromise those just because you need a paycheck.
What advice would you impart to other women about how to succeed in the payments industry or in a technology-based field in general? Is there anything that you wish you had known?
Noel Haskins-Hafer: Oh, I have a laundry list written here. I think one of the best things that anybody in a career when starting out, or even at the later stages of a career, can do is keep learning and learn broadly. I know when I first started in technology, I literally would take IBM manuals with me on vacation, and I would read them. I'd get out in the canoe and I'd sit in the middle of a very calm space. And I would read link editor books, and I would read assembler books. And my boss thought I was crazy, but that was how I was going to learn my craft. But I also recognize that reading novels, reading other topics, or learning about other topics, taking classes in other topics, or taking just webinars, lectures. There’s a company called The Great Courses that goes out and finds some of the best professors around the country and makes their courses available online. And the topics are as broad as technology and science to history, religion, literature, they cover the gamut. And I try very hard to make sure that I've got at least one of those courses going on at any time because the more I learn about other cultures, other people, other topics, other ways of seeing things, the more I can bring that knowledge into my work and collaborate better, come up with better solutions, design better processes, understand more what the people around me, and what our customers, are feeling.
I honestly believe that learning to present well is an art, but it's also a necessary skill. I inherited a young engineer several years ago who told me flat out, “Engineers don't do presentations.” And I said to him, “Engineers do presentations every day.” Because if you can't express to the people around you what your great ideas are, your great ideas will never come to fruition. They will always just be great ideas. And the irony is that he ended up having to return back to India to be with his folks. And he now runs the marketing department of his father's company. And he does presentations all the time. Every once in a while, I get a "you were right" email from him.
I have a little trouble with this myself and so I like to give this as advice as well. And that is: let others have a voice. It's so easy for so many of us, especially as we get more experienced, to want to tell people how to do things or to talk all the time. I learned so much by keeping my mouth shut and listening to the younger, less experienced engineers, compliance people, auditors. The more I listen, the more I learn. So just letting others have a voice, really bringing them out, asking them, “What are your ideas?” before expressing my thoughts or my strategies, and then giving credit to others. There's nothing more demoralizing than having a leader take your idea and claim it for him or herself.