Raised by a single mother, Debbie Zaller learned how to be independent at a young age. This independence eventually gave her confidence to step out of her role as an accountant and volunteer to learn an entirely new industry in PCI assessments. She would go on to become her firm’s first female Principal. In this edition of our blog, Debbie describes the path that led to her success, and how that path continues to change for women.
How long have you been at Schellman and what is your role?
I have been at Schellman for over 16 years. Prior to 2022, I was Managing Principal, leading the firm’s Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast regions along with the national service lines of SOC 2, Privacy, and co-leading the PCI service line. As COO, I am responsible for maintaining and driving operational results and executing the firm's strategic goals. I oversee all daily operations of the firm while spearheading the development, communication, and implementation of effective growth strategies and processes.
Has your role evolved since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and how so?
The pandemic created the need for leaders to be motivators in areas that were not as important in the past. We have been working on ways to make working from home interesting, fun, and engaging with other team members. We have hired many people during the pandemic, which makes it challenging to maintain our culture when most team members are unable to meet in person. The pandemic also created challenges to connect with our clients and build relationships remotely, which is probably much harder than motivating internal personnel.
How did you get started in the payments industry? What led you to that career choice?
I’m actually a Master of Accounting graduate and CPA, although, I have always been interested in technology. To date, I have over 22 years of IT compliance experience. Some years ago, our firm decided to offer PCI assessment services. I was the one who raised my hand to learn everything I could about the industry and performing the assessments. Today, it is one of our largest service lines.
Who has been your biggest role model in shaping your career path?
I have had several role models during my career. As I started my career, my biggest role model was my mom. She was a single mother to my sister and I and taught us independence from a young age. She didn’t depend on anyone and, as a result, had to continually learn just to provide for us. My most recent role model is my CEO. She has taught me that it’s ok to step outside of your comfort zone; give it 100% and you’ll surprise yourself what you can do.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
Becoming our firm’s first female Principal (owner). In a male-dominated field, this is a huge accomplishment. I am also extremely proud to have worked for a firm that never discriminated and provided the tools and opportunity for individuals to succeed.
Do you notice a lack of women in technology? If so, why do you think that is the case?
Yes, there is definitely a lack of women in technology. However, over my 22 years in the industry, I have seen this changing for the better. There has been more awareness to support women in this industry, but I also think women are stronger than we thought we were. We are no longer afraid to do what makes us happy or to accept a challenge for fear of failing. We have realized that sometimes we have to fail in order to succeed. We are not afraid to work hard to be happy and successful, however you define success.
Many women in the tech industry have felt that their gender has affected the way that they are perceived or treated. Is unconscious bias holding women back in the workplace and, if so, what can women do about it?
I feel lucky that I have not felt that way in my firm. However, I have certainly felt this while working with certain clients. This can certainly be a turn off to anyone and hold them back in the workplace. It’s so important for women to have a strong support system to uplift them when these situations arise. Convince them to continue on and hold strong for what they want. Convince them to find a company that will support them and not hold them back. There are plenty of companies out there that do not hold women back, so it’s important to find the right fit.
What do you see as the future for women in technology roles/payments industry?
I’m already seeing more and more women in top executive roles or chief positions, even as parents to young children. I think this will continue to grow. It will be more and more accepted that women can have a career and a family. They won’t let anyone tell them that they can’t have it all.
Were you given any advice during your career that has stuck with you? As a result, do you have a personal mantra or a famous quote that you live by?
I try not to get caught up in the small things: “don’t sweat the small stuff.” It’s very easy to let other people or their actions get the best of you. Hold strong. Know what you want in life and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
What advice would you impart to other women about how to succeed in the payment industry or in a technology-based field in general? What advice would you give to your younger self?
Have several role models or mentors and they don’t have to be just women. I have had some great mentors who were male. It’s important to know what you want, but also know that your wants can change. You don’t have to figure it all out 30 years in advance. And don’t be afraid to take advantage of the opportunity, no matter how challenging it might seem.