Above the Glass: Adapting During a Pandemic
Written by Shay Waajid
Left: Shay Waajid | Right: Ivana Marzura
In this edition of Above the Glass, Shay Waajid, Senior Volunteer Operations Manager at Women Who Code, meets with Ivana Marzura, Director of Solution Delivery at Intelliware Development, to discuss redefining work during a pandemic, people-first culture, and the importance of mentoring.
I’m beyond excited to be having this conversation with you. Could you tell me about you and your background?
I’m excited to sit down with you as well! As for my role, I’m a Director of Solution Delivery at Intelliware. I started my career as a software developer after earning my Computer Science degree. From there, I moved into project management and leadership positions, where I worked closely with architects, developers, and QA and delivery managers to define and deliver software solutions.
Before Intelliware, I led software implementation teams, which exposed me to the entire software delivery process. During this time, I worked with and managed the technical teams developing products and designing change management programs to prepare organizations to introduce new solutions.
When I came to Intelliware five years ago, I was looking for a company that focused on software development and delivery. I was familiar with Intelliware from a past project and was impressed with their culture and values rooted in people, technology, and excellence in Agile delivery.
My current role involves project delivery oversight, working with clients and Intelliware’s delivery teams, client relationship management, and business development.
That’s quite an impressive background!
I would love to talk about the challenges of 2020. Everything around us is changing. How have you navigated working through the pandemic?
Looking back, organizations’ global response to the pandemic has been amazing. People had to adapt quickly. Our team started with monitoring the number of cases breaking out in Toronto and how they were progressing. On a Friday in mid-March, we told our employees to take their laptops home with them, and by the following Monday, we were all working remotely. It was quite incredible to go from co-located, in-person teams to working remotely almost overnight and watching companies worldwide do the same thing.
We are incredibly fortunate that our culture is people-first and fosters strong, closely connected teams that use a determined set of development and delivery practices. Our shared understanding and way of working together allowed us to continue delivering projects without missing a beat.
I love the people-first culture approach. From an HR perspective, the broader conversations about working remotely versus in the office have been fascinating. I’ve noticed that organizations with people-first cultures before COVID consistently transitioned to remote work more smoothly than those that didn’t.
I agree Intelliware has always been a people-first organization. For me, what stands out about Intelliware is that everyone deeply understands our values and embodies them accordingly. These values revolve around growing and supporting each other and our skills, excellence in development and delivery, and continuous learning. We were fortunate that we could rely heavily on the relationships built pre-COVID when we were all working in the office.
Early in the pandemic, we assigned a group of team members different roles to research how to improve our remote workflow. This process helped us better define how to operate remotely and make recommendations to our employees, so they didn’t feel lost. This guidance also became essential for onboarding new people who hadn’t worked in the office before lockdown.
As we continue to navigate the pandemic, the questions we have been tackling include: how do we understand our position from a cultural and social capital perspective? What is necessary to keep people connected and engaged? How do we continue to socialize outside of work and cultivate friendships? Answers to these questions are varied, but for us, it entails regular coaching, mentoring, one-on-one meetings, and team interactions (such as regular working sessions and virtual company events).
Our next step is to plan for in-person interactions post-pandemic, thinking about why and how frequently teams should meet.
Speaking of work culture, would you say Intelliware’s approach to the pandemic is something embedded in the company’s DNA, or were its organizational measures conscious decisions made along the way?
I honestly think it’s in the company’s DNA. Before coming to Intelliware, I worked in many different organizations that say “people come first;” however, you start to see cracks in that statement when you get into difficult situations.
Intelliware prioritizes getting solutions into production and working collaboratively with our clients, and we value deep delivery and technical skills. To promote these values, we’ve embedded a learning approach that allows our people to continue building their skills and apply them to projects. A continuous learning approach also helps to keep people engaged because they have growth opportunities.
Intelliware is also committed to supporting individuals and their teams. We have a dedicated training budget, both in dollars and time away from billable projects, which goes a long way toward proving the company’s dedication to cultivating a learning environment. Making time for people to take a course, participate in a study group, or attend a conference is essential. These types of commitments ensure everyone continues to learn. A team abreast of the latest technologies is great for our clients, projects, and staff.
I love that your budget concept includes both time and money because that screams equity to me. I know companies will often come up with seemingly generous policies or perks that their employees can take advantage of, but they don’t necessarily fit some of their employees’ needs or circumstances.
Harking back to my first question, I wanted to ask how the chaotic year we just left behind affected your work and what have you done as a leader to help your team through this period?
We were aware this situation was different for everyone from the beginning. All of our people were experiencing various challenges. Schools were closing, kids were home, some were responsible for caring for family members, and others were completely isolated. As a leader, it’s essential to understand where people are emotionally and what they need. Then you begin to adapt.
Intelliware started by orienting our remote practices around synchronous and asynchronous communications. We’re gradually learning that asynchronous communication is almost preferable in a remote-first setting. Ultimately, that means giving teams the flexibility to balance work with the realities of life, and with that comes experimentation. We’ve tried methods like having our teams participate in an online virtual project room while working somewhat independently. Some of our groups host end-of-day meetings to set aside half an hour to check in with one another. The meeting may include reviewing a pattern or piece of code. For some folks, the gathering serves to help close off or end the day and move on to more personal things.
I think it’s imperative to check in more frequently with team members, be flexible, and empathize.
Women Who Code has been navigating that, too. We’ve been using a platform called Icebreaker. It’s cool for fun games. I think everybody is getting in the groove of finding new fun things that might be exciting for their teams.
I’m going to go ahead and take out my notebook on this one because I feel like you’ll have some great recommendations, but I would love to know how you keep your knowledge and skills up-to-date?
My learning style is driven by things that I’m reading or hearing about, connecting ideas from different experiences, and developing a deeper understanding of the particular topic or idea. I find inspiration in media, books, news, podcasts, conversations, and experiences.
I also enjoy attending conferences. In Toronto, we have TechTO, HealthTO, and many other phenomenal events. I recently used The Remote Work Summit 2021 presentations to understand how to navigate a remote work environment. I’ve been referencing their material for tips and best practices regarding how people deliver efficiently from a distance.
Other parts of my job include managing client relationships and business development. I recently read a book, Friend of a Friend by David Burkus, about mining your personal network to build your professional network. It was an excellent read that provided practical insight into relationships, connections, and networking.
Perfect, I just wrote that one down! Our CLO often likes to joke about the team’s “superpowers.” For example, she always tells me that my superpower is time management. My team jokes about me not sleeping because of my response time. Would you say you have a superpower or X-Factor that has bolstered your success, and how did you develop that skill?
I’m a bit of a shapeshifter with a focus on delivery. I’ve always leaned toward planning and coordination, so delivery is sort of an instinct for me because I’m always the one pulling things together and marshaling people. I’ve learned to hone those skills over many years of leadership roles in delivery and oversight. I excel at understanding what needs to get done, putting a plan together, guiding teams to achieve their goals, and adapting as conditions change.
The latter skill is where “shapeshifting” comes in. Change is constant, so successful delivery requires you to figure out what’s going on, your options, how to be flexible, and where you need to adapt.
Intelliware uses Agile development practices. I remember when Agile practices were first formalized as Extreme Programming — and I’m dating myself here — one of my architects gave me the book and said, “You need to read this because we should do it.” So, I read it, and it made a ton of sense! The idea was to Embrace Change. This mindset focuses on collaborating closely in a cross-functional team to deliver a product, supported by practices based on iterating, incrementing, and fast feedback loops. It made so much sense to me that I adopted it for the organization I was leading at the time. Intelliware has been using Agile for development and delivery since the early 2000s, so the Agile mindset is baked into the DNA of how we work. We have also helped other organizations adopt Agile and transform their development and delivery teams. I think and work with an Agile mindset, so much so that I recently wrote a blog that compares crotchet to Agile with respect to breaking work into smaller units and testing to ensure your work is progressing as planned.
Thank you for sharing that. On a different note, impostor syndrome is a real issue for women in the tech space, making it difficult for some to acknowledge their greatness. Do you have any recommendations for how others can identify what their superpower is?
I recommend thinking about what excites you — something that puts butterflies in your stomach. You know how it feels when you’re presented with an opportunity, and you get a nervous feeling? That’s good!
That’s the feeling when something is coming your way that you may not have a lot of experience in, but it’s a learning opportunity. Leverage what you learn and observe what you naturally enjoy doing. Once you have that awareness, use it to look at the behaviors you want to tune and the direction you want to go.
That’s great! I always tell the young women that I mentor that I tend to grow the most when I leave my comfort zone. Usually, when I’m in an uncomfortable situation, and it’s not something I’m used to, or it becomes repetitive, that’s when I learn much more than I would have had I played it safe in my comfort zone.
Exactly! It’s about not being afraid of that feeling. It’s being aware and harnessing that feeling as an energy that you can turn into a positive learning experience.
Absolutely. This blog post will be published on International Women’s Day. What does this day mean to you, and how do you celebrate it?
International Women’s Day is vital for highlighting women’s achievements, furthering women’s equality, and promoting STEM as a career choice. As a woman who graduated from Computer Science and has spent a long career in tech, I know the industry needs more diverse voices, perspectives, and leadership. Diversity in all areas is key to getting the best ideas and producing positive outcomes. When I was in university, there were barely any women in my class, and unfortunately, I understand that hasn’t changed much.
Intelliware has sponsored DevTO’s International Women’s Day event for the past five years, but we champion women in STEM throughout the year. Each October, on Ada Lovelace Day, we invite young women from local high schools to join us for discussion and activities related to careers in STEM. We try to inspire curiosity around STEM as an academic and career path by showing these young women real-world examples of successful women in tech.
Intelliware was also the first Toronto company to participate in the Network Sponsorship program with Women Who Code Toronto. This partnership has provided Intelliware with a forum to voice our opinion on the importance of championing women in STEM through yearly events. I have been privileged to participate in these events with diverse audiences and exciting technology talks. Hopefully, I can continue to be involved similarly this year.
The team in Toronto is awesome. It’s great to hear you all are dedicated to uplifting the future of women in the industry.
I want to end today’s conversation by talking about any particular woman you’d like to highlight for being a guiding light to you along your personal or professional journey.
As I progress in my career, I increasingly realize the importance of mentors and having a strong network of women I can go to for support and advice. These relationships have developed through academic, professional, and social settings, allowing for perspectives from different domains and wisdom that has informed my journey. Most importantly, these women see me for who I am and challenge me to go beyond what I perceive my limits to be.
I am fortunate to be a mentor to several women at Intelliware. Our mentorship program is formalized, so I regularly meet with my mentees to connect on a broad range of topics. I try to provide advice, perspective, and guidance to help my mentees along their journeys. These relationships are precious to me.
Last year, I was very humbled when one of my mentees, Aoife Hynes, spoke about our relationship’s importance in an interview with Women Who Code. That strengthened the importance of mentoring for me; the idea of continually giving back and helping women who are on an earlier part of their career path.
With adaptability, a people-first culture, and mentorship opportunities, companies can set their employees up for success in the tech industry.