Above the Glass: What Goes Into Managerial Success

Written by Aditi Lonhari

Left: Aditi Lonhari | Right: DeAnna Holland

In this edition of Above the Glass, Aditi Lonhari, Director of WWCode San Francisco and Full Stack Engineer at New Relic, meets with DeAnna Holland, VP of Technology at Elsevier to discuss managing large teams, mentorship, and fostering diversity and inclusion.

It’s nice to meet you, DeAnna! Can you tell us a bit about your current role?

I am currently Vice President of Technology at Elsevier. I recently took an expanded role to serve as the interim Technology Lead for the Clinical Solutions line of business in addition to my responsibilities for Tech Excellence and Performance, which is related to the overall efficiency, effectiveness, and quality of our software development delivery.

I’m curious about your project management background. How has the transition to a more software-focused role been? Can you tell us about that journey?

I joined the Elsevier team in a program and project management capacity, coordinating engineering deliverables. I stayed in that space for a few years, evolving the delivery capabilities for our marquee product ClinicalKey. That original role introduced me to how Elsevier structures software development and allowed me to adopt agile methods.

I then moved over to support infrastructure and operations, where I managed the cloud migration effort for all of Elsevier’s products. Our mantra is “cloud-first,” so given the early adoption state, I took the assignment to learn more about how our delivery and engineering practices would evolve. Having a partnership with Amazon afforded me some time to learn and understand the technology further.

I later helped establish what is now our Technology Infrastructure and Operations group. We initially had a shared service scenario, which many large companies do, but we realized we had an opportunity to improve our customer’s satisfaction with our service quality, enhance our time to develop new capabilities, and be in control of supporting our community’s needs. As a result, I was part of the team that planned and executed building our own infrastructure and operations team.

Once the program gained momentum, I spent time contemplating where I wanted to go next. I met with our CIO to discuss my long-term career goals and realized I wanted to return to product development more directly. We agreed that having accountability for the software engineering team made sense.

Were you in a position to request working in a specific area because of your project experience?

I was! Our CIO gave me the opportunity, and I wanted to prove myself. I spent my first days orchestrating our Pathways team and getting them plugged into our framework properly. Once established, I got another team, and another team, and then another team. It started to blossom.

Working with all of those groups improved my engineering competency. I did that for a couple of years and loved it! It was fortunate that an opportunity eventually presented itself in our Technology Excellence and Performance group. I have been in this role for about a year, but in January, I was asked to step into leading a portfolio of products as the Vice President of Clinical Solutions Technology.

That’s an amazing journey!

Indeed! I’ve been fortunate to learn how we operate across our global business, and I do my best to apply those lessons to our product development work. Having the chance to gain a deeper appreciation for our organization’s objectives and ways of working really helps inspire my teams to improve collaboration and create solutions. I’ll go the extra mile when I’m excited about something, so I want to do all I can to energize and inspire my teams to do the same. As a leader and a people person, motivating my team to excel is very much a highlight for me.

That’s evident in your journey. I find that when you’re a people person, you reach a wider audience and can make a substantial impact. Your passion must help you with that, especially in such a large group.

Absolutely. Something I stress to my staff, or anybody I coach or mentor, is that building meaningful relationships all around the organization outside of your focus area is what opens doors. It’s what I’ve done throughout my entire career. Taking the time to meet people and build quality relationships is one of the reasons I’ve been able to get where I am today.

That’s a good tip to know. Having people who understand you and whom you can rely on definitely helps, especially for engineers. Speaking of which, how large is the engineering team at Elsevier?

For my teams, I want to say we have 225 or so software and quality engineers, along with a bench of delivery managers and agile coaches that support them. It’s a pretty decent size, and I believe we’re now in the thousands (in terms of technology resources) across Elsevier and growing.

With all of these different teams, I’m sure there’s a ton of meetings, and time management becomes crucial. How do you divide your time between your daily work and mentoring?

I won’t lie, it’s not easy some days. I really try to make mentoring a priority and carve out time to focus on it. Presently, I’m involved in structured mentoring programs, coaching, and skip-level meetings that I schedule in advance, so I have adequate time to dedicate to those types of activities. I have a relatively open door (or virtual door policy these days) to accommodate meeting requests.

I get so much out of meeting with people from across the organization. Perspective is everything to me. The more people I learn from, the better I can see opportunities to pursue, potential conflicts to avoid, or how I can help others advance their professional growth.

We need women in higher positions sponsoring and mentoring a new generation to help them navigate their careers because they may not know what roles to pursue. They can play a significant role in justifying why you deserve that promotion or why you need that role change. It’s great to hear that’s something you’re already doing.

I have a keen interest in developing our talent. Many folks seek me out because I don’t come from a core computer programming background, which resonates with them. Their backgrounds aren’t always in software engineering, and sometimes they want advice about developing their skills outside of engineering.

I think it’s essential to establish multiple avenues for feedback. Coaching and mentoring programs are terrific options, but my advice would be not to limit yourself. More organic input from peers via skip-level or other 1:1 meetings is also incredibly valuable for identifying strengths and weaknesses.

Another piece of advice is to not limit yourself by what you’re doing now. If you want to pursue a new path, take an assessment of what you may need to get there and volunteer for tasks or projects that help expand your knowledge and experience. Asking for assignments can be intimidating to some, but do it because of your ultimate goal. Over time you will see your peers recognize your desire to grow and develop.

I love that: exploring areas you are slightly aware of with confidence you can handle them is how you expand yourself.

Exactly! Be careful not to misrepresent yourself, either. If you don’t know something, admit it and ask for help.

How do you maintain your industry knowledge or keep up with what’s best for your teams?

I glean information from many sources — peers, partners, competitors, customers — in the form of books, articles, blogs, white papers, and more.

When it comes to developing teams, we take a holistic approach to determine what we can do to maximize effectiveness, accounting for processes, technologies, and skill sets. As for individual growth, we offer a program called Dev10 that gives each employee ten days of paid time to participate in things that help them grow professionally, such as attending conferences, specialized training, and more.

I imagine those efforts present challenges in a remote environment. What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced in your new role during the pandemic?

I was surprised by how quickly countless companies transitioned to operating remotely, including Elsevier. That said, it’s much harder to make a personal connection with someone you are just starting to build a rapport with. I also have had to adjust to the learning curve around facilitating large meetings that require input from attendees. It sounds like it should be easy, but I had to implement a system that prevented people from speaking or stepping over each other to make meetings run smoothly.

We were initially concerned about how going remote would impact productivity related to product development commitments. We measured a baseline before lockdown and monitored our productivity on an ongoing basis. We found very few pockets of productivity loss, but many teams thrived and increased their delivery velocity. I have found it essential to ensure that my team members (including myself) don’t keep themselves chained to their laptops. Elsevier has introduced so many valuable programs and resources to help its employees navigate this new normal.

That’s awesome. My team has been working to ensure we find a proper work-life balance as well.

As a leader, it’s imperative to take care of your team and ensure the company embodies the right culture. I appreciate that we have women like you driving that in our industry.

Absolutely! We use a tool called OfficeVibe to help with this. It’s a survey tool that gives you a multidimensional view of how your employees feel about their work, changes in the company that impact them, and more. I look at those results every week to monitor any ebbs and flows. It really helps me be more proactive with making decisions that positively influence the team.

I haven’t heard of that tool, but it sounds interesting!

You mentioned diversity in the workplace earlier. How do you approach having equal representation of women or nonbinary candidates in your hiring pool?

Our approach to diversity and inclusion is a big piece of attracting the best and the brightest talent. We aim to have a very diverse workforce. Our talent acquisition team is on the front lines of recruiting, but everyone works hard to build teams full of people with different characteristics and backgrounds.

Since I have been at Elsevier, I have seen the number of women or nonbinary candidates almost triple. We have invested in two key areas to complement our diversity and inclusion program: unconscious bias training and psychological safety workshops. Eliminating bias from our hiring practices helps ensure we’re achieving our goals to attract and hire the candidates that are best suited for each role.

How do you implement the feedback and lessons into the way teams work?

In relation to psychological safety workshops, we conduct an initial survey, followed by another workshop that identifies, categorizes, and prioritizes actions that would provide the most value to improving the way the team works. If there’s something that needs to reach the management level, we address it there. We’ve found it best to look at things from a 30/60/90-day perspective for team-level actions. Anything that would take longer is likely something a higher level would need to take charge of implementing.

Once completed, we go through it again. It’s not a one-and-done type of process. We have to review how the plan is working and ensure it didn’t trigger an undesired response. The overall intent is to improve the operating environment and people’s comfort levels wherever they sit.

I find these training sessions certainly help everyone get on the same page. You may have heard of unconscious bias, but to actually participate in a course and translate it to actionable items in your day-to-day life as managers makes a difference.

I completely agree. This kind of training did not exist early in my career, but now I can’t imagine managing without it. I’m personally invested in its success because I believe in its ability to drive real change. My peers and I are enthusiastic about eliminating bias and supporting everyone’s wellbeing.

The best-case scenario is when leadership is dedicated to and passionate about the same things! You often need more than one person to push it forward. I’m glad to hear you have a team of like-minded people, and you deserve major credit for assembling them.

My last question for you is, where do you see your career going from here?

I appreciate your sentiments and have the good fortune to be surrounded by a phenomenal team. As for my next steps, I plan to settle into this role for a little bit because I still have a lot to learn about this new product portfolio. I’ve been responsible for global product development at large organizations in the past, so this role isn’t completely foreign to me. However, the team’s size, the products’ complexity, and the tremendous growth opportunities I see encourage me to stay awhile and make a difference!

Thinking beyond three to four years, I might want to explore operations or product management more directly. I want to take on roles that enable me to continue learning, growing, and making a difference in my work. I believe I could be a well-rounded CEO one day. Wow, I can’t believe I actually just said that!

I think you’re a great leader and would make a great CEO! I want to wish you luck from Women Who Code. Seeing women like you in those positions helps us see ourselves there one day as well.

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