Colette D’Alessandro: Selling software and starting Women in Identity

What do you do in the industry?

I’m in sales at a software company called Ping Identity. I’ve always liked technology and have always been competent at figuring it out, but I never thought I would be a developer or anything like that, so sales at a software company suits me.  Ping is my first identity security company but I’ve been here for a few years now, originally in Denver (my home town) and now in London. As an Account Executive I speak to people about the business challenges they’re facing and help them figure out a way in which our solution can help them. I enjoy helping all different types of organisations solve their identity challenges. Whether it’s a transportation company or a financial services organisation, their problems and how you solve them vary and it keeps everything quite interesting!

 

How did you end up in the world of identity?

I started out Rally Software, an Agile project management software company. It was a tool that enabled developers to do things like track their sprint progress, with an overall project view to allow them to organise their teams most effectively across global organisations. It was a great company to start out in as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after college. I went to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Boulder is a big tech start up hub. Also, my dad works in software so I hadn’t really considered working for a company that did anything else- to be honest it didn’t occur to me that there are other types of organisations out there!

At the time I felt like either sales or marketing seemed like a good fit, but thankfully I got a sales job because it’s perfect for me – very high stress and effectively relationship and crisis management, which is where I tend to thrive. My time at Rally meant I understood how software development worked (to an extent!), which has actually helped me quite a bit as I’ve stepped through my career.

During my time at Rally I was also getting my Master’s degree at night in Denver, which is about a 45 minute drive from Boulder. I was doing crazy hours to split working and studying because I’d hedged my bets leaving school and applied for both jobs and a masters program (not really confident I would get either), but ended up getting both and thought that the stars very rarely align twice.

Four and a half years ago I started at Ping Identity after about nine months of chatting with the recruiter there. One of the things that I loved about Ping is that it is a global organisation with offices pretty much everywhere in the world.  I was super keen to come and work in the London office,  so when my current boss came to Denver in one of his first weeks at the company,  I asked him for a super early coffee as I knew he would be jetlagged and likely up anyways and I’m a super morning person.

Hilariously and not surprisingly he had no idea who this girl asking him for a 7AM coffee was and thought I must have been very important. Instead he had an entry-level Territory Development Representative   telling him she wanted to work for him, that she had an Irish passport and a Masters in International Business and oh when could she start. Ha!

He was still growing his team but for the next year every month or so I continued to make my case to him; I would email and call him, meet him for coffee every time he was over. It was seeming like a long shot that it was going to happen, so I bought a place in Denver. Then 1 month after I moved in he asked if I would be interested in coming across the pond to join his team in the in the UK. I didn’t tell anyone so as not to jinx it but when I told just my parents they were like  “We’ve just spent all summer painting your apartment!”. Jokes aside, my parents were very supportive and there is no way I could have made the move in less than two months without their help.

Now that I’ve been here three years, that same boss has become a wonderful mentor to me and I’ve moved up two roles since being here and definitely have become more confident in what I’m doing. He challenges me to own my own ‘business’ while supporting me and having my back whenever I ask or need and for that I am very thankful.

 

What does a normal week look like?

A normal week looks like meeting with and talking to current and prospective clients about how we can solve their identity problems using Ping’s solution. I like to meet in-person so I travel around quite a bit to Ireland or other places in the UK.  It can all get to be quite technical, but the key is humanising it for people. We don’t want a solution to be so techy that it doesn’t solve the problem at hand in a way that makes people’s lives easier. We forget on the other side of technology are humans interacting with it.  The reality is, I don’t have to be that technical for this job. I get to facilitate relationships and find the right resources that the customers need to solve their challenges.

Identity software is one of the hardest things to sell because it’s often a bespoke solution and it all happens in the backend, so you can’t really demo anything. The Agile project management company was a tool that you could demo to sell, which makes it so much easier for people to understand how it would work. The only identity thing you can demo is Multi Factor Authentication (MFA), as everything else goes on in the background. It’s is a really broad topic so you have to able to pivot in your thinking. You see some parallels across industries, like companies that have similar challenges or regulations to meet and as we have digital transformation we see those problems all overlap. But then you get vastly different use cases that can be solved in many different ways, like in healthcare you need to enable a doctor to access patient records on an iPad and then use a machine in a totally different part of the hospital. In finance what do you do with someone who’s a business banker, a personal banker and also an employee of the bank? How do you make sure that’s all streamlined? Financial services are particularly tricky as it’s so highly regulated and as soon as you’ve got a solution the regulations change. You see comparable issues, but each company is unique which is interesting.

 

How did you set up Women in Identity?

It was a bit by accident to be honest. Ping hosts an annual conference, now called Identiverse. That year the conference was in New Orleans and Pam Dingle put on a breakfast for women working in identity. It was a last minute meet up and overall it was great, but there were 2 things that I didn’t like about it. Firstly it was shocking that only slot available to women was 7am, after everyone was out super late the night before. Granted, lots of women showed up but there weren’t as many as there would have been and there were no men there. Secondly, these spaces are very important but it wasn’t as constructive of a conversation as it could have been in a lot of ways.  I have, as I’m sure every woman has, been treated poorly because of my gender, but I work with so many amazing men that I’m very lucky to have as mentors and colleagues. The last thing I want to do is alienate them and make them feel unwelcome at a meet-up.

After the event I spoke to Pam and said I wanted to help in any way I could and we organised a couple more meet ups with a different format. It was all working nicely and casually and then I moved to London. This was a huge opportunity to get more European meet ups going so Pam introduced me to Emma Lindley, who’s become one of my closest friends and allies. I was ready to do whatever was required for Women in Identity and with Emma, Pam and I working together on it globally it’s totally evolved from quite casual meet up groups to be a complete not for profit organisation.

I wonder if all businesses that start from scratch have a moment of retrospection, realizing that it’s become something far bigger than you realized it could.

Anyways, we had a number of women volunteering and felt we’d better put some guidelines in to make sure we’re doing what people in the industry were looking for in a group like this, because this isn’t for me, Emma and Pam, this really wonderful organisation, it’s for everyone else. Its purpose has grown far beyond women working in identity. It’s for diversity and inclusivity in identity and technology. Politically it feels like an opportune time, as we now have the tools and the global recognition that there’s something broken with the system. People want to fix it, so change is happening which in turn gives a greater voice to all supporters of the movement, of all genders. It allows everyone to have a voice not matter their gender or background.

 

Why is Women in Identity important?

For me the coolest thing about Women in Identity is the potential impact we can make – more diversity means we develop new technology, which results in better businesses, returns more profit and grows the economy while also ensuring that groups of people aren’t left behind in the digital era. Previously people have forgotten as we go through digital transformations, there’s whole group of people who don’t have access, or maybe do have access but the technology wasn’t built for them because they don’t have a voice, but this is changing. People are working on making sure there’s space for everyone at the table now. We’re all guilty of forgetting what’s outside of your own bubble-myself included. It’s important to check yourself every now and then, which I feel Women in Identity can help do for everyone not only because of our mission, but because of the diversity of our leadership and advisory teams supporting us.

Personally Women in Identity gives me an opportunity to give back, as it’s much bigger than what I’m doing on a day to day basis. We need someone to stoke the fire. In the past identity was just a technology function, it served a purpose, but now everyone has a digital identity and a footprint, so how do enable them to manage that? People generally aren’t interested in these things until there’s problem. Now there’s been a shift in the way people consider their data and how it’s being used and the risk of a potential breach in one of the organisations that holds their personal information. No one thought twice about getting a government issued ID and what that meant. Realistically you’d go to a hole-in-the-wall office and a copy of your driving license would be tucked away in a filing cabinet for years. Unless you’d committed a horrible crime, it would never have any ramifications. But now that it’s all online, what happens if someone takes your digital ID and creates a fake one with your information on it? People are starting to feel that their data is their possession and they need to control it.

 

What book/film/piece of art would you most recommend?

book cover A Place For UsI love reading and find I go through phases in genres. Right now I’m super busy all the time so I read fiction to unwind.  Not as educational as non-fiction but better than constant Netflix. I just read A Place for Us by Fatinma Farheen Mirza about a Muslim family in the us pre and post 9/11 and their story. I could not recommend it more. Another is Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which is loosely based on Fleetwood Mac, following a band in the 1970s telling the story from each perspective in interview style. I also rated The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It’s just a great outlet because at 7pm, when I’ve had a really long day and read through our whitepapers and many annual reports, I just can’t take another article about identity!

 

If you were CEO of a company, what one thing would you make compulsory and what would you ban?

I would want to ensure that every person, no matter their level in the organisation has a voice. No idea, no matter who you are in the organisation, shouldn’t be heard. I’m lucky to be outgoing, be able to talk to anyone and have made connections that helped me get into the industry and grow in my career. What about the people who are introverted and find it hard for them to involve themselves? It’s difficult to manage but having a very flat structure helps I think, which is why I quite like the startup vibe rather than extra large organisations.

Another thing, someone asked me the other day how they could hire a more diverse group for their team, which was quite refreshing because it’s so easy for people to hire the person you relate the most to. You need to look outside of that to challenge yourself as a manager and what you’re doing as a company. You need to think about anyone different from you. Give them a shot, go take the risk on that CV that just looks a little bit different.