Many NetApp employees have brought their work experience to help non-profits thrive. Tracy Gries has done the exact opposite. Following her bliss both in her hobby and career led her to her most exciting NetApp role ever: “Process Innovation and Enablement Practitioner.”
Tracy says her father worked in the computer field as a programmer in the days before home computers evolved. “He bought a computer and had it installed in our home,” she says. “It was the size of half a bedroom and they had to bring it in on a forklift.”
Tracy’s father spent hours with her, teaching her how to use the computer and write programs. She became fascinated with what that hulk of a machine could do. So much so that as a freshman at Grove City College, near Pittsburgh, Pa., she ended up coaching her own professors how to use the computers that had just been shipped to the college’s sparkling new lab. Her first paid job was developing some of the curriculum for the college’s new computer science classes, training teachers and helping students use them.
Back then, Tracy never dreamed her career path that began in computing would take adventurous twists and turns, especially at NetApp, where it has led her away from pure computing to project and people management and now into a newer, more ambiguous role that is mostly “enablement.”
Tracy, however, is the perfect person to define this role because it is more like her hobby than any formal job she has ever had.
A Winding Career Path
Early on, Tracy’s career led her through a number of Silicon Valley companies, such as AMD, 3COM, SGI, and the tech team at Kaplan Tech West, a division of Kaplan University that does prep for tests like the SATs and GMATs. At AMD, she became a people manager. It was there she discovered what she loved the most about her manager role: The team building, motivating, coaching, mentoring and development guidance she gave her reports.
Tracy’s love for developing others’ skills led her to the Girl Scouts in 2006. Many girls at the elementary school her daughter attended were active in the same troop. When the troop leader had to leave after a few months, the parents got together. Along with two other parents, Tracy volunteered to lead the group, and she’s been with the troop ever since. Four of the original girls in that group are still together in the troop today.
NetApp’s IT department also hired Tracy on as a project manager in 2006. In her first few years at NetApp, she was assigned different and progressively bigger projects for a series of different managers. In 2008, she and her team discovered a problem with NetApp’s data center, which, as with every data center, has a Configuration Management Database (CMDB), a tool that manages the center’s hardware, applications and “knows” who’s in charge of them. The CMDB drastically needed updating, and Tracy’s team put together a robust automated inventory system.
That project led Tracy to a series of incarnations at NetApp that happened during each of four IT restructuring efforts. At one point, she managed all the project managers for IT. Most recently she helped manage the Centralized Project Management Office’s (CPMO’s) continuous improvement program as the liaison for IT.
What landed Tracy in her current role, the one that is most meaningful to her, was a casual conversation with a former co-worker who is an IT Director. As they chatted about the Girl Scouts one day, Tracy shared how much she enjoys leading, mentoring and providing STEM career guidance for the girls in the troop. Before she could blink, the IT director described an opportunity at NetApp Tracy couldn’t turn down: become Process Innovation and Enablement Practitioner for IT. Tracy went for it.
Tracy’s decades of experience made her a shoe-in for a process innovation position, but what does an enablement practitioner actually do? (And, in Tracy’s case, what does it have to do with the Girl Scouts?) Tracy explains that her role is to improve productivity in IT by building deeper employee engagement through for example, offering employees new development opportunities or improving how they can give feedback to leaders and ask them questions. As part of this role, she is rolling out a number of new programs to engage employees and leaders. She is also looking at new ways to recognize IT employees.
“This role just fell in my lap and every once-in-a-while, I still wonder, ‘Wait a minute, how did this happen?’,” she says. “For the first time in my career here, I’m managing programs rather than people, but I actually do maybe 50 percent ‘work’ work, and the rest is what I already do for my hobby—with my Girl Scouts. Some of the things that I enjoyed most about managing people—the training, mentoring, and career guidance—I now get to do for an entire department.”
Her new role as “enabler” is even affecting the casual conversations Tracy has with co-workers or with peers at other companies. They now have a completely different focus. She explains: “It’s no longer, ‘How’s your IT department’ or ‘How are your programs going’; it’s more like, ‘What do the company and your leaders do for you to make you happy?’ and ‘How are they motivating you?”
Tracy is always looking for new things she can introduce in the IT department and several programs are already gaining momentum.
The Cookie Cart
Although NetApp has a well-known open-door policy, some employees may feel inhibited about speaking frankly with executives. The possibly intimidating option of walking into a leader’s open cube or initiating a casual chat at the cafeteria checkout line may prevent many people from sharing important ideas or getting a critical question answered.
The Enablement group’s new program melts away this anxiety with a tasty twist. Pushing a cookie cart along aisles lined with cubes and into conference rooms, IT leaders strike up a conversation by offering an employee a cookie. But the employee can’t just take a cookie and say thank you. They are required to chat or play a hello game with the execs by drawing a card with a question on it that both parties must answer—anything from “name your favorite hobby as a kid” to “name something you should never put on the cloud.” The game breaks the ice and helps to start a conversation.
The goal is to make any employee feel comfortable enough to, in the future, use the open-door policy with IT leaders they have met, whether it’s to ask a casual question about how their hobby is progressing or bring up a work issue.
A Mentoring Pilot
Mentoring relationships help us improve skills, find new confidence, and gather feedback in a safe environment. NetApp has long had an informal mentoring approach that encourages each employee to reach out and find a trusted advisor to act as a mentor.
To augment NetApp’s informal corporate mentoring approach, Tracy is working with NetApp University to fire up a higher-touch mentoring pilot program in IT. Running for six months, it will include training, enrichment opportunities, guest speakers, and a framework to encourage ongoing mentoring relationships.
Since women represent only about 20 percent of the employees in NetApp’s IT department, Tracy wants to create a more welcoming and enriching environment for them by developing programs that give women opportunities to learn and try new things. She’s starting with Lean-In Circles— small groups—typically of 8 to 12 members—that meet regularly to learn and grow together, through the exchange of ideas and networking.
At the end of October 2016, Tracy kicked off a new IT Lean-In Circle in Sunnyvale. The 12 men and women in this group are working on professional development and exploring with topics like “Focusing on Your Strengths,” “Understanding Your Fear and How to Manage It” and “Home/Life Balance.”
Tracy trained a facilitator in RTP to form and lead a Lean-In Circle of RTP women, who, much like Tracy, are developing themselves, as well as others, through volunteer efforts to bring more young girls into IT. Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a local public school serving students in grades 6 through 12, has invited the group to participate in their STEM night. The group also has set up weekly visits to the school to introduce students to the IT field and conduct a “Learn Coding” Workshop. The same employees are also volunteering at upcoming Young Women in Technology Workshops—full-day, hands-on events bringing young women entering grades 6-10 together at NetApp to connect, educate and invigorate their interest in technology, education and careers.
From the Girl Scouts to NetApp
Tracy remains intensely involved with the Girl Scouts. In February, she was invited to present “First Impressions—Lasting Impressions,” a topic from one of her Lean-In Circles, at a Northern California Girl Scout Leadership conference. Her talk centered around the Lean-In theme of “Power and Influence” and explored the occasionally surprising factors that influence people’s perceptions of others (words account for only 7 percent of how a person judges another).
“The girls learned how much body language influences others’ perceptions and what they need to work on to appear confident,” Tracy says. “We practiced anything from posture, handshakes and smiling to refraining from flipping their hair when nervous—all skills they can apply when they go before the Girl Scout Gold Board to present their Gold project proposals in the next year or so.”
In August 2017, Tracy will give the same “First Impressions” presentation at a NetApp-sponsored Young Women in Technology workshop, this time in Sunnyvale. The event will host 100 girls, including employees’ children, neighbor children sponsored by employees, as well as underserved children in the community—foster children through Court Appointed Child Advocates and those whose mothers are seeking employment with the help of Dress for Success.
Finding the Path to Bliss
Tracy’s counsel to others on exploring and discovering new career paths echoes her own experiences. She advises:
- Start discovering what’s already out there. Find out who’s doing something you’re interested in, go schedule lunch with them and talk to them
- A lunch chat is a good way to find one or two mentors—people doing what you want to do or displaying leadership traits you aspire to; ask them if they have time to share their thoughts, ideas and path with you
- Volunteer for something you’re passionate about, even if you can’t have it be your paying work, and share that passion with your children, which teaches them to give back to their community
“All I can say is, you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing,” she says. “You’ve got to go out and find the things to do that make you happy. Your job should make you 100 percent happy every day.”