Problem solving for good: Sara Chieco makes software that makes nonprofits run

Home Resources Articles Problem solving for good: Sara Chieco makes software that makes nonprofits run

Welcome back to the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Sara is the Director of Technology at Presence, responsible for all Social Impact project delivery. She is a passionate and accomplished Business Analyst, Software Architect, and Technical Lead with extensive services and product experience. Sara has worked with Salesforce and related technologies, with a specialty in supporting Nonprofits, for over a decade delivering custom solutions. Prior to this she designed and coded both enterprise and client/server applications as a software engineer. She received a B.A. in Math from Wesleyan University and an M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Oregon where she was a Graduate Teaching Fellow.

In your own words, could you describe what your job is, and what you do on a daily basis?

I run the Social Impact Department at my company, Presence Product Group. Overall, the company develops custom software products for web or mobile as a services company. My group specifically does this for nonprofits, and as the Director of Technology for the Social Impact group, I am responsible for the delivery of all of our products, and I also manage all of the resources that go into the projects, and lead a couple of the larger projects myself.

What does that look like for a typical nonprofit– what’s the kind of software that you might develop for them?

Predominantly, we do work around program management. If a nonprofit is a food pantry, for instance, they might need an inventory software system to keep track of their food, or they might need software to track psychosocial service information. If we’re doing work for an accreditation organization, they’re going to need software that helps them manage the full accreditation process of their clients from one end to the next. So, regardless, we’re creating software that helps these nonprofits manage their business, whatever that business is. We don’t typically do fundraising implementations, even though that’s a pretty typical need for nonprofits, and we don’t do ERP software, like HR, finance, accounting, or anything else like that. We integrate those with what we build, but we don’t typically build those ourselves, because there are already so many software options out there for that.

How did your childhood and academic experiences prepare you for what you do? How did you decide that you wanted to do computer science?

I was always good at math, but I didn’t really think much of it until I was older. I was in all of the advanced classes in school, but even though I was good at math and I enjoyed it, I didn’t think that was going to be my career. I had this idea before college that I wanted to study biology, but it very quickly became apparent that it wasn’t what I was interested in. I wound up taking some math classes, then, when I was undecided about my major. It wasn’t for any particular reason, I’d just opted out of a few of them from AP credits and just decided to take the next math class in the program while I was still trying to get my footing in college and find out what I wanted to do.

At that point, I had actually taken a lot of classes in American Studies, and I thought that was going to be my major. I went off into the High Sierra on this really long, intense backpacking trip, and I remember being on the top of a mountain and just thinking, “I’m going to be a math major.” It felt completely out of the blue, but it was such a clear realization, and so that was what I decided to do. I became a math major, and I took a lot of electives in computer science. I was also a double major in Studio Arts, so I really liked architecture as the intersection of math and art.

Since I thought I was going to go into architecture, I did a summer program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, thinking that I would go there once I graduated. I wanted to take a year between college and grad school, though, to make sure that this was actually what I wanted to do, so I took a job with an architecture firm in Boston. I realized very quickly in that job that it wasn’t right for me, and that the theoretical math courses and studio arts courses did not actually translate to this like I thought it would– the theory and practice were diametrically opposed, and it just didn’t interest me. So, I decided to go back to school to get a masters in computer science, since I had a fair amount of coursework in it, but I didn’t feel overly confident in it at that point. I thought it was best to go back to school and hone my coding skills, and then become a programmer.

Why did you choose computer science, instead of going to grad school for math or deciding to give architecture another chance?

I really loved the problem-solving aspect of coding, and that it’s so concrete– you either get the right result or you don’t, so you always know if your code is correct. When you’re studying math, you very quickly leave the realm of numbers and move into just dealing with theories. It has so little obvious correlation to what you actually do in real life, so I liked that aspect of computer science, where I could write a program and that program would have a tangible outcome– it would do something, whatever that was. It was also really challenging, and I liked that, too.

What’s your superpower?

It’s definitely problem-solving. I have an ability to listen to what someone is saying and translate that– sometimes pretty drastically– into what they’re actually saying. I’m really good at figuring out from someone’s words what it is that they actually need, so that I can distill that into a problem that needs to be solved. Then, I can solve that problem. I can take lots of bits of information and really synthesize them into one thesis, which I think has been extremely helpful in consulting, whether I’m working with nonprofits or corporations or really anyone, there’s still a huge translation layer between what people say they need and what they actually need. Helping people understand what it is that they actually need– what would best solve their company’s problems, essentially– is incredibly important in creating a product that everyone is happy with.

When I was in junior high school, actually, I participated in a program called the Future Problem Solving Program, where basically we could get together every couple of weeks or so and they would hand us this sealed scenario– it was all very top secret, of course!– that you had to open and read. Then, you had to come up with 25 problems that you heard in the scenario, and then come up with a thesis problem. Then, you’d brainstorm 25 solutions, and then finally come up with your thesis solution. I did that for years, and I think it gave me a really incredible basis for how I deal with problems. I find that when working with people, a lot of them haven’t had this sort of training, and people have a really hard time just knowing where to start in attacking a problem. It was a really great experience to be apart of something like this– we even got to go to a national championship at Coe College in Iowa where my team won 7th or something like that.

Can you share a little bit about how you learn?

I actually think I fit the more traditional learning style a lot more than other people do– school worked pretty well for me, just sitting in a classroom and listening. I could sit and listen and take notes and digest that information. Overall, the traditional classroom model worked for me, but of course any sort of “hands on” or more practical work was always important for me to actually retain what I learned. If I read about something and then do it once, I’m good, and I understand it. But if I just read about something and don’t have a chance to actually practice it, I won’t retain it for very long. I do need to have that piece where it’s more hands-on.

When I was younger, I also had a sort of photographic memory– I would just look at something, and then I could access those pages in my brain later. That definitely has faded! I do not have that ability any longer, but it was something that really helped me in school growing up.

Who were some of your role models growing up?

I’m not sure that there were many of them at the time, but there’s definitely people looking back who I looked up to. My grandmother was definitely a role model for me, but I didn’t realize that until I was a lot older and appreciated her a lot more as an adult than I did at that time. I think I felt pretty isolated as a child and reasonably on my own, I had a pretty early-on realization that it was just me, and if I didn’t step up, I wasn’t going to get anywhere. I forged on alone through a lot of my youth, certainly with support from my family and especially my grandparents, but I’m not sure I really had an appreciation of that until I was older.

Anyone who inspires you today?

My boss here is actually a friend of mine from college, and he’s a big inspiration to me. I’m really inspired by people who can run their own companies. It’s such an undertaking and it’s one that really impresses me, even though it’s not something I would ever be interested in doing myself! I like running a department, but I wouldn’t want to deal with the overall running of a company. I’m really impressed by my boss’s ability to lead in that way, and to really get into the details of the company. I’ve been on a management team for about 12 years now, with two different companies, and seeing what it takes to pull it all together, I’m always really impressed by people who run companies.

I would also say I’m really inspired by my friend Marisa, who I brought into to Presence Product Group to work with me here. She’s very different than I am; she’s really bubbly and really well-liked and personable. I’m much more of an introvert, so I’m always really inspired by watching her and how she works and how she interacts with people, because running a room like she does is something that really exhausts me, but I think it’s a really impressive skill.

What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in your career, and how did you come across learning it?

Thankfully, I learned pretty early on the importance of being honest. I’m from New York and so it’s definitely in my nature to be very straight-forward, but that can kind of be a double-edged sword. Some people are put off by that, and also being straight-forward doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being honest. There was one time in my job that I messed something up, and I don’t even remember what it was now– but I was so convinced that I thought that I was going to get fired over this mistake that I made. In retrospect, that was a massive overreaction to the mistake and would have never actually happened, but that was my concern at the time. I was worried about getting fired and I was worried about people thinking differently of me because of this mistake.

The thought definitely crossed my mind that I should just cover it up, and if I was ever asked about it, I could just pretend that I had no idea what happened and had nothing to do with it. But I decided it was better just to come clean and admit what happened, and that I was sorry and that I’d work to make it better. I did that, and the response was nothing near what I was expecting– it was basically no big deal, and no one was mad, they were just like, “These things happen.” So that was how I first realized that even though it can be challenging sometimes to admit your mistakes and take responsibility like that, it goes a long way with people that they know that they can trust you.

In the consulting world, that honesty has really benefited me, because people deal with so many vendors that are smarmy and dishonest that when they come across a consultant that’s going to be honest with them, that really makes them feel comfortable with working with you. Nonprofits especially are really concerned with people being honest with them, and I think being able to provide that is so important. A consultancy really is like any other relationship in the sense that it’s a partnership, and it’s built off that mutual trust. Treating people with kindness at all times– remembering the golden rule, in that sense– is so crucial to building positive work relationships.

What have been some of your challenges, either career-wise or personally?

As a woman in technology, I think you’re definitely starting out with a challenge. I was coming up through it in the 90s– and this makes me sound like I’m 80 years old– but it really was a different time. It wasn’t just about gender relations at the time, either. There was also this very different style of management, kind of the “old school” style of management, of being rude and yelling and old white men telling you to suck it up. It was more acceptable to just scream at you for things, even if it had nothing to do with you, and that was really hard to accept. It was just a difficult, unpleasant working environment, gender relations aside.

There was definitely an element of fear involved, and of the management-level employees being untouchable. I think that’s extremely different these days. But at the time, coming up as a woman in tech, it was just a whole lot of difficulty. I have a very strong personality, and I think if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to succeed– all of the people that I knew that were a lot more mild-mannered did not last in that environment. Sexual harassment in the workplace was also a lot more accepted, and of course that was a major challenge as well.

Those things kind of formed me in such a way where I felt like if I was going to get ahead in this career, I was going to have to be a bitch– that was the word that was thrown around. It was like, if I wanted to succeed, I felt like I had to change to be more like the guys. While I think that was probably true for a bit, I carried around that attitude for a long time, and I kind of had this bad attitude at the beginning of my career, where I was like, “Look, I’m good at what I do, and if you don’t like my attitude, too bad for you.” At the time, I was also working for a boss who was the same way, so I was definitely mirroring what I was getting from him. It took me longer than it should have to realize that you can be good at your job and also just be kind to people, and it’s actually more powerful than putting up that wall, if not just as powerful.

How do you think that translates into your current job as a manager now– did that sort of shape your managing style?

Definitely. I learned that being kind is more powerful than being mean, and that was such an important lesson. In the current role that I’m in, that I’ve been in for four years now, I’m managing a number of people, which I hadn’t really done before this. It’s definitely a challenge, but because of my experiences, it’s a challenge that I’m really dedicated to trying to be good at. As a technical person, it’s maybe stereotypically not our strength, but I’ve really been enjoying it, and I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at it, which I’m surprised at in some ways– like, “Oh, I can actually do this. I can actually manage people.” I had someone at my last company, who said something like, “You would be a great manager if you actually tried,” and I was like, “No, that’s crazy.”

The last five years have been such a dramatic shift for me in that regard, though, where I actually feel comfortable in this position. I was also really being taken advantage of at my last job, because my bosses knew that I wasn’t the type of person to ever let a project fail– so they would put me up to these impossible tasks even though I was continually under-resourced, which forced me into having to work crazy hours to succeed. I billed an average of over 60 hours a week for over 7 years, which sounds insane to me now– was I brainwashed? Why did I think that was reasonable? At the time, though, when you’re in it, you have a hard time stepping back. I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t ever step back and realize how unhealthy this environment was for me. Of course, I thought it sometimes, but never enough to actually do anything about it. It took me taking a 6 month sabbatical to realize how toxic that working environment was, and that I didn’t need to go back there and put myself back into that unhealthy situation.

On the flip side of your challenges– what are some things you’re really proud of in your career?

I’m really proud of the department that I’ve built here. Marisa has been a great business partner in that– she came in about a year after I did, and when I started here it was just me. I was servicing a number of clients that had come over with me from my last company, where they hadn’t received the care they desired, and they asked me where I was and what I was doing, and then decided they wanted to come over here to work for us. My first year, I was single-handedly servicing like a million dollars worth of work, and I wasn’t even working crazy hours to do so.

We’ve just slowly been building this department, and we now have 9 employees which is soon to be 11. It’s really felt great to see it grow, and to have people I work with actually tell me that I’m doing a good job, and that I’m a good manager. I never thought I’d hear those words, and it’s just really exciting. It’s always nice to apply yourself to something and then turn out to be moderately good at it!

What does success mean to you, and how would you define success in your career?

I actually think about that question a lot, now that I’m in the middle of my career and I’m trying to figure out what I want the second half of my career to look like. It’s hard, too, because defining success for yourself is definitely a moving target– it might look very different one month than what it looks like 6 months later. For me, though, being someone who’s known outside of my company and is respected in my community is really important to me. It’s also really important to me to have some sort of thought leadership impact– I’ve been speaking a fair amount on the struggles of women in technology, at places like the Nonprofit Technology Conference and the Women in Tech Conference. It’s something I feel pretty passionately about, and I particularly tend to focus on the differences of working with men and working with women, and that sort of psychological component. It’s important to recognize those workplace differences between men and women and really adjust your management style to fit that.

Working with Marisa has been the first time I’ve really worked with a female partner, and I intentionally brought her into the company for that reason. I do find it fascinating to see the differences in working styles and communication styles and just what people need emotionally at work, because there’s such a gender split. I really try to think about that and incorporate it into my daily duties as a manager.

You talked about how tech has changed a lot since the ‘90s, which it definitely has. What do you think are still the challenges for women entering tech now?

The reality is that a lot of management is still very male. It’s definitely hard for men to understand what women need emotionally from their workplace, because they sort of brush that thing aside themselves– that you have your external friendships and things and at work, it’s just work. But that’s not actually true; there’s an emotional component. When I was hiring Marisa, we had worked together at that old company and I knew how great she was, so I was trying to get her to come over to Presence Product Group because I thought she was being underappreciated where she was. It took six months for me to woo her into taking the job.

It was kind of like a romantic relationship in the sense that I couldn’t push too hard, and I had to give her space to be able to come to her own decisions, and then sometimes it was important to let her know that other people were interested in the position! I remember thinking at one point, “She’s over 50% now. She’s definitely going to come over, it’s just a matter of when.” And I remember the CEO saying to me, “Look, she’s either going to come over or she isn’t. If she does, great, and if she doesn’t, oh well. But you need to just put it out there and ask her for a straight answer.”

For me, I was like, “Well, I appreciate that, but that’s not what I’m going to do. I know if I do that, that she’ll say no right now. But I don’t think she’s going to say no in six or eight weeks, so I’m going to wait.” For men, I think that direct approach– just asking like my CEO wanted to– is oftentimes the approach that they need. They need to be told they have to make a decision, and to just have that kind of be aggressively thrown out there. And the approach I was taking worked, but I just found it so fascinating that if I had not been there, the approach I thought wouldn’t have worked would have been the one taken. I think that happens all the time with women in technology, and why tons of women are still leaving, because there’s no one that relates to them in the workplace on the level that they want to be related to.

Women in tech aren’t being given the space that they need to make decisions. In my experience, women think about things way differently than men in tech do, and there’s a lot of reasons why they need that different communication style. I think managers get into this idea that you have to treat every employee the same– which is good in theory, but in practice, it really ends up with just treating women like how you would treat men, which doesn’t make them feel welcome or like they’re being understood in the workplace. Even within the same gender, I treat all of my employees differently, based on their personalities and just what I think works best for them. Men tend to think that nothing that has anything to do with emotion belongs at work, and that’s definitely not the case. Emotional intelligence, and being able to understand the psychology of people and cater your management style to what makes them the most comfortable, is so vital to women’s inclusion in tech, and it’s really lacking from management in general. It makes it really hard for women who need a different type of engagement.

What’s something that keeps you up at night?

I’ll be honest– I’m a pretty good sleeper, so not much actually keeps me up, but it’s generally just thinking about my daily responsibilities and how I’m going to manage everything. Part of the problem of consulting is that you’re really dependent on each new job coming in and keeping everyone busy, and then the more people that you hire, the more work you need to be taking in to keep them busy. There’s kind of this whole joke in consultancy, where it’s like, “I have no work. I have too much work. I have no work,” and that sort of internal dialogue can take place in the space of a day. It’s just such an up and down, where it’s always kind of in the back of your mind. Even though right now we have plenty of work for a while, getting new clients and keeping that flow going is still a bit of a stressor.

If you had three more hours in a day, how would you spend them?

I do like sleeping, and I probably don’t do it enough, so I would do that for at least an hour or so of the three. I’m a photographer, and I have a serious backlog of images that need to be processed, so I would work on that more, too, even though I probably should just be sleeping.

You mentioned that you studied Fine Arts in college– did you study photography?

No, I actually studied ceramics! I got into photography after college as a hobby. People had mentioned to me before that I have a good eye and that I should really do something with it. I went to Africa in 2007, and before the trip, someone said to me that if I was planning on taking pictures there, I really needed to get a serious camera, like a DSLR with a long lens, or everything was going to be like a centimeter big in my photos and I wouldn’t be able to see anything that I actually wanted to see and remember from my trip. So I bought the camera, and it was definitely the gateway drug for me– I just loved taking pictures. From there, I started taking classes and doing workshops on photography and it’s been great. I really love learning something new and getting better at it. In some ways, though, it becomes like any other work where it’s work. I think it’s hard for me to keep things just in the realm of casual hobby, and I have to try to balance it where I can practice and get better at photography but still keep it feeling fun.

What’s something that someone who knows you would be surprised to learn about you?

I have two things, one of which is probably embarrassing. I have a subscription to US Weekly, and when people come to my house, they’re like, “What? No way you read this,” but I do! I used to buy it at the airport for a treat because it was fun to flip through on the plane, and then I started traveling so much for work that it just made sense to get a subscription instead of buying it every week at the airport. So, it just turned into something that I have a subscription for. I don’t even know how many years I’ve had it for, and of course I know less and less about the people in it as time goes on, but I still like flipping through it.

The other thing that I think people would be surprised to learn is that I am really into fantasy football, which I know is a little bit controversial with all of the problems that the NFL has with head injuries and CTE and not protecting their players. I actually don’t even watch football that often at all, but I had some friends who told me that I might like to play fantasy football– and I really do, because it’s actually all statistics. It’s all data. Playing fantasy football is much more about statistics and data mining and metrics than about actually watching football– the research is crucial to being good at it. So, even though I barely watch any football games at all, I’m still first in my league by a long shot! It’s just such a guilty pleasure and it’s a fun thing that never feels like work, which is great to have.

What do you geek out about, other than what we’ve already covered?

Politics. I definitely follow politics and try to keep myself as up to date as possible to what’s going on in this country– I do the typical morning and nightly reading of the news. Of course, the general climate with politics is that you keep reading it, and you keep thinking, “Can it really keep being this shocking and ridiculous?” and somehow it definitely does, but I try not to get too worked up about it. I just like to be informed, so I try to look at it from more of a neutral perspective– like I’m just gathering data on the world. I’m just trying to understand what sort of things are at play right now, so I like to keep as up to date as possible on what’s happening on a national and international scale.