Our Lead(H)er series features impressive women leaders in the tech industry. In this Q&A, we are featuring Aoife Sullivan, Senior Director, Client Delivery at Vestmark.
Where did you grow up and how would you describe yourself as a child?
I grew up in a town called Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon in the West of Ireland. I am the eldest of four siblings, with three brothers, so growing up I was quite a tomboy, climbing trees, riding bikes, and generally getting into mischief and mayhem. When I wasn’t running around, my nose was buried in a book. I especially loved books that taught me how things worked. My favorite tv show was a BBC program called “Tomorrow’s World.” It felt quite futuristic at the time, although, of course, today we would laugh at it. I was curious, active, and restless as a child, and have been ever since.
What did you study in college and what was your first job out of school?
I studied Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Limerick and truly loved every minute of my four years there. I met my husband Aidan and some of my dearest friends at UL. My first job was an internship with Microsoft. I worked as a QA analyst on the localization team that translated Visual Basic into French, Italian, and Spanish.
Can you share the details on your career path and what were the critical moments that got you to where you are today?
I spent the first eight years of my career working in the telecommunications field, with a company called LogicaCMG, implementing text messaging software. I worked on projects throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. As a twenty-something year old, I loved to travel, to meet new people, to experience different cultures, and to grow skills and confidence. I learned from many wonderful mentors along the way. One of the fascinating projects I worked on was the Iridium Project, a Motorola initiative where a constellation of satellites would allow subscribers to make phone calls or access data services from any global location. I worked on validating text messaging via satellite phone, timing the tests to when the satellite would pass overhead.
In 2000 I moved to the US to work on a project with AT&T implementing the solution that would, for the next 15 years, count American Idol text messaging votes to choose the competition winners. I found I loved living in New England, so with LogicaCMG’s help, I applied for my Green Card. After years of travel, I relished the idea of a home base. As luck would have it, I was offered a development role in a new team forming in the Lexington, Massachusetts office. Our team created enhancements for our billing solution. I really enjoyed the problem-solving and design aspects of software development, but I missed the human interaction of the implementation and client-facing sides of software delivery.
By 2006 I was ready for a change. I moved into the FinTech industry working with Linedata Services, a company that provides front office data management solutions for asset and fund managers. I started on the support team, learning the product, and, in particular, learning about our clients and their needs. Along the way I found crucial mentors who shaped my growth. One key mentor, Daniel Burstein, encouraged me to move into my first management role at Linedata. Before long I’d been given responsibility over both the production support teams for the front office product suite in Boston and the hedge fund products in New York. Managing two production support teams was definitely stressful at times. I think I’ve always been a capable communicator, but I had some lessons to learn about how best to communicate with those I managed. With the guidance of a management coach, I gained useful insights about my own personality, and how I mesh best with others. I tended to be a very direct person, almost blunt at times, who didn’t always see, or was perhaps unwilling to see, at times, the legitimate constraints others may face. My coach and mentors taught me to use my strengths to their best advantage, and to better read and respond to my team’s needs. With their help I gained the tools to meaningfully mentor my own team and foster their professional growth. I remain friends with many of the people I worked with at Linedata, some of whom followed me to my current company. This means a lot to me.
I was ambitious, I was eager, and I’d found ways to grow. But certain notions of what success would demand of me held me back. Around this time, I attended a leadership seminar for professional women. A presentation on what it would take to rise through the ranks of leadership in corporate America left me stymied and perplexed. I’d just had my second child. The price it seemed I would be required to pay to stay on a management trajectory seemed overwhelming and exhausting. I wanted to simplify my relationship to work, not kick it into fifth gear. So rather than leveling up as a leader, I opted to revert back to an individual contributor role. I told myself it was simply to reduce my travel requirements, now that I was a mother of two small children. But that wasn’t the whole truth. It seemed to me that limiting my scope would help me control my destiny. Today, I regret such narrow thinking, but in this case, it did lead me in a direction that ultimately fostered my growth, my worries notwithstanding.
I took opportunity to join the project management group at Linedata. Almost immediately, I found that I enjoyed the soup-to-nuts cycle of ensuring a successful project completion. My technical background enabled me to ask pertinent troubleshooting questions and successfully drive projects to completion. Soon, though, my restlessness kicked in again. It wasn’t enough to me to follow an adequate process successfully. I wanted to innovate by finding the ways a process could be improved and test the outcomes as we implemented our enhancements. I drove the restructuring of the project management function and the building out of a project management office.
In 2015 I received a phone call from Human Resources at Vestmark, a wealth management software company serving the managed account industry, asking if I’d like to interview for a project management role in their customer engineering team. I landed the job and was assigned to a major project for a key client while also building out the project management function. Three years ago, I returned to management with a new role at Vestmark within the project management team. I’ve subsequently taken over responsibility for additional teams including our products’ owners and our scrum masters. I now manage the three teams that help onboard new clients and manage upgrades of our software and delivery of enhancements.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
I am the Senior Director of Client Delivery at Vestmark. My responsibilities include overseeing all of our client projects (new implementations, upgrades, delivery of enhancements, etc.). I manage three teams: our project management team, which works closely with our scrum teams and clients to manage the timely delivery of work; our product ownership team, which documents client requirements and then plans sprints with our scrum teams; and our scrum master team, which ensures the scrum teams can do their work by removing impediments and implementing process improvements to support productivity.
Looking back, is this where you thought you’d be professionally? Was it always your goal to be in this position?
Truthfully, I didn’t have a plan. I started university at 17 and I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I chose to study math because it was my favorite subject. Microsoft was my first step into software, and it broadened my horizons about what was possible. Over the course of my career I’ve had the chance to work within almost every phase of the software development lifecycle: planning, design, development, QA, implementation, and maintenance. I got to try on all the hats. I’ve always known that I enjoy working with people. My experiences showed me that I enjoy working with clients and using software to help solve problems to make people’s lives easier.
My career path hasn’t been a straight line, but there is a constant set of overlapping themes: wanting to learn more, to do more, and to improve processes along the way. Vestmark has provided me with a home where my restlessness and curiosity have been assets. These qualities have helped me build out teams and processes and guide them to continually strive to do better.
In April of 2022 Vestmark nominated me to participate in a 15-month Money Management Institute Executive IQ Leadership Program, a joint effort of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Microsoft, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The program provides senior leaders the hands-on education and the real-time skills and tools to make an immediate impact on their organizations. I’m in my second semester now. Though it’s challenging to be back at school while working full time as a mom of two, I see results, and that’s enormously fulfilling.
For people who are looking to be in a similar position, what advice would you give to others in terms of helping them achieve their career goals?
Don’t be afraid to make the career choices that work for you and your family. When you’re ready, look for the opportunities that match your aspirations and speak up for yourself. Build strong relationships with your peers through your work and show that you can be counted on to do what you say you will do. If you are starting out as a manager, ask for a coach to help you as you navigate the new path. Look for mentors among the people you admire, ask for their guidance, and let them be your sounding board.
What are the most important skills that you need to do your job well?
My job requires an ability to bring people together, to get buy-in to deliver on a shared purpose. When I can help a team overcome obstacles or manage through them and work to deliver on a common goal, I love the genuine camaraderie and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. It gives me the energy and excitement to take on the next challenge.
What do you find most interesting/rewarding about your work? What’s the most challenging?
Over the years I’ve had the chance to serve as a mentor and as a coach to my team members. The most rewarding aspect of my work is when I help a new team form, see them start working well together, and then watch them start delivering results and have fun doing it. Delivering software implementations, upgrades, and enhancements always presents challenges but if you are lucky enough to be part of a strong team, you can do an excellent job and enjoy the process.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love to spend my free time with my family, going out for dinner with Aidan, and cheering on the sidelines of my daughter’s soccer games or at the ice rink watching my son’s hockey games.
How do you manage stress?
I walk, I go to the gym, and more recently, I’ve taken up tennis.
How many cups of coffee do you have in a day?
All the coffee!
Any book or podcast recommendations?
Professional – Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box - The Arbinger Institute. This book was recommended to by my current manager the main theme is that leadership isn’t about what we do, it’s about who we are. It powerfully teaches how to think out of the box, empathize with others, and understand their point of view. This book is a gut-check. It reminds you that there are multiple sides to everything and to think before you speak.
Fun – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. My book club read this book when it was first published. Eleanor’s story, the humor, the suspenseful subplot all make for a great book. It’s one of my favorites.
What advice do you have for recent college graduates?
Don’t worry too much about having a plan all laid out. Try to figure out what you like doing, and look for a job you will enjoy most of the time, because if you like what you are doing and you can have fun with the people you are working with, you will apply yourself. When you do that, anything is possible.