Cloud Pleaser

An executive without an office? That, and her love for Mustangs, tells you a lot about the energy of Margaret Dawson ’86.

Margaret Dawson ’86 used to have an office at Red Hat, the open-source software giant where she’s vice president of product marketing. It was at the company’s product and technology headquarters in Westford, Mass. She also had an apartment in Westford, but she spent most of her time in the air, traveling to the company’s Raleigh, N.C.,  corporate headquarters, or to customers around the globe. The time spent in the clouds is fitting: She’s been in cloud computing almost from the start of the technology, and is considered one of the top women in the industry. Today, she’s still on the road and still meeting face-to-face with her colleagues—but she’s also at home, which her Twitter handle, @seattledawson, makes clear.

Energy runs hot in Dawson’s DNA, which seems a great match for Red Hat. With more than 13,000 employees, the 26-year-old company has landed in the top quarter of Forbes’ 100 Most Innovative Companies list for six of the last seven years. And in July, IBM purchased Red Hat for $34 billion—the largest software acquisition in history.

Here, in Dawson’s own words, are some insights into this gutsy woman, her philosophies, and a personal project she’s keen on.

As told to Renee Olson

Dressed to the nines?

I just realized I’m wearing a retro UPS shirt—the colors were green and gold when I went  there. My goddaughter just graduated. Her mom is my best friend from college, and we went to the bookstore, where I bought this long, thick T-shirt. I was like, “Oh, I like the green and gold.” It was catchy.

I got a job walking into Acer

I taught English in Taiwan for a week in 1990, and hated it. So I walked into the lobby of Acer, the biggest PC manufacturer in Taiwan, and said to the women at the reception desk, “Hey, do you need any marketing help?” Within days, I worked there.

Taipei lasted nine years

I later pitched Businessweek to have a full-time correspondent in Taiwan. At the time, the magazine was ahead of the curve in starting to do tech business really seriously. I got the job and started interviewing CEOs from companies like Taiwan Semiconductor and MiTAC. After every interview, I would think, I want to do that. I did not think, Oh, well, I can’t because I don’t have an electrical engineering degree.

A versatile degree

My Puget Sound degree was in communication. That has not stopped me from taking increasingly technical and executive-level positions in the tech industry.

Hello, women?

I started a personal project about five years ago about women in tech. It’s now become SnortOutLoud.com. I could see our numbers were going down despite all these programs to get more girls and women in STEM. I did a lot of research and thinking, and I came up with the same answer again and again.

The answer

So many girls and women are not able to be true to who they really are. They often “hide their light”—their true self—to fit in, to get ahead, or to not stand out.

Snorting is freedom

I snort when I laugh. For years, people would make fun of me and freak out. “Oh, my God, stop doing that.” I never understood why it matters to them. What is it doing that’s so horrible? It’s turned into this concept of letting your true light shine: If we can only empower more women and girls to just let their true light shine, our numbers in tech would change.

There will be a book

I’m building out a platform at SnortOutLoud.com and writing a book about this. I realized it wasn’t just a “women in tech” issue, it wasn’t just a “woman” issue. It was a foundational, fundamental human phenomenon. As a people, we lose that raw sense of that light we are born with. Some people find it again—I had that moment of rediscovery. That’s what I’ve been trying to think about: How do I invite people into this?

The importance of being nimble

We are always on the cutting edge because we are focused on open-source technology. Open-source communities historically have been able to innovate and address things faster than almost any private company—you cannot create a project, a community, an innovative progression at the same pace or with as many different perspectives. And that diversity of thought and experience adds a lot of value.

Customers don’t just want your products

Most technology and software companies are really good at selling product, right? If we have storage as a product, we go out and we sell storage. But customers aren’t buying only products. Customers are looking for solutions to solve problems.

Quandary

We are a product company.

The workaround

About four years ago, I said, “What if we flipped it and asked, ‘What is it customers are trying to do?’ Say they’re trying to solve a big-data issue. What is the customer talking about? How are they phrasing that?” We now start with the customer. We call it the sales conversation framework. It’s a really simplistic idea, but it fundamentally changed the way we went to market.

Muscle cars, fondness for

I love Mustangs. I grew up in the automotive industry, and I’ve always wanted a classic Mustang. At Ford, my dad ran the West Coast Mustang clubs; Mustangs became almost cultish immediately.

Wishing my SUV would die

I couldn’t afford a ’66 Mustang and its own garage to keep it in, plus a car for transporting the kids and all their stuff around, so I custom-ordered the car I wanted: a new convertible Mustang, which is completely impractical in Seattle, by the way. A deep-blue convertible with a black top, saddle leather seats, and six-speed manual. I love fast cars. If I’m having a bad day, I get into my car and think, OK, I’m just going to drive fast on the freeway, and I’m going to be fine.

 

Photos by Sy Bean
Published Oct. 24, 2019