Five Questions For … Barbary Brunner, Austin Technology Council CEO

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin—Barbary Brunner says Austin has always felt like home.

She has made career stops in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Denver, but says the Texas capital was a lodestar. “Every time I’d come visit, it felt like Austin was calling out to me,” Brunner says. “When I lived in Seattle, it’s the place I’d come to to get warm.”

Brunner became a full-time resident last year when she joined the Austin Technology Council as CEO. The thought of being based in Austin and being able to use her tech expertise to serve the community appealed to her, she says.

“I like challenging problems and I like transformation,” Brunner says. “The organization had been around since ’92; it had a great board but was in desperate need of transformation. What could be better than to serve this large and growing industry in Austin, which just happens to be my industry?”

Brunner says she “fell into tech” in the early ’90s when she worked at Microsoft as a program manager, and worked on an early CD-ROM project. Instead of having to go to multiple sources in libraries or renting VHS tapes to view video clips, all types of content could be put on one disc.

“Within a few months, I found myself as program manager because I had a great mentor who said, ‘You gotta get technical and learn to write code and let’s get you there,’” Brunner recalls.

From there, the universe aligned. “It was: this is what I’m meant to do,” she says. “It was a brilliant meeting of tech with journalism and editorial and visual arts.”

Brunner went on to stints at Vivendi Universal/Sierra Online, Yahoo, and holding various marketing, strategy, and product development roles.

In this week’s “Five Questions For …,” Brunner talks about having high expectations, the zen found in home remodeling, and why it’s important for women in tech to be technical. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s your biggest fear?

Barbary Brunner: At this point in time, in this country, the biggest fear could be so many different things because it seems like we’re just in this really horrible place where everybody’s fears are heightened to the utmost and where nobody’s able to sort of dial it back and be rational. Everything is inflamed. I think I’m in the same position that so many other people are in, standing back, looking at this, and wondering how did we get to this place and how are we going to move through this and find our way to a place of rational discourse?

There’s that sort of holistic fear. When I look at my career and what I’m doing now, my greatest fear is always of disappointing the people who work for me, disappointing the people I work for, and disappointing myself by not living up to what is perhaps an unrealistic standard of perfection that I’ve set for myself.

I think that’s something that all really driven and successful people have. We set a high bar. It’s not a bar set because we’re comparing ourselves to others, it’s just that we have really big expectations for ourselves and we take on big tasks.

I always use business results and personal career growth results as a measure: Are we hitting our numbers, are we exceeding our numbers from a revenue standpoint, from a customer standpoint? Am I growing my career in terms of responsibilities as fast as I want to? (And it’s never been as fast as I want to.)

Earlier in my career, when it was a big organization and clear career progressions, I would use that to measure [myself]. When you’re in the top seat, it’s a little bit different. The measures are self-imposed or board-imposed metrics. The fallacy is that CEO doesn’t work for anyone. The CEO actually works for everyone. For me, I work for more than 200 member companies, to a certain extent the city of Austin and the state of Texas. The further up the food chain you go, the more masters you have.

X: What do you pick up on that many people don’t see?

BB: I think I’ve always been keenly attuned to what the customer or audience need set is. One of the things you do as a program manager or product manager is spend a lot of time thinking about what the problem is you’re trying to solve for. It’s not just the immediate problem. What is the problem in the future that you’re trying to solve for?

My constant inner-product manager voice serves me well in every aspect in doing business. I think the other thing that I’ll add to that, which is kind of a critical piece because it’s easy to get presumptive about what you think you know about what other people want, is being able to be really humble when you screw things up or take a wrong step and take ownership for the screw-ups. That means taking ownership for not just the screw-ups that you directly cause, but the screw-ups you could’ve prevented … if you had been more thoughtful. When you’re in a leadership position—it doesn’t matter if you’re a manager in big company, CEO of a big company, or CEO of a tiny tech industry association—you’re responsible for success all around. The buck stops with you.

X: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?

BB: Home renovation is a big thing. Doing something creative with my hands is really important to me, and allows me to turn off the left side of the brain. Right now, I’m remodeling a home. Other times when I don’t have a home remodel, I paint. Also, getting out and walking in nature, being outside is critical. I am a practicing Buddhist and I meditate on a daily and sometimes twice-daily basis. It keeps me sane and focused.

It gives you an opportunity to step away from the hamster wheel and exercise you brain and body in a completely different way. I think it’s the sort of thing, if you’re got a really tough problem to solve, sometimes walking away from the problem for a while and doing something different is the best way to refresh your brain.

X: Tell me about your early influences.

BB: I grew up with parents of the Depression era, who were very much self-made. I grew up seeing parents who were true partners in the business that they built, which was a fairly substantial rental property business. Dad was an attorney; mom ran the business. They were a really well-oiled machine. They were very clear about what they both did well and how they meshed together. As kids, we were ready-made labor in the business. That probably has influenced my choice of downtime activities. We grew up with this. I got to see really closely what my dad did for a living. I would go into the office on the weekends and help him transcribe things and also working in the rental properties doing renovations and cleanup. My sister and I were raised in this tight knit family atmosphere where hard work and being productive was one of the top values that we held.

Watching my mother work with various construction folks and property managers and builders, watching how she handled them and what a very sort of fine-tuned, respectful way she had dealing with people to elicit the best from them was a huge influence on me.

X: What career advice do you give to young women who want to work in tech?

BB: My advice to them is to get technical. I realize that these days even people who come out with liberal arts degrees have experience writing some degree of simple code because they probably encountered some computer science training and learned a little bit of HTML or something throughout grade school or high school and they’re digital natives for the most part.

But really understanding, almost to the level of the guts of your business, is very helpful. Maybe you’re in marketing and you’re on the brand communications side, or the sales side. The more you know about how the product is created, who creates the product, and what their team’s capacity is for executing, the better you’ll be able to match the messaging. The other thing is women are often thought to be soft and not technical so it’s a hedge against the doubters. It gives you power and the more knowledge you have, the more empowered you feel.

Stand your ground is the other thing I tell them. Because as far as we’ve come from an equality standpoint in tech, there’s still an enormous amount of gender discrimination. You have to not let the peanut gallery get you down. You need to stand up for yourself and be aware of your surroundings. If something feels off, you need to address it immediately.

There’s a lot of unconscious bias stuff that happens: consistently giving the women the lower review score, [or] women taking longer to get promoted, even though the quality of their work is as good or better than male counterparts. Those are things that you need to be conscious of, because if you suspect you’re not getting the promotion because you don’t have the right plumbing, then you need to do something to address the problem. Be aware. Don’t be afraid to leave a company to move to another company to move up the ladder. Sometimes you need to make the right lateral move in order to make the subsequent forward move.