Have fun! Remember why you chose this path and find joy in doing something that you love. Spread the joy! Smile, laugh, and help those around you see that solving big, hard puzzles together is actually fun and satisfying.
As a part of our series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Cormier.
Catherine Cormier is Vice President, Engineering at Assent, a global leader in supply chain sustainability management solutions. Since her Bachelor of Computer Engineering and Master of Science in Electronic Business Technology degrees, she has amassed over 20 years of experience building innovative products, including leadership positions in Software Development, UX and Product Management. With experience at start-ups to established technology companies, she has a deep understanding of the diverse perspectives and strong partnerships required to make leading software products successful. Catherine brings her passion for technology and people to every stage of designing, developing and delivering Assent’s SaaS platform.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was fortunate enough to have a mentor right at home when I was growing up. My father was a tech entrepreneur in the very early days and was the one to sit me down as a young teenager in the nineties to teach me how to code. I instantly fell in love with the craft. It was so thrilling to me to see my ideas come to life on the computer. I was hooked. I went on to study computer engineering and worked at some of my dad’s companies, giving me the added insight into the role product development plays in building a company. I would go on to have leadership roles in software development, product management, and user experience.
I know I was lucky to have that influence early on and have come to learn that women who get into tech careers often received a personal introduction to this field.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I joined Assent nearly six years ago to lead the product design (user experience) team. A couple of years later, I was asked to help the company improve the full software development lifecycle, which gave me the privilege of leading a cross-functional team to reimagine our structure, patterns of collaboration, and rhythm for delivering software. It was a meaty challenge, but one that really impacted how we could bring even more value to our customers and the business. This experience eventually led to my current role of leading the entire engineering team at Assent.
Our team worked feverishly to align on, define and enable what would be a significant change to the entire department. And the big day for executing the change was mid-March 2020, just a few days after we transitioned to working remotely in response to the pandemic.
We pushed ahead boldly and in the end were happy that we did. The first phase of our change was about fostering “team foundations,” which ultimately helped our team weather through the uncertainty those times brought.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
(I’m not sure this counts as a mistake!)
Very early on in my career, I worked at a small startup with big, bold ambitions to build a new software product unlike anything before. It was a category-creator — the first product to allow educators to turn PowerPoint content into online learning content (this was back in the days of dial-up connections and early web browsers).
We were set to launch this product at an industry conference full of big-name companies. When we got our booth set up, we discovered our demo didn’t work. We could not show our product, and we didn’t know what had changed. We raced back to the hotel room, working frantically to find the problem and a solution. Which, of course we did, just in time for the show to start! We went on to absolutely shock some of those big-named companies with what our software could do.
From that experience, beyond the thrill of fixing hard problems, I learned about resiliency, working under pressure and staying focused and confident.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What really makes Assent stand out is our purpose. We are committed to helping large, complex manufacturers of vital goods build products in a way that is good for the world. And for me, that means that I get to lead a talented group of people to use their skills to design and build products that solve those problems. We know that if we help a manufacturer find harmful substances in parts they source from suppliers, or concerning practices in their supply chain, they can take action and improve. This is very rewarding and fulfilling.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working on research and development that will help us leverage Generative AI to make our products easier, faster, and even more insightful when it comes to assessing the sustainability and compliance of manufactured goods. We are confident that moving forward, this will enable us to innovate in new ways that will ultimately make it even easier for manufacturers to help ensure the products they build are not harmful — which is good for everyone.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
It is really remarkable to me that we continue to struggle to engage more women in STEM. From what I understand, the ratios have changed very little in the 25+ years since I entered the field. And yet, the women I encounter in tech — and I’m proud that we have many smart, impactful women on our team — bring so much value to their organizations.
I strongly believe that we can and should attract a more diverse group of people with different passions, perspectives and aspirations into STEM, and engineering in particular. In my view, engineering is not just about understanding and tinkering with technology. It’s about spotting problems worth solving in the world and figuring out how to apply technology and scientific methods to solve those problems. It’s about people. It’s about things that matter. It’s creative. It’s dynamic. And it can be a deeply meaningful field. And it’s fun! There’s such a thrill in making things that have never existed before.
I believe that if we reimagine how we talk about these fields of work — to emphasize creativity and humanity — we might inspire people with fresh perspectives to come into the field. And some of those people just might be women!
How do we do that? By starting the conversation. By giving all kinds of young people more exposure to the creative side of engineering and not just the tech. And recognizing when engineering has had an impact on the world.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
From my experiences, and the women I talk to in the field, I believe there’s a sense of needing to conform to some extent to behave more like men.
To be a little provocative — I once read an article that challenged people to stop letting women take on tasks that were considered administrative: note-taking, meeting setting, etc. because apparently these disproportionally fall to women. Rather, they should be encouraged to behave more like the men in how they engage and the tasks they take on.
This struck me as odd advice. The women I know in tech have already persevered, just to be there. They had the courage to enter a field where they are different. They found a successful path to navigate. They are strong, smart and if they are choosing to take on those tasks, perhaps we should pause and wonder: what is the actual value of them?
The person taking the notes is actively listening, processing and communicating. The one who sets the meeting often chairs it. Instead of stopping the women from taking on the tasks they typically do so that they can behave like the men, perhaps we can see their value and encourage the men to learn from them!
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Own your imposter syndrome: Humility and authenticity are critical parts of being a great leader. This feeling, to some extent, can help stay grounded and in check — what’s it trying to tell me? If I’m insecure about something, can I do something about it? Learn something? Practice? Seek an advisor or mentor? But don’t let it run away and keep you from tackling something new or challenging. When that happens, lean into your trust in the people who gave you the opportunity. If you respect them, you need to trust what they see in you and let that shine.
- Keep a few key connections: You don’t need a huge active network, but over time, make sure you maintain some key relationships with people who have known you professionally — people you can ask for perspective and people who can count on you. It helps to receive support for sure and being able to give support in turn can remind you of what some of your unique strengths are.
- No one does it all. Prioritize and be gracious with yourself: Time is the one currency we all have in common. Decide how you can use your time most impactfully and do those things really well. Forgive yourself for the things that don’t make the list. Not only is this important for yourself, but you set an example for others. Show yourself, and them, how to make space for learning, growing and just being yourself.
- It’s all about people: We’re building products with people, for people. Learn about them. Figure out how to connect with them. Learn how you respond and engage, then figure out what works even better. Empathy and curiosity go a long way in being creative and in influencing others.
- Have fun! Remember why you chose this path and find joy in doing something that you love. Spread the joy! Smile, laugh, and help those around you see that solving big, hard puzzles together is actually fun and satisfying.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Ask lots of questions. Stay curious. Questions can be very powerful ways to get others to reflect, consider new perspectives and use their own ability to find answers and make decisions. Your job is no longer to have all the answers or do it all. Coach your team members and empower them to find and do the right thing, using your ability to override or make decisions judiciously. Celebrate their victories and help them stay the course, or course correct, as they go. Then, encourage them to be curious and ask lots of questions so they, in turn, can build and strengthen their own partnerships with teammates.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Build a great team of leaders in your organization: These aren’t exclusively people managers, but people who inspire others, push others to excellence, and exhibit the behaviors that you value in your team. Nurture them, invest in them, and ensure they are continuously connecting with their why.
Build a circle of trust and partnership across the organization: You lead your team to fulfill an important need in a wider organization. Get to know cross-functional peers. Learn about their needs and be generous with leveraging your craft, knowledge, or support to make their world better.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father is someone who really helped me develop my passion for technology, but I spent the first 15 years of my career surrounded by men significantly older than me. When I stepped into my first role where other female leaders surrounded me, I immediately knew that I was missing that type of role model. I didn’t even recognize that gap before, but when I did, I immediately became fascinated and could see myself continuing to grow further in my career. It’s difficult to pick just one as each of the female leaders I engaged with early in my career made such a lasting impact on me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Working at Assent allows me to align my love of innovative technology with a company that is working to make impactful change in the world. At Assent, our mission is to make the supply chain of complex manufacturers deeply and durably good, and I feel proud that my work contributes to that directly. I’m a citizen of the world like everybody else, so helping companies bring goods to the market that meet environmentally and socially responsible product standards is not an opportunity that everyone in tech gets to have and I’m very lucky.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Let’s find a way to share that engineering is creative and can change the world! The movement can inspire more people to join the craft and with all that creativity and purpose, just imagine what we can do!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be kind. Be true. Be your best.” That is the quote I use as a mantra in my own home. If you do those three things every day, you can show up and be proud of yourself no matter what and good things will likely follow.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.