Leading Others to Lead: Mary Gillam

By: Yadira Y. Caro

The journey of Mary Gillam to become an Air Force Colonel and a leader was not exempt of multiple challenges. However, Mary, who also holds a PhD in Management of Information Systems Technology, enjoys sharing her story, challenges and lessons she has learned to help others become leaders as well.

Dr. Gillam was raised by her paternal grandmother alongside her brothers and sister. But her academic skills enable her to get a scholarship from Dow Chemical to study Chemistry. However, Mary was also interested in joining the Air Force. She would later join the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). After college, she was commissioned into the Air Force as a Second Lieutenant. Through tenacity and hard work, she forged a career of over 20 years where she rose through the ranks to become a Colonel, something only a small percentage of officers achieve. The percentage is even smaller for women and people of color.

After a career spent in the world of Telecommunications and Information Systems Technology, she shifted her focus to teaching leadership, management and organizational development. She became an Amazon bestsellingauthor, a host and producer of the TV show Leadership Table Talk, and even designed a board game on the topic. In this interview, she discussed her career journey, her challenges in the military, and gives advice on what it takes to become a leader.

As you described in your book Gifted to Lead you came from a household where you seem to have had a lot of challenges along the way. What made you join the military?

I love to share this story because I was raised by my paternal grandmother who married at age 14. She had 17 children, and then she was widowed at age 48. Afterwards, she was later given sole responsibility for my three siblings and myself.  It was my grandmother who taught me what it means to strive to be the best that you can be regardless of your circumstances.

Having graduated with honors from high school, I went off to college. I got a scholarship in Chemistry from Dow Chemical, and then I picked up a scholarship from the Air Force. But how I joined the Air Force is really interesting. One day, some ROTC students were out recruiting and invited me to speak to the professor of Aerospace Studies. Because I was already committed to going to work for Dow Chemical, I was facing a dilemma. The end result is that the professor of Aerospace Studies met with the Chairman of the Chemistry Department, and the Dow Chemical representative to discuss my situation. After the discussion, I was allowed to keep both scholarships and pursue my dream of joining the Air Force. I often say that Dow Chemical values military service.

How many years were you serving in the military?

Twenty eight and a half.

Can you describe some of the challenges that you’ve had throughout your career in the military?

I really hate to say this, but a lot had to do with my ethnicity and my gender and I wasn’t about to change either one of them (laughs). Sometimes you just have to really buckle down and say, ‘Okay, regardless of the challenge here, I’m going to work hard.’ Given my faith in God, and hard work, I was able to succeed.

And you made it through the rank of Colonel. Not a lot in the military get to that rank. How was that journey for you?

It was very interesting, I would say, because you’re right, not a lot of people make it to the rank of Colonel. Although you have General that comes after that number is even smaller. But when you make it to the rank of Colonel, especially as a female, you have done very, very well in the military. And so I just said ‘I’m going give it everything I’ve got, to become the best military leader.’ Because you have to have the right jobs, and be wiling to work hard. But, then you really have to have people willing to give you an opportunity. If you don’t get the opportunity, I don’t care how hard you’ve worked, you still have to have the opportunity to show what you can do. I really thank all the mentors along the way that I’ve had who encouraged me to just continue to work hard.

You’ve got to get past the fear element and really put yourself out there.

Dr. Mary Gillam

From those experiences, do you have any particular example that you remember of any deployment or leading a group of people that you consider successful?

As a military officer, I had the opportunity to deploy to many locations. As a telecommunications and information systems technology officer, I was responsible for ensuring that our forces had the capability to operate in a mobile environment as if they were at home. However, one of my greatest experiences was when I served as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Director of IT for a very large organization. I had the opportunity to build a team, deliver IT services, and create a win-win situation for all of the stakeholders. My goal was to deliver value to the organizations and customers that we served, and we were very successful.

Was your track primarily Information Technology? Why Information Technology?

When I was commissioned in the US Air Force, there was a shortage of communications-electronics officers. This career field was the equivalent of the telecommunications and information technology career field in the civilian sector. Although my undergraduate degree was in chemistry, I had the math and science necessary to serve in this career field. I would later earn a Masters Degree in Computers and Information Systems Management. Although the career field would undergo numerous name changes over the years, it was the equivalent of the information technology field today.

How long ago did you leave the military?

I retired in 2010.

How was that transition from the military career? Did you decide to continue with the IT field?

When I first retired from the Air Force, I continued working in the IT career field. I worked as a government contractor for a major consulting firm supporting the Air Force CIO. I later returned to the government as a Senior Executive serving as the Director of Technology, Innovation, and Engineering.

You have a lot of different publications in IT and also on the topic of leadership. What made you decide to focus on leadership?

As an officer, you were constantly receiving a lot of training in the leadership space. When I was a teenager and when I was in college, I led a lot of organizations. I guess you could say that leadership was in my DNA. It is a given for me to continue learning and studying in the areas of leadership, management, team-building, and organizational development. As a result, when I found myself wanting to transition from the IT field, I looked at potentially providing training, coaching, and consulting services in the leadership space. So I went to Georgetown and got a Masters in Executive Leadership, even though I had all kinds of leadership experience. I just wanted to ensure that I had the latest information on the topic. I’m very passionate about it.

I host a local cable TV show called Leadership Table Talk. I invented a game (The Leadership Build Zone) in the area of leadership development, so I’m finding myself really enjoying helping people to grow and develop their leadership skills and talents.

What do you think is one of the main factors that prevent people from exploring more of their leadership skills?

What I’ve found in my research, working with people for so many years, and leading organizations, unfortunately is fear. A lot of people are afraid of failure. I remember a young lady who I wanted her to lead a project for our organization and the first thing that she said was ‘Dr Gillam, I am just afraid that I might fail.’ And I said ‘well, you might succeed (laughs) How about looking at it from that respect, because I know you can do it and I’m not going take no for an answer.’ She ended up doing the project, and did an exceptional job. So I would tell people, you’ve got to get past the fear element and really put yourself out there. If there is a skill that you are lacking, then you can learn that skill set. But, don’t just refuse to lead because you are afraid. Who knows, you might just succeed (laughs).

Do you have three resources you recommend that have helped you either in your career or that help others in either the areas of leadership or in the areas of IT?

I would say The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by Dr. John Maxwell, in the leadership space, has always been a good staple for me. I use a lot of his materials. The book that I really like from an IT perspective is People Centric Security: Transforming Your Enterprise Security Culture. It’s an easy read but at the same time it really does address how we can help to change the dynamics of what’s going on in the cyber security space. It’s just a book that I use a lot as a reference guide today and I really enjoy.

A third one that I use in my executive coaching is Crucial Conversations. I love that book because it really does get people focused on how to conduct those crucial conversations. You may not want to have them, but you need to have them especially if you are a leader. You need to know how to talk to people, and in ways that will build your team and not destroy it.

You mentioned that you’ve had a lot of challenges in the military, primarily based on gender and race. What advice would you give to any woman particularly, who wants to start a military career or who is in her military career right now?

That is a great question. I would tell ladies that if they have an issue, there are a lot of resources available. Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out. I believe that the #metoo movement has brought to light a lot of things that have happened that should not have occurred. In the military, sometimes people will not speak up because they don’t want to be labeled as complaining. Yet, if people don’t speak up, things will not change
So, don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out because you have earned the right to serve in the military like anyone else.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Life Lessons from a War Virgin: Laura Westley

By: Yadira Y. Caro

War Virgin is not an archetypal war narrative of how protagonist vanquishes the enemy through a series of battles. Instead, Laura Westley describes her personal path as a military grad and recruit. The path covers her strict upbringing in Florida, attending the U.S West Point Military Academy, where she graduated in 2001, and her deployment to Iraq in 2003. She describes her day to day: the arduous and the redundant tasks, the restrictive discipline, the expected gender roles, the temptation and the harassment, all done with humor and candor. It also addresses life after the war and mental health challenges she confronted.

War Virgin was also a musical play, where Laura performs as singer and actor. These artistic endeavors helped Laura to raise awareness of the many struggles experienced by soldiers and veterans.

Aside from being an author and actor/singer, Laura has a seasoned IT career. She is currently a Technology Services Senior Manager at Johnson and Johnson. I asked Laura about her years in the military, her motivations to write War Virgin, and what she has learned along the way.

What made you go to West Point?

I kind of joke when people ask me that, ‘Do you have a leather couch for me to lay on and talk about my daddy issues?’ (laughs) I think a lot of it could have stemmed from the fact that my father really wanted a son and he got two daughters. I was the first born and I felt like his love wasn’t unconditional. Whenever I would do something that was more perceived as masculine, whether it was excel in sports or do something more traditionally masculine, I just felt like I got more positive affirmation from him.

I remember when he was reading from U.S. News and World Report an excerpt about West Point and I just liked the way he was trying to paint the picture ‘imagine you doing that Laura.’ So I think at a deep level I thought I’d be more accepted and loved. Other reason I think is because it seemed like the ultimate challenge. I used to be all about doing the absolute most difficult things in life. I’m definitely not that way anymore (laughs).

” I wanted to tell a true story, I wanted to write the book that I wish I would have read before going to West Point, before going to war. “

Laura Westley

What was one of the greatest challenges you had there?

I think the hardest part is sleep deprivation. There were definitely some academic geniuses there, but I felt like the people that did the best overall were able to survive on such little sleep. To me that would be the absolute number one struggle: it’s just not having enough hours in the day to get everything done and then also get a good night sleep.

You spent your time in Iraq. How long were you there for?
I was deployed for seven months: I deployed in January 2003, in Kuwait in the middle of a desert, in a camp made up with tents and porta potties. I was there for two months and then I was a part of the Invasion. I went in March 21, 2003, and then came home in August.

Scenes of War Virgin: The Show

From your experience there, how much did your expectation differ from what was going on there?
I could not believe that we were at war. It was really surreal. I think my top expectation would have been preparedness and to take war more seriously. We didn’t train sufficiently, the gear that we had wasn’t sufficient. Even the way that we were making plans and the way information was disseminated just seemed like a big joke to me.


I remember wanting to go practice the range on my weapon more and my supervisor being like ‘No, you need to work on the spreadsheet for me,’ and me getting into a fight with him since he just would not let me go. I remember that was the first time I publicly cried, because I was seriously worried about needing potentially to use my weapon, not being skilled enough at it, and dying because he wanted me to work on some spreadsheet. We just didn’t seem to take it very seriously, and at the same time, it’s like most of the people, especially the leadership, conveyed that they could not wait to go to war. They were glorifying it, but they weren’t taking the right measures to properly prepare for it.

You detail a lot of your experiences in your book War Virgin. What made you want to write that book?

I wanted to tell a true story, I wanted to write the book that I wish I would have read before going to West Point, before going to war. I feel like now with technology and social media, and now that some people have put books out there, I see the real authentic stories are more accessible, but they didn’t really exist before. I got so sick of every military story being written by some male who’s this stereotypical hero charging off the platoon and winning victory. I feel like that’s actually only a tiny percentage of who serves.

I feel like my experiences, as absurd as they were, might actually be more common than those other experiences, like the boredom that I talk about, and the lack of preparedness, or how you’re confused during war and information’s not being passed along and you don’t know what the hell is going on. Another really common theme, I think, is the feeling of wondering whether or not you’re actually being a productive member of the military, if you actually should be there and questioning your role instead of just being like, the stereotypical ‘I served my country. I fought for your freedom.’

How was the reception to the book? Were you surprised in any way?
I was prepared to receive more backlash. Now when something gets posted on social media, I don’t comment. I was trained by a Washington Post editor, because I remember publishing my first op-ed back in 2012, I read comments and laughed and had a good time with it, but he was like, ‘don’t engage.’ Since then, I think trolling has become much, much worse.

But the feedback that I was aware of was overwhelmingly positive. I thought that there would be more negative ramifications. I definitely took measures to make sure that I changed names (in the book); I didn’t want anybody to get in trouble. So I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more backlash. It was overwhelmingly positive.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them find the right resources to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying what they do, that they feel like they have a good future ahead and that they are nurturing their talent.”

Laura Westley

How was your transition into the corporate world?

It was interesting because I fantasized about War Virgin allowing me to become a full time author or performer speaker. That was a very far fetched fantasy, especially for being financially practical (laughs). I kind of beat myself up for a little bit thinking ‘Okay, if I have to go back into the corporate world, I failed at War Virgin.’ But then I realized I had this professional IT career before this and I was building it. I did take time away once the book was being published and once I went on tour. But I had to go back to that.

I also wondered, ‘what can I go back to doing?’ I want to make sure that whatever I do is in alignment with my values, that I don’t compromise who I am. When I go back to the corporate world, I don’t want to have to be shut up and not expressive. I also was wondering, ‘Does having War Virgin out there will impact me getting a job?’

I spoke to a fellow West Pointer who was interested in hiring me for this associate vice president position. I just had the feeling that we were not a good match and I said ‘I want you to read War Virgin and then come back.’ He had concerns, but he was very conservative. Interestingly, he also has a sister who went to war and went to West Point and he’s like ‘I didn’t even know what it was like for women.’ It just wasn’t going to be a good match.

What ended up happening is I got a good (referral) in for my current job by someone who knew me because of War Virgin. She was from the first class of women who graduated from West Point. And so its ironic that War Virgin actually helped me get the job that I have now, which is a really good corporate job.

How do you describe what you’re doing right now?

I lead a new software development department at Johnson and Johnson. I take care of software developers, software testers and project managers, trying to make us a really valid force to be reckoned with.

Really, everybody else, they’re the doers. I joke that they do the real work around here and it’s my job to take care of them. So I actually tell them that they’re all my bosses. My job is just to whatever obstacles might be in their way, let them be able to fully focus on what they need to do, even if that is something beyond the work environment, even if there is something that they may be struggling with at home. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them find the right resources to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying what they do, that they feel like they have a good future ahead and that they are nurturing their talent.

Are there any resources that you recommend that have helped you throughout your career?

When I wanted to learn how to be a better storyteller in my writing, it was almost like an academic pursuit for me. All I had known was academic writing and so I did take a comedy writing class. It was helpful for me to understand that if you’re going to write a book to be consumed, you can’t write in this high brow or dry academic (tone), you have to write as a story teller. In order to be a better storyteller I took a comedy writing class, and I joined a story-telling competition group in Massachusetts. One of my favorite books is called The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker and it was hilarious. Before she wrote her memoir, she did stand up comedy and so she perfected the art of story-telling orally and that translated to the page. That got me thinking and got me into doing the live story telling. Then it eventually evolved into the show.

There were definitely some people that came into my life that helped me to know more about storytelling. I was taking it all in, and working with theater professionals. Now I am really obsessed with an author named Jo Piazza. She has a podcast called Committed and my favorite book of hers is called Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win.

I’m trying to think of books about IT career and I know that there’s a lot out there. But I find that I’m running into the same frustration that I did with military books with respect to how boring they could be, or how masculine they can be. I feel like there’s a lot of books written by super successful women like a billionaire CEO, or COO, but it seems like those are the books that get published, by these very privileged highly educated, multibillionaire white women. I would love for there to be books that are written by more normal women. Why can’t I read a book by a mid level manager? Those are the kinds of jobs that are more popular than the super crazy executive positions. I’m probably going to have to write the book that I want to read with respective to navigating a corporate environment, especially in a traditionally male-dominated environment.


If there is anything in the future, I want to collaborate with other women.

Would you recommend any women to join either the military or go into West Point?

It’s hard because when I think about it, I get a little knot in my stomach like ‘it’s going to be brutal.’ But I don’t want to say, ’No, don’t do this’ because sometimes that’s just your calling in life.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Developing Coders: Will Gant

Note: This is the second part of the interviews to the Complete Developer Podcast hosts. Read here BJ Burns interview

By: Yadira Y. Caro

In the Complete Developers Podcast, William Gant is described as the more experienced developer of the duo of friends. His career spans over two decades as a developer. In the show, he shares with his friend BJ Burns the lessons he has learned along the way related to code, and dealing with customers and teammates. In this interview, Will talks about his experience, how he started the podcast and some advice for developers.

Why did you decide to become a developer? Did you know that since you were in school?

I was initially going to be a Biology major and I got really interested in biologically inspired computing algorithms, like gene expression programming, that kind of stuff. Once I got to college I double-majored, and the computer classes were late in the day while the biology classes were early in the day. Those two lifestyles just did not go well together, and so, one of them had to go (laughs).

What were some of the first programs or things you learned as a developer?

I started out with GW-BASIC. This was way back in the early ’90s. Then I got into Visual Basic for Applications, then just regular Visual Basic, and ended up moving to .Net when it came out. I’ve been mostly doing that. I had foray into a bunch of other languages. I’m always trying new stuff out, seeing what ideas I can take from another platform.

As far as programs, the first one that I wrote and felt worked really well, was actually a prank. I made a program that could take a screen capture of somebody’s screen and put it flipped upside down with an upside down message box that says “Windows has detected that your video card was installed upside down.” I made it in the background of my uncle’s computer where my dad could hit a button and do that to my uncle at random, because they worked in the same office. He wasn’t real happy about that (laughs).

As a developer, what do you think are some of the misconceptions of people from development or developers?

I think a lot of people have an incorrect understanding of the difficulty level, either thinking it’s more simple than it is or thinking that it’s more difficult. There’s a broad range of difficulty levels in the industry. (As a developer) You kind of get into the habit of breaking stuff down to where it’s simple enough, where you can actually deal with it. A lot of people aren’t aware that that’s what you do versus solving a huge problem. It’s sort of like, ‘how do we fix the transit system in Germany’? You don’t start with, ‘I’m going fix the transit system in Germany.’ You go, ‘I’m going to dig a ditch right here, and then work my way through.’

I would also say a lot of people just generally don’t understand how you give instructions to a computer. The way I’ve always explained it is: imagine if you had somebody that took everything completely literally and didn’t have any external source of information. How would you explain stuff to them? That’s the way you’d explain it to a computer.

People have seen all these hacker shows, they’ve seen like, the guy in The Matrix, with the characters going crazy on the screen, and they think that’s what we do. I mean, it would be cool and all, but you know, we don’t.

“A lot of people just generally don’t understand how you give instructions to a computer. The way I’ve always explained it is: imagine if you had somebody that took everything completely literally and didn’t have any external source of information. How would you explain stuff to them? That’s the way you’d explain it to a computer.”

For anybody who wants to become a developer, what would you recommend to get started?

I would probably work backwards. I would start with, ‘what kind of development do I want to do’? If they’re doing web development, there’s probably not a whole lot of reason for them to go through a degree program, just because it’s overkill. The technology is going to be old. If you’re doing typical business programming, you might want to get an accounting degree and minor in computer science, or vice versa, so that you know what’s going on there. It’s not a discipline that lives by itself. It’s always attached to something else, and that something is not necessarily technical related.

Why did you started a podcast?

BJ was going through a pretty rough phase in his life when we started the podcast and I had taken him on as an apprentice. I was teaching him how to do software development so that he could get his financials back where he needed to be. He suggested the podcast idea, and I actually didn’t think it was going to work, but I went along with it.

I bought the microphone and thought, ‘okay we’ll probably do this for five or six episodes, then he’ll get bored and I’ll have a nice microphone.’ We’re like 170 episodes in now and that’s obviously not happened. I would say that it’s pretty darn near accidental when you think about it (laughs).

I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it either. I thought that talking into a microphone was something that was going to intimidate me and that I was going to find really uncomfortable. I did for a while, but now, I’m not. I used to be painfully shy, and I’m completely over that now.

How do you come up with ideas for the show?

If you brainstorm on creative stuff for long enough, eventually, you realize that you’re swimming in ideas. In the beginning, it was tough. I did not know if we were going be able to come up with ideas for a podcast each week, and now I think we’re like 150-something ahead. We could go for like another three years with no new ideas and not run out of material.

In the podcast you mention that you’re an aspiring software architect, is that something you’re still pursuing?

We put that in the beginning of the podcast as my introduction because that was kind of my goal then. I think before the first episode, I actually got promoted to that at work. I deal with a lot of the software architecture, just like big picture design of the software: how we’re going to scale, how we’re going to accommodate major software changes going forward, how we’re going to make our team be able to develop faster, that kind of stuff. It’s fun! It’s the hardest code too, so it’s the best.

How is your usual process when it comes to development?

The first thing I’d recommend is figure out who the real stakeholders are, because a lot of times you go in and the person you’re talking to is not really the one that’s got the authority. The next thing would be to see what things have to get done and what’s the priority level like. What do the delivery milestones actually mean? What real result does that create for the company? A lot of times, what you’ve got to do is shuffle things and go, ‘well, I could hit a milestone that’s not quite so ambitious, but it’s 20% of the work and it gets 80% of the result. I can do that right now and get them into a better place.’ That’s’ usually the way I look at it.

I don’t know that the tech is necessarily the most important thing. The tech is how you deliver it. The process is how you figure out what to deliver.

Is the show targeted particularly for developers?

Yeah, it was initially for developers. Then we started getting a lot of people that weren’t developers who were listening, and we started realizing, ‘hey, we’ve made content that’s kind of bigger than just development.’ That happened organically.

Do you apply any of the things from your job into your personal life?

They kind of bleed over into each other. Since I’ve been doing this for so long, I’m not sure exactly where the seam is anymore. The way that I have to manage multiple projects, I’ve found that I use that in the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. I don’t think twice about it until the end of the day and I’m like, ‘wait, I just did a Gantt chart for making vegetables’ (laughs).

I don’t know if it’s maybe an overly organized personal life that has gone over into work or if it’s the other way around. I wasn’t an adult when I started writing code. The first code I got paid for was 20 years ago this week.

What was it, what did you developed?

I was just helping a friend of one of my programming teachers with a development problem that he just could not figure out. The teacher was basically like, ‘hey, I’ve got this kid in the class, he’s a giant nerd, he can probably help you, and he’s probably cheap.’ And it worked out!

What resources have helped you in your job, either books, podcasts or websites, or anything like that that you would recommend?

Other than our stuff, anything by John Sonmez. He’s got simpleprogrammer.com. He’s also got a book called The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide and a book on soft skills. The coding stuff is almost the easy side of things, but the interpersonal things in figuring out how to work well with a team, seems to be a spot that a lot of people really need a lot of help on.

If you’re getting into the hard tech, the Gang of Four’s Design Patterns book, Code Complete , Clean Code. There’s also a good book called Don’t Make Me Think, which talks about how you design things. As far as organizing things, I would probably look at Getting Things Done, by David Allen. I have a modified version of that system. It doesn’t work perfectly for creatives, but it works well enough as a start, and then you can fix it once you find the problems. My to-do list has like, 800 items on it right now. So, I have to have organization or I’ll go crazy.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!