Out-and-proud CTO Charlotte Wang: live authentically

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

Her great-great-grandfather captained Norwegian fjord ships from Bergen to the North Pole in the 1890s. Her grandfather left his Norwegian home at 14. By 18, he’d sailed the seven seas, and settled in Canada. Her father joined the Canadian Naval Reserves during university. And so when Charlotte Wang turned 18, she too turned towards the sea. “It was in my blood,” she said. She’d grown up with stories and photos of her ancestors at sea. “There’s always been a joke in our family that we come from a long line of seafarers.” The Canadian Navy was a natural fit, with excellent timing: the military was actively recruiting women.

“The beautiful thing is that as a woman in the early 1980s, I had an avenue to join,” she said. When she told her family, there was—naturally—no objection. “It was: ‘Great! Go serve your country.’ Nothing held me back,” she said. “That was the beginning of me being empowered to think big.”

Charlotte Wang’s last ship: Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Yellowknife. © Royal Canadian Navy

Wang was in one of the first cohorts of women recruited through the Canadian Navy’s new program. She and a handful of other women—still friends today—entered a very male-dominated environment. But the Navy was determined that the trial be a success. “The behavior of some of my shipmates needed to be adjusted,” she said. “That adjustment was dealt with swiftly, and quite properly, in my view.”

And though a challenge, she found the Navy truly rewarding: she’d found her calling. As her ancestors before her, she spent considerable time sailing. During her years at university, she was at sea from April through September. Her aspiration was to be a chief engineer. In 1989, she became the first female chief engineer for the Navy’s minesweeping class. “That means I was responsible for propulsion and hotel services: all the running water, electricity that services the ship,” she said. “I was responsible for managing a crew of 12 in a 24/7 operation on a military warship.”

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A minesweeper goes no more than 12-24 miles offshore. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, Wang patrolled up and down North America’s east coast seaboard. From Victoria, British Columbia, she patrolled as far south as San Francisco, and as far north as Alaska.

“The Navy taught me the importance of structured communication,” she said. “Being crystal clear, with no doubt as to your wishes and how you want them executed.” That was bolstered by lessons from her lawyer father on how to take a position and articulate its pros and cons. Further: “To distill a problem statement into a manageable course of action, and then go execute.”

The Navy is where she was able to channel her natural inquisitiveness: “I very much like to understand how things work.” It’s also where she learned to deal with high-pressure situations during recurrent, performance-based training, conducted under challenging conditions so that when the real emergency happened, the crew would be ready.

“The perception is that the military is so rigid, with so many rules,” she said. “But at the end of the day when there’s an emergency—that’s the most creative, most inventive time you’ll ever be as a human being.”

She’s applying that same creativity and inventiveness to her role today. As CTO of IBM Services Canada and IBM Distinguished Engineer, she leads a team that partners with the world’s leading enterprises to establish reliable IT infrastructures that modernize and optimize critical business processes. Here, co-designed strategies and collaborative innovation with clients are the norm.

Notably, Wang was recently awarded a patent for server orchestration, resulting from a GTS project for a large Australian bank. Though the process of building of a server doesn’t change, you can creatively examine the techniques of automating the building process to free up time, she explained.

Her team took the skills used in coding and scripting—used in app development—and applied those paradigms to building a server. The result: a seamless end user experience with a fully compliant server, with all the rights agents, built in under two hours—versus the usual three weeks.

Wang understands the criticality of trust, both in partnership and technical execution: “The key word there from our perspective is compliant,” Wang said. “Compliance means we build this operating system, with this middleware, with this database, with a pre-approval tool set that’s in this contract, connected to this IP address and registered in the IBM compliance registry.”

“I don’t want to be doing these boring, remote, rote tasks over and over again,” she said. “A machine should free me up to do more intellectual things.”

For Wang, those include living an authentic life.

“Where I am right now, my personal journey is essential,” she said. “I spent the first 35 years of my life hiding.”

The military, though welcoming of women when she joined, didn’t want gay women (or men, for that matter). Some of her friends resigned and left due to concerted efforts, which kept her “very, very far in the closet.”

That changed three years ago. On assignment in Melbourne during Pride Month, she came out to family and friends. Her parents were relieved “because they could see my relief in knowing I didn’t have to hide anymore.”

“I wasn’t authentic to myself until I decided to come out,” she said. “Being authentic, it’s so important.” She extends that to all aspects of self. “Whether you’re having a goofy moment or telling corny jokes, we’re not machines. I’m in a boardroom with people for 10 hours a day. I don’t need to hide.”

That freedom lets her focus on her family, her parents, her wife, her work.

“Time is so precious,” she said. “It’s extremely important to be present and know where your priorities are.”

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