Role Model Sabine Do-Thuong; square picture 1200x800px

Role Model: Sabine Do-Thuong

Role Model: Sabine Do-Thuong

Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from!

I was born in Germany and my parents moved to Switzerland when I was 9 years old. I have been through the entire school system in Switzerland and went on to study Computer Science at ETH where I graduated in 2003. In my early career, I worked as an individual contributor in Software Engineering, Software Quality Assurance, and Project Management in various industries such as automotive and insurance claim processing and delivering custom software solutions, mostly for larger finance and insurance corporations.

At some point, I stumbled into my first leadership role, when I was tasked to set up a new subsidiary in Ho Chi Minh City. It made me realize that I actually enjoy speaking and working more with people than with computers. Since then, I have been working on leading, building and scaling engineering organizations. First, at the mobile payment start-up TWINT and now, the latest chapter of my life, at Verity, the global leader in autonomous indoor drone systems.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

There was so much. But looking back on my career so far, I would say it is to never give up and finish whatever you start. If you do something, do it right or do not do it at all.

How did you become interested in tech?

When I was a child, we had a Commodore C64 at home where I started to play some games. I also vaguely remember experimenting with some very trivial BASIC code statements that could be run from a 5¼” floppy disk. That was very fascinating to me.

You have had quite some interesting challenges in your work life with even a detour to Vietnam. Tell us about that.

I was not prepared for this adventure at all. One could even say that I was very naive and didn’t know what I was getting into. Being 10’000 km away from home in an emerging country with no family, no friends, and no clue whatsoever about how to do the job I was tasked with, was like being thrown into cold water – ice cold water. I did not have any support from either the person who was with me there or from anyone back in Switzerland. Thus, I ended up teaching myself everything in order to not drown, e.g., patching network cables, negotiating with craftsmen, creating tech assessments, interviewing and hiring people, setting up contracts, etc.

There were many tough days, evenings, and weekends where I sat all by myself in my little apartment and asked myself why I was doing this. I was full of doubts: Had I made the right choice in coming there and was I up to the challenge? It was only when I realized that the other person there with me was not only doing a poor job but was also picking on me as a way of exerting power, that I understood that my doubts were unfounded and that I did not have to hide behind anyone.

In the beginning, when it was just the two of us, I was sitting alone in an open-space office while the other person would sit in a corner surrounded by glass walls, writing emails to me from three meters away about what I needed to do instead of just talking to me. The collaboration was unbearable. I realized I had to stand up for myself – because no one else would do it for me. During that time, I learned a lot about who I wanted to be as a leader. Ever since, I try to be the kind of leader I wish I had back then. In hindsight, going through some of these painful experiences made me stronger and, in some sense, “fearless”. To this day, I still believe that I can deal with any challenge that comes my way.

One could say that on the technical side, you basically built TWINT by building up the team that ultimately programmed it, right?

That is not the way I’d like to think about this. Success is always a team effort. I could not have done it without an exceptional supervisor who took a leap of faith with me and gave me all the freedom I needed to do my job, nor without my incredible team that trusted me enough to go on that roller-coaster journey with me.

Leadership is a team sport, no one is strong enough or smart enough to lead or build up something by themselves.
Role Model Sabine Do-Thuong; square picture 800x800px
Sabine Do-Thuong

And yes, I am very proud of what my team and I achieved together back then. We built an engineering organization from zero to roughly 50 people. We established partnerships and collaboration models with near- and offshore locations. And last but not least, we implemented the basis for a mobile payment ecosystem which is used by over four million customers in Switzerland today.

You have been basically doing the work of a CTO, but never had the title. Is that a bit of a diversity topic?

It is funny that you ask this. I think job titles are overrated. When I browse through LinkedIn, people give themselves all sorts of fancy job titles to sound important: Chief Inspiration Officer, Chief Evangelist, etc.

A few months back I was invited to join a CTO roundtable for a discussion. Prior to the meeting, they sent out the names of the ten participants. Out of curiosity I looked up everyone on LinkedIn. I noticed that except for two people, everyone else neither had a track record close to mine, nor the educational background that I had. Yet, all of them held the “CTO” job title.

I never chose my jobs based on a job title or money. I have always chosen jobs where I saw interesting challenges and the opportunity to learn and to grow as a person. But to come back to your question: yes, I do think because I did not put a lot of emphasis on the topic of job titles, I might not have the same visibility as others that have already officially worked in that position and people might think I’m not up to the job. Whether that is a diversity topic or not, I cannot really judge. One would think that companies claiming (gender) diversity being important to them, would be keener to at least speak to women in leadership positions.

After my time at TWINT, when I was applying for my next job, I was quite baffled by how little companies or people were interested in having a conversation with me. I would not even get a rejection but was simply ghosted.

When people say there are not enough qualified or ambitious women for senior management positions or for the board of directors, I wonder whether people are joking or being ignorant.
Role Model Sabine Do-Thuong; square picture 800x800px
Sabine Do-Thuong

To be honest, I’m not sure I would ever want to be a CTO in the future. In my younger years, yes, certainly, as that was the organic growth path for Software Engineers. As I was applying for a leadership role after my time in Vietnam, someone told me that no one buys an iPhone just to make phone calls. People buy an iPhone for all the other perks it offers (camera, apps, etc.). Back then, I did not really understand what that person was trying to tell me. Today, I do. Thanks to my profound tech background, I have all the know-how and experience needed to be a CTO. But with the journey I have gone through my work life so far, I can comfortably say – and I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant – that I’ve accomplished more than many CTOs. So, do I really need to become a CTO – just to prove it to others? It is all about the challenge, the learning, and the growing – not about the job title.

I have demonstrated enough times in my career that I was comfortable dealing with uncertainties and lots of “firsts”. Thus, I would not be frightened or anxious if I had to do something I have never done before or work in a role that I do not have the experience yet. As much as experience would help, I believe that it is not everything that counts. If it was just for the experience, we would never be able to elect a new pope or president.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

That no matter what challenges came along my way or how often I had to deal with painful setbacks, I have always fought through. One of my favorite quotes is “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up”.

In my line of work, I sometimes have to make difficult or unpopular decisions. It is not always fun, but it’s a responsibility that just goes with it.

Many people want the perks of being in a leadership position without paying the price that comes with it.
Role Model Sabine Do-Thuong; square picture 800x800px
Sabine Do-Thuong

In my current leadership position at Verity, I am particularly proud of helping my part of the organization grow, taking the way people collaborate with each other to the next level, and having built many trusted relationships and a psychological safe environment where people feel comfortable speaking their mind, asking critical questions, and challenging each other.

As a leader, I see it as my responsibility to create more leaders, not followers.
Role Model Sabine Do-Thuong; square picture 800x800px
Sabine Do-Thuong

Thus, I have been mentoring my direct reports and some indirect reports to gently nudge them out of their comfort zone. It is such a rewarding feeling seeing people stepping up to new challenges that they didn’t think they could accomplish. As a result, we were able to promote five people to a leadership role this year.

What drives you at work?

In short: passion, freedom, and impact.

Passion is my drive, ambition, and the love behind what I do and who I serve. In my early career, it was about building software solutions for clients. Now, it is about building teams and organizations for my employer. I love helping people grow, unlock their hidden potential, and providing them with opportunities to stretch.

Freedom is the ability to invest as much of my time in causes as I see fit and the decision-making authority to do my job effectively.

All of the above, passion and freedom, would not be fulfilling if I would not be making an impact. It can be an impact on a more global scale, such as contributing to a company’s vision or a more local scale such as making a micro impact on someone’s everyday life.

What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?

I do not know if there is “the one” toughest challenge. I have had many – related to the tasks and responsibilities of my roles, and also related to whom I had to work with.

In a work environment, you do not always get to choose whom to work with. It is quite challenging figuring out how to work with micro managers, bullies, sociopaths, or narcissists and still do your job as professionally as you can while not letting them break you.

In my younger years, it was all about gaining more self-confidence and earning the respect of my male engineering colleagues to prove to them that I was as equally competent as them. My time in Vietnam taught me what resilience and standing up for myself really meant.

Another tough challenge was building the engineering organization for TWINT while trying to push through the (technical) merger with the competing product at that time and improving the quality of the software ecosystem – all of it at such an incredibly fast pace. But during these 2.5 years in a fast-growing environment, I learned more than in my previous ten years in the workforce.

And finally, when I started working at Verity, I joined an existing team of roughly 35 engineers – all highly qualified men. It was strange at first coming in as the only woman and being responsible for them. I put in quite some effort to successfully earn everyone’s trust. This allowed me to continuously scale and transform the team, processes, and way of collaboration. Today, I’m responsible for 60-ish people which is about half of the company.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast?

I do not have a favorite book or podcast, but I recently read the book “Surrounded by idiots”. It’s a book about the four personality types (red, yellow, green, blue). Even though I’ve learned about those some time ago, it was a good refresher. I can really recommend it if somebody wants to learn more about human behavior, not only about your fellow human beings, but also about better understanding yourself. eading others means managing other people’s energy and before you’re able to do that, you need to be able to manage your own energy first.

I am currently listening to a podcast called “Erfolgreich verhandeln” (negotiating successfully) while commuting to the office every day. It is quite entertaining.

During my Executive MBA I attended a course about negotiations and conflict management. A former FBI hostage negotiator and undercover agent with drug cartels held a lecture about negotiating in extreme situations. It is interesting how the topics of business negotiations are linked to negotiating with criminals or in life-and-death situations.

What advice would you give other women in tech?

For early career starters, I would say do not let yourself be intimidated by others who brag about what projects they have already accomplished, e.g., writing their own operating system. Everybody has to start somewhere. It is important to stay curious and be eager to learn as much as you can from others. Do not be afraid of asking “stupid” questions. There are no stupid questions, just stupid answers.

As you move on in your career, do not let fear dictate your actions or inactions. Be brave and not afraid of making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, it is just a question of being self-confident enough to not let the feeling of embarrassment paralyze you.

As you move on in your career, do not let fear dictate your actions or inactions. Be brave and don't be afraid of making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, it is just a question of being self-confident enough to not let the feeling of embarrassment paralyze you.
Role Model Sabine Do-Thuong; square picture 800x800px
Sabine Do-Thuong

As women, we tend to hold back and undersell ourselves and therefore we might miss out on great opportunities.

And what advice would you give women not yet working in tech that want to enter the field?

I remember in my early twenties, when random people asked me what I was doing, and I replied “I studied Computer Science” or “I work as a software engineer” everyone would stare at me with big eyes. Often, I would hear comments, especially from women, like “wow, I don’t understand anything about computers” or “I would never be able to do this”. There still seems to be this gender stereotype of “boys being better at science and math” that then leads to this odd impression that as a woman you have to be extra-smart or a nerd to work in a tech-related job.

While it is true that engineers sometimes are a bit a special species when it comes to topics related to common sense, engineers are human beings with emotions and flaws as well. Do not be discouraged by their geek speak. They do not do that to scare you off or make you feel bad.

To say it a little more provocatively: at university, engineers learn how to speak to machines and computers, but no one teaches them how to speak to people. And this is where the beauty of teamwork comes in. If you want to be successful as a company, you cannot only employ engineers. There are so many other fields, sales, marketing, HR, etc. which require different skills and competencies engineers cannot offer. It is a two-way street: the same way engineers can benefit from interactions with people with different mindsets, people of other disciplines might also find it enriching working with engineers.

During my Vietnam adventure, I actually wished I could have worked together with a non-engineer. Many issues could have been resolved in a less painful and more pragmatic way. I would absolutely encourage anyone to explore possibilities working in tech. Our world is not getting less tech-savvy. And who knows, I have seen lateral entrants who so much enjoyed working in a tech environment that they would take on further education courses and become an engineer themselves.


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