Susan Fennema: Confidence is Key
Hello! My name is Erika and I’m a FileMaker developer at Codence. Throughout my career in tech, I’ve been inspired and coached by some truly great women. As part of Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight some of the amazing women in our community on our blog.
Susan Fennema, the third profile for our Women in Tech series, is the Chaos Eradication Officer (aka: CEO) of Beyond the Chaos, a FileMaker consultancy firm based out of McKinney, Texas. She is also the current Lead Facilitator of Women Innovating Together, a group created specifically for women in tech. Rumor has it that she can’t eat certain candies without pouring them on the table and organizing them by color and into graph format… before eating them in the order of fewest to most.
With organization skills like that, it’s no wonder Susan connects with FileMaker so well!
Can you share a little bit about what it is that you do and what a typical day for you is like?
I own Beyond the Chaos, a virtual business consultancy helping small business owners get their lives back through improved project management and business operations processes. My day is a smattering of sales, marketing, consulting, managing (I have one employee), and finance activities.
Additionally, I am the Lead Facilitator for Women Innovating Together, and daily there are tasks surrounding that role as well. I’d say that no day is “typical”, but I plan them all in advance and map out what I’ll be doing, in what order and when. I do start every day the same with household chores, prayer, dog walks, and yoga. My goal is to be in “work mode” no later than 9 am every morning and to transition to “home mode” by 6 pm every evening. (Sometimes this works… sometimes this does not!)
Did you always know that working in technology was what you wanted to do?
I absolutely didn’t know that technology was what I wanted to be involved in. For goodness sake, I typed all my college papers on a typewriter!
There were computers then, but definitely not personal ones and they weren’t always even used in business at that point. However, my first job in 1988 was working for an Apple Certified Consultant as a desktop publisher. (That’s what we called production artists back then.) And I absolutely loved it.
I created POs and Invoices in FileMaker way back then, and also worked in Pagemaker and Freehand. I was a Ventura Publisher certified Expert and was great in QuarkXPress and Photoshop. But I wasn’t a designer. Everything I did was systemized, even back then.
I went to work for several mail-order catalog companies, where I put systems in place to run their catalog production, before moving to Chicago in 1999 to become a Traffic Manager (which is basically a big word for Project Manager) for an advertising agency. Changing to a different agency in 2000, as its operations director, we needed a software tool to manage the agency.
How did you decide to go into FileMaker and own your own company?
Molly Connolly (then Thorsen) came into the agency to pitch a product she was offering based on FileMaker. We incorporated it and it ran our agency for 10 years. It was great working with her. But it wasn’t until 2010, when I went to work for MightyData as a Project Manager that I got a glimpse inside the real FileMaker community. What a wonderful blessing to find so many wonderful people! And, once I decided to go into business myself, it was a no-brainer to first tap into that spectacular community. Even though I am a non-technical project manager, I can honestly say that I have embraced FileMaker’s power and potential since 1988 – and I’ve experienced the difference it can make in a business.
I have helped small business owners, (reporting directly to the owner in most cases), systemize their businesses since 1988. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing all the time, but once I realized there was a real market for what I could do, I realized I wanted to serve all small businesses, not just a handful. So, opening my own business was simply the next step.
What do you love about the tech industry?
Technology makes everything easier if you are using it properly. It is systematic and structured… just like me and what I do. I love how it can declutter people’s brains and their workspaces. Plus, it’s opened up this world of virtual business, which I can’t believe we lived without for so long!
How do you think being a woman affects your experience in the tech world?
Women are better at structure, project management, and operations, in my mind. We have an attention to detail and a process-oriented perspective that is more innate in us than in men. We also bring a sensitive touch to many of the roles we are in, so that people are also considered as you streamline and structure things. (I’m sure I’ll get raked over the coals for being stereotypical in that response, but so be it.)
So, how does it affect my experience? I’m not sure it does. I’m really good at what I do, and I believe I’m recognized and respected for that – and that being female doesn’t really matter. I don’t run around thinking, “Look, I’m a girl, and look at what I can do.” I simply do it well.
What advice would you give to the future generation of women?
As women in tech, we need to be confident and courageous. You need to be the very best you. Stop looking for excuses because you are a woman, and just do your job better than anyone else. If you do that in a confident way, you can make your own way in the world with no problem. The business world is tough. Men are tough. You need to be too if you want to succeed.
Have you experienced sexism in your professional career? If so, how did you deal with it?
Maybe? I’m sure I did. I started working in 1988. But I was so focused on being the best at whatever I was doing, that I never really paid attention if it was happening. I just keep pushing forward. If a man had a problem with me for whatever reason, it was his loss.
My first client used to call me “sweetie” all the time. But I loved working with that guy, and since I was in Texas and he was an oilfield worker, I knew it was sincerely a term of endearment, so it never bothered me. Maybe that is sexism? But he kept bringing his work back to me, so he clearly had a level of respect for my ability. (Russ, if you’re out there, I hope you’re doing well!)
I was never hit on or spoken to in a way that I would have called demeaning or sexist. I was mostly surrounded by good men who were gentlemen and would have protected me if I ever needed it.
Could I have been passed over or looked at differently because I was a woman? Maybe. But I never paid attention to it. And to be fair my confidence could have helped to prevent some of the sexism that might befall others.