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Building a path for women's leadership through AWS certification

Slalom Chicago creates study cohorts to increase AWS certification, especially among women.

At Re:Invent 2018, Slalom CEO Brad Jackson sat down in a fireside chat with Terry Wise, vice president of Global Alliances and Channels for AWS. Wise asked a simple question, “What can we be doing better to help our mutual customers?” Jackson responded by sharing a shocking statistic: only 6% of AWS certifications at Slalom are held by women and we need to fix that.

Recognizing an opportunity to bring a wider lens to technology solutions universally, Slalom wants to make the path to AWS certifications clearer for all Slalom people and boost numbers for women in this important professional development space.

But are you “in tech”?

Several groups in Slalom Chicago were inspired by this call to action.

The Inclusion Council and Women's Leadership Network (WLN) partnered on several office-wide initiatives to gather data about attitudes towards certifications. This brought a startling realization: prior to 2019, no women working in the Chicago market held AWS certifications.

Through an office-wide survey, the Chicago teams found that many people only considered individuals with technical skillsets to be candidates for the majority of available certifications. The common perception that only people with technical backgrounds could be considered "in tech" raised an interesting question:  If people were reluctant to identify themselves as "in tech," might they also be hesitant to weigh in and add value to cloud- or technology-based conversations?

“Slalom is in a unique position to bring a collection of valuable lens and perspectives into technology conversations with our clients,” said Erin Markowski, a consultant manager and WLN leader. “We don’t want any of our consultants to be ‘opting out’ of technology-related conversations because they don’t consider themselves technologists. In fact, their perspectives—on business strategy, organizational culture, change management, etc.—are often exactly what’s needed to bring technology to life for our clients in new and impactful ways.

It was time to reconsider how Slalom onboards all our people into the tech mindset, so we can show up for our clients in a strong way.

We don’t want any of our consultants to be ‘opting out’ of technology-related conversations because they don’t consider themselves technologists.

Creating study cohorts

Around the same time, Tyrel Fisher started Slalom Chicago’s first AWS Certification Cohorts to provide anyone the opportunity to join a moderated study group with the goal of achieving AWS Certifications.

Fisher recognized the importance of having structure, guidance, and accountability when pursuing his own certification. “Getting certified has helped change the type of conversations I am having with clients, internally at Slalom and with AWS through our partnership,” noted Fisher.

Fisher curated dozens of helpful resources: videos to watch, white papers to read, and practice exams to take. Through both in-person and online learning platforms, he built three learning plans to guide cohorts through role-based certification paths for Cloud Practitioner, Solutions Architect – Associate, and Solutions Architect – Professional.

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Slalom’s first women-led AWS Certification Cohort

These different efforts combined forces to kick off Slalom’s first all-women AWS Certification Cohort in February 2019. Organized through the local Women's Leadership Network and led by both Markowski and Fisher, the cohort attracted over 35 women.

While still early days for this initiative, the group has achieved several significant successes. Reedhima Mandlik was Chicago’s first woman to achieve an AWS certification, alongside Maggie Acuna, Melinda Rodriguez, Laura Zeligman, Laura Peterson, Lauren Davidson, Kara Mui, Alaina Morris, Teresa Davies, Sarah Macchia, Ama Sefa-Dapaah, and Erica Mosley. Since the conclusion of this cohort, three additional womenSofia Zhestovskaya, Alexis Caldwell, and Annie Rolfehave also achieved AWS certifications, raising the total to 15 in all. Of those 15 women, 12 from the cohorts have already earned their cloud practitioner certifications.

Recognizing the wide range of backgrounds and experience within Slalom, the cohorts do not pursue certification with a one-size-fits-all mindset.

“The goal isn't to change people’s core competencies and pull them towards becoming a technologist (although that’s an option!),” said Markowski. “It’s more about giving them foundational context about the typical and aspirational uses of the technology, so they can better connect the dots and understand the potential impact this technology could have in their area of expertise. Then, they can apply that lens for the benefit of our clients.”

The cohorts further encourage collaboration across teams and expertise. “This can be a great vehicle to not only achieve certifications but also provide an opportunity for those involved to grow their cross-practice networks, collaboration, and inclusion,” said Markowski.

Paving a path forward

Most importantly, through these efforts, people at Slalom are more energized and empowered to pursue AWS certifications. Through these cohorts, Slalom Chicago has generated over 50 new certifications in less than six months. That's more than double the number in the same period last year—and points the way to future growth.

“What we’re showing through the certification cohorts is regardless of practice or background, getting certified is attainable,” said Fisher. “And you can get more confidence to inspire your next client or internal discussions!”