Vanessa Sulikowski has a passion for bush walking. That’s what Australians call hiking in the backcountry.
“There’s so much to explore and you never have the same experience twice,” says Vanessa.
It’s an apt hobby for the Sydney-based technologist, considering she’s blazed her own trail several times over at Cisco, resulting in a series of “firsts.” First female systems engineer in Australia and New Zealand. First consulting systems engineer in those countries focused solely on unified communications.
But by far the most impressive “first” for Vanessa came only a few months ago, when she became the first woman in the company to earn the prestigious designation of Distinguished Systems Engineer (DSE). Less than one percent of all global systems engineers within Cisco can claim this title.
“The journey to becoming a DSE is long and rigorous and, yes, it’s significant,” Vanessa says. “But for me, the benefit of being a DSE is the opportunity to set the agenda and influence others within Cisco.”
Vanessa is proud of her achievements. However, they would ring hollow if she remained the only woman at Cisco to enjoy her level of success in a technical position. Consequently, Vanessa has been an active champion of women in IT, tirelessly speaking at seminars worldwide and mentoring women in IT positions.
“I can’t tell you how many work groups I’ve been in where I am the only women in the room,” she says. “That’s not a problem for me, but I see it as a loss for the work groups missing out on the perspective and talents of women. That’s why I’m very passionate about the issues of diversity, and I am constantly encouraging young women to choose highly technical roles.”
“ I’m very passionate about the issues of diversity, and I am constantly encouraging young women to choose highly technical roles.”- Vanessa Sulikowski
Vanessa has joined many female and IT focused local and global groups. Not just to provide support, but also to receive guidance and support herself. She participated in and contributed to a landmark study on women in IT, providing input and views on the survey results and findings. Most importantly, she actively mentors women in IT roles with a number of organizations, including the Female in IT and Telecommunications (FITT) mentoring program and the Australian Computer Society.
“Too often, due to lack of career path and career opportunities, women are forced to move into management or direct sales to advance their careers,” Vanessa says. “I’ve always felt I can contribute most by being on the frontlines as an individual contributor. I want to make sure that that option is available to women.”
One of the women Vanessa mentored is Jo Lindsay, who currently works as a customer experience transformation lead at Optus.
“Vanessa really helped me,” says Lindsay. “She gave me guidance on a wide range of topics and provided me with tangible steps I could take to increase my exposure to senior leaders and key people in my industry. My discussions with Vanessa helped give me the confidence to apply for a role that was a stretch for me personally. I was successful in winning the role, and now shine as a project manager. I’m currently leading my first initiative.”
Vanessa was quite familiar with Cisco long before joining the company. She graduated with honors from the University of Newcastle with a Bachelor of Information Science – yet another “first,” one of the first two women at the university to receive the degree. After graduation, Vanessa began her IT career in 1992, installing Cisco routers for one of the company’s channel partners in Sydney. She then worked as network administrator for one of Cisco’s biggest Australian customers, managing 350 networking sites.
“The experience of working for a Cisco partner, and then as a Cisco customer, remains the foundation of my perspective,” Vanessa says. “The best way to understand the customer is to be one.”
Vanessa eventually joined Cisco in 2000. “There was a call for systems engineers to specialize in IP telephony,” she remembers. “I raised my hand and haven’t looked back since.”
Most recently, Vanessa has been Cisco’s lead Collaboration Architect for the Asia-Pacific/Japan region, and now serves as the DSE for Collaboration across the region. She acts as a conduit between customers and Cisco business units, working to ensure Cisco solutions address the things that matter most to those who use them.
“ What can I say? I absolutely love my job. I love the kick I get out of the technology, and the light bulb that goes off when I talk to customers.”- Vanessa Sulikowski
Vanessa distinguishes herself from the standard activities expected of systems engineers and architects through her astute technical leadership and the global advisory roles she has undertaken.
“I’m passionate about pushing solutions into new markets,” Vanessa says. “Through internal and external mentoring, I can help my fellow Cisco engineers and partner engineers gain a greater understanding of the potential of Cisco solutions.”
But her biggest thrill is helping customers overcome their most vexing technological challenges. “What can I say? I absolutely love my job,” she says. “I love the kick I get out of the technology, and the light bulb that goes off when I talk to customers.”
A great example of this came several years back when one of the four major banks in Australia was comparing collaboration solutions from competing IT vendors, Cisco included. To help the bank understand how Cisco’s collaboration offerings were superior, she conducted extensive interviews with its employees to understand their goals and issues. Then she developed detailed use cases and proofs of concept to highlight how Cisco collaboration solutions addressed their specific needs.
Her efforts were critical in shedding light on new solutions and convincing the bank to go with Cisco. Incidentally, it wasn’t long before the other three major Australian banks followed suit.
“I think her success relates to her uncompromising work ethic, desire to listen, ability to make the complex simple, and above all, her persistence,” says Richard Dodsworth, Vanessa’s manager.
Indeed, Vanessa’s passion wakes her up at 4 a.m. every morning and gets her into work by 5 a.m. for a typical 12-hour day.
“Vanessa has a persistent drive to genuinely help people around her, always ensuring others are recognized before she is. Her consistent passion for excellence in all aspects of her work is infectious,” says Darren Henwood, one of her Cisco engineering colleagues.
It’s a good thing that Australia is such a big country. It gives Vanessa plenty of options as she continues to blaze her way to new heights, whether out in the bush or in the wide open world of engineering.