“Become the Role Model You Wish You Had”: Reeny Sondhi, Chief Security Officer at Autodesk, and Susanna Holt, VP of Strategic Technologies at Autodesk (Video + Transcript)

March 8, 2022

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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Next we are hosting execs from Autodesk for an inspiring chat about becoming the role models you wish you had. Please join me in welcoming Reeny Sondhi the Chief Security Officer at Autodesk with over 25 years of experience in technology, she is joined by Susanna Holt, VP of Strategic Technologies at Autodesk with over 20 years of experience. We’re so happy to have you both here. Welcome Reeny and Susanna!

Reeny Sondhi: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you.

Susanna Holt: Thank you for me too. So let’s get started first of all, happy international women’s day, everyone. So Reeny and I have been preparing for this for while and we had a great time. The trouble was, we couldn’t really select what is it we’re going to talk about? There was so much we wanted to share.

Susanna Holt: We will talk about becoming role models and our struggles along the way, finding our voices. And we’ll talk about allies and I’m not sure we’re going to have enough time to answer questions that come up in the chat, but at the end we’ll tell you where to find us if you’d like to follow up on anything.

Susanna Holt: So with that, let me reintroduce Reeny. So we already know she’s the Chief Security Officer at Autodesk where we both work. She’s been here for over five years before that, she was leading a security engineering team at EMC, now part of Dell.

Susanna Holt: She’s also on the board of a cybersecurity company called Rapid7. And in distant past, she did product management, but what Reeny is passionate about, and what I see when I interact with her is building teams that solve complicated and complex problems, but that do so in a pragmatic way. And that’s what we need from security. Isn’t it?

Reeny Sondhi: Thank you so much, Susanna. And again, let me also wish everyone a super awesome international women’s day. Great to be here. It’s a tough act to follow, Susanna, from the last talk to this. So we better bring our game on here, but it was very inspiring to hear Mina and Claire talk.

Reeny Sondhi: And before we begin, I would love to introduce Susanna to all of you. She is, as we heard, she’s the Vice President of Strategic Technologies at Autodesk. She’s been with Autodesk for, I think over 10 years now, has led multiple engineering and product teams in different roles, working in Europe in the past and now in the United States.

Reeny Sondhi: One interesting fact about Susanna is she has a background in mathematics and even more interesting fact, I’m sorry, I’m picking this one over the background in mathematics, Susanna is the fact that she was an international rowing champion, which means that she’s not only competitive, but knows how to win and sometimes uses awesome sports analogies at work, which I completely totally love, I appreciate.

Reeny Sondhi: So Susanna, let’s get the ball rolling. And I’m going to throw the first question over to you. So this is a chat, so this is going to be back and forth between us. There’s no moderator. So it’s you and I here, but I’m going to start with your experience of meeting me for the first time, as I think there is a story in there which will help people understand our working relationship a little bit better. Why does it matter in the context of today’s conversation? So I would love to hear from you first.

Susanna Holt: Thank you Reeny, and you’re right. There is a story. Then it’s a story that formed me as a person, as a leader and our relationship, I’m going to say it.

Susanna Holt: So here’s what happened. I joined a new team, new role, new responsibility, all very exciting, a little bit intimidating too.

Susanna Holt: And Reeny was on that team and we had a staff meeting and we were talking about my first all hands and my boss.

Susanna: Well, our boss, both of our boss said, how about if I go along to support Susanna, that will show Susanna that I’m behind her, that I believe in her and all of that stuff. And I was thinking that might be nice because I was a little bit scared. It was a new thing for me, but I didn’t say anything.

Susanna Holt: And before I got to say anything, Reeny came in a way, and this is a style she has, she’ll say, “well, let’s think about this. Let me challenge this. Does Susan really need your support? Don’t we all know that she can talk don’t we know that she can run this. And by going there, wouldn’t you be saying, I don’t believe she can do it herself?”

Susanna: Holt: And she was right. And we changed our minds. I did it on my own. It was all fine. But I was just amazed. Who was this woman who I barely met, who had absolutely no reason to look out for me or to care for what happened to me to speak up on my behalf, to have that belief in me?

Susanna: Holt: So that was awesome and I’ve admired and aspired to be like Reeny in that respect ever since. But there’s more, it also told me this is the kind of team I want to be on.

Susanna: Holt: It’s the team where everyone works together and looks out for one another as opposed to thinking, well, the only thing that matters here is me and my work and the people who report to me.

Susanna: Holt: Thank you, Reeny it was awesome that you did that and I’ll forever be grateful to you for that.

Reeny Sondhi: You don’t have to be grateful. I’ll tell you that I was in those shoes myself, I think a couple of years before you joined the staff. And I had an ally on that team who welcomed me, enabled me to find my voice and the same staff I learned from her, what it meant to be an ally, to be perfectly honest.

Reeny Sondhi: I mean, she was my ally. She was a little bit of a role model for me. And it just felt natural to carry that forward to when you joined the team. And in fact, I think since then there have been a few reorgs in the company where we have together gone on to join completely new staff together. And I think we felt that our allyship can continue to push us forward together, at least that’s how I feel about where we are today.

Susanna Holt: And not just us together we then have the confidence to maybe challenge things rather than accept, okay, on this team, it’s different. We would say, well, I liked what we did on the other team. What do you think Reeny? And then make proposals based on that. So it’s been great.

Reeny Sondhi: Awesome.

Susanna Holt: And the whole thing has continued as Reeny and I have been lucky enough to continue to work together. We’ve continued to look out for one another and to push. Back to you Reeny.

Reeny Sondhi: Absolutely. We have, we’ve continued to do that. I think I have a very, I call it a trusted relationship with you. We call each other out when we are not at our best.

Reeny Sondhi: So for me that definitely comes in into being an ally. You have for everyone here who’s attending today, the last couple of years has been all about, attending meetings over zoom.

Reeny Sondhi: And Susanna has this thing about looking at me over zoom and understanding very clearly if I’m paying attention, am I checked out of a conversation and she will send me a little slack, little paying, zoom chat and ask me for my point of view, if she sees that I’m missing in action. And that definitely drives accountability in me. And I really appreciate that about you Susan.

Susanna Holt: But it goes further than that Reeny. And you must all know this. Sometimes you get asked for feedback on someone, maybe part of the annual review or coaching opportunities, and that feedback gets escalated and then anonymized, and then fed back to the person. And at some point I’d had enough of that. I

Susanna Holt: It felt to me, if I was going to make the trouble to think about what’s awesome about Reeny and where I would love to see her develop, why bother with someone else and going through someone else’s going to anonymize it.

Susanna Holt: So I tried to first, I tiptoed into it very carefully and gave Reeny a little bit of feedback and she embraced it. And now that’s become part of our relationship that we look out for one another and the growth that I get out of that it really exceeds other forms of growth because it has this trusted relationship and the honest, and I know, and I knew from day one, Reeny is looking out for me, she has my best interests at heart.

Reeny Sondhi: And I totally, truly completely appreciate you providing feedback to me. So let’s package this up. I think we have given examples of our working relationship, examples of how we look at each other as an ally. And so let’s package it up on what does being an ally really mean. And I can start, you can definitely add your own understanding your definition of what an ally is.

Reeny Sondhi: So to me personally, an ally gives me space and a voice. I look at an ally, someone who can help create conditions that give me the courage to go and take on the unknown sometimes. Someone who is an advocate for me, doesn’t support me blindly. And that’s why I keep bringing back the examples I’ve given earlier about when you see me being checked out, you’ll push me, you’ll nudge me, you’ll drive some accountability for me.

Reeny Sondhi: And really an ally for me personally, is someone who brings out the best version of me. And if I’m talking about this, I also want to contrast that a little bit with what does not being an ally look like. Because we are focusing a lot on what does being an ally look like.

Reeny Sondhi: So let’s do that little contrast in compare and I’ll drive home this point with another example. And you’ll realize the audience is going to realize we’ll come up with examples of meetings, we attend way too many meetings. And this was yet another meeting where I remember being part of a heated debate. And I was on the receiving end of the heated debate.

Reeny Sondhi And I think somewhere along the line, there was a moment there where I stopped myself from participating and was collecting my thoughts, trying to figure out, Hey, how best to respond.

Reeny Sondhi And I remember one of my colleagues decided that he needed to step in and protect me. And he actually said that, “Hey, I’m here to defend Reeny.” And I had to politely ask him not to do it because all I was doing was taking some time to reflect on what I wanted to say, and I really didn’t need protection or didn’t need anyone to come and defend me. So that’s the other contrast that I’m going to bring up and would love to hear how you think of what’s an ally.

Susanna Holt: Yeah. That’s such a good point. And I’m going to pick up on this. What is not an ally thing first, before I go to what isn’t an ally because I had a similar but different experience that’s coming that’s on my mind here. Also a staff meeting, heated debate, lots of people talking, nobody really listening.

Susanna Holt: And I wasn’t doing any talking either. And then someone stood up and said, we haven’t heard anything from the women yet. Well, woman, there was only me in the room and I was so angry. I was angry for the same reasons as Reeny, I wasn’t looking for a night in shining armor. I was not talking because there was no point no one was listening. At least that was my take on the whole situation.

Susanna Holt: And the sad thing about it, he was really trying, he was trying to do something good and right by me, but that wasn’t the right thing for me at that time. And it has led me to understand that I’m not looking for an ally to rescue me.

Susanna Holt: In an ally, I’m looking for someone to partner with me, whom I can reach out to, and that doesn’t have to be someone at work. Allies can be anywhere. It’s not like a mentor that it’s a fixed relationship. So an ally is someone who I can reach out to when I need, and then we go on our way again.

Reeny Sondhi: Awesome.

Susanna Holt: Now I want to talk about role models. And I want to talk about role models because I realize you and I, Reeny, we at a stage in our career where we could and should, and maybe are role models to other people.

Susanna Holt: And I struggle to think of myself as a role model and that I haven’t quite come to terms with this yet. What about you Reeny, are you struggling? Are you doing this with ease?

Reeny Sondhi I think I’ve shared with you Susanna about my hesitation. It’s been a journey for me. It hasn’t come naturally or easily for myself as well. And I think I’ve had some hesitation of being a role model and personally, it has been shaped by some of my experiences. And I’ll talk about some of those.

Reeny Sondhi So several years ago I got invited to again another meeting. And this was when I was the director of product management for my past company. And I remember this was with, I think the CEO staff at that point.

Reeny Sondhi I remember someone telling me right before I was going in for the meeting, that one of the reasons I was invited to the meeting was because I was a woman. I want to call this piece out here, one of the reasons, okay. But I immediately gravitated to her the fact that was the reason I was invited in meeting. And I remember being extremely upset about it, and I’ll be honest with you. I just was in the best version of myself at that meeting. I just did not bring my best out. And after that, I’ve had several years of lots of introspection about it.

Reeny Sondhi And I realized that I could have used that platform to prove that I actually deserved a seat at that table, but I decided not to use that opportunity, like my loss.

Reeny Sondhi Now let’s contrast that with just a couple of years back, I was approached by a security company to become part of their board of directors. They came to me because I’m a security practitioner, I’m an expert in my field. I have a product management experience that they could have leveraged at the board level.

Reeny Sondhi And yes, I would help them with adding diversity to the board. Now it’s a pretty diverse board in general, but I would just help them with adding diversity. And I’ll be honest with you. I’ve looked at that as getting an opportunity and making the most of it.

Reeny Sondhi So I think I have with the two contrasts I’m bringing up, I have embraced the role of being a role model much better now than I did several years back. But I hear your stuff. So let’s talk a little bit about that and about your feelings on this topics Susanna.

Susanna Holt: Yeah. Thanks Reeny and I will say I’m probably forever scarred by the times when I was told, you’ve only got this opportunity, because you’re a woman you’ve only got this promotion because you’re a woman.

Susanna Holt: And like you Reeny, for me, it’s an only, regardless of what people say, what lands in my head is the only, and it leads to a form of imposter syndrome, makes me feel I didn’t deserve it. But if I just sit on this imposter syndrome, I’m being lazy and I don’t want to be lazy.

Susanna Holt: And like you, Reeny, for me, it’s an only, I want to manage this activity actively, like you do Reeny, and I’m on the path to it. And I want to do it because we’re kind of out of appreciation for the women who came before us, because they had much more difficult things to deal with than we do.

usanna Holt:And out of a sense of responsibility and care for the women who come after us for whom it will be a little bit easier. And, I have a responsibility to deal with this and to work through it. And I want to and I’m proud of trying and I’ll get there.

Reeny Sondhi: You will. It’s a journey for all of us. My experience and my contrast doesn’t mean that I don’t get self-doubts. So, okay. So we have talked about allyship, we have talked about our experiences and I would love for us to give a couple of messages that we can leave this audience with and I’ll start and you will absolutely, I know, build on top of that.

Reeny Sondhi: So, my two messages, I’ll be honest about, I don’t have one, I have two, but number one for me, is don’t get in your own way. Like I did. Don’t get in your own way, in the past. I’m a woman, I shouldn’t get a, [inaudible], because of my gender, my race, et cetera. All of these are meaningless. Instead, think about the platform that you’re getting and use that to amplify your voice.

Reeny Sondhi: And… it’s a journey, it doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come, naturally the very first time you try to do this. And the second piece that I would leave the audience with, is embrace your role model-ship.

Reeny Sondhi: Don’t be reluctant, hesitant, when you have self-doubt, I’ll link it back to having allies, go to them, walk through yourself doubts with them. Those all allies, as you mentioned, very clearly, don’t have to be at work, having an allied at home with your partner, spouse, friend, recognize and use those allies to become the best version of yourself. So, that would be the two messages and let’s hear from you, Susannna.

Susanna Holt: The good news is I don’t actually have an additional message. I’m just going to build on what you said, Reeny. And for me, I articulate it differently, like I just said, I’m always going to live with that voice on my shoulder, wondering whether I really should be here or whether I’m only here for reasons that I don’t like, but I’m going to embrace that. That’s part of my growth, it’s part of who I am and I’m going to own it.

Susanna Holt: And one of the ways in which I own it is, I know what situations are going to be difficult for me. I know what gets me down and what makes that voice on my shoulder start shouting at me, but I can preempt that. I can go and find out ally, if I know this is going to be a difficult situation, maybe I line up a one to one with Reeny immediately afterwards and she can talk me off the ledge or my husband, whoever is available to that.

Reeny Sondhi: Awesome. I’m always here for you, Susanna. So when you need, [crosstalk]. I know we’ve come to the end of our conversation. I really sincerely hope that the audience has enjoyed our talk, a little fireside chat, and it was thought provoking for you.

Reeny Sondhi: We have thoroughly enjoyed being here with you. And I know we have not been able to get to questions today, but Susanna, let’s talk about how people can connect with us.

Susanna Holt: Yes. So first of all, thank you for [inaudible], for your interest. Thank you, Reeny for doing this with me. We are both on LinkedIn, reach out to us if you would like to engage and we hope that you will, and then we can start a conversation there.

Reeny Sondhi: Thank you. Have a wonderful rest of your day and rest of the conference.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Reeny and Susanna for joining us, that was so transparent and inspiring to hear you candidly share authentically about overcoming some of your thoughts and being a role model. 

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