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Q&A with Alessandra Costa, SVP, Customer Success Group: Celebrating International Women’s Day

international women's day 2022

By Editorial Team

For over 100 years, International Women’s Day has been celebrated around the world as a day to acknowledge the many achievements of women. This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias, pointing to a future world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Alessandra Costa, SVP, Customer Success Group at Synopsys, has a career marked with many technical and business achievements, including the creation of several successful female leadership programs. There’s no doubt Costa has and will continue to make significant contributions to support diversity in the tech industry, but she longs for the day that we no longer need an International Women’s Day to remind us to celebrate the successes of women.

Indeed, there’s still much work to be done in our industry. According to the Global Semiconductor Association’s Women in the Semiconductor Industry 2020 report, the median for women’s representation in the total semiconductor workforce lies in the 20-25% range. This representation falls to under 10% as roles progress from individual contributors to managers and board-level roles.

Read on to learn more about what sparked Costa’s interest in tech and semiconductors, the challenges she’s faced in the industry, her vision for the Customer Success Group at Synopsys, and more.

Q: How did you first become interested in a career in STEM?

A: My dad was an engineer, and that was an inspiration for me. As a kid, I remember reordering punched cards that had fallen on the floor. Also indelible for me is the image of my dad getting in the car with a stack of magnetic tape cases. But even before that, the first engineer of our house was my grandfather. He manufactured and sold radios in my hometown; some of his pieces are now owned by international collectors. I have pictures of my grandfather hosting a viewing of the first TV broadcast in Italy. Seeing the images of that event in my hometown and the radios he crafted in leather cases in my dad’s office made me curious about tech growing up.

Q: What about the semiconductor industry in particular excited you?

A: I have a master’s degree in electrical engineering and got my doctorate in microelectronics from Università degli Studi di Genova. During my PhD program, I started becoming drawn to computer architecture and then application-specific ICs.

Q: What was the most challenging part about being a woman in the world of STEM academia?

A: I would say acknowledgement and validation. For example, I remember visiting companies that we were doing research work for. People would make eye contact and talk to the male students rather than me, the one who was responsible for the project. I don’t think it was malicious; I think at that time there was an uneasiness talking to and relating to women that continues even today, despite the growing number of women in STEM. That’s why I feel we have a strong duty to create a diverse environment where women in leadership roles are the norm and not just noteworthy exceptions. Women are 50% of the population, so why shouldn’t we have 50% of the representation at work? I don’t want to limit ourselves to low double digits.

Q: What were your biggest successes in academia?

A: In Italy, academia is more loosely tied to the industry, so research is not funded by private companies but rather homegrown. That being the case, I had to do everything from IT to moving furniture; it was a full body experience. It wasn’t a negative, it was quite the opposite. It created a sense of endurance and a can-do attitude that brought me to Silicon Valley. I never stopped at the first obstacle; daring to try is what I got from that experience. And I’m still in touch with contacts I met during that time who are still in academia. We are now collaborating to increase the pipeline of emerging talent in EDA. Diversity comes in many forms, and with that diversity comes a wide richness of ideas.

Q: What are your goals for your Customer Success Group team at Synopsys?

A: Given the name of the group, my vision is very customer-centric unsurprisingly. Number one, I want to make sure we are up to the task to win our customers’ hearts and minds. The environment right now is more challenging than ever before. Gone are the days when there was a long lag between process nodes. Technology is moving extremely fast and we all need to adapt, customers and Synopsys alike. And while in the past only the big companies were jumping on new process nodes, nowadays the adoption is much wider and even startups are working on advanced technologies. In this race, application engineers play an instrumental role in helping our customers to deliver their products right on time.

I am also deeply committed to make sure that the people in my organization achieve a good level of private life and work balance. We have already put in place several strategies to reach this goal. Unfortunately, the results are not immediate, and I am thankful for the hard work that everyone is putting in as we scale our ability to support our customers.

Q: Work-life balance has been especially hard to manage for women in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. How can companies help women return to work after taking time off to help take care of children?

A: One of the biggest regrets I have in my life is not taking more time off when my daughter was born. I returned to work after two months and I remember how heartbreaking it was the first day I went back to the office. It wasn’t my employer that imposed that on me; it was me that was imposing that standard on myself. I felt it was too much of a risk to take a longer maternity leave and I wish there had been more awareness of the choices that impact women more than men. While there are several male partners willing to take very active roles in family lives, today’s caregiving duties are still very much on women. And, going back to what we discussed earlier, the tech industry moves so fast that skillsets become stale quite quickly. That’s why I began thinking about how we could make this easier for women who want to come back to the business environment. They face a very steep path to re-entry, often competing with college grads who are fresh out of school and up to date on the latest technology. At Synopsys, we are in the process of rolling out a “Returnship” pilot program that is essentially an evergreen program for women who want to come back to the workforce. They will be provided training in multiple areas, including skills training, technical training, and business training with the possibility of being offered a full-time position at the end of the program. The program is open to everyone who had to take a break from professional life for caregiving duties, not just women.

Q: What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing STEM careers, especially management roles?

A: Get your hands dirty working on practical projects, even before you get to the last years of college. There are a lot of companies that are eager to bring young people onboard (even at the high school level) and expose them to electronic design.

Don’t limit yourself. I often talk about the mindset of plenty and the multitude of resources that are available for us. Don’t sell yourself short without even trying.

Mentorship is also extremely important, especially when you are transitioning from university life to the working world. And don’t just limit yourself to a woman mentor. I think it’s interesting to also get a male perspective on business and careers because it’s definitely a different way of looking at things. Even today, I have friends and peers that function as mentors for me to help support me in specific situations. It’s important to recognize the strength of the people that surround us, regardless of the seniority that they might have in the industry or their gender, etc. I’m not afraid of asking for help, and I feel it was very important for me at the beginning of my career and even still to ask for the advice of others to help me become a better leader and mentor.

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