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Motherhood is the necessity of invention, says Mellanox channel boss

Mellanox vice-president Yael Asseraf Shenhav talks about how her employer has enabled her to thrive in a male-dominated industry and sheds light on how we can all better manage our time

Like many women in the IT industry, Mellanox vice-president Yael Asseraf Shenhav is reluctant to blow her own trumpet. But we’ve forced her to because, frankly, she’s being a bit selfish, hoarding the secret that eludes us all: how do we manage our time better?

They say that if you want to get something done, the best person to ask is a busy woman. They’re so over-burdened with work they are brilliant at prioritising. Shenhav has managed to combine being the mum of three fabulously bright daughters with working her way up through the ranks of a fast-growing company that needs to survive on its wits in a fiercely competitive sector.

Most of us struggle with just one of those challenges. How does she do it?

The key, says Shenhav, is to identify the really important jobs and get them done first. That’s an instinct a parent will hone, and mothers bear the burden of the heavy lifting.

Shenhav makes things even harder for herself by being the mother of invention in a particularly fast-moving sector where each vendor is only as good as its last miraculous breakthrough: network switching.

The trouble with the IT industry is that each new tool creates a wealth of new roads, many of which will take the scenic route, when success is all about getting there first.

In accordance with the 80:20 rule, the majority of opportunities that present themselves give you very little return on your investment in time – the other 20% of your efforts will bring all the rewards. But how do you proritise?

As a channel boss, Shenhav has to make similarly brutal decisions about partnership opportunities, selecting the no-brainers from the “no thank yous” and the “no-chancers”.

Education in a masculine field

How did Shenhav grow into this role?

“I was born in France and my love of maths and physics gave me the chance to study at one of the country’s grandes ecoles at a time when engineering was mostly a masculine pursuit,” says Shenhav.

Was the selection process more brutal for that reason?

Being in a small minority of females was “not horrendous”, she says, but there were social attitudes then that would be problematic in today’s MeToo age.

“I was respected, I had good friends and I had people I could study with. I cannot say that it was 100% chauvinism-free, but it didn’t prevent me from doing anything,” says Shenhav.

Yael Asseraf Shenhav says the credit for her career development lay not in the rigorous academic background but in a “wonderfully supportive” employer

The French grand ecoles are institutions that channel talents by specialisation – and hers was the French Aeronautics and Space Engineering School in Toulouse.

After three years of intensive maths, physics and theoretical technical studies, followed by tough exams, long, hard-working hours and stressful conditions seemed normal.

But the credit for Shenhav’s career development lay not in the rigorous academic background but in a “wonderfully supportive” employer, says Shenhav.

On graduation she “launched” herself into space telecoms, orbiting around a galaxy of satellites, comms and those areas beyond the cloud and into space.

Her first job was in London as an intern to a company driving one of the European space telecommunications programmes, launching satellites and telecommunicating with them. The internship led to a job and “somehow head-hunters found me” during the high-tech bubble in the late nineties. The thriving Israeli high-tech industries were crying out for engineers and their universities couldn’t produce enough to meet demand.

Intel called and Shenhav was interviewed in Paris and given an offer on the spot for an engineering job which involved moving to Israel. “I was 24, adventurous and after a year in London I was crying out for some sun! So I accepted,” says Shenhav.

The key to her success is a feminine trait, Shenhav says – the ability to adapt to circumstances.

“I’d never worked on microprocessors, CPUs, servers, computing or networking. I’m more at home with a satellite than a cloud. Still, by this stage I was used to adapting to unfamiliar environments,” says Shenhav.

At Intel came the chance to work with people who soon went on to found a new startup, Mellanox, which aimed to push the possibilities of networking harder and faster. It was their ideas that were constantly breaking new ground and they wanted to take ownership of the process through their own company. That was in 1999, and Mellanox is still moving at the same pace but with more weight.

“As usual, I was one of the few women, but I was used to that. When I joined, the Mellanox employees could be counted in their tens. There’s 10 times that number now and many more women,” says Shenhav.

Flexibility and inclusivity

Mellanox invested in Shenhav, but did it get a return? What are the lessons for women here?

“When I joined Mellanox it was a startup. Every person recruited by a startup is critical – they don’t have the time or budget to not get the right people on board. I was newly married. Many startups might have asked, ‘Is she going to have kids pretty soon?’ It never occurred to them,” says Shenhav.

“Not for a minute did Mellanox hesitate to recruit me because I’m a woman who might have kids who’d hijack some of my time. It was never a factor then or throughout my time with them”
Yael Asseraf Shenhav, Mellanox

A year after Shenhav joined Mellanox, her first daughter was born. “Not for a minute did Mellanox hesitate to recruit me because I’m a woman who might have kids who’d hijack some of my time. It was never a factor then or throughout my time with them.”

Mellanox is very inclusive, not just over gender but religions, cultures, everything. There was a quid pro quo at the company.

“I was very flexible, but Mellanox was super-flexible about it. For the first eight or 10 years at Mellanox, I was working flexible hours so I could be at home with my small kids,” says Shenhav.

Investment in people pays off

Did it cost Mellanox? No.

“At a point, I decided it was time to step up my career, and I devoted more time to work. Then I was again given all the opportunity and space to do this. That’s what I’ve been doing in the past 10 years,” she says.

Mellanox has been a great place to work as, over the course of her career here, Shenhav has had the opportunity to move from a technical role, managing large international pre-sales and support teams, broadline product management, to now managing two of Mellanox main product lines.

“We should educate our girls not to be afraid to take risks and not to be afraid to work in industries dominated by males. Industries are increasingly understanding the value of having women. I think we’re getting there, but we should not see young women as a burden”
Yael Asseraf Shenhav, Mellanox

Initially she was an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) designer developing InfiniBand-based products focused on high-performance computing (HPC). Over time, Mellanox has expanded into new markets, such as cloud, storage, enterprise, telco and artificial intelligence (AI) – and Shenhav has expanded with them, juggling priorities and managing her time slices to make every conversation count.

These days, 60% of Mellanox’s business comes from its Ethernet technology – adapters, switches and cables. These businesses are growing rapidly and driving overall growth, while Shenhav runs the Ethernet adapter product line which is the largest and fastest-growing product family at 28 per quarter. Managing this kind of growth is a bit like steering a rocket ship at high speed. “So I guess all my physics and aeronautics studies may come in handy after all,” says Shenhav.

In pure productivity terms, Mellanox is taking a more enlightened view and engineering a better performance out of the “software” we call human resources, Shenhav argues.

“It’s really focusing on the person, understanding that at some times in life this person will need more space and give the opportunity to others to thrive and develop,” says Shenhav. “If you have faith in women, there is a great return on your investment. Historically, men have instinctively competed at work – they never had any choice. However, the way we live and work has evolved and women seek equal opportunities for careers today. Technology is changing accordingly, so that hardware and software are decoupled and information systems are less hierarchical and more fluid and adaptable.”

However, the human condition takes a little longer to “reconfigure”, says Shenhav. “We should educate our girls not to be afraid to take risks and not to be afraid to work in industries dominated by males. Industries are increasingly understanding the value of having women. I think we’re getting there, but we should not see young women as a burden.”

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