In honor of Women’s History Month, we spoke with some of the top movers and shakers amongst women in tech. Trice Johnson, Vice President of Strategy Innovation for Customer Success at Salesforce, carved out a career path all her own. She is now using her wide range of experiences to inspire others to do the same. We recently sat down with Trice to learn more about her fascinating journey to becoming one of the top leaders in technology.
1. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. Can you begin by telling us a little about your backstory, your upbringing, and how you became interested in tech?
My mom was a trailblazer as a Black woman in tech. She recruited developers for all kinds of companies, so throughout high school, my brother and I were always forced to look at the candidates she was hiring. We didn’t realize then that she had a bigger purpose. She would always say that she
hired unicorns, or what she called “purple squirrels.” She was planting a seed within us to become unique beings on earth, even though we had no idea what that meant at the time.
College and I didn’t have a strong relationship. Since I had already been exposed to the tech world, I knew I loved innovation, so I began an internship with my mom at a young age. I knew my mom was on an aggressive career path and that’s what I would follow. But the education system for high school and college didn’t line up to that, so I ended up dropping out of college a few times to work in the tech world at different companies.
2. What are some of the different jobs you’ve had that led to what you’re doing today?
I spent time leading my own startup, a nonprofit organization. I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing but I knew that I had something much greater in me. That led to me ultimately applying for a job with a tech training company in my early 20s. They told me I couldn’t work for them without a college degree, and I vividly remember sitting there telling them, “But I’m so much more than a degree!” I knew I could do the job in my sleep, and I remember walking away from the interview completely disappointed. But they called me and said, “We enjoyed you so much as a person that we feel you could come and do a great job, so we’re going to give you an opportunity.” And they gave me the job!
I went off and started training, learning everything about Microsoft in the late 1990s — that’s all I did! I became known as this person with a big personality who made Microsoft and Windows training fun and exciting. That was the beginning of me developing this “unicorn” way for myself. I then began doing work at Telco and for companies working in retail. That experience is what opened the door for me to start certification training because we were a certification company. Once I learned that I could get certifications, I got certified in everything — architecture, engineering models, and so many other things I never would have had the opportunity to learn in school. Then I started working for some major companies as a consultant.
From there I started working for Accenture. I also started a business intelligence company that did artificial intelligence and machine learning, matching algorithms for the government. In 2012, I began at Microsoft, where I led big architectures for machine learning, artificial intelligence, block chain, virtual mixed reality, and more. I’ve been at the edge of innovation for a very long time.
3. You really carved out your own unique pathway to success. Can you explain your approach and why it worked for you?
Ultimately, I did go back and finish my college degree online, but I will tell anyone that our education system never taught any of the newest cutting-edge technologies. Nowadays, people with a Ph.D. in a tech field still must go back and get certifications. I took a totally alternative path for my life and didn’t realize that the seed my mom planted in me was going to make me such a disruptor in the industry.
If you were to look at my LinkedIn profile, you would see that I switch jobs every three years. My life and career really follow the S curve growth model, which tells us when innovation is going to peak and when to expect for innovation to really be disruptive. If you apply the S curve to your career, you start at the bottom where you’re learning, failing and have self-doubt or imposter syndrome. Then you have a breakthrough moment in the curve where you’re learning, you’re researching, and working so hard because you have something to prove to yourself. Then you reach the top of your peak where you’re the expert. When I get to the top of the S curve, I start all over again and learn the next big piece of technology.
4. What is it like being a Black woman in a white male-dominated field? What challenges have you faced?
I have found that there is an inherent lack of respect for women – particularly Black women – in tech. Women were not involved in shaping the business world; we had to walk into something that already existed. I came to view it as a challenge to rise to. Instead of going home and crying about being ignored or mistreated, I came to see it as a game or a chess board, and it required a strategy. When you get treated like that repeatedly, you must figure out the game.
Several of my male coworkers would purposefully exclude me by having their “locker room talk” while I was around. I realized it was deliberate when they would ignore me in meetings or ask me to get their coffee or to take notes. It’s difficult when you have all this greatness in you and then you realize you’re getting passed for opportunities for some guy’s friend. I would think to myself, “Wait a minute! I trained that guy and he doesn’t have half the experience I have!”
Then there’s opportunity shaming. Someone would say, “We know you probably grew up in a neighborhood that was rough, and it took a lot to get here.” I would have to tell them, “I know you think I grew up in Houston, but my mom took us to Dublin, Ohio where I grew up attending one of the top schools in Ohio right outside of Columbus, home of the Jack Nicklaus golf tournaments, which we attended every year growing up.” They made assumptions about my story because of my color. Did I have a hard start because my mother was a single mom? Absolutely. But they do not get to tell my story and shame me in meetings.
Another common microaggression is making assumptions about my experience. I would show up to meetings with engineers who were shocked when I opened my mouth because I actually knew what I was talking about. It’s all of those things that women face every single day. And as a Black woman, the disrespect is even greater.
5. How have you dealt with this kind of mistreatment?
I found how to make friends with my adversaries, and I’ve learned how to turn around someone’s limited mentality to elevate them to righteous thinking. It has become a challenge to me. I don’t get offended anymore and I try not to offend other people because you can’t win who you offend.
To win someone over, I use something I call strategic questioning. When you can ask beautiful questions, you can lead people to their own soul-searching power.
When someone makes an assumption or treats me a certain way, I like to take them offline privately to say, “Earlier, you made an assumption about where I grew up and how I grew up. Talk to me about where that came from. Out of curiosity, why is that okay to you? Let’s just imagine for a moment that I treated you that way in front of your colleagues. What can we do together to elevate one another? I see so much greatness in you and I really want to learn from you.”
It’s the power of understanding, the power of putting people in your shoes, and the power of being able to empathize with others. You must have so much empathy and kindness wrapped in you that you have no desire but to see the world a better place.
6. What women inspired you as you were growing up? What women inspire you now?
I’ve always been inspired by my mom and my grandmother. My grandmother had no high school education; I think she tapped out in 8th grade and that was it for her. She cleaned houses for people and then realized the work she was doing was the trajectory for most women and she didn’t want to do that anymore. She set out and worked for a liquor store, starting as a clerk and worked her way up to become the corporate vice president. I always had these powerful female examples who wouldn’t accept what the world gave them. They didn’t accept the expected trajectory for their lives.
Other women who inspire me include Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to become an aviator pilot; Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman and then the first major Black candidate for the U.S. presidency; Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black female millionaire in America; Ursula Burns, who began as an intern at Xerox and went on to become CEO and chairwoman when they became a multibillion-dollar company; Maya Angelou, the celebrated poet and Civil Rights activist; Oprah Winfrey, TV producer, actress, author and philanthropist; Michelle Obama, not only an attorney and author, but our first Black First Lady and also an incredible philanthropist
All of these women combined! When I get up every day, I feel like they are all in my spirit. When I have an opportunity, I’m not showing up as one person in the room, but as 100,000 of my ancestors. 100,000 women strong — not just one!
7. What is the best part about your job?
I love the fact that I have finally reached a point in my career where all I do is think. People pay me to think! Leading a big organization, I get to help people think about their future in tech. I’m the person who breathes life into their visions through graphical visualizations.
When people say they want a $100 billion company, I have to sit down and figure out where they’re at today. I take research from everywhere — macroeconomic and micro-factors that we’re going through now. Today, I have to think about what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine, and even China now because they are at play now too. I think about gas prices, energy prices and the post-pandemic world. I take all this research and innovate on top of that. It’s a very unique job.
I get to think about things like blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the extended reality world, how we’re connecting physical things to machine intelligence and how a company can leverage these unique technologies to move their business to a multibillion-dollar business. I do all of this through frameworks and models. It’s the best job in the world and I’m so happy I get to do it!
8. What advice would you give to young women embarking on a similar career path?
Become a unicorn! Differentiate yourself and highlight what makes you unique. You must deliberately and intentionally architect your own path. From day one, I always knew I was different. I was not going to allow any kind of formal, traditional ways to interrupt my gifting. The number one thing for women to understand is their purpose for being on this earth. Once they have that, they can take that purpose and their gifts and map that to the needs of the market.
The question I always ask is: “What is the problem you want to solve?” If you start there, then you will know what to say yes to and what to say no to. This will guide the boundaries around you so you don’t waste time. Architecture means drawing a picture to visualize your future; then creating the pipelines and all the things that need to happen for you to achieve your destiny.
9. Do you have any books to recommend?
I recommend my book Becoming a Digital Unicorn. It’s about purpose and it’s about your gifting and doing all of this in the digital economy so you disrupt yourself before you’re disruptive.
10. What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is from Star Trek: Voyager. Tuvok, the Voyager Chief of Security said, “We often fear what we do not understand. Our best defense is knowledge.”
That quote sums up my life. It is why I can dominate and disrupt myself at the top of the S curve – I fill myself with knowledge about so many different things daily so that I am unafraid when I get into situations where I should be fearful. Knowledge is powerful.