Deborah Service, VP in Global Technology Services at Scotiabank shares advice on fostering future Black women leaders
by Shelley White
Deborah Service has this advice for young women looking to build their careers: Be open. Be curious.
“Don’t limit yourself and your possibilities because you’re thinking, this is what I know,” says Deborah, Vice-President, Service Management, Global Technology Services at Scotiabank. “You may not know something now, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn it and excel at it. Sometimes your career path gets rerouted inadvertently and it turns out to be the best reroute of your life.”
It’s a philosophy that has served Deborah well throughout her career. Born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Deborah says she never imagined a future in IT.
“When I was in college, if you told me that I was going to wind up working with computers, I would have laughed you out of the room,” says Deborah, who studied Psychology at the City College of New York. “As far as I thought, I hated computers and anything to do with technology.”
That changed due to a pivotal conversation. To help pay for school, Deborah took a data entry job for a real estate company owned by Barbara Corcoran (who would go on to be a star on ABC’s Shark Tank). Beyond “putting the information on the screen,” Deborah experimented with the computer system she was using, trying out various applications — and often crashing the system through her explorations.
“While I was at work one Saturday, the person who created the computer system came in to do an upgrade,” Deborah recalls. “And when you’re young, you have no fear. So I said, ‘Hey, is this your program?’ And he said, ‘Yes, it is.’ And I responded, ‘It doesn’t work very well.’”
Rather than being offended, the system’s developer asked Deborah to show him where the trouble spots were. She explained where the system had come up short, and he immediately recognized her potential.
“He said, ‘You have an intuitive understanding of what systems are supposed to be able to do, and not a lot of people get that,’” Deborah says. “He took out his business card and said, ‘When you’re finished with school, give me a call and if you want a job, I will hire you.’”
After graduation, Deborah did just that.
“Don’t hire like yourself. Think beyond the resumes, and not just based on the experience that’s on paper. Interview them, dig deep into their character and really identify what they could bring to the table for your team, your business and your customers.”
That first job opened her eyes and she saw that working in technology wasn’t just about programming. Over the next 20 years, Deborah expanded her skills, working in many different aspects of the IT industry at several organizations, including the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Thomson Reuters, and Time Warner. She went from being a “hands-on-keyboard” engineer and UNIX expert to running data centres and working in service management, a customer-focused approach to delivering information technology.
“Service management came about because there was a recognition that ‘techies’ do more than the technical work, that they are a key enabler of many business functions,” Deborah explains. “To ensure that business and technology work effectively together, the service management role evolved.”
Deborah’s career has also been a personal evolution. Back when she was starting out, she lacked confidence in her own abilities, in part because of the sexism and prejudice she encountered in a predominantly male industry. She credits an early mentor, Vincent Cohan, now Senior Vice President, Global Technology Services at Scotiabank, with pushing her out of her comfort zone and exposing her to new experiences.”
Deborah remembers working with Vincent at the Thomson Corporation in the early 2000s, meeting with technology vendors who “basically thought I was there to bring coffee or take notes because I was the only woman in the room, and the only Black woman in the room,” she says.
“Even if I called the meeting, they would only talk to Vinny. He’d let them do their thing, then would look at me and say ‘Deb, what do you think?’ He would say, ‘Gentlemen, in case you think that I’m the one you need to convince, you’re wrong. She is the one you need to convince. If she doesn’t get it, you don’t get in,’” she says. “He did that a couple of times until people got it.”
Nearly two decades later, Deborah says she is proud of the fact that more North American companies are publicly making commitments to diversity and inclusion, noting that Scotiabank has been a leader in this area.
“Scotiabank recognizes the value of diversity and an inclusive culture at work. We put customers first — and our leadership, our people, and our products and services need to reflect those in the markets we serve,” she says. “Inclusion is more than a buzzword — it’s a commitment we make to be a winning team.”
That commitment spans everything from hiring targets — they’ve pledged to fill at least 3.5 per cent of senior executive and board positions in Canada with Black leaders by 2025 — to the celebration of Black History Month, and the mentorship and attraction of existing and new Black talent.
“It’s an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices and the contributions of those who went before us,” Deborah says. “To be honest, I wish that there wasn’t a need for Black History Month, but right now, especially with what’s going on in the world, it seems that there needs to be a reminder that people of colour have contributed significantly to the advancement of the human race as a whole.”
She lists some of the accomplishments of Black inventors and scientists, such as Frederick Jones, who invented mobile refrigeration in the 1930s, and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a scientist at the U.S.-based National Institute of Health who developed one of the mRNA vaccines now being used to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking to the future, Deborah says more work needs to be done to encourage young women, especially Black women, to see technology as a career option.
“We don’t get as many women applying for roles as I would love to see. We have to reach out to them when they’re in school and educate them about the different trajectories their careers can take,” she says. “The perception right now is that working in technology involves programming or working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But the reality is there are so many opportunities — you can do things like service management and architecture. And we need to make sure that people understand how technology enables every single business. If you’re into music, or gardening, or farming, technology is an enabler for that. We need to evolve that vision of what the possibilities could be.”
Deborah also has a message for the gatekeepers — executives across industries who are empowered to create real change in the world.
“Don’t hire like yourself,” she says. “Think beyond the resumes, and not just based on the experience that’s on paper. Interview them, dig deep into their character and really identify what they could bring to the table for your team, your business and your customers.”