Crystal Larsh is clever, candid, and smart, as well as an extremely capable project manager who has led teams and clients through some of our toughest software engagements. Pass her in the hall, and she’ll inquire about your day with a smile, regardless of what she’s dealing with; She asks for and offers help without a hint of hesitation. It’s Crystal’s balance of professionalism and openness that make her valuable to all those she works with. That sense of balance is related to being a woman in tech world, and the way she’s managed to navigate challenges along the way with equal parts grit and grace.
To wrap up Women’s History Month and our #BalanceforBetter campaign, launched on International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting our conversation with Crystal. As a woman with a low threshold for mere acquiescence, as well as a mother with a new baby on the way, she talks about tackling challenges related to gender—and just generally. Her real passion for technology is revealed as we talk about the ways in which we can influence culture in order to cultivate balance within the industry and at large.
How did you get into the industry? Have you always been interested in technology?
I actually went to the Math Science Technology program in high school. Out of 120 kids that graduated from the program, only 16 were girls. But, I mean, kids went off everywhere from that program to—M.I.T. with a full ride, Northwestern, Georgia Tech, stuff like that (I went to a state college, but whatever!). There was a robotics program, TV production, you had to take computer programming for all four years. I was actually really good at programming, I just really hated the stress of having to figure out a problem within a certain amount of time. I realized by my senior year that, while I loved programming, I didn’t want it to be my job, because if that was my job I would end up hating it.
What steered you towards project management?
When I went to college, I went for marketing and product strategy. I wanted to work with technology products because I would know enough about it to be dangerous, but not have to do the actual code. When I got out of college, I started at a financial company working on a semi-custom printing portal that ended up becoming the procurement portal for the entire company. It was a long, crazy project, but as I was working on it, I actually was the functional project manager—and I didn’t even know that was a job at the time. My boss was like, “seriously, why don’t you get your PMP?” So I got certified in 2011. It was the hardest test I’ve ever taken.
I’ve actually gone back and forth my entire career between product and project. Product is really hard to nail down: There’s a broad spectrum of what people think product managers should do. If you actually get like what the PDMA (product development management association) defines as a “product manager,” you literally own the roadmap of what gets developed, you’re owning the market research and justifying your decisions. You’ll see job postings for that, but typically-male executives don’t want you to actually make those decisions. They want you to check everything with them, and then you just run and make sure it gets developed. So I keep going back to project management even though product is what I love.
I’m curious, because you went into project management, what kept you within the technology sector?
Nothing else excited me. When I went back for my Master’s degrees, I focused on e-commerce for my MBA and I did a Master’s in project management for software development because even though I didn’t want to do the coding, working at the forefront of innovation really excites me.
When thinking about women in tech, people tend to focus on engineers and coders. Why do you think it’s important to have women represented in all aspects of the technology field?
For any industry—not just tech—diversity in gender, diversity in sexual orientation, diversity in race and identification, gains you different perspectives from different walks of life. I think having that product background makes me a little more acutely aware of that because you’re doing market research to understand why people want the things they want. There’s psychology behind that. And so, when you bring those different perspectives to a team, they can actually bring up ideas that you didn’t think of before. I think that’s super important, especially when you come to project management. You see that at Headspring, for example: Erin Knight is a tech lead, but she didn’t have a PM on her last project for a while, and she was literally guiding the client through the way that they needed her to. She is really intuitive with people. Whereas Adam has really shown up for his client because he’s very no-nonsense, very methodical and calculated, and that’s exactly what that client needed. Having that spectrum of team members who you can switch in and out is much more effective than trying to shoehorn somebody in that doesn’t really fit the project.
What would you say has been the main challenge in your career so far?
I am an assertive and blunt person—and not without tact! I’m generally pretty nice to people and willing to help. I fight for my team. But it is the type of behavior that commonly gets called out by men as being aggressive, not assertive. It’s the type of behavior that men in some organizations I’ve been at have been praised for and the women are punished for. It’s held me back in companies where politics are a huge thing because I literally can’t just smile and lie. I just can’t.
Were you ever nervous, not even knowing where your career track would take you, about being a woman in the field?
Yes. And that’s actually why I went and got my Master’s degrees. I knew it was going to be hard. The first five years post-college, I felt literally unable to advance. But I wasn’t nervous because I’ve always taken the position of, “I don’t have to put up with this. I don’t.” It does hurt sometimes on my resumé because it looks like I’m just a job-hopper. I’ve found myself having to defend my reasons for leaving a job that was holding me back, or for being in a position for only seven months. But it’s like, would you fault somebody for leaving an abusive relationship because they didn’t stick it out long enough and try to make it work? I get my CDs and I get out.
So I went and I got my Master’s degrees because my age and my gender had always come up as, “Oh, well, you know, maybe when you’ve been doing this longer.” Or I’d get talked down to…I had a boss that used to call me “honey” and “sweetie” all of the time. I decided I needed to get some letters after my name to have some legitimacy. And it worked. I got called for a lot more interviews after that and I was able to negotiate better salaries. But I still had to fight to be paid the same as my male counterparts, and that sucked.
Was that “I’m not going to take this” attitude something you developed or was it taught to you? How do you teach that to someone else?
I developed it over time. Even though a lot of women have that hard exterior like, “I know this is wrong and you’re not going to treat me that way,” deep down, we’re all insecure and we wonder what we did to deserve it. I actually had a complex for a while. I thought, okay, I’m the common thread, all of these jobs can’t possibly suck. Maybe I’m overreacting, maybe it’s me, maybe I’m not being understanding. At the last job I was at before I came here, there was an incident in which I <em>knew</em> they were being unreasonable. I thought, “this is not acceptable treatment and I don’t care if it’s because I’m a woman or if it’s because they’re just bad people.”
You wouldn’t settle for a bad personal relationship, why would you settle for a bad work one when you arguably spend more time there? I really think that’s something people can’t learn until they accept it about themselves—that they do deserve better. And it’s hard, right, because you don’t want to be irrational. But if you look at people—not even just women—we settle for bad relationships all of the time. You have to work. You have to pay bills. So you might stay at a bad company for a long time even though you’re super unhappy.
When we left Florida, my husband was super depressed. He worked at a grocery store and he hated it. And there’s an example of a man who did the same thing: He just accepted what he got. So when we moved to Austin, I said, “Look, I make enough money to cover bills for a while.. Take your time and find a job that you are not going to hate.”
That’s sort of a cool thing to teach women as try to shake that cultural trope of being provided for: What if we take this opportunity not just to provide for ourselves, but also to give other people the space they need to find themselves? Because we all need to find ourselves, right?
Amazing right? And now my husband works at Dell. So yeah, it’s cool. We just need to be aware and not settle.
Was there anyone who mentored you or served as a role model over the years?
A lot of what I would consider mentors have been big brother / big sister type relationships. My boss at Raymond James was actually who I want to be when I grow up. He was amazing. He wore three-piece suits. He talked to clients. He was charismatic in meetings and just did not fumble on words. But when he took his jacket off, he had full sleeve tattoos. He was really funny and very rational and down to earth, and was really good to the people under him. So he was demanding, but also really cared about our personal lives. That’s sort of a balance I admire; and that’s the kind of manager I want to be.
Speaking of balance, how have you managed to balance your career and family life?
Having kids has been the hardest thing on my career, because in the type of job that I have, the best opportunities for reward require travel and the extra hours. With my son being almost three years old now and a little self-sufficient, I’ve been able to do more work trips and get on more exciting projects. Having to start over with baby number two is really scary—to have to almost put a pause on progress. Not that I won’t be recognized for my work here, but you just can’t put in those extra hours to get you the better things. Vasudha was talking about it the other day, you know, you have to make your choices and be OK with the consequences. And for me, I need to be there for my kids. It just is.
Do you think it’s contingent on companies to be a little more empathetic towards new parents, beyond just offering maternity leave to mothers?
I think in the last three to five years, especially in tech, you’ve seen a real shift to a more European mindset where they give men parental leave too. I think companies are starting to get it, but the problem is, when parents come back, the ongoing expectation is that moms are the ones that have to take time off versus the dads.
I’ve been fortunate that the companies I’ve been with have actually been really understanding about me needing that flexibility. But there is societally and systemically an issue between making things equitable and not necessarily equal. Yes, women do need a long time to recover because we physically had something happen to our bodies, but the men actually need time off to support the women and bond with the baby as well—it’s not just the woman’s baby. But when you talk about flexibility for those new parents, and the people without children are like, “I want flexibility too. Why am I picking up the slack?”
There’s a really great cartoon about people watching a parade: a short person, a tall person, and a medium person. And if you’re talking about equality, they all get the same size box to stand on, so the short person still can’t see, right, and that tall person could see whether or not they had a box. Whereas, if you’re talking about equity, the short person gets two boxes, the tall person doesn’t get anything, because they can already see, and the medium person only needs one box. It’s about getting people on board with that idea. That’s a bigger cultural problem than I know how to solve. Because, no, it isn’t fair for a single person or childless person—you shouldn’t have to work extra hard just because I had to go to a soccer game. But maybe there are contingencies built into how a company is structured. Maybe you should hire more people so your employees aren’t working more than 40 hours.
Is it important that we strive to make sure that there is equal representation of women in STEM fields?
I think that numbers are a great indicator, but numbers should not be a target. It’s honestly no better than shaming girls out of STEM to shame them into it by telling them, “you should be interested in this.” But when we come out of the womb, we’re all equally capable. So if you’re capable and you enjoy it then you shouldn’t be driven out of it. And I think that’s happening at a very young age: It’s happening to people of color and it’s happening to women, and to women of color way disproportionately. So you have all these people that are capable and interested (at least at one point), and don’t feel like they can break in, even if they get older and realize they can do a boot camp or something. They don’t feel like they stand a chance against a white man that just came out of college.
So I think the goal should be encouraging and nurturing interest. Your indicator of success might be the number of representation, but I don’t think a company should say, “we should definitely have 50 percent women.” If you look at the job pool out there, it’s not 50 percent. So how are you going to achieve that? But programs like the paternity leave and stuff are an attempt by tech companies to diversify their workforce.
How did you get involved with GirlStart, and why is program important to you?
EA actually participated in their STEM conference every year, and I got involved when I was working there. I actually did a lot of volunteer work back in Florida, at the high school I went to and Tampa Bay they do this thing called Great American Teach-in every year. I would actually go into the technology programs and talk about how you don’t have to program, you can actually be a project manager and this is how you use statistics to do market research. It was my way of giving back and mentoring. I also did Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
But here, with Girl Start, I really fell in love with that conference and I wanted to do more of the one-off stuff because, to the point we were just talking about, if you don’t get girls interested; if they don’t see people that look like them doing the jobs that they want to do, then they don’t think it’s possible. So it’s really important to me that we get out there and let them know “Yeah, it’s ok to like math. It doesn’t it make you less pretty.”
Do you see that changing at all among younger generations now or do you feel like there’s still that stigma?
I think there is, but I think that’s shifting—you see parents that are super proud of their kids and they want more for them, and they don’t care what the stigmas are anymore. They just want them to go to college make good money. I do see a positive trend there.
Not even 20 years ago, at my high school graduation, my grandfather told my mom not to worry about having to pay for college because “she’ll meet a nice boy and she’ll just drop out.” My grandparents truly did not understand why I went and got my Master’s. They tried to talk me out of it more than once. But a couple of summers ago, they came and visited my house out here in Austin and saw what a nice life I had, and then they were all about helping my cousins who are 10 years younger than me get into school. So I mean, even that—I’m changing people in my own family.
Now that I’m pregnant with a little girl, we’ve been teaching my three-year-old boy some super important things too. Everybody is talking about “consent culture” now and that starts with how you treat people and learning to be empathetic. It’s important to teach boys how to treat women: Not just about opening doors for them, but to actually treat them the way you would your guy friends. Ask her if she’s okay. Ask her if she needs help. As I’m preparing the new baby’s nursery, my son is playing in there and pretending to take care of the dolls and put her to bed and stuff like that. Somebody said something to me along the lines of, “you know, that’s not normal at all.” I’m like, “What, are you afraid he’s going to be a good father?”
A more balanced mindset starts early and you just have to reach everyone you can—it’s just so important.
Balance is an ongoing struggle. Learn the perspectives of our inspiring Headspring women and keep advocating for a more balanced world in your day-to-day.