In collaboration with Shobha Deepty V and Saumya Harinarayan

Cisco IT has launched a women technical leader incubation program to support and encourage women in technology. The initiative, which has been run in-house, offers training and development for women to build leadership skills. Its four-pillar framework of experience, education, empowerment, and exposure was designed to enable women to “confidently build their path in technology with skilled guidance and opportunity.” An added hackathon-style event proved “beneficial to garner employee engagement and enthusiasm.”


Women empowerment has shattered many myths and altered numerous mindsets around the world. Although technology is an open arena for leaders of any gender, the number of women leaders remains low. Retaining and developing women’s technical talent is a challenge, and the numbers can be discouraging. Cisco IT conducted a survey with site leaders, managers, women leaders, and women employees to determine why there are fewer women in technology. The reasons ranged from the lack of female role models to the perpetuation of myths, such as imposter syndrome, as well as the lack of opportunities to network, train, and provide a platform for empowerment.

Cisco IT initially implemented a gender-neutral Technical Leadership Initiative in India, but this did not bring women to the forefront. According to the survey, women who take a career break find it difficult to keep up with the latest technology and upskill. Many who return to work after a leave period, or a sabbatical, feel outdated. These insights led to the creation of a specific program for women.

A Unique Program

With this in mind, Cisco IT developed and launched a unique program in-house to address the challenges and obstacles faced by women in the technology industry. This innovative platform provides enterprise women leaders with an opportunity to work together on cross-functional business problems and serve as role models for other women. The goal of the program is to empower women and help them become the leaders they aspire to be.

The framework

To support and empower women in the technology industry, Cisco IT developed the program with four key pillars: experience, education, empowerment, and exposure. This holistic approach provides women with the guidance and opportunities they need to confidently pursue and build successful careers in technology. The program was developed in early February, and the first cohort of participants began their projects in May 2022.

In line with its efforts, the program followed a rigorous nomination process and ultimately selected 20 women to participate. The participants were then divided into four cohorts with cross functional expertise and given projects with a coach to learn and apply the four-pillar framework.

     1. Education

To provide participants with the best possible learning experience, the program leveraged a variety of soft skills and leadership training courses available on Degreed. These courses were facilitated in group settings to encourage active collaboration and practice. In addition, a defined technical leadership curriculum was developed, and the latest technology trainings were made available to participants. Key players in the cloud technology industry, such as AWS, also contributed training sessions in a group forum. Hackathon-based events were also organized to engage and energize participants.

     2. Experience

After completing their training, it was important for the participants to gain practical experience. To provide this opportunity, technology leaders from across Cisco came together to design cross-functional business problems for the participants to work on. This allowed the participants to shadow the leaders and gain hands-on experience, breaking the traditional mindset of project execution and fostering leadership skills. It also facilitated connections across different parts of the organization, helping participants develop their business acumen.

     3. Exposure

To provide the participants with diverse perspectives and guidance on their projects, the team brought in Principal and Distinguished Engineers from various functions across Cisco to serve on the advisory board. The board held a mix of panel discussions and role-model series featuring successful women leaders who shared their experiences and insights on topics such as work-life balance and making difficult decisions. These sessions provided valuable guidance and inspiration for the participants.

     4. Empowerment

To celebrate the completion of the program, each participant presented a lightning pitch to Cisco CIO Fletcher Previn. This was a rewarding and empowering experience for them. It also enabled them to identify a sponsor through Cisco’s Multiplier platform, where the power of sponsorship is leveraged to increase a pipeline of diverse talent. Additionally, the participants had the opportunity to participate in one-on-one speed mentoring sessions with women leaders from across Cisco, which helped them chart a career path forward.

Valuable Outcomes

The program empowered women employees to make their own decisions, define the scope of their projects, engage with stakeholders, and become thought leaders in their fields. Most of the participants went through career progression by taking on challenging responsibilities, increased scope or being part of complex technical projects, with better visibility and technology stack, ever since the culmination. One participant even had the opportunity to speak at Cisco Live as a technical expert.

The program has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from both participants and coaches involved. One major advantage of the program is its ability to retain and develop in-house talent, which can be challenging in the current global environment. The program offers women the opportunity to enhance their skills and break new ground in technology. Many participants who were originally part of a technical team are now leading their own teams, tackling new challenges with confidence.

Overcoming Challenges

One of the main challenges of the program was to break down the myths and misconceptions that held women back. Because of career breaks and a conventional mindset, women often lacked confidence and were hesitant to ask for what they needed or negotiate for better opportunities. These negative biases made them feel excluded from innovative projects.

The solution took five to six months to develop, as the team worked with multiple vendors to provide training, coordinated with site leaders for nominations, consulted with Principal Engineers to identify business use cases, and worked with the Learning and Development team to review progress.

The program was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult as the virtual format made it challenging to provide effective training in soft skills. However, as the program gained momentum, it became more interactive and effective.

Manager support was key to help employees balance work and training, making the program a success with huge positive impact for all participants.

Future: Where there is intent, opportunities are limitless.

Preparation for the next phase of the Women’s Technical Leadership Initiative (WTLI) Program is underway, with plans to implement it in March 2023. The team is also evaluating expansion to more locations across the globe. With the support of Cisco’s senior leadership, we are confident that the program will be successful and help bring more women technical leaders to the forefront.