How the boss of BlackLine went from agriculture to automation

 
Elliott Haworth
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The first time I interviewed Therese Tucker was at City A.M. towers, way back in the springtime.

However, due to my own technological incompetence, I didn’t notice that my dictaphone had run out of memory 10 minutes in – much to my annoyance when I went to transcribe it later that day.

Tucker is clearly the yin to my technological yang. An all-American coder and entrepreneur, she started her first programming business aged just 23.

Last year, after self-funding her automation behemoth BlackLine for nearly a decade, it went through a billion dollar float on the Nasdaq.

Humble beginnings

She’s the pink-haired tech stalwart who grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. The path from tending cows and chickens to chief executive of an esteemed tech unicorn is certainly not well trodden – especially not for a woman.

While Tucker is at the top of her game today, she says it’s important to remember humble beginnings.

“You know what, I think anybody who grows up on a farm is a labourer. From the time that you can walk, you are given chores: go feed the chickens, go milk a cow. Little chores, but everyone has work to do from the time you are very very small. So I think that you get an incredible work ethic.

“The other thing is that, because it is physical labour, it’s difficult. So I got an appreciation for the fact that going to college – using your brain to make a living – is a much easier route than trying to do something physical your entire life. So I think I got an appreciation for education.

Tapping the tech world

Tucker entered tech when it was even more of a boys club than it is today, being one of just a handful of women to take the Apple programming course in the early eighties.

Starting work, she chuckles that nobody took her seriously – but adds that was “because I was young and cute. Some of the older men would call me ‘dear’ or ‘honey or ‘sweetheart’. But I think that was more a function of youth than gender.”

Although she has elevated to the position of a respected female tech leader, she admits that, for many women, being taken seriously is a deeply ingrained problem routed in education.

“Women are not taught to be leaders, and to confidently express themselves. How many women do you know that, if they believe in something, they stand up on the table and go ‘hey guys everybody come follow me over here’? That doesn’t happen enough.”

Carving out a career

Being a leader or not, Tucker insists that tech is still inaccessible to a lot of women who might like to forge a career in the industry, and that, in terms of accessability, less has changed over the course of her career than she would have hoped.

“It’s just not taught in a way that’s really appealing to women. And this starts well before college.

“At BlackLine, there’s a woman who works as a senior QA engineer. She’s taken it upon herself to create a new programme that brings girls in from high schools for a day to show them what a career in tech might look like. If young women can see that these careers are open to them, that they pay well and are meaningful and interesting, they’ll be encouraged to pursue them, regardless of how that appeal is communicated during their college coursework.”

The job-consuming monster

Education is a subject that comes up several times throughout our conversation – its importance cannot be understated both in terms of bringing more women into tech, and also preparing for the future.

BlackLine’s business is automation. It has totally transformed the mundane, manual task of account reconciliation, among others.

As anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last 200 years can tell you, people don’t like change. Automation for many is perceived as a job-consuming monster that’s out to get you.

The robots are coming, it would seem. But Tucker says it’s all hype.

“Change happens quietly,” she says. “All you hear right now about data and AI is hype. That’s all you hear: hype. But if you’re a chief financial officer and you’re able to dramatically cut costs, you’re able to have insights into the business that help it be more nimble, change quicker, better, and address the needs of its market better, you will.”

Delusional fear

Automation is not something to be feared but embraced. Not doing so would be counterproductive to the point of delusion.

As we’re wrapping up our chat, Tucker delights me by quoting Milton Friedman on the subject:

“Milton recalled travelling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. A bureaucrat explained: ‘you don’t understand. This is a jobs programme’. To which Milton replied: ‘oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

The tools of tomorrow

She says that the reality is the jobs that are being automated are generally not great jobs, and that the only solution for humanity to continue to progress is to educate the future in the tools of tomorrow.

“Why not get people educated so they can have great jobs? I honestly believe in human potential and the importance of excellent education being available to everyone. Education is the great equaliser so making that available to everyone, starting at a very early age is the solution.”