Emily Dalton is vice president of product management at Omatic Software, a North Charleston-based company that provides software and services to nonprofit organizations. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Upstate native Emily Dalton came to Charleston as an undergraduate, studying sociology and English at the College of Charleston. An internship with the S.C. Department of Social Services sparked her interest in social work – but a state hiring freeze thwarted that career path when she graduated.
Dalton had never considered working in the technology sector. But she took a job in customer support with Blackbaud, the Charleston-based provider of software to nonprofits.
"At first, I really had no idea what I was doing," Dalton said. "But I ended up learning and loving it, and I really liked Blackbaud's customers and mission, that they worked with nonprofits. I felt like there was a connection there to what I had wanted to do in social work, which was helping people and giving people a voice. Technology does that, absolutely. So I never left."
Dalton advanced during her tenure at Blackbaud from customer support to marketing to product management, including a stint at the company's London office. In 2014, she joined the product management team at Omatic Software, which also provides software to nonprofits. In 2018, Dalton became vice president of product management at Omatic.
In your own words, what does Omatic Software do?
We are nonprofit data people. We help nonprofits get the most value of their systems and their data through data integration and data health solutions. We give nonprofits access to data that's up to date, clean and complete, so they can deliver really awesome supporter experiences.
We are going through a really exciting transformation right now where we are reinventing our products and rebuilding them in the cloud. The way that we're doing that is a very outside-in, iterative approach. Going out into the market, really deeply understanding the problems, coming up with solutions and then testing, prototyping, iterating through to get to the answer. That process is something that I'm really passionate about, and it's incredibly fun, too. It's an exciting time at Omatic right now.
What's the best part of your job?
Creating a story of a better future, for both our customers and the company, and then seeing that come to life through the work of a great team.
What's the best piece of advice you have received regarding work, management or career?
I was working in London (for Blackbaud), and I had just started in product management, and so I was trying to find my way. The CEO came to visit from the U.S. He said to me, "Emily, no one's watching what you're doing, and that's a gift."
What he meant by that was, one, you need to think differently about constraints, and two, this is an opportunity where you can do things that maybe you couldn't do in a different environment. You can really experiment, try things, see what happens. In that situation, in that moment, that was really powerful, effective feedback and advice for me. I took it, and we did some amazing stuff when I was there that was a lot of fun.
But I think that, beyond that situation, that feedback has served me well over the years. I think it applies more broadly to say we shouldn't do work with the intention of trying to impress people. We should really take things and stretch them and think differently, think bigger and bolder, and really try and work as if no one's watching. As if you don't really care what the outcome's going to look like.
Because that's where the big ideas and the big thinking and the creativity – that's where that comes from. And, also, just changing your mindset and looking at what you think is a constraint as a really positive thing and building on that.
What is the hardest part of effecting change within a company? How do you overcome it?
Change is hard. My favorite article about change management is actually about patients that have undergone major heart surgery, and their doctors tell them, "You need to change your lifestyle. You need to eat differently. You need to exercise. You need to fundamentally change everything about your life." And for most of them, they don't do that.
They are choosing, essentially, death over change. There's some powerful stuff at work there. What a lot of change-management theory supports, and they talk about in this article, is that you have to paint a picture of a better future for them, where they're going to be a better version of themselves, and they're going to be able to do things that they couldn't do currently. So that, coupled with the support structures to help people get there, is how you make effective change.
I think, as leaders, it's not about having a plan or giving people a plan. It's more about giving them a hope and a future and a better way forward.
What stands out most when you are interviewing a job candidate?
I like to look for curiosity and a willingness to learn. How do they think through a problem when there might not be a clear answer? How do they deal with the ambiguity of a lot of things that we do? Are they OK with that, and can they feel their way through it to get to an answer?
I think that skill applies to a lot of different roles in a company and means that there is some versatility and flexibility there.
In what ways do you see the workplace evolving?
I think there's a growing appreciation for diversity, and not just because it's the right thing to do. People are understanding the real, tangible benefits of it. That it leads to better ideas, better thinking, better outcomes, better decision-making. It leads to better business. I think people are starting to get that, which is really encouraging.
How do you think about the concept of work-life balance? What strategies do you use to find fulfillment both in the workplace and in your personal life?
I think about it in two ways: One is prioritization. Two is my wellbeing.
Prioritization – I think that's the product manager in me. It's just making sure that I'm spending my time in ways that are aligned with what I value. That means saying no to things, because I have a finite amount of time. And sometimes it means doing certain things good enough, which is very uncomfortable. But sometimes that's the right answer.
And then wellbeing – that's something that I've had to learn the hard way. Early in my career, I didn't have that balance, and I didn't really take care of myself very well. I've had to learn how to do that. It's simple things. It's getting enough sleep. Exercise. Quiet, reflection, meditation time. Those kinds of things. If I do those things, then I am a happier, more productive version of myself. And if I bring that to my family and to work, then that's the best thing I could do for both of those environments.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
My family. My husband and I have three little girls. We have a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins.
What's a book you always recommend?
In the products domain, it would be "Inspired" by Marty Cagan. Really awesome book about how to build awesome products. A more general business book would be "The Linchpin" by Seth Godin. I just love all his work, and that book specifically is about finding your way when there's no map and creating your own path.
What would help bring more women into the tech industry and to leadership posts?
It starts very, very early in a girl's life: Telling little girls that they're good at math. It's really simple, but it's really powerful. Having them believe that so they stick with it is really important. And I think we could do a better job of showing how the work that we do is art as much as it is science. We're creating. We're artists. That's a lot of fun. I think we could attract more people by showing that side of it a bit better.
Also, awareness of our inherent biases, and creating opportunities for women. I read an article recently about how in hiring, we tend to hire people that we identify with, that are like us. For men, that can mean hiring men. That's not intentional, but it's an inherent bias. I think just becoming more aware of that can help us change some of those behaviors.
What advice would you give to women pursuing leadership roles in the tech sector?
Surround yourself with people that are really smart, that you can learn from. Find a mentor, somebody that is willing to invest in you and believe in you and help you. Seek feedback; that is the best way to build self-awareness and to grow and learn and change.
And speak up. You have great ideas – let's hear them. I hear that quite often in interviews. Women tell me, maybe when we talk about areas of opportunity, they say, "Well, my boss gave me feedback that I should've spoken up for myself more often," and things like that. I hear that quite a bit.
We need to encourage them to speak up, but we also need to seek answers from them. Ask questions. It could be that someone isn't confident in their abilities yet, or it could be that they're introverted. There could be a variety of reasons. But it's on both sides to work on that.