Heather Mickman’s career path didn’t necessarily go according to plan—which was to graduate college, work for a few years, and then return to school for a PhD in economics. Instead, the economics and math major had so much fun in her first job, as a senior manager at Accenture’s San Francisco office, that she skipped the secondary degree and kept right on working.
“I fell into Accenture’s supply chain practice and had the opportunity to work alongside different startups that were building supply chain software. It was so amazing, and I never looked back,” Mickman says.
After five years, she moved back to her home state of Minnesota, where she got experience working at two large organizations: Target and UnitedHealth Group. At Target, she led many of the modernization efforts in IT, including the initial API strategy and delivery and cloud migration. At UnitedHealth Group, she says, “I was excited to take the learnings from retail and apply it to healthcare problems.”
But the pull of retail never completely left her, and Mickman found her way back to the industry in March 2021, when she was hired at Gap Inc. as the SVP Engineering + Architecture. A few months later, she became the company’s interim Chief Information Officer.
Here, she talks about being a woman working in tech, why networking is critical for career success, and the importance of not accepting the status quo.
What led to your job at Gap Inc.?
I had spent the last few years at UnitedHealth Group and was thinking about making the shift back into retail. There are a lot of things I love about retail, but there’s just something so special about the holidays. Everything leading up to Black Friday, hanging out in a conference room together eating pizza and watching our systems scale, going from normal volumes to huge volumes, it’s so much fun and such an adrenaline rush—like a party you worked all year for!
Gap Inc. operates at a massive scale, but is a smaller organization than the ones I’d worked for in the past, so I was incredibly interested in the kind of impact I could have in this role. And finally, the people are just amazing. When I first met Sally Gilligan, who preceded me as CIO, I knew within the first five minutes that she was someone I could learn so much from.
What attracted you to work at Gap Inc.?
It’s very important to me to work for an organization that is centered around sustainability and commitment to women, and the fact that Gap Inc. is inclusive by design is a major reason I wanted to work here. Not to mention the fact that when I pulled up the executive leadership page, I saw that it was a company run by women! That is something you don’t see very often. I knew Gap Inc. was the right next place for me in my career.
What are you responsible for in your role?
I am responsible for the technology that powers everything for Gap Inc: our stores, ecommerce, supply chain, product development, distribution centers, enterprise and employee technologies, and more. We enable Gap Inc. to grow purpose-led billion-dollar brands that shape people’s ways of life.
Gap Inc. operates more than 3,000 stores and an end-to-end supply chain network from sourcing to fulfillment. We are the second-largest apparel ecommerce site. We have aggressive sustainability goals, with a goal to derive 100% of our cotton from more sustainable sources by 2025. And in early 2020, we achieved the goal we set in 2018 to conserve 10 billion liters of water by the end of 2020 through sustainable manufacturing practices.
I am responsible for the technology that enables this scale. I’m also responsible for the people on my teams and cultivating the environments to grow their careers and do meaningful work.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
I’m excited about the work we’re doing to build and grow the team to meet the scale that Gap Inc. needs to continue executing on our Power Plan 2023. Some things that are very important to me are culture and community and the ways we create a sharing and learning culture within our technology organization, embrace open-source technologies, and work within our teams.
What do you look for in candidates when building your teams?
As I’m building teams, I look for individuals who are curious and constantly learning. Those kinds of passionate, high-energy people breed more people like that, right? If you have a team of people who are passionate, you’re going to have extraordinary talent. And when I say “passionate,” I’m referring to people who don’t accept the status quo—we can’t keep doing the same thing or we’ll become stagnant and fall behind. We need to continuously push ourselves and raise the bar with what we’re doing.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in tech, and how have you overcome them?
We all know that tech is a male-dominated industry, which means there are less people that look like me in this field. My own experiences are a reason why I have a lot of passion for supporting and growing women in technology. I think it’s incredibly important as a woman—or as part of any underrepresented group in technology or another field—to not only have mentors, but also to have sponsors. Sponsors are the people who are a voice for you at the table, or in rooms where you are not present. Having sponsors has been incredibly important and impactful in my career and I’ve been intentional about selecting the ones that will have my back. I think about it from the perspective of building out a personal board of directors. For Heather Mickman Inc., who are my trusted advisors to help grow my career?
What have been the keys to your success as a woman working in a field where you are often underrepresented?
I think networking is critical to anyone’s success and it’s been particularly helpful for me to have a strong network that I can rely on to understand what’s happening within my environment, and to have thought partners who I can bounce ideas off of. That being said, humor and not taking things too seriously are key to me as well. As a result, when something happens that makes me feel like I’m being dismissed because I’m a woman, I try to approach it from a positive lens versus a defensive one.
I want to offer a call to action for everyone: If you see someone that isn’t being included in a group and whose voice isn’t being amplified, help them. If you see a woman and she’s the only woman at a table and not offering her opinion, ask her. Create space for people who might be an “only” at a table.
What advice do you have for other women who want to pursue a career in tech?
Do it! Be a continuous learner and find your voice. Your opinions and ideas are important, and it’s key to think intentionally about your personal brand and ask yourself “How do I show up? How do I do it consistently?” Build the courage to speak up and show up, and try to do it in a way that’s authentic to yourself.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
“You’re the only one who’s going to watch out for your career, no one else is.” You can have sponsors and mentors and coaches, but at the end of the day, it’s your own career and it’s up to you to make it what you want it to be. Since I started my career, I’ve always gotten the question: “Where do you want to be in five years?”
My answer is always the same. I don’t know where I want to be in five years, but I do know that I want to be continuously challenged, have increasing accountability, and be surrounded by interesting, hard-working, intelligent people. That way, I can continuously learn. If all those things are happening, independent of my title or company, I will be growing.