If you balanced your checkbook online today, you may have Maria Azua to thank for it.
Ms. Azua helped develop the technology for home banking, as well as automated teller machines, secure online purchasing, text messaging from cell phones, and a host of other projects – 45 patents with 44 more pending – all for IBM Corp.
The 46-year-old Hispanic Business WOY finalist serves as vice-president of technology and innovation at IBM's offices in Somers, New York.
If a glass ceiling ever loomed over Ms. Azua, creating value made it fall away. "She is one of the most focused and passionate technical leaders we have when it comes to finding real value in everything we do," says Nicholas Donofrio, executive vice-president of innovation and technology at IBM's headquarters in Armonk, New York. "She enables others to focus and feel the same way. She is unselfish in her quest to help our company be a great company again."
Ms. Azua said she doesn't regret entering management at mid-career. "I was offered management jobs several times, but they all required moving, and I wanted to stay near my family.
"By the time I got into management, my team grew large and fast. They don't see me as a stodgy executive who doesn't understand, because I've done the same work they do. The years I spent with in-depth technology were valuable in earning respect."
Her colleagues describe Ms. Azua as passionate about her work with a people-oriented twist.
"Not only do I have the highest regard for Maria's technical ability, but I believe her passion to succeed is second to none," says Herman Rodriguez, a senior patent engineer for IBM in Austin, Texas, who was a co-inventor with her on several patents. "She is extremely energetic and relentless, and handles difficult situations with the conviction that she will prevail regardless of the challenge.
"Her passion and actions are complemented with the love she shows for her family. She is truly an inspiration to those around her."
Ms. Azua was 6 months old when her parents, a lawyer and a homemaker, left Cuba for Puerto Rico with her and her older sister. The family moved briefly to Miami, then returned to Puerto Rico after her father bought an amusement park. They settled in Urbanizacion Los Angeles, a neighborhood in Carolina next to the rumble of Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport.
Her father instilled in her his principles of good business behavior and her mother provided an attraction to science. "My mother never worked outside our home, but she loved science," Ms. Azua says. "In college, she studied a type of chemistry having to do with sugar manufacturing. High-tech at that time, 60 years ago, was focused on how to get more sucrose out of sugar. A hundred years from now, people will look at us as if we were strange to worry so much about food."
As in many families, Ms. Azua and her sister would have broken their parents' hearts if they had moved away from home to go to college. So she attended the University of Puerto Rico, graduating with a bachelor's degree in physics and applied math, then enrolled in graduate studies in computer science at the University of Miami and an MBA program at Florida Atlantic University so she could live in Miami with a watchful aunt.
Computer technology did not earn her love until she worked on a project involving cluster galaxies at the Arecibo Observatory while in grad school. "Since the telescope is a radio telescope, it gets radio waves, not pictures. I was writing FORTRAN programs to analyze the data," she says, referring to an early programming language. "We were doing a lot of data processing, and I found computers fascinating."
IBM found Ms. Azua in 1989 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, where she was considered an expert in SQL, Oracle, and other relational databases. "IBM wanted me to do database storage for a hospital," she says.
As the dot-com era unfolded, she acquired new skills for working with e-businesses. From designing UNIX, DOS, and OS/2 operating systems, she developed into a technology architect creating information solutions for IBM's large banking clients, including Bank of America and Bank One. It was not by accident, she says.
"Success has nothing to do with luck," Ms. Azua says. "I believe in thorough planning, in looking at where technology is going. I tell people now: Invest your energy in the future, not the present."
Ms. Azua has been married for 17 years to an IBM hardware engineer involved in chip design. "My husband and I work all hours of the day all the time, around the clock," she says, but weekends are their time together. "On Saturday, I don't read my mail, and we take three weeks' vacation together every year."
She says if she returned to college today, she would study biology and chemistry. That's because she foresees much computer work ahead in modeling virus mutations and epidemiology.
"Technology's not all bells and whistles," Ms. Azua says. "You really want the world to be better because of technology. Making the customer happy creates more demand, and that means more value to the company's bottom line."
She's a mentor to Hispanic students of all ages. "I want to tell them you can be whatever you want to be, and by the way science is cool. They see programs on TV about doctors in an ER or lawyers or celebrities, but when was the last time you saw a lawyer who looked like one on TV? We need to show them that engineers are cool, and engineering is a great career for average-looking people with above-average intelligence."
Ms. Azua earned the Star Award from the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for her mentoring, and her name turns up regularly on lists of influential Hispanics. Her most treasured achievement: induction in 2006 into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.
What about her first mentor? "It's the new generation's responsibility to demonstrate to our parents that going up the corporate ladder doesn't mean we love them or our kids any less," Ms. Azua said. "On the other hand, does the vice-president of a Fortune 500 company let Mami tell her what to do? Of course."
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