Brenda Discher—Making It in the Old Boy Network
Tanya Weaver posted on January 08, 2020 |
Overcoming harassment, multiple moves and negotiating the dream job close to home.
Mechanical engineer leads Siemens Software strategy and marketing team after spending most of her career at Autodesk.
Mechanical engineer leads Siemens Software strategy and marketing team after spending most of her career at Autodesk.

While many people may fear change, Brenda Discher actively embraces it—so much so that she is known as a change agent. The biggest change in her career came when she moved from Autodesk to Siemens in 2018—a surprise to everyone who knew her. Discher had been at Autodesk for 23 years.

We caught up with Discher so we could record her journey—her university years, her first job in engineering, how she transitioned into marketing, her many years at Autodesk where she rose through the ranks and was involved in bringing many new products and brands to market, and to being appointed senior vice president of strategy and marketing for Siemens Digital Industries Software in 2018.

Women Network. Brenda Discher, right, with Mary Kay Petersen kicking off a Siemens Women’s Mentoring/Networking session as part of the WIN@S. (Women’s Impact Network at Siemens.)
Women Network. Brenda Discher, right, with Mary Kay Petersen kicking off a Siemens Women’s Mentoring/Networking session as part of the WIN@S. (Women’s Impact Network at Siemens.)

Building Blocks

Discher grew up in Detroit, and after making several moves, now lives in the Detroit area again. She was the oldest of four children and had three brothers. More interested in her brothers’ toys than her own, Discher would often take them apart to see how they worked—then put them back together again.

“I also used to spend a lot of time playing with Matchbox cars and Lego. I remember putting Lego in the loop of the Matchbox cars and just seeing the friction and the acceleration that was needed. I was playing around with engineering and physics principles, but didn't know it at the time,” she said.

It came as no surprise that she enjoyed and was good at math and science in high school. It was during this time that her parents owned a tool and die shop for the automotive industry, and while many teenagers would steer clear of it, Discher would rush there after school to work with the machinists on the mills and lathes. “When I think back to that shop compared to places I go to now, it was really dirty and oily. There’s a joke that you can’t be an engineer if you have never had chips in your shoes, and I most certainly had chips in mine,” she recalled, smiling.

With her love of science, math and mechanics, it seemed a natural fit for her to combine these, and so she decided to embark on a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science at Eastern Michigan University. However, two years into this course, she switched her degree from computer science to mechanical/industrial engineering. “I was in the computer lab late one night, because that was when you could get the most performance from the hardware, and I noticed this guy working at a really large computer, drawing all different kinds of graphics. Intrigued, I went over and discovered it was CAD he was doing. I immediately saw the appeal, and the next morning I spoke to my advisor, and we switched my degree that day and I went into the Mechanical CAD program,” she said.

Brenda Discher, right, with Sydney Hardesty, senior at Davision High School and captain of the First Robotics Davision HOUSE OF CARDS Team #3534, which Siemens sponsors.
Brenda Discher, right, with Sydney Hardesty, senior at Davision High School and captain of the First Robotics Davision HOUSE OF CARDS Team #3534, which Siemens sponsors.

It wasn’t only engineering that interested Discher; she loved sports too and had been a swimmer all through school and university. Soon after being promoted to manager of a local park where she was also a lifeguard, her university mentor approached her with an internship opportunity at the French oilfield services provider Schlumberger, which had an office near the university in Ann Arbor, Mich. Initially reluctant to pursue the internship as it would mean less time spent in the park, Discher ultimately decided it would be a worthwhile opportunity. “My mom, who has been my mentor throughout my life, advised me to take it as it was a chance to get real experience, and I could still work at the park on weekends. That’s what I did, and I really enjoyed it,” she recalled.

Hello, CAD

The internship was during her junior year, and Schlumberger offered her a job upon graduation, and in 1987 she was one of four women to graduate with a degree in engineering from a class of 700. Straight into her first job, Discher moved up the ranks quickly. Although her job was as a software developer, being a natural leader, she was promoted to a manager within two years. “I’ve always been organizing and leading—even as a young kid, I remember insisting on planning all my brothers’ birthday parties,” she said, laughing. 

Taking on these leadership positions at the company, Discher realized that she wanted to move across to product management and marketing. So, she went back to Eastern Michigan University to complete a Master of Business Administration in International Marketing and Finance. During this time, as she was transitioning away from engineering, she kept being drawn back into the field, which she found difficult.

Siemens team at Women of Color STEM Conference, Detroit, Mich., October 2018.
Siemens team at Women of Color STEM Conference, Detroit, Mich., October 2018.

Experiencing Harassment as a Woman

While Discher liked her job, an incident with harassment caused her to move on from it. While she was used to chauvinistic behavior while in college, being one of only a handful of women, in the workplace she found herself harassed. This particular incident occurred during a presentation to the company’s management team, where she was standing up front with three other team members. Right before the presentation began, a highly inappropriate remark was directed at her by a member of the management team. Despite experiencing humiliation and embarrassment, Discher delivered her presentation, and then immediately went to HR to report the incident.

“HR told me that being a big executive, our paths wouldn’t cross again and I shouldn’t let it bother me. At the time, I was 24 or 25 and I didn’t do anything—and if it happened to me now, of course I would do something because it’s unacceptable. It was a turning point for me because I left shortly thereafter,” she said. 

She knew a few people who were working at Autodesk, which also had an office in the area, and so she contacted them. Following an interview, she was offered a job in six months’ time—as soon as her MBA would be completed.

Entrance to Autodesk

“When I started in the company’s mechanical/manufacturing industry, I worked for Buzz Kross, who has since retired from his position of senior vice president, but at that time he was in product management. We tracked each other’s careers throughout my time there because when he was promoted to director, I became the manager; he became the VP and I became the director; he became the SVP and I became the VP. Also, interestingly, Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk’s current CEO, was hired around the same time as me and so we were together the whole time too,” revealed Discher.

As Discher was moving up the management ranks, she was getting involved in increasingly more activities and was part of the team that was responsible for launching several market leading design, PLM, and software as a service (SaaS) offerings. “I have this innate curiosity and love being involved in the next big thing and, in the case of Autodesk, next generation offerings. Buzz had instilled in me that when a product’s doing really well, you need to start on the next new thing, because if you don’t, your competitors will. It’s actually in your own best interest when things are going well to be the most paranoid, and so you need to keep challenging the status quo,” she commented.

First Lego League Team, Howell Viking BOTS. Brenda Discher sponsored and founded this team in 2015, which her son Alex was on.
First Lego League Team, Howell Viking BOTS. Brenda Discher sponsored and founded this team in 2015, which her son Alex was on.

Leaving the Detroit Area—Temporarily

It was during her time at Autodesk that Discher had both of her children, two boys who are five years apart. And while being a working parent wasn’t a particular challenge for her as her husband was a stay-at-home dad, the challenge came when she wanted to uproot them all and move the family to Portland, Oreg.

“It was 2008/2009, Buzz was in Portland running the mechanical division and, because of the transformations he was driving in the company, he wanted his entire leadership team to be out on the West Coast. My husband and I had a heart-to-heart and finally decided it was the right thing to do, and we’d look at it as an adventure for our young family,” she said.

“We moved, put the kids in school, and within three weeks there was a company-wide reorganization. I was moved out of Buzz’s team and into the corporate marketing team where I’d be running industry marketing for the entire company and not just the mechanical division. So, although I got a promotion out of it, the outcome was that I needed to move back to Michigan again. This was all within three weeks, but luckily Michigan became the final location!”

To prevent further disruption to their sons, the family stayed in Portland through a whole year of school, although Discher was working away from home for most of the time to be with her team on the East Coast, before the family moved back. “As it was the recession, our house hadn’t actually sold, so we remodeled it and moved back in. So, although it’s a happy ending, it was an excruciatingly tough year for us and one of the two biggest challenges I had during my time at Autodesk,” she admitted.

Brenda Discher with the FIRST Robotics State Championship all-girl team, which Autodesk sponsored, for the 2017/2018 season.
Brenda Discher with the FIRST Robotics State Championship all-girl team, which Autodesk sponsored, for the 2017/2018 season.

The Bay Area Beckons, but…

A second challenge came for Discher in 2017 when Autodesk’s CEO, Carl Bass, retired. At that time Discher was vice president of Global Customer Service/Support. “The guy I had grown up with at Autodesk —Andrew Anagnost—is now CEO, and the question is what would I do? My aim was to eventually be a CMO and work in the same office as the CEO, but to do that would mean moving to the Bay Area as that was where Andrew was setting up his team,” she noted.

While Discher actively embraces change, she knew that this was not the right time to make a change for her family, least of all because her parents and in-laws were aging. “I put my family ahead of my career, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made because it would mean leaving Autodesk after I’d been with the company for over 20 years. I did have a really good discussion with them about it, and there was no bad animosity,” said Discher.

At the Crossroad

So, what to do next? During her career at Autodesk Discher had been heavily involved in FIRST robotics and other STEM programs, which she enjoyed, and so she thought that perhaps a teaching role would suit her. On the other hand, she’d always loved being involved in getting new ideas off the ground, and so working for a startup, where she would be the CMO working closely with the CEO, sounded ideal and is what she wanted.

After a few weeks, she had three options—an adjunct professor teaching role at a major Michigan university and two startups, both of which were university spinouts. When one of the startups requested a reference, Discher contacted an ex-colleague who’d since moved to Siemens. Surprised that she was leaving Autodesk, he agreed to be a reference for her and while she was in the process of negotiating an offer with one of the startups, she received a call from someone in HR at Siemens who’d actually been in touch with her three years earlier for a job that she’d turned down as the timing wasn’t right. And although the timing was better this time, she had already decided that she wasn’t going to move away from the Detroit area for a job. However, unbeknownst to her, the Siemens management teams were now based in Livonia, Mich.

The Path to Siemens

“Although this changed things, I did really want to work with one of the startups, who I was still waiting for an offer from. However, HR persuaded me to meet with Siemens’ CEO Tony Hemmelgarn for breakfast, which I reluctantly agreed to, and then on that day felt somewhat bothered by the fact that I had to get up early. But it turned out that I really liked him. He’s a brand-new CEO and looking for a partner to work on his brand, and everything he was looking for I had,” she said.

Following a few more breakfast meetings with Siemens executives, the company made Discher an offer. In the meantime, the startup had made her an offer too, although it wasn’t as good, and while Discher was trying to negotiate a better offer with them, Siemens came in with a second offer.

While Discher was weighing up her options, she realized that the appeal of a startup is that it would allow her to really drive change, which is her passion. “So, I called Tony back and said that from the point of view of a competitor, all Siemens tends to talk about is their technology rather than communicating who they are as a company and what they stand for. This needs to change, and I can drive that change. He agreed, and a short while later I had my final offer from Siemens, which this time I accepted. I’ve never had this happen to me before—it was good for the soul,” she said, laughing.

Dealing with Old Boy Networks

This experience also made her realize that having multiple options helps you negotiate better, which is something she now conveys to the women she mentors. “When I mentor women about their careers, I tell them that there are three important things. Number one is having an advocate, somebody who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room because the ‘old boy network’ still exists in companies. Number two is having a network of people you can rely on. If I’d not had that ex-colleague who I could approach for a reference, Siemens would never have known that I was looking for a job and I would never have known that they needed a CMO. Number three is knowing your timing and having options. If you have options, as a woman you will negotiate so much more for yourself,” she said.

A New Chapter

In April 2018, Discher started her position as senior vice president of business strategy and marketing for Siemens PLM Software, where she reports directly to Hemmelgarn and is responsible for integrating and unifying the company’s strategy and marketing organizations. In addition to managing the global brand and communications, she also leads portfolio management and industry/digital go-to-market strategies to establish the company as a market leader in the manufacturing industry for enterprise and small and medium-sized business (SMB) customers.

“It's all about culture and driving change, which is what I love to do. I initially spent the first five months on a ‘listening tour,’ where I spoke to various members of the leadership team. I then worked on a change agenda, which I’ve now unveiled and we’re starting to implement, which is quite a task as there’s 23,000 employees in our division and 380,000 across the entire company, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s exciting,” she said, smiling.

If that doesn’t take up all her time, she has also found time to set up a Siemens Women’s Network (SWN), which she was inspired to do after walking into an executive meeting at Siemens for the first time and realizing that she was the only woman in a room of a couple dozen executives. SWN is available to women within a pyramid format, with grassroots at the bottom, where meetings are held and various topics discussed; a group mentorship program in the middle; and leadership at the tip, which is focused on getting women who are currently in a leadership role onto the executive table.

“Siemens is investing heavily in diversity and inclusion programs, one of which is helping to build a brand-new Women’s Executive Development Program. So, we’re currently piloting SWN at our three U.S.-based sites, and then we hope to scale it to other sites around the world,” she said.

While not long in her new role, Discher is certainly instigating change at all levels, but as she says, “In my view, everything changes and as I always tell people, ‘Do you want to be part of the change, or do you want to let change happen to you?’”

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