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Episode 61: Cultivate Confidence - Dr. Dalma Novak

Dr. Novak has over 25 years of experience working in the fields of optical and wireless communications. She has a successful track record of R&D leadership and product development in the industrial and academic sectors. Prior to co-founding Pharad/Octane Wireless, Dr. Novak was a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at The University of Melbourne. Later she led cross-disciplinary R&D teams developing WDM hardware for long-haul transmission systems at Dorsál Networks and Corvis Corporation.

Dr. Novak received the degrees of Bachelor of Engineering and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Queensland, Australia, in 1987 and 1992, respectively. She is a Fellow of the IEEE and is recognized internationally as an expert in the areas of microwave and millimeter-wave photonics. Dr. Novak has published more than 300 papers in these areas, including seven book chapters. In 2018 she was awarded the IEEE Photonics Society Engineering Achievement Award for her work developing breakthrough technologies for the microwave photonics field. She is currently serving as a member of the IEEE Board of Directors. 

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I have got to the point where if someone does repeat something that I just said, I’ll say, well, thank you for mansplaining. I’ll actually call people out now. I didn’t have confidence when I was younger, but now I do. And I say, well, thank you for just repeating what I said. I’m glad you appreciate my point of view. They don’t see what they’re doing.  I don’t think … most of the time there’s no malice involved there.

Welcome or welcome back to the Speak with Presence podcast. This is where perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change. I’m Jen Vellenga. I’m here with my co-host, Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. We’re the co-founders of Voice First World, a communication coaching company. While you’re listening and checking out the show notes for today’s guest, take a moment to rate and review the Speak with Presence podcast.

It really helps people just like you find us. Who are we interviewing today? Today, we are interviewing Dr. Dalma Novak. She is an engineer. She is the VP of Engineering at Octane Wireless. And we would like to note that she is the third woman we have interviewed on this podcast who is a member of IEEE.

That’s right. And I won’t even tell you what IEEE stands for because every time you try to ask that, everyone says, the name, what it is and what it represents is not indicative of the words that stand for the initials for those words anymore. But we’ll just say it’s the major engineering association with many societies.  It’s a gigantic organization. So maybe Dalma will talk to us a little bit more about that, but IEEE is huge. And yeah, we’ve interviewed two other people from IEEE before that are professionals in the engineering field. Alright, Jen, I think we should get this program started. 

Okay, so I do want to share it was International Women’s Day last week, and we are in the theme of interviewing international women, I did want to say that Dr. Dalma Novak was born in Croatia, immigrated to Hungary with her family and then got her degrees in Australia and is living in the United States. So truly a global representative. Before we bring her on, we’d like to share a message from somebody she knows. Here we go.

Dalma Novak is a woman with a truly extraordinary background and set of skills. I have worked with her for several years on IEEE committees and boards, and for those who are not familiar with IEEE, it is the largest technical professional organization in the world, with more than 420,000 members. Dalma brings so many valuable attributes not only to her work with IEEE, but to everything in which she is engaged.

She is a global citizen, having lived in Europe and worked and lived in both Australia and the United States. She also is familiar with not only academe, having worked as a university professor, researcher, and administrator, but also with the corporate world, as both an entrepreneur and co-founder of a successful company and as a key executive in a multifaceted company.

She is very adept at working with people from many cultural backgrounds. And in her role as the chair of the IEEE Technical Activities Board Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, she has made significant contributions in helping the 47 societies and councils of IEEE implement meaningful and effective initiatives in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. 

She has a great sense of humor, is extremely skilled at consensus building, and is an incredibly thoughtful, collegial, Innovative, collaborative, and responsive person. I’m lucky to have her as one of my wonderful friends. She is a true warrior woman. Oh, a warrior woman. That’s from Ruth Dyer. And she explained IEEE much better than I could.

Let’s bring on Dalma Novak. Hello Dalma. It’s so good to see you here. Hello, Jen. It’s wonderful to be here. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. It’s going to be a fun 30 minutes. Yes, it is. So, we want to dive right in and ask you about a time that you felt like a powerful speaker.  Before we do that, is there anything else we maybe didn’t cover that you want to share about your position right now in your career that maybe we didn’t cover in the opening?

So, I was a professor, and then I went to the dark side, working in industry and then starting, uh, helping to start my own company. So I still have one foot in the academe role because I’m a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. I still wear a little teeny, tiny academic hat as well. Can’t ever get away from it once you’re in. Could you share a time with us as I know you’ve spoken on many large and small stages virtually and in person, when have you felt like a powerful speaker?

I think when I just got some feedback that what I was saying was working effectively in terms of how I was communicating.  And when I look back on how I learned to communicate effectively, it has very much evolved over time. Starting off as a professor, the first thing that you need to do is to present effectively, giving your research presentation, for example. So, the first part was giving a technical presentation, but being able to do it in such a way that everybody clearly understood what you were doing, the results that you got.

And you were able to answer questions effectively as well. And then, it moved to working in industry. Then the environment was quite different. Now you’re involved in running a team. You need to manage your team effectively, communicate to them what the goals of the team are in the company.

And then also present the work of your team to other areas within the company. And again, my communication style evolved when I realized what’s important. The most important thing is to listen and to be able to communicate the message in such a way that everyone understands what you’re doing.

You’re listening to the feedback from everybody as well, and you’re internalizing that and responding to that, too. And then the third part of how I communicate is, you know, you talked about the IEEE. It’s a huge organization and there are thousands and thousands of volunteers, and we work on different initiatives. 

We work on committees. So, on a committee, you’re again now involved with interacting and getting your point of view across to another volunteer in order to get the committee to work effectively. So, all of those different parts, and I think that I’ve learned to cultivate confidence. I’m not entirely sure how I was able to do that successfully, but clearly, I have based it on the feedback that I get.

I’m told that I speak confidently and calmly whether I necessarily feel that internally or not. But clearly, I’ve been able to get that across to people. I think what’s important is listening and being able to convey your message in a concise and clear way. And I think, you know, some people find that challenging, but I think the more you focus on being able to present your message clearly and show empathy in the message that you’re conveying as well. 

And highlighting that you’re listening to the views of everybody else and internalizing them and recognizing them, that’s when you can be effective as a communicator. So certainly, the feedback that I received has helped me evolve in terms of my presentation style, my communication style, and how effective I’ve been.

Yes, feedback is so important for growth. And you mentioned before we went live about the differences between being concise in the academic realm and being concise in industry. Could you share a little bit about that? I was working in an academic environment and being in department meetings, and I know if there are professors out there who are listening to this, they know the same thing.

And you have these department meetings that can go on for hours. And it’s a very different approach. You know, it seems to be sort of no time limit to someone being able to express their point of view, even if they’ve made the same point, perhaps 10 different ways, but there’s the same point of fundamentally.

And going into industry, it was about you having a limited time. You have a deadline for your meeting. You have an agenda. You need to get through it. And the meetings were run much more efficiently with the mindset of we need to make progress here and move on, and people need to do other things.

And for me, a short meeting is always a good meeting because, you know, at some point if everyone’s made their point, but everyone’s just repeating what they’re saying, then you’re not achieving what you’re trying to do. And then you’re just not being able to accomplish all the other things that you need to do.

Are there any ways to redirect those conversations? The role of the chair is critical in doing that. They have to really be paying attention to what’s being said, recognize when the same comment is being said. And you know, it’s the role of the chair to say, we’ve already heard that comment. Only express an opinion if it’s different to what somebody else said.  Because otherwise, we don’t need to hear the same opinion over and over again. We can just say, okay, we’ve got consensus from half the room. Let’s listen to the opinions of the other half, who don’t agree for whatever reason. But sometimes it’s human nature, you know, people, we like to hear ourselves speak and like to be able to sometimes in a public forum show they agree with a particular comment, which I understand as well.

And I see that in IEEE meetings sometimes, but you can still say, I agree, and then move on and don’t have to repeat everything over and over again. Do you see it show up in a gendered way in terms of who’s heard and who isn’t, and who needs to repeat and who doesn’t?

Yeah, I mean, you definitely do see that, and I see that more often that men seem to want to convey their opinion more frequently, more loudly. It was interesting from a cultural background coming from Australia to the US. Even though English is the main language in both places, the culture that I was brought up with was that if you were in a meeting, you only spoke if you absolutely knew that what you were about to say was a 100% accurate.

And that’s when you spoke up at a meeting when you knew that for sure. Then coming to the US and being in a company, sitting around a table and listening to people who were conveying information that, actually, they didn’t know for sure, but it was just something that they wanted to get out there.

And that’s when I really understood. Okay. So, I don’t necessarily have to know something that is 100% true. I could just speculate, but it’s something that I’m very sensitive to because I can be in a meeting, and I can hear somebody saying something that clearly is speculative. 

And for me, if you don’t necessarily know for sure, and perhaps this is women are more focused on this, that they want to be 100% sure before they say something, or they want to make a comment about something. Whereas, I think men have more of a tendency to just sort of get it out there, even if they’re wrong or they’re not necessarily sure.

And, you know, coming from an engineering background, it’s all about accuracy and facts and being sure about the facts. So that was it. That was a different cultural change. And the other thing I noticed here, too, is sometimes it’s sort of the squeaky wheel gets the most oil.

So, about who is the most vocal in the room. And again, that goes back to the chair because the chair has to recognize who is clearly perhaps dominating the conversation. I think that happens a lot that conversations are dominated. And you, as a chair, you need to control that very well to make sure that there are other people in the room who want to speak, have an opportunity to convey their opinions, not just the loudest ones.

Yeah, good chairs are disciplined, for sure. Dalma, I’m sorry, I don’t know if you could see me during this, but I just had the giggles. And the only reason I had the giggles during what you were saying was not of disrespect, but bringing back some memories because I am privileged to be on this podcast today with two esteemed faculty members in their fields.  I am not.  I was on the development side, but the number of times when I went from industry back into higher education and development that I would sit around the table with my development hat on for two hours talking about strategy, and it was just talking about one word for 15 minutes if that was the right word.

I remember the dean that I worked for at that time, looking at me saying, Jenny, I can see that you’re struggling right now. And she meant this with all goodwill, knowing I was not the academic because I think I was sliding down into my chair because I just was eager to execute.

And so, I just appreciate the dialogue, and I appreciate everyone’s sharing, but it is key to the person, the chair, the dean, to whomever is running the meeting to keep things on track. Because I think I heard the same thing several times over a two-hour timeframe, and I was dying. I mean, I was dying.

You could resuscitate me on the floor at any moment. And Jen has witnessed this, and I do not have a poker face. So, with all that, thank you. Yes, I know exactly what you mean. You get to the point where it’s like, we’re not learning anything new here. Let’s move on, shall we? Let’s move on. Right. You know, the joke about podcasting too. I’ve had to be very aware of this lately that there’s a joke about podcasters that they bring on guests.  And the guest says something amazing, and then they repeat exactly what the guest said. It was like, to your earlier point, about some people are wired that way. But also, it’s a point of connection, a way to say, I’ve heard you, I understand you, but to paraphrase what the person already said. 

That’s why it’s great to have podcasts on hyper speed. You could do like three times speed and get through all the stuff that the hosts have repeated what the guest already said in the technical meetings. And again, this is a consequence of getting older and cultivating confidence is that I have got to the point where if someone does repeat something that I just said, I’ll say, well, thank you for mansplaining or, and I’ll actually call people out now.  I didn’t have confidence when I was younger, but now I do. And I say, well, thank you for just repeating what I said. I’m glad you appreciate my point of view.  You have to highlight things for people, otherwise they don’t see what they’re doing. And I don’t think most of the time there’s malice involved there.

And they’re probably thinking that they’re perhaps giving you some kudos by expressing this, the same opinion. But you have to be careful about how that’s perceived by other people around the room. If other people may just see it as that person had the good idea. Not that that person said it originally.

Yeah, but Dalma, don’t you think, you just said something, and it should have been common sense to me 20 years ago. So early on in my career, or throughout my career, that situation, where you’d say something, then another human would repeat the same thing. And I found it many times, and I would go to Jen, and I would say, okay, this happened.  Am I not stating this clearly? Because she was an expert in communicating. But what it came around to was what you just said, was it wasn’t as much as me not being clear. I mean, there could have been times when I wasn’t clear. But it was the mansplaining piece of it that I didn’t understand early on.

But man, did it really affect my confidence and my ability to think that I was communicating clearly. Oh, I absolutely agree. Oh, you just sometimes think there’s something wrong with you. Well, sometimes there is something wrong with me, but I mean, it’s a real thing. Okay. So, next question for you.  You said I’m at the point I’ve been told I speak confidently and clearly. You are in a very technical area where it’s very important to be able to take things that most people don’t understand and put it into a very clear and understandable way, depending upon who your audience is. My question to you is, what advice would you give to the younger you or to that younger generation to think of everything you’ve learned in the process? What would you say to somebody to maybe help them learn a little faster, even though sometimes it just does take time.

So, I think that when you’re armed with information, and you do all the research that you need to do in order to express your opinion, that can give you an inherent confidence because you can say that you’re referring to things that you have read about or that you know for sure.

And I think that’s a natural way to boost your confidence automatically because if someone questions what you’re saying, you’ve got the background behind it, the research that you’ve done on a particular topic to be able to defend what it is that you’re saying. And I guess that was something that I learned over time, that speaking is actually speaking effectively, and communicating effectively is a lot about doing your background work before you go into a meeting or you’re giving a technical presentation so that you’re sort of making it look effortless. But you’ve actually done a lot of the background work behind it. And that would be something that I would like to tell myself. You can start to build your confidence by at least having that part behind you to feel that you can. You have the ability to respond when you are asked questions, or perhaps when somebody confronts you about what your opinion is or something like that. So, I think that’s something that I’ve learned over time, and I think that’s a good way to start cultivating your confidence because the confidence piece is very important.

And I think that other than just taking time and being more experienced. It does, you know, there are only a certain number of things that you can do to make that perhaps accelerate. You’re speaking to preparation and practice, and I’m curious: experience is part of it, but the amount of time that it takes to prepare for a technical talk, do you think younger professionals overestimate or underestimate or know how much time it takes to prep?

Oh, that’s a good and interesting question. I’ve not actually thought about that. I would say perhaps they underestimate because I think that really being able to give a good technical presentation is not just about you being able to present sort of the contents of your work, you know, showing the experiment that you did and the results.

But it’s really being able to think about what is the story that you want to convey about how you went about this process. And when you convey a story, and you explain, and you introduce, why did I do this? What was I trying to investigate? What outcome was I trying to achieve? By telling a story, it makes people understand your message so much more effectively.

And that storytelling piece is only something that I learned was required of me when I started and gave these technical presentations.  When I first started, did my Ph.D., and then I gave this presentation, I would just sort of point and talk to what was on the side and then I realized, I need to actually speak as you write a journal paper.  For example, when you’re introducing the topic, you’re explaining the motivation for what you did, you’re explaining how you did it and the outcome.

That’s when people really understand what you did and why you did it and the message that you convey is so much more effective. And I think that applies whether you’re giving a technical presentation, or you’re having a team meeting, or you’re on a committee. It’s that story storytelling piece, but again by doing it in a concise way and making the message clear about each of those parts about why you did something and where you’re trying to get to the next step.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It’s the narrative. JRT?  I was just going to ask Dalma, I know she’s got a very important role, but if you’d like to come work for us on the marketing sales side, that would be great because you just said exactly what we tell people to hire. 

We’ll take it. I didn’t say it as well as you did. I should have said the narrative. That summarizes it in a nutshell. But you’re the technical person, and I am the storytelling, artistic, narrative person. And I spend my whole life now helping people understand how much time it takes to also take a story, and prep it, and weave it in to make a point about whatever the topic is or the technical piece.

For some people, it’s very hard to convince that story is important. So, I’m very happy that someone like you, who is an expert in your field, understands the technical so well, even you said it’s about story. Thank you. That was amazing. All of this was great, but honestly, I just want people to know we did not pay you to say that. We did not pay you to say it that well. That was all authentic in the moment.  

Well, Jen, I know we are close to time. Do you want to ask the last question? Oh, I do. Okay. So, we have started asking for a little humor and to have a fun clip on all the socials.  But don’t feel any pressure. We have been asking this question. We are Voice First World. We’ve been asking what on earth, which is a moment of unbelievable moments, maybe of bias, but it’s something you’ve witnessed in your world or personally that made you just go, what on earth in the working space? Do you have a story like that?

Yes, I do. Alright. That’s it. Let’s go. I can’t wait. When I went for my very first job interview, just after I finished my Ph.D., I was in Australia at The University of Queensland. And I went for a position as a tenured academic in the department. And there are all these professors sitting around the table interviewing me.

And, you know, it was a good conversation. The interview went well. They also had the advantage that they knew me because a number of them had taught me over the years. So, you know, I felt confident going out of that meeting. And then I found out later that actually during the interview, one of the professors asked me, so what is your husband going to do when he finishes his Ph.D.?  Because he was also finishing his PhD in the same department. So, I was just taken aback.  I couldn’t believe that they’re actually asking that question. You know, the assumption was as soon as he finished his Ph.D. and got a job somewhere then I would be going with him, you know, so I would be out of there.

And so clearly, they had a concern that I was not going to stay. And so, I told my husband this when I finished and left the interview. And I thought I could convince them that no he was going to stay, and he had this particular job offer coming up. So, it would be all fine and everything. I thought they were convinced, but apparently not.  Because the next day they saw him, I think it was the head of the department who saw him in the hallway and actually asked him then directly what he was going to do after his Ph.D.

Just to sort of validate, you know, the thing that I said during the interview and to see if we were being consistent. And so, of course, you know, he said the same thing that I did. So, he corroborated my testimony. That was good. And then the whole irony of this was that in the end, I actually ended up leaving.  Leaving the department and he followed me to a job at the University of Melbourne. So, at the end of the day, it wasn’t exactly how they thought it was going to turn out for them. It wasn’t him leaving. It was me. Oh, it’s so common. It’s so common, and now we would go legal.

Exactly. I know. This is like 1990, 1992, I think. So yes, there was no HR person sitting in the interview room. Nothing like that. What on earth? Okay, so I need clarity. I’m a slow learner here. I just want to verify in that interview. Did you take that position and stay for a while and then leaving, your husband followed?

I did. So, I took it, but I only ended up staying for eight months. Oh, good for you. I was offered this fantastic opportunity at the University of Melbourne to join a professor who had just come back from Bell Labs there. And that was sort of my dream job to go there and join his lab. So, I ended up leaving, and then he followed.

Well, you have had a fascinating career from the research that I’ve done. And while this podcast is more specifically about communication and not so much about the technicals of your career, I highly encourage anyone who’s watching, who wants to know more about IEEE or the technology space for engineers, that you please go look up IEEE and do a Google search on Dr. Dalma Novak because I found some really good interviews. She is a powerhouse, and we are so glad that you decided to join us on the Speak with Presence podcast for sure. Thank you both. Thank you both very much. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you today. Okay. JRT.

Wow. Wow. Wow. I mean, the women that we have interviewed from IEEE, I mean, and I just want to do a shout-out to Ruth Dyer, who has been such a great supporter of our work and has made so many of these recommendations for these interviews and, you know, 420,000 members in this association. And I can only imagine from what little we know about the women is that it’s been an amazing community.

And it is an amazing community, whether you’re male or female; if you are in this space, I would encourage people to learn more about what they do and to get further engaged. So many different societies, and I keep thinking back to Kathy Land and what she said when we interviewed her also, a recommendation from Ruth Dyer, who’s been an amazing supporter of ours from the beginning. But Kathy said that she felt that there was less bias in the engineering fields because it’s always about the creative project getting to the solution and the best idea wins.


Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL