Real Technologists Newsletter

Thursday, March 7th, 2024

Thursday, March 7th, 2024

Julie Holdren

Julie Holdren is the Head of Product at both and ProductZen io.  With more than twenty-plus years of product management experience in successfully leading software and hardware products, Julie drives service strategies, roadmaps, and backlogs across divisional boundaries while facilitating collaboration for complex customer needs involving compliance, cyber security, AI/ML, and performance.

Episode Transcription:

Trac Bannon: When Julie Holdren, co founder of DC based Watering Hole AI joined our call, I immediately noticed stylish designer glasses with a popped collar. That lasted for only a few moments. Julie had a ton of connection and bandwidth issues. So after disconnecting and switching networks, Senior asked Julie and I to talk “cameras off”.

I’m glad we had those first few minutes visually… pleasant banter and noticing where my guests are zooming in from gives me additional clues for asking questions. The only clues I could glean is that Julie is very pretty, had her laptop perhaps sitting on her lap, and had what seemed to be naturally serious countenance… I guess inherently resolute. 

When prepping to interview a guest for Real Technologists, Senior and I do a very small amount of detective work. I’ve been a guest before when someone has done a tremendous amount of research and at times, I felt like they were not getting to the real me. And that is why each Real Technologists episode is a journey of discovery; too much research would taint me from asking really interesting questions that just randomly pop up as we chat. 

What we learned in our prep investigation about Julie is that she represents the new gig economy, but for executives in technology… a career style born of entrepreneurial culture, globalization, tech advances, and a changing workforce preference… giggers… instead of one role, giggers prefer many roles or jobs instead of just one… tons of gigs. 

As a renowned technologist with extensive experience in communications networks, cryptography, mobile technologies, and data science… why did she gravitate towards gigging? I’d say it started when she was a kid growing up in DC! 

Julie Holdren: I went to school in Fairfax County at the time. They were teaching Pascal and Basic in high school. So I graduated from high school already programming. and it was an elective. It was easy. It came to me easily. I was, one degree shy of a math major. So at the time, there wasn’t code generation tools and debugging tools the way they are today, which makes things a lot faster. So we ended up doing and learning very low level code through high school. I initially got exposed through the DoD in middle school to one of the first computers through my Girl Scout program. And earned a computer badge in middle school. And I think that piqued my interest.

Trac Bannon: Julie was involved in the Girl Scouts through middle school, until high school sports and computers became her focus. She learned PASCAL and BASIC programming in her computer elective, an elective that came easily for her. 

I sense that this is when Julie’s gigging began. She played both high school tennis and soccer. Her mix of sport choices gave me another clue… where soccer is very much a team sport, tennis is much more of an individual sport. I dare say most single players I know, myself included, are strong individualists. That seems to be true for Julie. 

There is a definite divide among midlife tennis players, though… those who will adventure out and try pickleball, and those who won’t… 

Julie Holdren: Pickleball is sending more people to the orthopedics doctors than any other sport right now. So I believe Pickleball is a great sport, but it really causes a lot of damage in the achilles… because it’s a quick response to support. And even though it’s easy and they don’t have to move around the court as much, they are putting and stressing themselves out. So I’m a little concerned about that. Pickle, what do they call it? Pickle pedics?

Trac Bannon: We had a bit of a laugh, and I have to admit, I was dying to see her expression when I admitted to being racquet-sport fluid.

Julie Holdren: Yeah, so I actually grew up and I have gone nowhere in life. I’m from the Washington DC area and I went to school here at George Mason University and I studied computer science and have always worked within the technology space within product technology, cryptography and security. So this is entirely my ecosystem here. 

Trac Bannon: Funny that she says she has gone nowhere in life. I’d have loved to see the smirk on her face when she said that. She has traveled the globe, though her college experience at George Mason University was a significant chapter in her life journey. 

Majoring in computer science, Julie was at the forefront of a field that was still burgeoning, especially for women. Her classes were challenging and fun, though it was her time as a student worker in a university computer lab that solidified her trajectory. 

Julie Holdren: What I did think at the time is that I would end up working in a cubicle at some big company , be able to solve interesting problem sets. And that was the kind of extent of my thought process. And I ended up working in the labs at the university on Silicon Graphics computers at the time , supporting the visual communications department… which is also kind of very interesting. And at the time was some of the best of class computers for graphics rendering. There wasn’t any specific individual that was a thought leader, at least in the labs where I was working with. I was in the computer science department, which is school of engineering… but I was supporting the SGI group, which was not part of the school of engineering. It was in the arts program. So I just found solving all these problems with the different technologies and architectures and chips of the actual hardware to be so fascinating.

Trac Bannon: Many of Julie’s professors worked with communications and with the Federal government. Likely that influenced her choice of companies for her student co-opting. While still at George Mason, Julie ended up co opting in engineering at a company that was called Telenet. This paved the path for her first job post college. Telenet was one of the many tech companies gobbled up in the world of high tech acquisitions. 

For Julie, Telenet gave her an opportunity to work on global communications, infrastructure, hardware, and eventually travel the world. At the time, the late 1990s, the internet was taking shape. 

Julie Holdren: The internet was happening. At the time, I remember sitting in the labs, I bought some of my first domains that I still own today, before, um, before ICANN even existed… we were able just to secure domain names. So I remember sitting in the lab doing that, and then people started calling me, much like they’re calling today for INML help… started calling, looking for support and building websites. And as a result, I ended up consulting and I built a company called Olympus Group and I grew that and ended up selling it in around 2002.

Trac Bannon: Let the career gigging begin! In parallel to building Olympus Group. Julie was called on to be part of the White House Millennium Council. This was during the lead up to the year 2000 changeover, and there were concerns by government, business, and high tech alike.

Julie Holdren: So it was a really, it was a different time, different place in Washington. It was before things got very secure. So it was interesting to meet… and convene with leaders from all different types of businesses. And so it was my first time kind of outside, still being physically in Washington, but being exposed to thought leaders in business of all types. So to me, that was less of a technology place and more opened my eyes to the larger world of business. As a computer scientist and primarily focused and staying in my swim lane, I realized that technology can, take you to a lot of different places. And you can solve a lot of different problems just with the same methods.

Trac Bannon: Graduate, land a good job, work with a White House committee, start a company on the side, grow it, sell it. Sounds exhausting! For Julie, the constant motion seems to give her energy. Her next step, some would say, is the penultimate gigging… marriage. 

Julie Holdren: So it’s interesting. I got married and started my first company the same year. And so I was really encouraged. My husband had really encouraged me to do my own thing. Cause he traveled a lot. It really opened my horizons once again… his career and what they were doing and what the opportunity was in technology. 

Trac Bannon: Penultimate is a neat word… it means second to last when ultimate is the real destination.

Why the grammar lesson? Because Julie’s next adventure is what I consider the ultimate gigging, at least from my experience… having children. And of course, Julie is always up for a challenge… twins, anyone?

Julie Holdren: Well, so that’s where the name came from. So I had the twins and I wanted to go back to work and people were calling me to do consulting work and I was like, what do I need the company? I was like… TwinsSoft. 

It was quite a goat rodeo for a couple of years. And it definitely pushed me to limits I didn’t know I was capable of and having been through that experience puts everything in perspective. So then in TwinSoft, I was looking to do something more DC based. So that was primarily doing work within the DOD and the state department intelligence communities on the technology communications infrastructure, and ended up working doing R& D.

As a result of doing work in there, I actually spun out a separate company that ended up getting sold to a venture funded company in the intelligence space… working communications. And I ended up going along with that sale to a company called Fixmo.

Trac Bannon: Gig-a-de-gig-gig! Start a company, grow a family, sell a company, navigate corporate acquisitions, and keep on growing. Fixmo was eventually acquired by Good Technology and BlackBerry. Do you remember BlackBerries? They were the mobile device envy in the tech world and for influencers of the day. In their heyday, in 2011, there were 85 million BlackBerry subscribers worldwide. Julie had depth in communications, networking, security, mobile hardware… she found her role was often at the intersection of business and technology as the product management leader. 

Julie owned TwinSoft for nearly 9 years before it was acquired, and she stayed with Fixmo through 2014. Julie decided not to stay through the next acquisition. She exited Fixmo. 2015 found a new gig for Julie… Coolspan Software. Like most of the Real Technologist alumni, I found out that Julie said yes when asked to help fix Coolspan’s product. 

Julie Holdren: So Coolspan was a private software company, and a team at Coolspan had reached out to me… because they needed some help with their product. And at the time, Fixmo had been sold… and I said, sure, I’ll consult with you. And then, these are friends of mine that I’ve known from the industry.

And they had invested at about… at the time about 85 million into their R& D and they wanted to productize what they were doing. So I went in as a consultant and then I ended up becoming the chief product officer. And I took their product out… did a global… it was primarily an international audience, like 90 plus percent of the revenue came from outside the United States.

And they were a communication platform for mobile phones. And it was primarily to foreign governments or telephone companies, which are typically owned by, or semi owned by the governments of those countries. So I spent, I don’t know, five, six years… trotting the globe and bringing that product line to market.

Trac Bannon: All this while raising not just her twins! She has a son as well as two dogs to round out her single parent family. Somewhere along the line, Julie and the father of her children parted company. Julie was matter of fact and gave no details. Even without video to see her face, I knew enough to simply not ask more. 

Julie Holdren: I actually have identical twin daughters that are 23 that are in medical school. One is in medical school at NYU and one is going to medical school next year. And then I have a 17 year old son who is a senior in high school and is a lacrosse player. And so things are very busy with those guys. And then I have two dogs. I have a 14 year old Jack Russell… who’s the boss. And then I have a 5-year-old, 85 pound German short hair pointer who is… thinks he’s 11 pounds. 

Trac Bannon: When I meet a Real Technologist, I’m inspired by them and sometimes, they cause me to really think and be introspective. With Julie Holdren, I found myself thinking through my journey as a technologist and happening to be a woman. Like Julie, I didn’t realize I was unique or even that gender mattered. 

Julie Holdren: You know, I have to say to you… you know, and, and, and maybe it’s a blessing and curse at the same time. Typically when I’m working, I’m kind of immune… my heads down looking at the mission or the problem. so I really… I had my own business as able to kind of navigate my own path.

Trac Bannon: Not just not knowing, not realizing. Outside, oblivious to the difference, until people started to ask, “What’s it mean to be the only woman in the room?” I am? Wait, let me look. Oh, check that out. 

Julie Holdren: So maybe by default the opportunities I was pulled into were open to having the best person performing the job as opposed to people, being less open to working with women in technology.

Trac Bannon: Boom… drop the mic as they say. Julie demonstrates that your signature is your work. She signs hers with excellence. There were mentors along the way, though for Julie, her own sense of curiosity drives her forward.

Julie Holdren: I had great mentors along the way in business that encouraged me to like follow my gut… follow this path. So throughout my career, you know, some have passed on, but they encouraged me to be intellectually curious before I was a thing… to always be curious. And it turns out that, I am very curious and I like solving problems through technology. 

Trac Bannon: Julie has worked globally multiple times, and took a role that caused her to relocate to London. The problems started when the lockdowns began.

Julie Holdren: December, before COVID was even a word to the best of my knowledge, I had taken a job, as a head of Chief Product Officer of a publicly traded company in the internet gambling space. And in January, I had moved to London to take over. And I didn’t have a residence permit. By March, I was one of the last planes out of London being evacuated.

Trac Bannon: Once back stateside, Julie was recruited into VIRB, a publicly traded company. They wanted her to be chief product officer. Julie needed more! Why not found yet another company at the same time?

Julie Holdren: I founded ProductZen primarily to do fractional work, and I got brought into several… I don’t know… around 10 different opportunities. Clients that needed a fractional product strategy work. So we actually had an infrastructure to do AI work that didn’t exist before that.

Trac Bannon: Gotta say, Julie’s intensity in entrepreneurship is incredible to witness! That constant motion shows in her home life as well. 

Julie Holdren: I’ve taken tennis and I also got really involved with my family skiing. So we ended up spending a lot of time skiing and playing tennis and spent a lot of time sailing. So that pretty much consumes my non computer life. 

Trac Bannon: WateringHole AI is one of her many gigs right now. The choice of the company name is pretty strategic. In nature, a WateringHole is a place where animals gather to get their water. When we talk about humans, a watering hole is a social gathering place. WateringHole AI is focused on commercial sector, not defense or intel. Their mission is to leverage AI and ML to transform the marketing tech stack for their clients. 

Julie Holdren: We talked to about 40 to 50 chief marketing officers validating the very specific work in the marketing, marketing tech stack and the services and solutions that we had done. And then they came back to us and they said… hey, listen, we need this help in our business.

Trac Bannon: Julie’s entire career has been at the leading edge of technological advances, and she has a keen sense of knowing what is trending and what is declining. What does this gigger see as the future of technology? 

The integration and evolution of AI and robotics. She believes that the next significant shift won’t be in AI alone, but will predominantly feature robotics in what she terms the “next revolution.” 

Julie Holdren: I believe the next wave of disruptive technology is going to be less around AI and more … quite honestly, the next industrial revolution is going to be more about robotics. And that field I think is wide open now. I think, like I said, we’re in the data industrial revolution. So I think that’s the next industrial revolution that I believe is going to be very disruptive… is the early adopters that start building their own data corpuses and data sets for their generative AI… that’s specific and unbiased towards their problem sets. I believe, are going to be the relevant companies and the thought leaders of the future. And I feel fortunate to live through the internet revolution, the data revolution, and then be able to observe the robotics revolution.

Trac Bannon: When asked, Julie offered introspective advice reflecting on her experiences and what she would convey to her younger self. From that strong, independent personality, I anticipated, then heard, a logical and compassionate bit of guidance… to focus on what truly matters….

Julie Holdren: It’s interesting. There’s a whole lot of things I spent time focused on and worrying about that just weren’t relevant. And I think my older, wiser self, I think I’m able, I’m more judicious about my focus and my intent… and the things I can control and the things that I can’t. So that’s what I would say is identify them sooner and quicker. 

Trac Bannon: And that’s a wrap for today’s episode of Real Technologists. I want to thank my guest, Julie Holdren for sharing her story. Your insights and experiences are truly inspiring. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share them with the audience. This podcast is a Sourced Network production and updates are available weekly on your favorite audio streaming platform. Just search for real technologists and consider subscribing. Special thanks to our executive producer, Mark Miller, for making this show possible. Our editor and sound engineer, Pokie Huang has done an amazing job bringing this story to life. Thank you both. The music for today’s episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions, and we use Descript for spoken text editing and audacity for the soundscaping. The show distribution platform is provided by CaptivateFM making it easy for our listeners to find and enjoy the show. That’s all for today, folks. This is Trac Bannon. Don’t forget to tune in next week for another intriguing episode of Real Technologists and something new to noodle on.

Episode Guest:

Julie Holdren

Julie Holdren is the Head of Product at both and ProductZen io.  With more than twenty-plus years of product management experience in successfully leading software and hardware products, Julie drives service strategies, roadmaps, and backlogs across divisional boundaries while facilitating collaboration for complex customer needs involving compliance, cyber security, AI/ML, and performance.