Empowered by Support: Communities, Connections & Careers – Part 1

Whether you are a student or an experienced engineering leader, a robust network, an opportunity for peer learning, the prospects of mentorship, and a crowd-sourced catalogue of career opportunities are vital for your personal and professional progression. In this episode, we invited senior women technologists who have devoted decades of their lives, either full-time or as passionate volunteers, to creating and nurturing empowering communities for technical women.

Celebrating Technology Leaders Episode 12

Our panel, with host Bushra Anjum (ACM-W Standing Committees Chair and ACM Ubiquity Senior Editor), discussed various support and learning communities for women in tech. You can join these communities based on your individual goals and career stage. Our panellists also hoped to inspire you to create spaces where you can empower others and nurture a sense of belonging. This article highlights key discussions in three parts; you can watch the full video here.

We start with getting to know our panelists. Please tell us how your background, personal journey, interests, and career aspirations led you to where you are.

Nidhi: Bushra referred to our background as “Decades of experience”. So, I’m definitely one of those. I have a few decades of experience in Chief Technology and Product Officer roles. Like many of you on the panel, I’ve been the only woman engineer, the woman manager, and the only woman at the exec table. I got to a point where I felt that I needed to do something. After a ton of introspection, I realized that the pursuit of more is just relentless. I could have continued in a larger organisation, with a more significant role and more pay, but I felt like I’d arrived. I needed to do something to change the equation: Women hold less than nine percent of engineering exec roles, and it is my mission to change that, and that’s why I founded SheTO.org. Today we are the largest private network of women and non-binary engineering leaders. Our goal is to help new leaders grow and thrive in their careers. They, in turn, will inspire the next generation of women to enter and stay in the industry and aspire to these higher roles.

Kathleen: I’m currently the VP of engineering at OwnTrail, a community and platform that helps folks achieve their next milestones in life. How I got here today? I have a background in computer science. As a student, before college, I was equally interested in languages, math, and science; I didn’t really lean one way or the other. So, when I entered college, I considered linguistics and math. As a young student, I decided to major in French, travel, and be an exchange student – do a summer semester abroad after graduation. I wasn’t excited about the types of jobs I was getting: I was doing tech support and translation, but I wanted to have a broader pool of jobs to choose from. I wanted to be able to move anywhere I wanted to. So, I went back to college and got a degree in computer science, which is how I ended up in the field and worked through many companies over the decades.

Farah: What Kathleen said resonated. I was interested in reading and languages, but also science and math. The one thing that tipped it for me was that I was an avid gamer growing up. So I was comfortable with being behind the computer. At some point in early high school, I felt it would be fun to sit behind the computer all day. That didn’t pan out exactly as planned, but that was the idea. My interest in languages and reading was deeply influenced by my parents. My dad would always have a lot of books around the house. He was an engineer by profession. So, I was introduced to a vast range of topics at a very young age, which helped me consider my creative side within my technology roles. My background is in computer science. I had made that decision by the time I was in college; some of it was because I loved STEM subjects, but also because of a process of elimination. For example, I didn’t want to be a doctor. After I graduated, I started as an engineer at Microsoft and went on to management roles at Microsoft, eBay and Electronic Arts. I also had a chance to do a startup.

Rose: My background is in mathematics and computer science. I went the route of software engineering and had an opportunity to do a lot of consulting. I had an opportunity to work in the Telco space and the geospatial industry when mapping technologies were just getting started. I spent about 15 years there and then moved into finding a community that would help me grow in my field. So, I found Anita Borg Systers community and came on board as a full-time, helping many women in tech across the globe but also myself. It’s very rewarding to see other women succeed – those you’ve mentored – and try to move the needle as much as possible. With Anita Borg, I also started with open-source technologies. Then I went on to CMD-IT (Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology). I got to work with minorities and people with disabilities, which also hit home with me. I must tell you that life opportunities steered me to where I am today.

How have communities (or lack thereof) played a part in your career progression as a student or an early-career professional?

Rose: I graduated from a historically black college and university, and so I saw so many of me in other majors. But it was very different when I came into the corporate world. It was mostly all men. I got to work on many government projects,  so it was a lot of military and intelligence. So, while trying to find something – and I don’t remember how – I found Systers. They were very instrumental when I was trying to get promotions and with how to deal with very uncomfortable situations. So, just having Systers’ email list was very important to me. It helped me navigate through some very tricky times and gain the confidence that I belonged in this field. It’s just been an amazing opportunity for me to join that community.

Farah: For me, it was more that there was always a lack of communities. I desperately wanted to be a part of one with more people like me. When I immigrated here to the US, I didn’t know a lot of women from Pakistan or South Asian women in general. So, part of my founding Pakistani women in Computing was that there just aren’t a lot of communities for support like Rose has talked about: A group of people with a shared history, some shared context where you don’t have to explain yourself every time from scratch. You can jump right into what is troubling you or share an issue without that fear of judgment, and there’s that safety in that. So, the idea of a community has been in my mind for a long time. I wish  I’d had a better network early on. Then, I could have started some of these things earlier. A third area which did help was the employee resource groups at Microsoft. They had a wide range of these communities: if you’re interested in investing or want to know about real estate etc. A bunch of us were really into puzzle hunts in person. I realized, retrospectively, that even joining some of those and meeting like-minded people and doing interesting activities outside of work helped a lot in building confidence and networking. It allowed building more organic relationships; maybe later on, you could go to those people for work-related things. So, don’t underestimate the value of some of these communities, which may not be tech communities or directly work-related but help keep your network more open and diverse. 

Kathleen: I would say that in University, there weren’t communities, or they weren’t very visible because I didn’t really find anything then. This was in the early to middle 1990s, when only a few women were in the computer science department. You knew the other women on at least a nodding basis because you kept seeing the same faces in classes. After college, when I moved to the Seattle area in my early career, the company I first worked at had one other woman developer. She was more towards the end of her career. So, we hung out a bit, but I did meet many women in other non-technical roles in the tech world – HR and design. Through them, I did get involved in some communities.  At that time, in the mid-90s, Digital Eve was a big one in the Seattle area, and they put on a lot of networking events. So, I met a lot of people through that. In the last few years,  I’ve started seeing employee resource groups coming out of the DEI initiatives at companies I’ve been to. So, the previous consulting company I worked at – Affirma in Bellevue, Washington –  had a women’s group and would put on internal webinars towards the DEI space. So, that was a new experience. Then, of course, I’m a part of the OwnTrail Community, which I’ll talk about later.

Nidhi: Like Farah and Kathleen, I didn’t belong to many communities. It started when I was doing my undergrad at an engineering school in India. We were four women in a class of 70. We didn’t even have a girls’ bathroom in my college. We used to go to the men’s bathroom, and the same journey continued when I came to the US as an immigrant for my master’s. Over time I realized that I struggled and hurt with my go-at-alone approach because you can lean on others. That was the genesis of the idea behind SheTO. So, when I was at Hired, I got invited to this intimate dinner of CTOs. I expected to walk into a room full of men because that’s who I always work with. But, to my utter shock, I walked into a room full of 15 other women who were highly accomplished. They were all VPEs, SVPs and CTOs. So, I thought, even when I, who have been in this industry for this long, don’t know of 15 other women,  how can the next generation of women be inspired? So, that’s when I came across one study by Gartner which said that less than nine percent of engineering exec rules are held by women. So, that was the moment when I had an if-not-me-then-who moment. I quit my job to pursue something more meaningful, and I made it my mission to make a dent in this gender gap as much as I possibly could. We were previously called Diversity, and now we’ve rebranded to SheTO. So, that’s how SheTO came about.

Continue to Part 2 to read more about our panelists own initiatives and communities for women.

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