This post was inspired by International Women's Day and "Nevertheless, She coded" - I encourage you all to participate by sharing your stories and advice!
It’s an exciting time to be a woman in a technical role. There is tremendous visibility within both large and small companies about the need for diversity and inclusion, and a growing understanding from the C-Suite that fostering diversity in the workforce HELPS, rather than hinders, team dynamics.
Nobody is going to care as much about your career as you do, and you’re the only one who’s going to build it. Can you growth hack your career?
What is growth hacking, anyway? According to Wikipedia, it’s “is a process of rapid experimentation”. In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, we solicited responses from our Vue Vixen community members, asking what tips and tricks helped them catapult their career as technical professionals. A treasure-trove of solid strategies was subsequently unearthed!
Note, many of the tips here can apply to anyone in tech, not only the women, and YMMV!
Mentoring has a long and storied history since Socrates mentored Plato who mentored Aristotle. Once your mentor is in place, you can even use the Socratic method of "cooperative questioning”* with this person. Some companies offer mentoring frameworks, including a company at which I worked several years ago. Employees opted into the program and were assigned a mentor. Mine was a cool lady, a mom of four including triplets. Believe me, I believed her when she talked about multitasking strategies! If your company has such a program, opt in. If it doesn’t, try to start one. A great resource we used is the series of guides by Linda Phillips-Jones:
“several companies have leadership programs pairing new leaders with mentors. I think that is really useful.” - Daniela, Vue Vixens Slack
Should your mentor be male or female? It depends. Find the personality fit that works for you, if you can. Men and women sometimes have different styles and strategies:
“Some of the leaders I had nourished me and fended off enemies. Most male leaders that helped me were close by, ceding power publicly, while most female leaders showed me interesting paths and invited me to try them. That is how I see it today, anyway.” - Daniela, Vue Vixens Slack
After being a mentee, perhaps you will then have the opportunity to mentor! This is a very rewarding experience if the environment is right. Small companies might be more nimble and able to allow the rapid movement from mentee to mentor:
“I grabbed the opportunity to become a mentor to all future interns, because I love it and learn a lot from teaching others.” Cyd - Vue Vixens Slack
If your company doesn’t have any formal program, you can potentially find a mentor simply by having great colleagues. When I was starting out in my first enterprise job at a large insurance firm, I was at sea in an ocean of cubicles. I was lucky to be mentored by my friend Irina, a terrific Belarusian developer. She and several other developers from the Eastern European countries had been recruited to help defuse the Y2K challenge that was the big fear of the late 1990s in software development. Irina had enough patience to both teach me the basics of debugging a web page and also did friendly things like tuck in my shirt tags and send over funny birthday cards. She was my first female mentor/colleague and she rocked. Finding a mentor is important in building your career, and if you can find a woman mentor, so much the better!
“When I started my career in tech, I was not as exposed to the opportunities that were available for me to leverage. This affected my early days’ growth because I was a bit torn apart and couldn't figure out a way of progression until I found some awesome women doing great things and that propelled my interest. Right now I think I'm doing a great job in my career thanks to people like Sarah Drasner. She's my hero!” - Gift, Vue Vixens Slack
Attending meetups is such an important part of being in tech that it should be a high priority for all companies to support employees who want to attend or host meetups. You will benefit by meeting folks in other companies that may be hiring or who are solving problems you’re finding equally challenging. Go to meetups to find peers and future colleagues.
It’s very tough, however, as a woman, to go into a meetup when you’re the only woman in the room. This happened to me recently, and I was so uncomfortable (even though you’d think I would be used to this by now) that I never returned. In addition, if you have little kids or live in an area that is unsafe at night, it’s a real logistics challenge to get to a location where an event starts at 7 and ends at 9 or 10 at night. Another issue is the amount of alcohol often served at meetups; it can create an unsafe environment. I have stories…🍻
So here are some strategies to help you attend meetups with the least amount of pain:
- Go with a wingwoman - can a girl friend or female colleague accompany you?
"I try to make sure I 'know' someone who is going to a meetup. If I see someone who seems welcoming post on Twitter, I'll ask them if they going to be at a particular meetup, and say I'll see them there, just to establish some sort of link" - Novella, Vue Vixens Slack
Can you attend remotely? Encourage meetup organizes to livestream. It won’t allow you to mingle, but at least you can get the knowledge being discussed.
Know your alcohol limits. Talk to the meetup organizers about monitoring intake. Meetup organizers also have a responsibility to enforce a Code of Conduct and you can help them create this atmosphere if the organizers are not hostile to the idea. If they are hostile to a code of conduct, you might want to reconsider your attendance.
My tip: if you go with a wingperson, and it’s a male wingperson, make sure they are ready to present you as a colleague - otherwise, you might be taken as ‘the girlfriend’ - which happened to me and annoyed me for days. If you aren’t willing to be aggressive in stepping forward and presenting yourself, make sure your wingperson can navigate the optics of ‘the wing’.
Are you a shy person?
So am I. I admit to sometimes taking refuge in the ladies room to breathe, after too much socializing. But - sorry ladies - you’re going to have to put yourself out there to network if you want to grow your career. This might be in person, via Social Media, by writing a blog, or by one-one-ones.
If you don’t feel comfortable right away meeting people face-to-face, start by meeting people online in a public space like Twitter (where you can also block and mute the weirdos). This is not a call to action to open your DMs, which I personally think is a terrible idea. But maybe send out a few balloons, and see what happens:
"My advice is usually to get online and be up front about a) being new and b) why you're there (do you want to network? do you want to find a job?" - Novella, Vue Vixens Slack
Cultivating a healthy social media presence takes time and effort but if it’s done properly, you can get a very solid network in place and a good platform to self-build your career. You can build your brand both online and in person.
Want to get started in your networking efforts? Why not volunteer at events?
"One of my go-to pieces of advice for anything IRL is to volunteer. It helps you have a role, a bit of authority, something to talk about, a reason to "be there" etc. It's not for everyone, but it has helped me." - Novella, Vue Vixens Slack
Are you NOT a shy person? Find a shy person and talk to them. There are a lot of shy people in the tech industry - otherwise, why would we choose a career staring at a computer all day? Feeling brave? Find a wallflower and make friends. She will thank you.
My husband recently noted that I have an uncanny ‘nose’ for knowing when a company is about to massively transform, or go ‘belly up’. After being unpleasantly laid off from my first startup, I developed this ‘nose’. Call it a nose for failure. But it’s an important nose to cultivate. Don’t wait to be pulled down by a failing small company? Take action. It’s not disloyal to always have an eye out for your next opportunity. This doesn’t mean switch jobs every year; that can hurt you when your resume is flagged as belonging to a job-hopper.
‘Bailing’ can include moving from one department to another in a big company, or from one project to another. I admit to leaving a company after I was denied the opportunity to work on a project for which I was eminently qualified, as someone more senior than I but less qualified was in line for that work. The writing was on the wall.
Before bailing, make sure you have covered all your bases:
"I also think that following my gut in certain occasions and being open and honest with people even when it’s hard to have certain conversations helped me to create great work relationships." - Maira, via Twitter
If you do bail, make sure you bail to something better. In this example, Lynne discusses how she found her way to an awesome team that allowed her to continue to grow her own career from within her organization:
“For the first 3 years of my career I worked with all male devs. I was a junior (self taught), and generally didn't feel like I could speak up or contribute ideas. My career 'hack' was to constantly ask questions, and to be very organised and particular about my code. When I started at my current company, they were very open to ideas and encouraged me to share them. At one point in the company I was working alongside 3 other female developers, which is rare in a company of around 50 people. Having these women around was inspiring and really helped me become better at what I do. I've now worked my way up to being a Senior Frontend Developer at the same company!" - Lynne, Vue Vixens Slack
This one takes some finesse. Some folks are born managers, and some simply find themselves in the role of managing people. I’ve had both horrendous and amazing managers in my career. The horrendous managers need a lot of what I call “managing up”.
Maira Wenzel 👩🏼💻@mairacw@jenlooper If I look back in my career and when I learned/grew the most was when I was tasked or took the initiative to drive big projects and delivered on those. Those helped with new skills, recognition and building trust.21:35 PM - 06 Mar 2019
Maira Wenzel 👩🏼💻@mairacw@jenlooper In some cases I got lucky where things just got assigned to my team but then my natural drive nowadays is to take the lead. In others, I talked to manager or people in my chain about aspirations like when I was interested in becoming a manager or doing something different.22:06 PM - 06 Mar 2019
Since people nowadays are rarely trained to be a manager, and often organizations are somewhat flat with nebulous chains of command, it’s almost entirely on us employees to manage our career growth. If you have a manager, it’s smart to go into your career-oriented meetings (like your quarterly one-on-ones, rather than your weekly standups) with a plan in hand. Go ahead, bring the notes. Here are some questions you can legitimately ask, and your manager should be able to answer:
“Where do you see me in 1 year? Five years? Ten years?”
“What can I do to better align myself with the department’s strategies and goals?”
“What resources are available to me to grow my knowledge base and keep learning?”
“What do you see as my strengths? My weaknesses? How can I amplify one and build on the other?” (this last one is from Lynne, Vue Vixens Slack)
Try this in your next meeting! If your manager is a good one, she or he shouldn’t even be obliging you to ask these questions, but rather should be asking you how you see your career progression. If neither you nor s/he can even visualize your career progression, refer to the previous point.
If there is any possible way you can do it, financially, go to a technical conference. You will be amazed at the doors it can open for you. If you can’t afford a ticket to pay your own way, watch for diversity scholarships offered by groups such as Women Who Code and by the conferences themselves.
Once you have a ticket, you can start looking for housing - see if any friends are going and wouldn’t mind sharing a room, or consider asking the organizers to open a Slack room for the conference where you can find a roomie.
Conferences are critical for professional development. And once you go to a few conferences, consider speaking at one! You could start by speaking at a local meetup, and work your way onto a stage. There are myriads of opportunities out there for new speakers; some conferences are particularly friendly to them.
You don’t have to be alone! A cool new initiative, ConferenceBuddy, helps pair folks with friends before the conference so that you can always find a buddy on the spot. I love this idea.
Conferences allow you to rapidly grow your knowledge, make connections, grow your colleague base, and more, all in just a few days. If you can swing it, go.
Pay equity. Pay, in general. If there’s a four-letter-word, it’s Pay. Well, sort of. There’s a delicate art of knowing how and when to ask for a pay raise. Women are notoriously underpaid in this profession, and it’s important to acknowledge that fact so that we can fix it.
The first step would be to know the culture in your company, educate yourself via word of mouth and sites like GlassDoor, and decide when to confront your manager if you learn that you are being paid less than your counterparts.
Some folks have had good experiences asking for raises in companies that have clear compensation policies:
“In all of my jobs as a developer we would have an annual review as standard which always is a pay rise of some sort. The amount is generally based on performance and it’s usually negotiable.” - Lynne, Vue Vixens Slack
“Where I currently work you usually don't need to ask for a raise as there's a structure in place already that caters for that. Based on your performance you can get promoted within every 6 months and that comes with a salary raise.” - Gift, Vue Vixens Slack
But for many more workers, pay equity is far more nebulous, especially for freelancers and contractors:
I’ve never managed to get a raise without either threatening to quit, quitting, or changing jobs. In 13 years.” - Marina, Vue Vixens Slack
The only thing you can do is to educate yourself, negotiate, and keep an eye on the door, if you are paid unfairly.
In the ’80s, career-oriented women were encouraged to dress ‘masculine’ to be ‘taken seriously’ in the workplace. Thus, a lot of dreadful suits ensued, with ill-fitting skirts, sensible heels, and gigantic shoulder pads.
Thank God, we have progressed past this phase. Now, you can wear what you like, within reason, and can still expect to be taken seriously in the tech workplace.
Even on conference stages, women are getting more and more creative with their fashion statements. And yes, it’s still a statement. People will still comment on what you wear, so you may as well think about it and get it right. Think of it as another part of your brand. I credit Tracy Lee with allowing conference speakers to wear Whatever They Please and still embrace fierceness as a technical professional.
Rather than trying to be someone you are not, think about who you really are, and embrace it. I guarantee that your honestly and integrity will make people take you more seriously, even if that embrace includes unicorn leggings. If you have more conservative tastes, by all means channel that. People will respect your independence of thought and courage.
Don’t overdo it, of course, but knowing yourself, and who you really are and what you represent, will really go a long way in convincing other folks that you know what you’re about.
Lastly, but absolutely not least, please, by all means, join a group for women in tech. It took me a long time to realize the value of these organizations, perhaps because they were not readily available when I needed them most in the ’90s. This is surprising even to me, as I went to a women’s college (Wellesley, ’92). But nowadays, WIT groups are immensely powerful and a strong proponent of getting women increasingly integrated into the mainstream. I think it is the goal of many of these groups to be rendered obsolete once gender parity gets to 50/50 in tech, but even then I think they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
WIT organizations are critically important spaces where women can be empowered. Not just ‘safe spaces' -- as if there was some need of protection -- these spaces are all about embracing fierceness and self-agency. Rather than comment more on a subject I feel particularly passionate about, as the founder and CEO of Vue Vixens, here are some testimonials from our members:
“Since the first day I started working with Vue Vixens, not only did I grow more fond of all the amazing women I have the opportunity to work with. I developed a genuine interest for their success and I decided to help as much as I could. The privilege of being nourished and strengthened by other women, and their knowledge has helped me also advance in my career! - Diana, Worldwide Community Organizer, Vue Vixens
My career was obvious enough until I met two amazing women who totally changed it: first was Jen Looper who invited me to Vue Vixens and trusted me to craft workshop docs. She didn't know anything about me but I couldn't fail her trust: I've written web workshop docs and during this process I realized I really love to share knowledge with people. I started to write articles and eventually turned to be a conference speaker. All these activities together with Jen's support led me to Google Developer Expert title. It would never happen without Jen and I am eternally grateful to her.
The second woman who really changed my career was Filipa Lacerda, Senior Frontend Engineer at GitLab. She convinced me to apply and recommended me to GitLab and thanks to her support now I am working in the company I really like. Filipa was a real inspiration and I think I would never apply if she didn't encourage me. - Natalia, CTO, Vue Vixens
To add to these voices, I simply state that without Natalia and Diana, Vue Vixens could not be, as it takes more than just a logo and a good idea to start a WIT organization. With them, we have scaled amazingly - just in March of 2019 we have events happening on three continents and a workshop at an important Vue.js conference. We are amazing but we are more amazing together.
In the strongest possible terms, I encourage you to find your local chapter of Vue Vixens, your local Women Who Code meetup, your local conference with a ng-Girls or React Girls workshop, and join the fun. You will join the most powerful kind of club, a club of sisters, who will advocate for you and empower you to climb. To join the ‘fempire’, a term coined by Tracy Lee, all you have to do is show up and be awesome. And remember who helped you to get where you are, and make sure you help the next one on the ladder.
*but not antagonistic!