Advice for Women Entering the Tech Industry
At the end of the day, there’s no way to sugarcoat this: you will encounter difficulty, you will experience discrimination and harassment both in the workplace and in the larger community. Leaning in doesn’t solve everything, and leaving isn’t always the right choice for you.
I’ve compiled advice from various women in the industry across different roles, including: product management, design, engineering, business development, data, and devops for women just getting going in the tech industry. Although this advice was all written by and construed for women entering the tech industry, some or all of it may apply to diverse people of any gender. Your mileage may vary, but it’s useful to know what you’re getting into.
Things To Know For Your First Tech Job
Applying and interviewing for your first job in tech can be daunting, no matter what career point you were at before. “Besides your own side projects or coursework, try doing some pro bono work. It could be a small site, helping bug fix or design help, but it’s something that can go on your resume! Especially if tech is your side hustle or side passion for the moment, you can continue to build your skills through freelance and contracting work. This way you can test out the waters and have a variety of experiences before committing to a company or specific job,” recommends Rebecca Garcia, developer evangelist at Squarespace.
Understand That Sometimes It’s Them, Not You
“It’s not you, it’s systemic: early in my career, managers would underestimate my abilities and constantly assume bugs were my fault, even when they weren’t, and that made me assume I just wasn’t a good engineer. After heading similar stories from other women, I learned it wasn’t me, it was systemic. Definitely listen to constructive critique and learn from it, but when it gets mean — it’s not actually about you at all,” says Amy Wibowo of Bubble Zines.
Explicit sexism in the industry is a real problem, but what I find even more dangerous is the insidious implicit sexism. This might take the form of coworkers who constantly try to poke holes in (only) your ideas or in the form of management who tells you, “Nobody else has complained about this. It seems like you’re the only one with a problem with it.” Though explicit sexism is shocking and terrible, implicit sexism has the potential to make you internalize the negativity and feel too ashamed to talk about it with friends.
“Not all cultures and companies are created equal. I spent too long at places with very toxic cultures, either where I individually was devalued, or where operations as a profession was devalued, or just cultures that were incredibly ‘bro’-ish and alcohol-fueled. These days I’m seeing many more conversations about these sorts of things than I saw 5 years ago, but I didn’t know there was anything better than that,” says Katherine Daniels, a web operations engineer at Etsy.
I’ve known women in their first jobs who think that because they’re not happy with their current work, they can’t be happy anywhere. This is absolutely untrue. Don’t be afraid to leave and seek your own happiness in another workplace. No company is perfect, but you get to choose which flaws you can live with: as an individual, one of the most powerful things you can do is to vote with your job offer acceptance. Choose companies that support women and marginalized groups and who aren’t just paying lip service to it because it’s trendy. Look for companies that have women as part of the leadership team and watch out for the ones who take money from VCs with bad track records around supporting diversity in tech. There’s a real talent recruitment war out there, and any company should be thrilled to have you.
A Good Manager Is Key
So much of your happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment at a company is determined by your manager and by your relationship with them. If you join a startup, chances are there’s only one manager for whatever you do or that there is no manager who understands your role fully (i.e. a designer managed by the CEO, or community by an engineering lead). Even worse, startups are notorious for promoting people to managers primarily by seniority. This can mean that you can end up with a suboptimal experience. No matter how much you like a company, if you don’t have a manager who empowers you and actively advocates for you, it’ll be hard to feel fulfilled.
Choosing Between Companies
Know Your Value and Be Candid about Salary
Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. One major theme from the women I talked to across all different roles and levels was the importance of knowing your value and not being afraid to ask for more than what you’re initially offered. Sabrina Majeed, a design manager at Buzzfeed, says, “Just because that salary is significantly higher than what you had been making before doesn’t mean it’s what you should be making. People say that women don’t negotiate enough but I’ve found it’s more often that women don’t realize they need to.” Elena Grewal, data science manager at Airbnb shares the following piece of wisdom: “When companies make you a job offer with a given salary and equity, they often have an upper bound for that salary/equity in their back pocket in case they need to win you over. If you don’t negotiate, you will miss out on reaching that upper bound.”
So how do you figure out what to ask for and how? “Do your research to find out what average salaries for your position/experience are before you start interviewing. I used glassdoor.com and salar.ly. Find someone in the industry that you trust enough to have frank conversations about this,” advises Daniels. Majeed concurs: “Reach out to more experienced people in your field and ask them about their compensation history.” It’s not all about the money either, as Majeed notes: “It’s about knowing your worth and treating that as a baseline to measure how much a company values your role. This can be very telling information on how much influence your function has within the company and if that environment will allow you to do your job well.”
Find People You Want to Be Around
A significant portion of your life is spent at work, so it’s important to find colleagues that you enjoy being around and can learn from. Says Grewal, “Look for colleagues you really like and a work culture that gives you energy. You’ll be spending a significant amount of your day/life with your colleagues at the office, and your life will be much better if you enjoy the people and the atmosphere.”
Choose Companies with Women
I once asked a friend if traveling alone as a woman was dangerous or a bad idea. She told me that I shouldn’t be afraid to travel the world by myself but that I should always opt for walking in streets where women were around in order to avoid too much unpleasantness. This is a truth that I’ve carried with me to the workplace. Indeed, Divya Manian, product manager at Adobe, makes the same recommendation: “Working in a team that is about 50% women is a significantly more enjoyable experience than working in an all-male team.” You’ll likely encounter many startups working on fascinating challenges but who lack any meaningful diversity (including gender diversity). This is a decision you must make for yourself: if you’re willing to trailblaze and deal with many uncomfortable issues, or if having a critical mass to deal with issues together is more important to you. Relatedly, Daniels advises, “Don’t go into a company expecting to change the culture — it’s likely an uphill battle at best, and there *are* good companies out there. It’s not worth the harassment, dismissiveness, burnout, and damage to your physical and mental health to stay trying to change one of the less-than-good ones.”
Doing the Work
Don’t Take Your Soft Skills for Granted
“People who work or shift into the tech industry tend to put a lot of emphasis on honing their technical skills, whether it’s mastering a new programming language or improving your craft and visual design chops — but hard skills will only get you so far. It doesn’t matter how great your code or your design is if you can’t get buy-in from your team to actually ship it,” says Majeed.
Conquer Your Email
“When I started as a PM, managing my inbox was a big struggle,” recalls Manian. “I have never received as many emails as I did after becoming a Product Manager. It would be days before I would respond to important emails, or it would be too late and at best I would be a pest. Feeling like you are the emperor of your Inbox is essential to being a good Product Manager.” How do you do this? “Make sure you see important emails from your manager, stakeholders in your products and respond in a timely manner. Know who to cc and what to put in the subject line. Know when to mark emails as ‘high priority’. Know when to email vs calling someone on the phone vs texting someone. Know when to forward to an email and when to respond to one. Find someone at work who is really good at it, and ask them how they manage their inbox and start practicing some of their techniques.”
Focus on What You Love
Says Wibowo, “When picking a focus area, give preference for what you like and care about.” Certain areas are considered harder and more prestigious than others, but “loving and caring about it means it’ll be easier to reach the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert at it.”
Relatedly, Garcia recalls, “When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to change the world and I knew that I loved technology, but I never knew how to combine the two. Then I discovered you could work with non-profits and social good companies or build tools that improve or help people. This blew my mind. I think technology gives us the opportunity to reach so many people around the world and share with them what we can build.”
Working with Others
Be Mindful of Alienation
Joining a new company is hard. Joining a new tech company as a woman is even harder. Manian says, “It’s hard to earn the trust of your team, especially of a team that is getting a new Product Manager. It is likely that some of them will assume you are not capable as soon as they see you take some actions that they did not expect you to do. If you do not act upon their assumptions immediately, it can gain traction and make you an outsider.” At small and big tech companies alike, this is a dangerous situation to be in, regardless of your role.
Her advice is to “Talk to folks who express such opinions as soon as you hear about them. Schedule time to talk to each member of your team regularly and ask them if there is something they would like you to improve on or be better in.” Grewal agrees, “You’ll be able to move faster and have more impact if you develop trusting relationships with your colleagues and it’s much easier to build those relationships if you like being around them.”
Be Your Own PR Person
“Don’t wait for someone to notice how awesome you are to offer you an opportunity — whether it’s a promotion, an interview, or a speaking engagement. Create opportunities for yourself. They say the best way to get invited to the party is to host it yourself. If you want to get public speaking experience, then organize your own event and put yourself in the line-up. Instead of hoping and waiting for a media interview, pitch your own story to the press — or better yet, take to growing platforms like Medium and publish your own thoughts,” says Majeed.
Garcia agrees: “Public Speaking doesn’t have to be scary, I consider myself an introvert by default but I still love connecting with others and I feel really empowered through public speaking. Start small, get comfortable in a meetup group or local conferences and share something in a lightning talk. It could be a project you’re working on, a really great coding tip or talking about your favorite framework. Let it grow from there.”
Understanding that you have a unique perspective and experiences to share with the world is an important part of giving back. Watch out for the little voices that tell you you’re not qualified to share your opinion. These can be both internal (“I don’t have enough experience yet”) and external (“Only women in engineering roles are qualified to speak publicly about issues in tech”). Don’t let anyone — yourself, included — muzzle you.
Find a Support Group
“Make friends with and draw strength from other women: chances are that when you were young, you mostly had male friends that shared your interest in math and science,” says Wibowo. “After I realized how affected I was by internalized sexism, my fellow engineering ladies give me so much strength and inspiration.”
About a year ago, I co-wrote a post about feminism in the tech industry with a group of seven other talented and bright women. Although publishing the article brought a lot of recognition and opportunities, the process of conceptualizing and writing it was by far the best part for me. It came at a time when I was feeling particularly marginalized and disheartened, so hearing that other women that I respected and liked had had similar experiences was really important.
Learn to Value Yourself
“One mistake I made early in my ops career was to take to heart when people told me ‘You aren’t a real sysadmin.’ I spent far too much time devaluing myself, my work, and my time — for several years I only applied to ‘junior’ positions and never negotiated for a higher salary,” recalls Daniels of her early years.
“Sometimes we fall into the trap of assuming we’re underqualified until someone else decides we aren’t,” says Majeed. Recognizing your own value and avoiding selling yourself short are critical.
Tap into the Wider Community
“There are some really great conversations happening, in the hallway track at conferences and especially on Twitter. I didn’t understand the point of Twitter until I started working in ops, when I started out just complaining about various computer problems I was having, and ended up meeting an incredible community of people. Finding other women in the devops community has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career, both personally and professionally. I’ve gotten technical advice, book/podcast recommendations, gotten started speaking at conferences, and met my co-author all through Twitter. It’s also a great source of support systems — asking for career advice, recommendations on which conferences to go to/avoid, or just supportive people when the tech industry gets to be too much to deal with,” says Daniels.
Taking It to the Next Level
Avoid Playing into the Hierarchy
It’s something that almost all of us are guilty of, but try to be fair to other women in tech. It’s the sad truth that there’s some sort of hierarchy of roles in tech. Just remember that every time you treat your fellow woman in recruiting with less respect than she deserves and every time that you act offended that someone has mistaken you for someone in marketing or HR, you’re playing into the system that the patriarchy has put in place. Cutting down fellow women to build yourself up is a cruel trick and below the standard that you should hold yourself personally accountable to.
Learn How to Ask
One piece of advice I got from a founder was that whenever there is something you need, whether it was a hire, an intro, or advice, you should make it a point of bringing it up with everyone you met, even if just in passing. This simple thing opened numerous doors from unexpected places for him. Daniels is entirely on board: “Don’t be afraid to ask for ways to participate. I’ve gotten involved in things I never would have dreamed possible when I started in ops just by asking if there was a way to be involved.” Be proactive about it, advises Majeed: “Make a quick prototype, presentation, or mock-up and run it by your boss. Having that supporting evidence will be much more convincing than asking for permission to even start thinking about the problem.”
Hire Other Women
Don’t think you need to have internalized all of this advice, be a strong voice for diversity, or super successful career-wise before you can start helping others. “Often times, you’ll be one of the few women on the team. It is also likely that we are in that position because someone took a chance on you and looked past the systemic bias towards white men in tech. Pay it forward. Every time your team is looking to hire, encourage them to hire women. If you are looking to contract out jobs, try to find women to apply for these jobs. Find women in your company, and recruit them to join your team,” says Manian.
At the end of the day, there’s no way to sugarcoat this: you will encounter difficulty, you will experience discrimination and harassment both in the workplace and in the larger community. Leaning in doesn’t solve everything and leaving isn’t always the right choice for you.
Editor’s Note: The contributors to this article have donated their payment back to Model View Culture, and we’ll be using it to support other MVC writers and activists!