Back in the early 90s, I came to California at the start of the tech boom, and found work as a junior software programmer. Not an uncommon story at that time. But for me it was a little different. This is because for the first two companies where I worked as a programmer, I was the first woman in my group.
But then, I’m used to being the odd-woman-out. I came to the United States from India in the late 80s to complete my education, and while finishing my master’s degree I was juggling the demands of motherhood. Throughout my career as a programmer, and now as the VP of Sales for MecSoft, I’ve have had to overcome being intimidated to make my voice heard while gaining acceptance in the work group.
While there has been improvement in the last twenty years, women still face gender-based obstacles to success in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Some of the reasons for this have been well-documented, and while changes need to be made at the educational and societal level, it is up to women who want to succeed in technology to make their voice heard.
There are some important lessons that I have learned in my career that I believe I could impart to women who are entering the field of technology.
1. The Details Matter
When you’re the first anything at a new company, your co-workers need to know that they can trust you. The way to earn this trust is to pay attention to details. When you demonstrate a deep knowledge of your subject matter, it instills confidence and earns the respect and attention of your peers and clients.
This still applies for me today. As a sales professional for a technology company, I interact with clients who may be momentarily skeptical of my ability to help them. Within the first thirty seconds of a conversation, they realize that I am capable of helping them meet their requirements. As a consequence, they are more willing to talk to me as an equal.
2. Speak Up
Knowing the details isn’t enough. You have to be willing to speak up when you have an opinion on things that are important to the group and the company. Unfortunately, many women do not do this to avoid coming off as abrasive. Rest assured that due to your expertise and knowledge your opinion is important.
This is especially important when you need help. Again many women, possibly due to a fear of loss of respect or standing, are not very willing to ask questions. In fact, the opposite is true. When you ask questions when you need help, your co-workers will actually respect you more. First, because you are showing them that you trust and value their judgment, and second, by asking the right questions, you demonstrate your understanding of the project and its details.
3. Be Open to Change
When I started working at these companies, one thing I learned quickly is that you need to adapt to new circumstances and demands. I made a conscious effort to change my habits and natural tendencies to fit my workplace. Being quiet and reserved, I learned that the environment called for someone who could speak up and be pro-active, and that is what I learned to do. Also, as software development becomes increasingly collaborative, the ability to work collaboratively with your co-workers is crucial. Research has shown that women in technology have opened the doors to more effective modes of communication within development teams. You don’t have to change who you are, but you do need to adapt who you are to meet the needs and expectations of your workplace.
4. Strengthen Your Weaknesses
Later, when I first started working with my husband to build MecSoft, we quickly realized that we needed to know how to sell our product. As a programmer, I had never really understood sales, and felt that I lacked the necessary skills, so I started taking sales courses.
In the process, I gained an understanding of the process and methodology of sales. More importantly, I came to understand that selling is not about forcing prospects to buy something they don’t need. It is about recognizing their need, in some cases helping them recognizing their need, and then providing them with solutions to satisfy their need.
5. Find a Mentor
When I started out in the software industry, I was able to find mentors at the companies I worked for. These were more experienced programmers and managers who I could turn to for guidance, both in my day-to-day work and in my career. These professional relationships were very important for me.
Something I take great pride in is the role that I play as a mentor to the sales professionals who work for me. As a mentor, I see myself as more than a boss. I see myself as someone who is invested in their employees’ futures. In particular, I take great satisfaction in mentoring the women on our sales team. I’ve seen many of them grow to achieve things that they themselves might not have thought possible.
Mentoring is more than sharing what you know. It’s about both serving as an example, and also being able to learn from those you mentor.
6. Attitude Is Important
Whether you’re writing software, or running a business, a ‘Can Do’ attitude is most important. Such an attitude, buttressed by knowledge and experience, will naturally engender excellence, which in turn can mean the difference between success and failure.