The seven women sitting on the conference stage at the JJ Pickle Research Campus in Austin, Texas represented seven pathways to a shared industry—technology. Some had been intentional about their career choices; others found the industry by happy accident. In the audience, hundreds of women listened intently to their responses as Jess Smith, talent acquisition leader at Amazon, asked the panelists about authenticity, risk-taking, mentorship, networking and what they look for in a job candidate.
More than 300 women attended the Women Leaders in Technology event organized by Amazon, in partnership with HomeAway, Adobe, Visa and Facebook. It wasn’t a recruiting effort, according to Amazon recruiting manager Andres Barrera, whose idea it was to host the free event. Together with recruiting colleagues Ashley Gerwick and Erica Trudeau, they sought to create a positive, meaningful experience for the audience. It was about creating a community.
Janet Roberts, principal engineer at WellSky, a technology company focused on health and social care, credited continuous learning for her career success. “I’ve always stayed curious and looked for new things that I really wanted to know and do,” said Roberts. “Over time I’ve been very fortunate to build a good network of people to help me be in those spaces at the right time. Almost every transition I did was at the precipice of uncertainty. Authenticity is that part of you that allows you to jump fearlessly from one thing to another.”
Roberts encouraged the audience to be fearless. “You learn who you are by doing the things you don’t think you were meant to do,” she said. “New career opportunities will emerge because you take risks. And sometimes the people sitting next to you are your best mentors.”
Chelsea Howe, a creative producer at video game developer Owlchemy Labs, agreed. “Mentoring doesn’t have to be formalized,” she said. “If you are willing to ask just one question, you can get help when you need it.”
After the 90-minute panel discussion and Q&A, the panelists held break out sessions to meet with participants. Ashley Adams, software development manager at Amazon, received several questions from women who felt their career growth had stalled. “I told a lot of people to quit their jobs,” said Adams. “I strongly believe that if you get to a point where you’re no longer growing, you need to find a new team, a new role or a new company.”
Making a career decision is huge, but one way to make it easier is to shift your focus, according to Ameli Agbodan, director of product management and e-Commerce for HomeAway. “Focus on creating value and enjoying the journey as opposed to expecting a certain destination,” she said. “The good news is that being a woman in tech means we are going to have jobs for a long time and we have a lot to contribute.”
Participant feedback of the event was overwhelmingly positive, with many of the women stating how inspired they were. “I really enjoyed the opportunity to network with such a great group of women in Austin,” wrote one participant. “I moved here from the Bay Area last year, and this is exactly the type of event I’ve been missing since I got here.”
Austin is undoubtedly a hot-spot for technology growth, with many high-tech companies expanding their footprint or relocating their headquarters to the Texas capital. And, while Silicon Valley has long been seen as the hub of tech talent, Austin has a growing reputation for competing in this talent space.
In the U.S. women hold about 25% of the jobs in tech but leave at more than twice the rate than men. For the women who depart, almost a quarter of them never return to the industry. Those numbers shrink even more when looking at women of color. For example, Latinas, black and Asian women hold only one, three and five percent, respectively.
All this to say that Amazon’s efforts to inspire and engage women in technology is impressive, but not surprising. Amazon’s Future Engineeris the company’s signature program, focused on providing access to computer science education to 10 million students from underrepresented, underprivileged and underserved communities each year. According to Amazon’s website, Future Engineer is a large part of a $50 million commitment to computer science and STEM education.
Additional Career Wisdom from Panelists
On Mentoring: Agbodan suggests that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone you have a relationship with.
For example, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead, had a profound influence on me. I remember having a mind switch from waiting for a company or the world to give me something versus me saying I want that and I’m going for it–I’m raising my hand. Sandberg writes that a woman should look at her career as a jungle gym instead of a ladder and I’ve done that. If there’s an interesting problem and I can help solve it, I will do that and not worry so much about whether it is the perfect next step to climbing upward.”
On Job Shopping: Roberts has insight for those who find themselves in a rut.
Only you know what you have to offer, and it’s your job to translate that into what the current industry needs. Look at what a company wants and figure out what you know and do that makes you a more attractive candidate. Your unique experiences should not be a direct translation of the job posting; it’s about your wealth of experience and depth that transcends a skill set.”
On Gaining Confidence: Adams believes in the power of questioning.
Once you have questions, you can start a dialog and dig in. Sometimes women can be too concerned about bothering people, but it’s the manager’s job to be bothered. I tell all my directs, “I am here to listen to your complaints, listen to your successes, to cheer you on when you’re feeling down, to rein you in when you’re going a little too fast. This is my job; talk to me. That’s why I’m here.”
On Challenges: Howe believes much can be accomplished with the right mindset.
A change positive mindset is important when addressing workplace challenges. People who see challenges as opportunities to help them grow are change positive. They see the mountain, take a deep breath and step forward. People who are change averse see the mountain, look to the side and take the valley. Once you’ve climbed the mountain and get to the peak, you can see a lot further than the people who went around.”
On Networking: Panelist Dr. Misty Marian Nodine, a technology consultant, encourages introverts to push themselves to meet people.
If you want to get to know someone you have to do more than shake their hand. You have to sit down and talk to them, listen to what they are saying because that gives you the groundwork for future conversations.”
On Sponsorship: Panelist Dr. Monika Kofler, a software development manager at Amazon, encourages a little discomfort.
You want someone to thrust you forward even when you don’t think you are ready. You want them to put their social capital on the line that you are the right fit for the job. Sponsorship is all about trust.”
On Staying in the Comfort Zone: “Don’t!” said panelist Jennifer Parker, a software engineering manager at Forcepoint.
Look to stand out. Work hard. Stay focused and positive through change.”
Barrera and his team are currently discussing the next event. In the meantime, participant feedback indicates women intend to actively engage in this industry. Wrote one participant, “I was definitely glad that I made time to attend the Women Leaders in Technology event. The insights I got helped change my way of thinking…thanks to the wisdom of your panelists. Can’t wait to see what other events you have in store for the future.”