A tech career can be a scary prospect for female graduates, particularly given the recent spate of unsavoury incidents that have been reported by women in tech. But while these problems most definitely exist, there are also innumerable positive stories and tales of success – like those of Australia’s female-founded startups – that hopefully encourage young women in STEM to take that first step.
Tech is, in many ways, leading the equality charge, particularly when it comes to getting women on boards. The reason for this push, over and above fairness? Gender equality is good for the bottom line. In fact, McKinsey reports that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to outperform industry medians.
The number of female founders is continuing to trend upwards in Australia, sitting at 25.4 percent late last year, up from 23.5 percent the previous year. Sure, it’s not 50 percent, but it’s a hell of a lot better than 16 percent – the figure in 2011.
The industry is making real efforts to support women in tech. This was seen on International Women’s Day in March 2018 when a number of major Australian VC firms announced a program that connected female start-up founders with established women leaders in the industry for one-on-one coaching. Who better to inspire the female tech leaders of tomorrow than those who have done it before, after all?
Following this thought process, we’ve collected insights from eight fierce female leaders and executives, to find out what tips they would give their younger selves if they were to graduate today.
Katherine Boiciuc, Director of Business Capability, Telstra
Katherine Boiciuc believes that mentoring is critical to graduates looking to progress their careers. “Writing down the names of the people I would like to meet and learn from is a great way to draw up a mentoring wish list,” she advises. She also suggests to keep things relaxed – “you are not asking someone to the school dance. If the first catch up doesn’t feel right then don’t force the relationship.”
When it comes to building a personal brand, Boiciuc would tell herself to remember that her name is her brand, “you should treat it like a valuable commodity.” Furthermore, first impressions count; this applies in person and via your online profiles. “Trust is easy to lose and hard to rebuild,” she instructs.
Boiciuc also believes in being yourself. For her, this means coming to work in jeans and sparkly sneakers. She finds that people shine the most when they feel like themselves both inside and outside the office. Others tend to be attracted to working with people whose personalities shine through.
Boiciuc’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Network like your career depends on it… because it does. Make trusted connections both within and outside your company by attending industry events and using social media platforms like LinkedIn.”
- “You are enough, enough of everything you need to be in order to achieve whatever your heart desires… so back yourself and dream big!”
- “All businesses are people businesses, so make sure you don’t forget the lost art of doing business through trusted relationships. I would suggest meeting people in person or talking to them on the phone. It’s an easier way to communicate and is a more human way of doing business.”
Caitlin Riordan, Vice President, APAC Services, Cheetah Digital
At 21 years old, Caitlin Riordan found herself in front of a female hiring manager who asked her that most fundamental of interview questions – “what is your weakness?” “I’m a girl and I’m young,” was her response. The hiring manager laughed and told her “that’s not a weakness, that’s a strength. Try again”. In the years that followed, Riordan slowly learned that “age is just a number, and neither it nor gender equal intellect or capability.”
Riordan believes that finding a mentor is vital to develop your early career – “they are such an important soundboard,” she notes. She adds that they can help you to see which traits you want to have as a leader in the future, to find a working style that suits you, and to understand how to learn from the experiences of others.
But at the same time, she urges female grads to realise that business mentors will come and go, and to not be over-reliant on their guidance. “Ultimately you shape your own path. Never leave it to a mentor, a manager or anyone else. When you make decisions you should make them from your gut, from your value system and in a way which sits well with your own style.” Furthermore, she tells grads to gather inspiration from wherever they can, including books, articles, podcasts, TED talks, family members and industry professionals.
On the importance building a personal brand, Riordan encourages authenticity – “You are your own brand under the [insert company] banner. People buy from people. In order to be authentic, to be considered for a promotion or to be given an opportunity, you need to stand for something. Know your values. Display and act on your values. Practice what you preach.
“So much in business is based on EQ, not IQ, and much of that comes from listening and understanding your own relationships with others and how they perceive you.”
To build a credible brand for yourself, Riordan says, be a doer – someone who gets stuff done – but also be humble in acknowledging the success of those around you. Don’t be cocky. Stay out of office politics and gossip. Kill it with kindness.
Do these things and Riordan is confident you’ll build a personal brand that is destined to succeed.
Riordan’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Diversity is a strength.”
- “Resilience is a skill best learned and tested the hard way, and if you test it hard enough, it becomes grit.”
- “Not everyone will like you or have the same value system as you, but that’s totally OK. Stay true to you.”
Natalie Fair, Major Accounts Manager, PagerDuty
“Everyone should have a mentor, hands down,” announces Natalie Fair, PagerDuty’s Major Accounts Manager. Fair is passionate about mentors and sponsors for their ability to help graduates navigate a career path, as they’ve done it all before. “Building a career is not always easy. Having a mentor (and where possible a sponsor) will be a shining light to guide you to where you want to be. Do it!” she emphasises.
When it comes to building a personal brand, Fair says that anyone with aspirations of leadership needs to be seen as the “expert” in their field. Fortunately young female graduates have social media. “Before social media, this was a lot harder,” she notes, “now anyone that is prepared to put themselves out there can do it. LinkedIn is usually the best starting point.” She advises spending some time putting together a profile that is going to speak to the audience you’re trying to attract. Post consistently with relevant, targeted articles to build credibility.
Beyond online brand building, Fair encourages young grads to look at the following:
- Meetups: “Go to them, network, offer to be part of them and at the appropriate time, start your own.”
- Speaking positions: ”Keep track of the events calendar throughout the year. Target some events that fit within your domain. Determine topics that are relevant to your brand and your audience and submit a request to speak.”
Fair’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Be confident in who you are and what you can achieve. Decide on what you want and go for it.”
- “Bring those new ideas to the table. If they don’t work, try again and again. In this agile world, innovation is welcome and failure is accepted.”
- “Build your network. The more people you meet, the more you learn and the greater exposure you get. And you just might find that sponsor who can help to build your career, or make some great lifelong friends.”
Joan Lapid, Sales & Marketing Director, Versent
Lapid acknowledges the importance of business mentors, but instructs that they’ll only be valuable if you’re giving as well as receiving. Her advice to young female grads: “a mentor will help you, but only if you put in what you expect to get out. A mentorship goes two ways.”
Lapid also believes that the key to selling yourself is first understanding yourself. “If you want to build your personal brand, think about what you want to be known for, who you need to influence and how you will reach that audience. Always be purposeful about the content you share. I believe that being authentic and collaborating wherever you can are critical to building a strong personal brand.”
Lapid’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Actually, just don’t be afraid! Asking questions shows tenacity, not a lack of knowledge.”
- “Help others. Never be too busy to help your colleagues. Helping others is a way of helping yourself. Who knows who your next boss might be?”
- “Find time to network, even if it seems scary. I still do this. You will learn so much from talking to people and understanding other people’s successes and failures.”
Helen Lea, Chief Employee Experience Officer, MYOB
“Ultimately we each have to take our own path, but getting different perspectives is helpful,” says Helen Lea, MYOB’s Chief Employee Experience Officer. “Someone outside our personal situation or who has walked a similar path themselves can also provide a balanced view with the benefit of a little bit of distance.” As is perhaps already clear, she is a big fan of mentors.
Resisting the modern day focus on personal branding, Lea prefers to instead think about reputation. “Your reputation is ideally reflective of the real you, rather than a stage-managed or engineered persona.” For her this means it should evolve from who you are, how you operate, the way you approach relationships and how you work. But a carefully curated reputation means nothing if no one is around to see it – “it goes without saying that having a reputation more widely will open the door to more opportunities, so being involved with initiatives, networks, and programs outside your own role or organisation is helpful.”
Lea has also been lucky to work in a company that takes gender equality seriously. “At MYOB we have an initiative designed to encourage more women into tech careers called Developher – and it’s specifically targeted at women wanting to change career direction or to re-enter the workforce.”
Lea’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Never be afraid to say you don’t know, to ask others to share their knowledge or to ask for help – at heart people are incredibly generous when you’re genuinely interested in learning.”
- “Have courage in your convictions. A previous manager once used to say that we ‘were employed for our opinions, perspectives and points of view,’ so share them. You’re of no value to any organisation if you hold those ideas to yourself. Having said that, knowing when to listen and when to ‘hold an opinion lightly’ are powerful skills as well.”
- “Take on the challenges and opportunities that life throws your way. Yes there will be risk involved, but that’s OK because the gains will outweigh the losses.”
Daniella Di Santo, Senior Manager, Accenture Technology
For Daniella Di Santo, Senior Manager at Accenture Technology, mentorship is about inspiration, and seeking someone whose path you can replicate. “You need to find a role model to look up to and someone that is performing in a role you aspire to,” she suggests. “Find that person that you either like working with or like the way that they work. Ask your mentor for real, constructive feedback and maintain an open and honest relationship.”
When asked about the importance of building a personal brand, Di Santo says she was once given this sage advice by a mentor of her own – “work out what you want to be famous for and do it.” She had a passion for testing and quality assurance – a discipline not exactly adored by many in the industry – but she committed to it and made it fun.
Years later, Di Santo is now known both locally and globally for this specialty, giving her the opportunity to travel internationally and be involved in a host of exciting projects. For those just starting to build their career and brand her advice is simple. “Develop an elevator pitch. What you would say to your CEO about your contributions to the workplace if you only have a few moments in a lift?”
Di Santo’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Take risks. When you are starting out you have nothing to lose. That decision you are contemplating while being unsure what is holding you back? Just do it.”
- “Travel as much as you can personally or for work. While you have no ties and commitments, see the world and appreciate what you have when you return home.”
- “The day you get out of bed unhappy to go to work is the day you need to make a change. After 20 years at Accenture I am still happy to get out of bed and perform to my best. The day I am no longer happy is when I will find something else to do.”
Karolina Pawlikowska, Android Engineer, Canva
By her own admission, Karolina Pawlikowska was lucky to find good mentors while studying and working. She believes that a good mentor shows you the opportunities and ways you can develop, whether those opportunities lie in building your on-the-job skills, or progressing your career.
Of the many mentors that Pawlikowska has had over the years only a handful were women, but they certainly made their mark on her. “I really value those relations because there is a deeper level of understanding on how we can achieve our goals without being too exhausted by just proving we are worthy.”
The act of building a personal brand can help you understand what you stand for, suggests Pawlikowska, as well as what you want to pursue as your career path. And once you know where you’re headed, “look for people with similar interests. Have a project, and recruit these people to work with you. These are good ways to build a picture of yourself as a specialist. Beyond this, try to share what you are working on at conferences, workshops, etc. Make sure to set-up your Linkedin profile, add your experience and skills, and register for different hackathons and meetups. Continue to build your network, and remember to stay curious!”
Pawlikowska’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Any question, anytime, to anyone. Don’t be afraid to show that you don’t know something – asking already means you want to change that!”
- “Don’t be afraid to speak up; express your knowledge, your opinion and your feelings. Learn how to do it in a way that you are heard and understood.”
- “Let yourself fail – it’s a natural part of learning and living. Always try to understand what that particular event taught you, keep that knowledge and move on! There is no use in constantly reminding yourself about what went wrong.”
Paulwyn Devasundaram, Software Engineer, Canva
Devasundaram knows that a mentor’s role in helping you to grow and develop your career is invaluable. “I believe [seeking help from a mentor] is always a good thing, regardless of which stage of your career you are in.” She says that great mentors are relatively rare, and that you might find them in some unexpected places. “If you see someone doing a great job – don’t be scared, jump in and ask them questions,” she instructs. “The chances are that they are excited to share their knowledge with you. You’ll get to understand what helps them do a great job, and that’s what mentoring is all about.”
Devasundaram believes the most critical consideration in building your personal brand is ensuring that you are portraying an accurate reflection of yourself. She points out that most companies have specific requirements for landing a technical role, and while having a great personal brand might get your foot in the door, you can’t be lax on your technical development. “Once you’ve been hired you’re a member of a team of engineers, and your brand is pointless if it’s not an accurate reflection of yourself.”
Devasundaram’s three key pieces of advice for female grads:
- “Learning how to learn is more important than simply building up a database of knowledge in your head.”
- “Develop an understanding of yourself – your strengths, your blind spots, things that energise you and things that don’t. If you don’t understand yourself, other people can’t make sense of you either.”
- “You will change as a person as you gain more experience, and that’s okay.”