Leaning in when you’re not Sheryl Sandberg – The Student Edition

Late last year I was invited to keynote at the 2014 BCS Lovelace Colloquium. Started by Dr Hannah Dee, a lecturer in Computing at Aberystwyth University, it is a meeting of women studying Computer Science and related subjects at UK universities. They have a chance to present academic posters, network with others and meet companies eager to hire them. For many girls this is their first experience at such a conference and for all that attend, it’s the first step on their career journey.

Overwhelming feedback from the audience and nudges from fellow speaker and friend Cate Huston made me promise to blog about what I said, so, here is:

How to “Lean In” when you’re not Sheryl Sandberg - the student edition

How to “Lean In” when you’re not Sheryl Sandberg – the student edition

For anyone who doesn’t yet know about the Lean In movement (and this applied to half of the audience)

The book Lean In is focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions, and changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do.

It’s written by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg who ‘has it all’; has two children, is at the top of her game and still manages to leave the office at a sane hour. The book talks about her journey, how she got there and gives advice to women on their way up. Some would argue that it’s easy for Sheryl to give advice from so high up. It’s fair to say that the advice I’d give to my student self would be somewhat different, so I’ve distilled the book into ‘how to lean in for students’.

As an aside, Sheryl understands this too. The day before I gave this talk, I received an invite for a session she was running entitled ‘How to Lean In for Graduates’. It would seem I’m in good company.

I’ve always loved technology – particularly the creativity I could express using it and  its capacity for problem solving. I’m a natural problem solver and extremely creative so have always felt at home with machinery and computers. I can still remember the thrill I got when I wrote my version of Little Red Riding Hood on my dad’s computer, saved it and came back to my very own version a day later. I had written it my way and the computer had remembered it, my way.

That’s why I’m so proud and fulfilled being a woman in technology today. I’m also proud to simultaneously wear two hats. By day, I’m an Assistant Vice President at a global investment bank working on enterprise collaboration strategies and ways for our business to use new technology to communicate, rather than being locked in their email inboxes. By night-ish I’m Head Stemette on the Stemettes project – something I set up over a year ago to solve the problem we have in the wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industry. Through Stemettes I’m sharing my love of technology, creativity and problem-solving with the next generation and showing girls that technology is an incredible thing to be involved with and work in.

Technology itself is awesome

A recent report on 12 ’Disruptive Technologies’ by McKinsey exemplifies why this statement is true. I was excited to show this to the BCS Lovelace Colloquium as they’re the first audience I’ve spoken to in a while who understand each of the technologies. Technology is changing the world as we know it, in ways we’ve not spent a long time considering. These girls are already equipped enough to understand these concepts, their underlying technology and therefore are primed to influence and drive the course of history with their Computer Science knowledge.

But just in case that wasn’t enough, I gave my standard list of 5 reasons why working in technology is awsone – adopted from Nora Denzel’s superb keynote at GHC 2012:
Reason 1 – You’re solving problems all over the world with knock-on benefits that may not be immediately obvious. Take this example of an SMS system setup by Intuit to help farmers regulate the price of their crops. It led to increased revenues and as a result led to increased numbers of girls in their villages going to school and getting an education.
Reason 2 – Ever heard of the ‘pay gap’? Within the first two years in most STEM roles, it’s non-existent. After a while, one does open up, but being in a STEM role means that you’ll earn on average 30% more than your female friends in other fields.
Reason 3 – Awesome SWAG. The free stuff you get given is incredible. Just last week on a visit to the Google offices I was given a Chromecast. Tech conferences are legendary for their goodie bags. Forget LondonFashionWeek etc, it’s all about GHC and CES. (winners at the Lovelace poster competition took home furry androids)
Reason 4 – Free food. This is a big winner with younger audiences. Bloomberg have a first floor which can only be compared to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory, but it has more than just chocolate (fast forward to 01:27 on this video). It’s free all day, everyday for colleagues and those lucky enough to be allowed to visit. Just ask any of the little Stemettes who spent two days hacking with us at their offices what the highlight of the office tour was. None of them came back empty handed. Some even discovered their new favourite snack/sweets.
Reason 5 – You can wear what you want. For people like me who don’t bother to spend too much time on their appearance and hate wearing heels, this is also a great one. I wear converses everyday, even at the investment bank. No-one is judging me on what I wear..

But there’s is no such thing as a free lunch and nothing worth anything is easy. Being in a (shrinking) minority can suck sometimes.

Sometimes the industry feels less awesome

Firstly, there’s the fact that there is so much choice, it is a bit overwhelming. You can be a developer, project manager, business analyst, tester, architect, advocate, community manager or ux designer. You could also end up doing a role that doesn’t even exist yet. I didn’t know ‘Enterprise Collaboration Strategists’ existed until I became one.
So the onus is on you to keep your eyes open and be aware of roles that you can do until you find the right one.
I had an amazing first boss, great environment and great visibility but was looking after the costs of servers. That was an  an incredible role for someone . That someone wasn’t me – believe it or not, backups, storage and server costs don’t get me up in the morning.

Secondly, you want to be taken seriously and feel in control of your career (the whole point of leaning in) but sometimes it’s difficult to feel like you have any leverage. You’re brand new, not an expert in anything in particular but are ambitious. You do need to remember that you have been hired, you do have those qualifications and someone has believed in you and your potential enough to give you a salary and a seat at the company. For some, (like me) it’s also a challenge to ‘adhere to the rules’, sit in your place in the hierarchy and play the game. Find a rhythm that works for you and don’t be afraid to speak up. You’d be surprised how valuable ‘out-of-place’ contributions coming from someone who is seeing a project, process or product with new eyes are. As a women with a computer science degree you’re in short supply and huge demand. Companies are crying out for you – don’t forget that.

Lastly, as a female in technology there’s one more unfortunate reality you’ll see and may even have to deal with. It’s unfortunate because it’s mostly subconscious. Sometimes you’ll be the only person of your gender, age range maybe even race in the room. It’s never bothered me due to the great environments I’ve found myself in, but working on the Stemettes project I’ve heard all manner of prejudices and reactions in the workplace. Things as random as
‘You’d be great on this project and would overachieve, but you don’t tie your hair up so we can’t’ to ‘Alright gents…..and lady’
have been said and sometimes worse has been done.

Remember you’re in short supply so have the power to find the environment that works for you. Also remember that being the odd one out is a very good thing – you will be remembered – which matters when it comes to giving out pieces of work, being promoted and having your name thrown around.

As a student, make it work for you

Which leads me to my distillation of leaning in for students. Sheryl’s book is great. As what I call a Student Stemette here are my top 3 suggestions for leaning in.

You have skills. In helping others, you’ll help yourself. 
You have what is currently seen as a superpower. You also have personal interests. Find ways to give back. The next generation will thank you, you’ll build a community of those with similar interests and will also open unknown doors to opportunities you’ll have never imagined.

Find a comfortable way to be visible
Whether it’s an open repository on GitHub (or equivalent), regular writing on topics of your own choice, tweets of brilliant articles you read, or even a vlog documenting the things you build, have a good online presence so that you can build a reputation. That way, when people are seeking out certain niches, skillsets and interests, they’ll come knocking. AND you’re a girl, so they’ll want you twice as much.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.27.04

Continue to say yes to extracurriculars // Say yes then learn how to do it later
When you’re at university you say yes to loads of societies, take up lots of responsibilities and get your fingers stuck in everything. When you start working, be conscious to continue this. Continue the subtle networking, membership of groups and taking up roles. With this will come weak ties which will make you valuable and will reap rewards in the long-run.

*Bonus* Find mentors, Seek Sponsors
I always use Eden from Toddlers & Tiaras to illustrate good sponsorship. When she started doing beauty pageants she had no idea what they meant, but had a great sponsor who dressed her up, told her to say and do (seemingly) weird things and now she wins everything she goes in for. Everyone needs a sounding board to help them work out what comes next, whether they’re making the right decisions and opportunities for personal development. What we also need are fairy godmothers who get behind us, force us to do the good things we don’t want to do, who nominate us for awards without us knowing and fly your flag when you’re not in the room. They also push you to do things outside of your comfort zone.

The Stemettes are running a ‘Student to Stemette’ mentoring-come-sponsorship scheme and we’re hoping to make this happen for you. Ultimately leaning in will help you find those fairy godmothers.

Student Stemettes, the industry is waiting for you to lean in.

Make the industry lean in for you.

Slides are at http://bit.ly/amilovelace

Peace, aimafidon

2 responses to “Leaning in when you’re not Sheryl Sandberg – The Student Edition

  1. Pingback: BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium 2014 blog roundup | hannah dee·

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