When a powerhouse group of senior women technologists gather to share their know-how, the resulting conversation is bound to contain valuable output. From staying true to oneself while climbing the corporate ladder to negotiating like a boss, the following were some standout takeaways from the women leading the Path Forward panel at the Ladycoders Conference held at The Commons in Denver on Saturday, April 7.
- Never accept an unfair offer. When Kellen TK was interviewing for a job a few years back, she realized pretty quickly that she’d have to have to negotiate if she hoped to get the salary she actually deserved. “[The company] came back with a low offer, much lower than we agreed to, so I decided to negotiate,” Kellen remembered. Unfortunately the company wasn’t used to having a woman negotiate, and so they decided to forgo hiring her. “For that evening I felt sorry for myself,” Kellen admitted. “But I got up the next morning, cleaned myself up, put my resume out there, and three days after I was turned down, I had an offer for $5,000 more than I had requested.”
The takeaway: Three days might seem like a super quick turnaround, but even if it doesn’t happen that quickly for you, knowing your worth — and sticking to your guns when it comes to your salary — is always worth it in the end.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up. Kathy TK was working as head of the engineering department for a startup a few years back when a contract came through that she knew would be undeliverable. “No one had asked me to even look at this contract, and when I saw it — after it was signed — I realized the CEO agreed to deliver an entirely new product in three months. In that moment, I was like, this is not possible.” Despite the fact that Kathy continued to advise her boss that his expectations were unreasonable, he continued to tell her to make it happen anyway. “That mantra of ‘I don’t care what you have to say’ went on for another two years as we attempted to figure out what we would build and how to build it, and it played out exactly as I thought it was going to,” Kathy said. “That turned out to be the most valuable experience I have ever had in my career, because I learned what was important to me, and that what I had to say mattered. It didn’t matter that [my boss] didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Instead, I stood up for what I believed in.”
The takeaway: Women tend to ignore their intuition, but we shouldn’t. Listen to what your gut is telling you, and don’t be afraid to share your opinions.
- Recognize your gaps. It might be hard to admit, but everyone has gaps in their learning, and recognizing those can be crucial to moving forward and fixing them in your career. Patty Lopez realized this when she did the scariest thing she had done to date — leaving a big company and starting her career over from scratch. “It’s very exciting, but I’m still always learning,” she said. Patty furthers her knowledge base by taking online courses to grow her expertise.
The takeaway: It’s important to recognize that even CEOs and heads of companies are still learning. Figure out where the gaps are in your own career knowledge, and do what you can to fill them by taking additional classes or reading up on them.
- Always be teaching. It took being passed over on a job for which she was perfectly qualified for Patty to realize one crucial thing: If you aren’t always grooming someone else to take over your responsibilities at a job, you might get stuck right where you are. “No one will let you move out because no one can take over for you,” Patty advised. “People who progress are those who teach people to do their jobs so they have leeway to move up, and so that they’re seen as leaders.”
The takeaway: It might seem scary or pointless to teach someone else the ins and outs of the job you are working so hard at, but it’s important to make a point to do so. Consider it a step forward on your way to the next level, so that you know your current position will be left in good hands.
- Seek alternative ways to find leadership roles. Speaking of leaders, Patty also recommends using networking and event opportunities as ways to seek out new leadership prospects. At the end of the day, the work you do outside of your actual job could very well lead you to potential new paths within your job. “People learn leadership in a lot of ways, even if it’s not directly in their jobs, so it helps to look outside, within other organizations and in your community.”
The takeaway: Leadership roles come in many different forms. Make every event, meeting, and conversation you have an opportunity to become a leader.
- Be an innovator. When Shaw TK joined the Mapquest team many years ago, they were up against a lot of competition from Google Maps. Although Mapquest wasn’t as relevant in different areas and had a lot of ground to make up, Shaw didn’t shy away from the challenge. “I had a problem set at Mapquest where Google had better search capabilities with an army of over 2,000 people looking at maps and working on this problem, and we had to solve the problem with less than 40 people,” she admitted. After rebranding and launching a more successful product within a year, Shaw recognized that problem solving was a skillset she excelled at, and from then on she took her talents to startups where she could really put that to use.
The takeaway: Be aware of what’s going on in competing companies, and use that to propel solutions in your own line of work.
- Look at the overall culture of a company as part of the interview process. At one of her previous jobs, Shaw recognized pretty quickly that the company atmosphere was quite competitive. “In some cases that’s good, but it has to fit your personality and your style,” Shaw advised. Shaw learned that it was important for her to feel connected, and that without trust and collaboration, things can get overly competitive and unpleasant.
The takeaway: Even if a job looks good on paper or the salary seems right, if you don’t think you’ll enjoy going to work every day because of the culture that’s promoted there, it’s probably better to keep looking.
- Create your own brand. For Joan TK, spending a little time being self-aware and understanding who you are in general will propel you in your career, as well. “I’m in a very different place than where I started, but I’ve always been passionate about making the world a better place, and I’m passionate about integrity,” Shaw said. “Never let anyone label you. I’ve refused to take contracts that wouldn’t be in my sweet spot, because for me it was critical I had assignments that supported the vision and positioning I had for myself.” To be clear, being true to yourself and knowing your talents and skills doesn’t mean you won’t have obstacles, said Shaw, but it will help you be all you can be in this lifetime. “I want you to aspire to be on the board, if leadership is your path,” she said, “and to make an incredible impact given your incredible skills and talents that you already have, and that you will develop in the future.”
The takeaway: The sooner you can start developing your own person identity and using it to guide your career choices, the faster you’ll be able to set goals and objectives for your jobs that make you the happiest.
- Recognize where needs are, and fill them. If you can become good at identifying what isn’t working within your company, and providing ways to fix those problems, you could become invaluable. “Things pop up that no one wants to take on,” said Patty. “So if you set the agenda, you can take up that role and create your own opportunities.” Kellen took that idea one step further. She suggested having one contribution prepared and written down for every meeting, and not being afraid to approach people to solve their problems. “I would go up to people and say, ‘I saw you were trying to accomplish A, B, or C, and I would become the lead by matching people to work together …”
The takeaway: Don’t shy away from problems. Instead, make solving problems your forte and you’ll become an invaluable employee.
- Lean in. Borrowing from Sheryl Sandberg’s famous book, TK advised the audience to lean into their careers. After all, “you won’t discover what you’re capable of until you discover what you’re capable,” she said. More specifically, when presented with an opportunity, instead of wondering if you’ll be good enough to get it done, just say yes. “You’ll grow more than you ever believed you were capable of doing, and it could lead to something else very amazing,” TK said. “The conventional wisdom is to know your industry and be an industry guide, but you can play the lane in a lots of different ways.”
The takeaway: The path to success in IT might contain more bumps and potential setbacks for women than it does for men, but as long as women can band together to share the powerful lessons they’re learning, it will hopefully start getting much easier.