Thriving as a Woman in Tech
By Mimi Hills
I’ve been fortunate to work in the software industry for years, many of them in the field of localization. One reward for working in high-tech is financial; technology companies tend to pay well compared to other fields. You don’t need a technical degree to land a localization job in a high-tech company, but technical experience can help get your foot in the door. Still, many colleagues have entered the high-tech world with a great localization resume and no technical background.
Success for women in technology takes resilience and a desire to learn, and sometimes stubbornness and a willingness to confront difficult situations. In general, I have been fortunate to have had supportive managers and colleagues. Many times I’ve felt that when working with a team of trusted colleagues toward a shared goal, any layers of potential bias seem to fall away.
Some time ago, I was a technical program manager and was sitting in a conference room with eight people I had been working with on a big software project. The project had missed its milestones, and we were tasked with getting it back on track. As I listened to the voices around me, I enjoyed the accents: Indian, British, Chinese, Scottish, Vietnamese, and more. The guy who named this a “war room” spoke in military and sports metaphors; many of us laughed and asked him what he was talking about. Looking around that table, I realized that I was the only woman in the room. Yet everyone there was an “only” in some way — the only woman, or person of a certain national origin, or sexual orientation. We were a supportive team with a common goal, and we each brought something unique to the table.
Still, I have seen times when bias gets in the way in brief interactions, and I’ve seen interactions when there’s inequity and even hostility. I’ve been both a target and a witness.
When a friend and I were the first co-leads for the women’s employee resource group at a software company, we felt like lightning rods for women telling their stories. Women would tell us what they were called in a meeting, how their boss told them that men got paid more in the team because they had families to support, and so on. There were stories of harassment, bullying, toxic work environments, and gaslighting by colleagues. Even in companies that support their employees with rules and codes of conduct, there are managers and individual contributors who don’t follow the rules.
I want to share some tips and examples that helped me grow and thrive in a technical culture — and to do my part to improve that culture. Women in technology have to do more to stand out to be recognized, and we need to help each other.
1. Thoroughly understand the business you are in
Know what the company’s products do, how they fit together, how they stand against the competition. Learn how your company is organized by function. You need to be able to show your management and your stakeholders that you understand their challenges. That will help you build trust with them, and get support for your localization initiatives.
I have a liberal arts degree. What I took from that background was how to read, communicate, and analyze, and how to appreciate diverse cultures and views. When a stakeholder mentions a difficult situation, I try to show my understanding and ask informed questions. I had been trying to convince a software group that they needed to add a language to the product. In my discussions with the VPs, I learned about the pressure on the team to produce more revenue and reduce cost. I went to the finance team to get data, and to the in-country sales team to get their forecast on how much more they could sell with a localized product. When I presented a specific revenue number to the VPs, and showed it as a 14-times multiplier of investment cost within the first year, they agreed to fund the project.
2. Understand the product development process and know the relevant vocabulary
If you’re in software, for example, you don’t necessarily need to know how to code, but you need to know what coding involves and the steps the team goes through to develop software.
When I started working in a technical publications group in the 1980s, the company offered a course about technology. I learned about chips, circuitry, software, hardware design, and even packaging. Now I realize how formative that class was for me. At the time I didn’t consider myself technical. As I worked on product manuals, I learned more about technology. When I moved into technical program management, I took a few weekend and evening courses in programming; I wanted to understand how software engineers worked so I could communicate with them, and empathize as well.
At one point in my career I worked on a software platform that needed internationalization and even input methods for Asian languages. When I had a chance, I’d hang out with the engineers that were working on those key features. I’d ask questions about their challenges. I’d hear about trade offs between usability, performance, and security — concepts that helped me understand software development.
3. Know what’s going on in the world and the world economy
You can’t talk about languages, markets, and economies without being able to back up your assertions with knowledge. For example, if you are advocating a new language strategy, if someone asks why you are pushing a certain language if a particular country’s economy is failing, you need to know what’s going on there to defend your assumptions.
When I was a technical program manager for software projects years ago, I had a wonderful manager with whom I remain friends. She told me that the feedback from a senior director of engineering was that I needed to know more about what was going on in the world of business. I appreciated that feedback. As it happened, I was current on business, related news, and trends, as an avid reader of the media, but I had never said anything to the senior director about anything other than the project. How could he have known? After that, I made a point of regularly relating in a broad, business-oriented context with the people I worked with.
4. Show your knowledge
I’ve met plenty of people who haven’t known whether to trust my knowledge about the company, the products, the markets, etc. There are many ways to do this. The key is to consider context and speak conversationally. Exchanges in a break room or hallway are good if you are in the same location. It’s a bit harder to accomplish this remotely. You can start small virtual meetings with just a bit of conversation. Another way to accomplish this is to ask questions in forums, either in person or virtual.
Many high-tech companies rely on the “all-hands” meeting to share knowledge at a group or company level. At my previous company, I’d listen actively during meetings — and I’d secretly challenge myself each time to raise my hand to ask a question. I didn’t always get called on, but I was always ready with my question, and I gradually moved from being nervous to being comfortable with the practice. One time we had an all-hands meeting with a special guest: Madeleine Albright, the diplomat and political scientist. After she spoke, I raised my hand and got called on to ask a question of a woman whom I had long admired for her strength. What did this practice do for me? People remembered me for having the courage to ask questions — and for asking good questions. Better yet, on the personal side, after the meeting I had a chance to approach Madeleine Albright and thank her. I was wearing a favorite pin on my lapel — bits of smooth, shattered glass — and she touched it and said knowingly, “Glass ceiling.” I treasure that memory.
5. Maintain a good working relationship with your management team
Consider your boss and your boss’s boss. You need for them to know you and your priorities, and to back you up.
I was acting director of an engineering team, and when management finally opened up the job requisition for that director position, I applied. As it turned out, I didn’t get the role. The VP told me that he wanted to bring in someone from the outside. He assured me that he thought I was qualified to be a director, and would recommend me for other roles in the company. With his recommendation, I applied for a subsequent director position, landed an interview, and my interview got me my first job as globalization director. It was a better fit for me than the job I originally applied for, and I’ve stayed in globalization ever since.
6. Maintain a good working relationship with your stakeholders
Especially think about the people who manage the teams you do localization work for. A good working relationship requires building trust. Also, if you are the manager of a team, you need to support the people on your team in their relationships with stakeholders, especially when those stakeholders are at a higher level.
Our localization team was having a hard time getting the attention of one of the product VPs. When I went to see him, he had a photo of his daughter on his desk — and she was wearing a sweatshirt from a university in the town where my in-laws live. I asked about the photo, established the connection, and after a few minutes of chatting, he gave me the time I needed to talk about localization of the product. Personal connections can be meaningful.
7. Build and maintain your network
Technology jobs are risky right now. Go to conferences and meet ups, and better yet, speak at them. Share your knowledge, and reach out to people to learn from them.
When I was looking for a new job in localization, I made sure my network knew abou it. My friend Minette received a call from a recruiter. She said she wasn’t interested in the job, but that she had a friend who was, and she introduced me. That was how I was hired at BlackBerry.
8. Be a mentor to others
Everyone has something to give. Even if you just joined the workforce, you can mentor. Students can use a mentor for help with resumes and understanding what it takes to get a first job. Within your company, you might have an academic specialty that someone else needs to learn about — and if you can turn it into a co-mentorship and learn about their specialties, you can help each other out.
Some companies have formal mentoring programs, and it’s easy to volunteer with a mentor. Think about what you have to give — technical skills, soft skills, special knowledge. Even in companies without formal mentoring programs, you may be approached by people looking for a mentor. Ask them about their goals for the mentorship, the time commitment, and the duration, and also ask them to set the agenda for each meeting. The mentee should drive the mentorship.
“Reverse mentoring” is gaining in popularity. A manager or executive may want to get the pulse of employees, even new hires, to understand how they perceive the company’s work environment. Or they may need to understand something about your specialty. I’ve seen new grads with data science degrees get lots of attention from execs who want to learn.
I have always learned from my mentees. I have especially enjoyed working with employees in other fields. Once I was asked by a manager to mentor a very strong technical engineer, who was seen as too tough in delivering messages when she was reviewing code. I worked with her on some tactful ways of communicating things that people didn’t want to hear — not sugar coating, but allowing people to save face. It was the little things — not telling them they were wrong, but showing how they could improve, or saying, “Next time you can do this. . .” It didn’t take her long to adopt those small changes in communication, and within a year she earned a promotion to manager. Meanwhile I learned about security software from her, as well as the software processes for reviewing and committing code.
9. Get a mentor, ask for informational interviews, take people to lunch
Mentorship doesn’t have to be formal. We have a lot to learn from bosses, colleagues, from people at other companies, and at conferences and meet ups. Growth mindset is key. Ask questions, listen, and learn. If you have sponsors — people who recommend you and care about your career — be sure to always keep them informed about what you are doing.
If you want a formal mentor, I suggest being specific: “Would you be willing to mentor me biweekly or monthly for an hour, for a period of six months, to help me understand how the support team produces their content?”
In a period of frequent reorganizations at one software company, I had four managers in one year. The fourth manager, a senior director, was super smart, but a bit of an enigma. He would describe a situation and say no more. I was left wondering what to say or do. I had a colleague get along great with my new manager, and I asked her to mentor me on how to work better with him. She told me that he just assumed everyone was as smart as he was, and would draw the same conclusion he did. She suggested I say, “So what I get from the situation is that …,” and finish with, “Is that what you think?” That would draw him out, and was indeed the key to a successful working relationship. I got to learn from the conclusions he was drawing, and he also learned about my thought processes in contrast to his own.
10. Be an ally to other women and underrepresented minorities
Stand up for others in the room real or virtua. When Michiko makes a suggestion that goes unnoticed, and later Tom says the same thing and gets heard, you can say: “Tom, I’m so glad you said that, and when Michiko said it earlier, I was thinking the same thing.” If you are a manager and are present when promotions are discussed, ask the group to look together at the composition of the people being promoted as a check for bias. Don’t be afraid to champion less well-known yet qualified people who need to get noticed when there’s a special project or assignment with potential to bring them recognition.
As a manager, I’ve tried to run my department with the principles of inclusion, giving all team members a chance to participate and be heard and to be themselves. I watched a new college graduate grow comfortable in a remote team, and within a year she was teaching a weekly business English class at lunchtime to other team members.
Seeing those individual triumphs warms my heart. Collectively, many small wins drive large improvements in our work cultures. The CEO may set direction, but shifting a culture takes time and the efforts of many. I like to do my part to help shift the work culture to align better with my own values. I like to do what I can to stand out, even to be a role model for others, and to help others develop the tools they need to thrive as well.
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