I love that being a minority gives me free opportunities to network. Codess is “a community for female coders initiated by Microsoft”, which meant they held their Seattle conference in the building right next to mine.

As much as this site is about appreciating putting effort into improving, it’s important to balance that with figuring out where to put effort in. I wasn’t sure what to expect from CodessSEA; “Women in Tech” is a pretty broad audience, and I couldn’t think of anything specific I was struggling with. I lucked out and found some of the sessions super valuable (and attending would have been worthwhile just for the 3 fantastic women I connected with). So I thought I’d share my takeaways.

These are largely points I noted down from Julie Larson Green’s Keynote speech and Dona Sarkar’s talk “You Had me at Hello, World: 1:1 Mentoring with the Leaders of Tech”.

Be deliberate about your choices

To get what you want you need to concretely decide what it is you want, and then what it is you need to achieve that. Once you’ve done that, you need to communicate your decisions and be consistent about them - people will work around you.

– Julie Larson Green (echoed by various panelists)

I’m struggling at the moment with what I want, but I think it’s important to know that you can iterate. I’m experimenting with trial-runs at the moment, and if it turns out I don’t want X then I’ll adjust.

What is my superpower?

‘Superpower’ is a popular buzzword at the moment, so Dona breaks it down into 2 components: everybody has both an ‘EQ Superpower’ and a ‘Tech superpower’, and it’s important to know what yours are, and immerse yourself in improving those skills.

  • EQ Superpower: Your top soft skill; what comes naturally. Examples: influencing people, connecting with customers, negotiating.
  • Tech Superpower: The field you’re specializing in; ideally it evolves naturally from something you care about, but you ultimately need to pick something. It’s fine for this to change every 5-10 years. Examples: IoT Security, genomic data science.

– Dona Sarkar

I’m not sure what I’m super passionate about so I’ve failed to just commit to one area, and it’s hurting me. I’m good at learning broadly, but I really need to dig into something and start specializing.

How to be a ‘Rockstar Engineer’

Job postings are all about the buzzwords these days:

  • Attend all the meetings you’re personally invited to. Put your phone away and take notes - you won’t know why you’re there, but learn why everyone else is there (write down their names!)
  • Follow up with people after meetings - stop them in the corridor or shoot them an email, and ask for 15 minutes of their time to explain their area of expertise. People like to help their friends, so get to know people before you need their help.
  • Learn about related products, and share information/articles about them
  • Track what everyone is working on, and what issues they come across. Try to spot trends, and offer to work on these issues - fill gaps and be proactive about making yourself useful.

– Dona Sarkar

Being new doesn’t mean you can’t contribute. It means you have to bring the enthusiasm and take advantage of the free pass to ask questions and get to know people.

Network with purpose

Networking is super valuable, but you lose it if you don’t track it. Make a spreadsheet - note down how you met someone, a few key facts and a reminder for when to catch up with them.

– Dona Sarkar

This is something that I really should have been doing already. I have a BFFs physical wall display for this, tracking when I last hung out/chatted with someone, but I’ll get my spreadsheet on this evening.

“Most of my mentors don’t know they’ve mentor’d me”#

Reach out to people when you know specifically what you’d like to learn from them, or when they’ve been informally mentoring you for a while and you’d like to formalize it. It’s generally more agreeable to formalize something that’s already happening than create a new formal relationship.

– Julie Larson Green / Dona Sarkar

Having just gone through being assigned a mentor when neither of us was really sure what we wanted from the relationship, I definitely feel this. I do think there’s a place for mentoring new employees who are uncertain of what they need, but I think it should be sort of a networking/transitional role - I’d have appreciated a mentor to work with me on figuring out what I need in a mentor, and pairing me up with someone who’d be a good fit.

Management is just programming the organization

Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Lead to Management often involves giving up programming and lots of people are daunted by this. I see it as programming the organization - I debug conversations and optimize communication algorithms.

– Julie Larson Green

I love this! Applying problem-solving skills to people is something I enjoy a lot, and it was really nice to have someone put this into words.

Ask for promotions

Asking for promotions is important, because it puts you on the radar. People frequently get overlooked for promotions because their manager isn’t aware they’d like one. So ask!

  • I love this team and I want to make an impact like <name>
  • I want to grow to be someone who performs at the next level
  • Right now I’m working on <x, y, z>, are these the best things for me to be doing?
  • Thanks for the talk. Let’s touch base again in 3 months - I’ll schedule it.

– Dona Sarkar

This is the kind of useful/concrete advice that most new-hires would benefit from. I’m super thankful that I get to hear it - I think it would be a good company-wide new-hire thing to do, rather than just at women-in-tech events.

Management is a juggling act

Don’t beat yourself up over not achieving perfection, everything is a balancing act; “Sometimes the right thing to do is to get a C in everything, and it feels bad. But it’s what you’ve got to do. Sometimes you get an A in one thing and an F in something else. That’s okay”

– Laura Butler

This resonates with me, because I’ve definitely been getting the impression that managers are not always set up for success or given the resources to achieve all C’s, let alone all A’s. I think it’s a great thing to keep in mind, although I think there’s work to set up good systems for training and supporting managers.

Presume good intent

When interacting with others, when sharing yourself and ideas. If it becomes clear that people are using you or not contributing then you know that for next time.

– Julie Larson Green

A number of female coders I know(/follow on twitter) talk about being worn down by lots of little/ambiguous interactions, and whilst I haven’t been in industry very long I do think rose-tinting your glasses with Good Intent prevents these from being quite so constantly grating.

Negotiate, or the other person feels cheated

Accepting an offer leaves you regretting not pushing for more and the other party regretting not offering you less. It’s easy to negotiate during hiring, all it requires is some competing offers.

– Dona Sarkar

I hadn’t really thought about it in those words, but that makes total sense.

Imposter Syndrome should be a motivator

No-one knows what they’re doing! Everyone’s a fraud! But of course, it doesn’t seem that way. So pick someone who doesn’t seem like a fraud and emulate them. Start by directly copying their work; go through their check-ins and see if you could fix the same bugs/add the same features. See if you can figure out how they think.

– Dona Sarkar

You can’t improve if you’re dwelling on being bad. There’s no point stressing about not being at the level you want to be, just make sure you’re doing better than you were yesterday.

Standing out is good

Women stand out by default, which is a 2-edged sword. But at least you’re not just lost in a sea of brogrammers

– Julie Larson Green

I love when people acknowledge that there are definite advantages to being in a minority group. Standing out has downsides, but it also means it’s easier to get noticed and recognition when it matters.

Success requires freedom of expression

If you’re succeeding by not being yourself, consider changing what you’re doing. You’re unlikely to be as successful if you’re having to constantly check yourself and wear a mask.

– Julie Larson Green (echoed by various panelists)

I thought this was a nice way of putting it - focussing on the fact that it’s less fun to work in an environment where you’re not operating ideally, but also noting that it’s important to recognize that your success is probably a local rather than global optimum, because you’re having to hold parts of yourself back.

Dress to match expectations

You want people to admire you, not your clothes. This is best acheived if people aren’t focussing on them - even positive attention is attention that’s distracted from what you’re there to do/talk about.

– Julie Larson Green

She did point out that this shouldn’t conflict with expressing yourself/being true to who you are, so this wasn’t about changing yourself to fit in. I just thought it was an interesting point.