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Women technologists share the best – and the worst – career advice they’ve received

Headlines abound about how women are underrepresented in tech, as do recommendations to address the issue. But one of the best ways to increase the number of women pursuing STEM careers is for women in technology to network with others.

In that vein, a major event is a week away. The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, will be held in Orlando, FL from October 1st through 4th. GHC is a great opportunity to network with women technologists and learn from their experience.

But you don’t have to attend a conference to get advice from successful women in tech. We interviewed four women and asked them the same questions.

  1. What was the best career advice you ever received?
  2. What was the worst?
  3. What advice do you wish you had followed?

Here’s what they had to say:

Sue Keay|Research Director Cyber-Physical Systems, CSIRO. Founder of Hopper Down Under

  1. A work colleague of mine once told me, “you don’t have to be the leader to show leadership”. This has been great advice because it makes me examine whether I’m holding myself back for structural reasons, that is, perceived position in an organisation, and not putting myself forward to lead and take advantage of opportunities.
  2. My high school science master told my parents I showed no aptitude in science, and I can’t say I enjoyed Chemistry and Physics (who knows how much of that was because I could sense the teachers had no faith in my ability) but I went on to get a degree in Science, University Medal and a Ph.D. in Isotope Geochemistry…
  3. It wasn’t advice, more of an example. A friend of mine at graduate school took an instant dislike to his Ph.D. supervisor. At the time I thought this was a bit presumptuous of him and even counseled him to perhaps give the relationship a bit more time. But my friend just shrugged his shoulders and when asked why he disliked his supervisor he replied, “saves time”. It took me years to appreciate the sheer genius of my friend’s approach. How much of our lives do we waste trying to mend relationships that, in hindsight, were never going to work in the first place? You don’t have to like and be liked by everyone to achieve your goals. We can choose to surround ourselves with people who are also striving to achieve the same goals. Of course, we should be tolerant and forgiving of the people around us but there must be balance with whatever you are trying to achieve. I could have saved a lot of time if I had followed my friend’s example.

Juli Klemm|Head, Cancer Biology and Genomics, National Cancer Institute

  1. My manager at my first job told me that adapting to change at your organization is key to success. This advice has served me well at all of my jobs. Certainly, the same can be said for adapting to change in your field.
  2. This wasn’t explicit advice per se, but I vividly remember that when I told my physics TA in my senior year college that I wanted to go to MIT for graduate school. He laughed at me. He thought the fact that I spent so much time asking questions meant that the subject matter was too difficult, and it certainly shook my confidence. But what he underestimated was my willingness to work hard. Six years later, I completed my Ph.D. in Biology at MIT.
  3. In the late 1990s, a prominent professor in the emerging field of bioinformatics offered me the opportunity to take computer science classes at UC Berkeley while getting paid as a postdoctoral fellow, noting the long-term value these skills would have for my career. I turned down the opportunity to take a higher paying job. I often wish I had taken that postdoctoral position and hardened my computer science skills at a time when I could afford to have a lower salary. He was right that it would have served me well in the long run.

Smita Bakshi|Co-founder and CEO, Zybooks

  1. “Ask for what you want.” I was given that advice early in my career, I’ve followed it many times, and I’ve offered that advice up innumerable times as well. The times I haven’t asked for what I wanted – a promotion, higher compensation while negotiating an offer, a new role, a specific project, a sabbatical, a work-from-home arrangement – I’ve looked back and kicked myself for not having made my wishes known to my manager or colleagues earlier. This advice is particularly applicable for those of us who are shy or perhaps less self-assured, and as an Indian immigrant to the US, I certainly was and sometimes, still am. I’ve learned to make my ask known with accompanying justification, statistics, examples, and an explanation for how the company or my manager might benefit as well. “I’d like to report into this business unit because I believe they can benefit from my experience and I would like exposure to XYZ …”. “I understand the starting salary is ABC, but I believe I bring these additional attributes to the table … “. You may not get what you ask for right away. Sometimes, your request plants a seed and you can be offered opportunities as they arise. And, by the way, this advice is applicable to all our interactions in life, but I especially urge you to advocate for yourself in the workplace and take your career in the direction you care most.
  2. “Carefully plan your career trajectory.” This may sound counter-intuitive, but I have found it more rewarding to follow my gut and my heart than to follow a carefully laid out plan that makes the most “sense”. Having a firm plan in mind prevents me from going with the flow, making the most of surprise opportunities, and adapting to a changing market and my own desires. When I was close to completing my Ph.D., I sat down at the advice of someone, to create a spreadsheet comparing a career in academia as a professor vs. a career in industry. The academic career clearly made the most logical sense – long-term “guaranteed” employment after tenure, ability to do research, independence, and so on – but, at the time, I didn’t ask myself what my heart and gut were really saying. So, I chose the academic career, got some great offers, and worked as a tenure-track professor at UC Davis for a few years. Though I learned a lot and loved working with students, my heart was not 100% in the role – and I left to join a start-up as a software developer. From then on, I have never “spreadsheeted” my career path. I left the start-up after 4 years to do an MBA because I was intrigued by entrepreneurship and business. Subsequently, I left a large software company after 6 years, with the determination to work on something that had a meaningful direct impact on people’s lives. That is what led me to co-found zyBooks, an EdTech company, which has been the most rewarding aspect of my career.
  3. “Go with the winning, high-growth product.” When I was at Symantec, I was working on a large, mature product that was not growing. A friend at the time gave me his guiding principle of working on high-growth market-defining products, even if they carried greater risk. I had opportunities to switch to other companies that were defining a new category, but their high-growth products were bringing in significantly lower revenues and were less established. I chose to stay with, what I considered, the more stable job. As I look back on that period of my career, I feel I stagnated for several years and had a whole generation of innovation passed me by. When you’re working in a high-growth, innovative environment everything is on an upward trajectory – the energy is high, the people are smart, the work is fun, opportunities for career-growth arise, and so on. Now I’m a true believer in “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

Mary Ann Freeman|Senior Director of Engineering, MathWorks

  1. “If you never say no, you have no strategy” from a professor when I was an undergrad. This made me more confident in saying no so I could focus and not get overwhelmed when I was younger. Later in my career, when I had teams, I could confidently help them focus by choosing what to do and what we were decisively not going to do.
  2. Bad advice tends to be about the giver, not the recipient, or it goes against your own values. The advice I followed that I most regret was staying in-state for college. That was probably good for my parents but looking beyond Texas would have opened my horizons earlier and got me out of my comfort zone.
  3. “Take a programming class now!” (in high school or early in college). I didn’t take one until I was a junior in college, and then I took them all, every single one that was offered (Loved it).

Mary Ann went on to say:

  • The advice I wish I had gotten but learned on my own: “You can learn all you want about a topic, but you’re not an expert until you spread that knowledge; it’s not enough to know the material.” What are you doing to help others benefit from your expertise?
  • The advice I most often give others: Ask “what is the goal?” It is surprising how often the implementation veers away from the goal once the work starts.
  • The advice I got, resisted, and almost didn’t follow: “You should interview at the MathWorks for this Optimization software developer.” I wasn’t interviewing with software companies coming out of my Ph.D. program and then I gave in and interviewed at MathWorks. That was 24 years ago, and I still love what I do.

GHC19 and MathWorks

If you will be attending GHC19, join MathWorks in celebrating women technologists. Meet strong and accomplished women who hold diverse roles across our company—from engineering to IT to program management to technical marketing—at one of our five sessions, or stop by booth #1363.

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