Congratulations to the young women everywhere who are graduating with a computer science degree this spring. You did it! I’m especially impressed with the resilience you’ve shown in the past year, managing to continue with your studies amid a global pandemic that left all of us scared and uncertain. I can’t wait to see how you help to transform the tech industry, and — because the people who shape our technology, shape our world — so much more.
By studying computer science, you’ve already overcome one of the major barriers that keeps women from careers in tech. As a former CIO at a Fortune 10 company who now runs an organization that helps women break through in tech, here is my advice for how to overcome other barriers and thrive as you embark on your career.
- Be your own storyteller: Don’t let others tell your story. Be the person who raises her hand to give the presentation or readout to upper management. This doesn’t mean you take all the credit for what the team did (definitely don’t do that!), but being a great team player does not mean being deferential. The reality is that whoever speaks gets noticed more than the others; be that person.
- Make it your business to understand the business: If you want to add value, it isn’t enough to be a good technician if you don’t understand the bigger business context of what your team is trying to accomplish. Another way of putting this: You need to see both the forest and the trees. How do you do this? Step one is to ask your boss, “What are the larger business goals we’re trying to accomplish?” If they aren’t forthcoming, ask someone else. The people who get ahead are the ones who can say, when talking about their project, “Here’s the bigger picture, which is why our work matters and why we should go this way next.”
- Avoid the project management trap: As I’ve written elsewhere:: Don’t raise your hand to take on the role of project manager unless project management is your passion and/or you are also managing the other tech people on the team. It may seem like a good way to show initiative and demonstrate that you’re a good team player, but in fact, it is career poison. Time and again, I’ve seen women lock themselves into the project management career path, closing the door to more technical roles, which are often the most lucrative and have the greatest potential to create change.
- Prioritize relationships: Don’t just go head-down into the work and think that’s the path to success; it isn’t. Do the work well, of course, but also, make it your priority to develop relationships with peers, people in other departments, and higher-ups, as well as people in the industry beyond your company’s four (increasingly virtual) walls. In other words: establish your network. Take the time to get to know and understand the people you work with. What do they care about? What motivates them? How can you help them accomplish their goals. One of my favorite definitions of great leadership is that “Great leaders help others experience a higher version of themselves”. So ask yourself how you can help others be their best selves – and you will be knitting together a quilt of relationships that will catch you when you fall and propel you forward when you need a rocket booster.
- Be passionate about what you do: Because anything short of that is ‘just a job’. You may be lucky and find a first job that matches your personal passion but even if it doesn’t, find something in the work that you’re doing that you can feel passionate about. Even if you aren’t working on the most compelling parts of the business directly, you can feel passionate about your role, because it contributes to the bigger picture.
I can’t emphasize this enough:
Passion drives everything.
It drives your motivation to work and excel; it comes across to the people around you, which strengthens your team; and it’s incredibly important when it comes to gaining sponsorship and support from more senior members of your company and industry. Do what you love and that passion will come through, others will want to join you and all boats will rise as you sail towards a north star that has meaning for you.
I wish you the best of luck. You’ve got this.