Take more leaps: Women in tech share their top career tips

Andreas Rekdal

The tech industry has gained a reputation for a male-dominated culture, which is often particularly pronounced in technology and engineering departments. For women who are building their careers within the field, that can present challenges their male colleagues aren’t faced with.

For this two-part article series, we asked technologists at eight Chicago companies what advice they would offer other women who are starting their career journeys. Read some of their answers below, and check out part one for more insights.

 

Trunk Club senior director of data services Meagan Colbenson climbed the ranks at Redbox before she arrived at the storied fashion tech company. Colbenson said the biggest lessons she’s learned in her career is to always show up to meetings prepared and confident, and to not let resume bullet points stand in the way of new opportunities.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to enter the field, or are just getting started in their careers?

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned in the course of my career is to be confident, even if you aren't feeling that way on the inside, and to have the evidence to back up that confidence. Take notes in meetings, support your opinions with numbers and do your preparation! I have found at times (in my earlier career especially) that my opinion was not given as much weight as that of a male counterpart.

I don’t think most men in the industry are purposely discounting women's opinions, but unconscious bias can still exist. If you encounter it, it is helpful to have evidence to support your opinion or idea to counteract the groupthink that can sometimes occur on a male-dominated team. Review your notes from a previous meeting to prep for upcoming meetings and get yourself mentally prepared for the day ahead. It is amazing how much participants in a discussion appreciate someone who is organized. It makes everyone feel like their time is not being wasted, and it will pay off for you.

Another point I would make is that cultural fit with a company or team can be more important to managers than the perfect technical skill match or education. If you see a need on your team, in your department or in another team within the company that excites you, talk to your manager about shadowing or getting more information about that role. As a leader myself, I consider it my job to enable my employees to achieve their career goals, even if that means they advance to a different team. We've all heard that men are more likely to pursue opportunities that are not perfectly aligned with their experience or education, while women tend to hold themselves back if they don't check every box on the role description. I would love to see more women making those leaps.

What has the experience of working for Trunk Club been like for you?

Exhilarating. I started at Trunk Club three and a half years ago in more of a program manager role on the business intelligence team, and was given the opportunity to lead the team shortly after starting. There was very little in terms of reporting, and we had the opportunity to build out a centralized data warehouse and reporting solution from scratch. I have been given a lot of autonomy here, which has allowed my team to implement and test new solutions very quickly, build close relationships with our end users and build up our credibility within the company.

When I started, Trunk Club only had clothing for male customers. It has been amazing to see the company transform since being acquired by Nordstrom almost three years ago and broadening our offering to include women's clothing. Along with serving women customers, Trunk Club has also drastically increased the number of women in leadership and technical roles across the company and shifted toward a much more inclusive, non-masculine brand.

What is your company doing to promote diversity and inclusivity in your organization or the broader tech community?

Trunk Club has made a concerted effort to hire more diverse leadership, which I have seen trickle down to all teams within the company. More specifically, the engineering team recently underwent an unconscious bias training session that was very impactful and has led to changing our interviewing process to ensure we are not inadvertently turning away qualified, diverse candidates. Trunk Club engineering regularly holds meetups at our awesome space, and there is a Women @ TC group that meets regularly — I spoke on a panel at a Women @ TC event focused on work-life balance for women at different phases of their lives and careers.


Codifyd solutions architect Nicole Huff joined the company as an analyst in 2011. In her view, one of the most important factors to moving up the career ladder is to ask your employer for new opportunities.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to enter the field, or are just getting started in their careers?

Working in the technology industry as a woman is difficult, but it will not be out of your comfort zone because you're probably already used to it. I was one of two women in an entry-level computer science class 10 years ago and it's not because of lack of interest by women in these fields. These programs are built for men: according to TechCrunch, only 5 percent of leadership positions in this industry are held by women. This means there are virtually no role models for women.

My advice is to keep working hard! It's a tough industry, because let's face it, men are different than women. But it is one of the most rewarding experiences I've had, so it’s definitely worth the effort and long hours. Also, make sure you are aggressive (but not too aggressive) about salary and career growth. I know too many women who are frustrated by the lack of growth in their current jobs, and most of them have never even asked for a new opportunity.

What has the experience of working for Codifyd been like for you?

My first degree did not prepare me for this job! Early on, I realized that a bachelor’s degree in math was not going to cut it, so I went back to school full time (while working) to get my MBA. I think that gave me the edge I needed to grow my career. Since, I've been promoted thrice. The biggest thing I've learned is that it is OK if you don't know the answer! Don't be afraid to tell someone that you need to do a bit more research before you understand the problem enough to create a proper solution. However, there needs to be a balance, because typically the technology industry is very fast-paced. You need to know what you're talking about and you need to be prepared to talk about it quickly.

 

A strong work ethic and a willingness to learn are important in any line of work, but in the tech industry, where new ways of doing things are constantly emerging, those traits become even more powerful. Pampered Chef junior software engineer Lauren Lindemulder advises fellow techies to cultivate those traits, because they’re harder to come by than one might expect.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to enter the field, or are just getting started in their careers?

Lauren Lindemulder, junior software engineer: I find technology and coding can be a very rewarding experience, as long as you are willing to put the time and effort into learning. Don't be intimidated by the male-dominated environment or by the apparent complexity of the code you’ll be tackling. Speak your mind, be willing to learn and maintain a strong work ethic, and people will respect you for the work you do. Never underestimate the power of those traits, especially in technology, where you will be learning for the rest of your career. The combination is rarer than you would think.

Also, find a strong mentor that you can work alongside with mutual respect who can guide you along your way. Someone to help you establish good habits and thought processes can aid your technological growth exponentially when you are first starting out.

What has the experience of working for Pampered Chef been like for you?

LL: My team is made up of passionate coworkers who inspire me every day, push me to learn and encourage me to step out of my comfort zone. We just completed our third hackathon, which has been a great experience to work across teams and dive into newer technologies. Our agile teams are also beginning to look toward newer technology stacks, which has further challenged me to become a stronger and more flexible coder and really work at developing a core of general good coding practices.

In the past year or so, the company has redefined its core values and purpose statement, and I think they strongly reflect what I hold important in my career and life. Pampered Chef gives me an environment where I can grow in my engineering skills, but the team’s respect has also given me confidence to speak my mind and participate in collaborative efforts, which frequently reinforce the feeling of purpose and impact I felt on my first day here.

What is your company doing to promote diversity and inclusivity in your organization or the broader tech community?

Angela Mancuso, chief people officer: Pampered Chef is focused on developing an innovative, proactive and collaborative culture. We have a very diverse team across the organization and inclusivity is essential to making sure our teams can collaborate well together. We have a new hire buddy program and weekly lunch-and-learns across the organization to provide coworkers with a chance to connect with and learn from their coworkers across departments.

Our marketing and technology teams sit together in one space in our open floor plan and we recently held a Hackathon open to members of either department, which truly showcased the great ideas and creative solutions that can happen when you promote inclusion and diversity. Many of our 10 competing teams had a mix of IT and marketing coworkers working together, creating innovative solution for some of our biggest challenges.

 

Doing good work is an important piece of the career puzzle, but Paylocity director of client product operations Christine Pellini believes having managers who set her up for success played a big role, too. The company recently surveyed women on its team, and found that sponsoring organizations like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology and building a remote workforce also help Paylocity promote diversity within its team.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to enter the field, or are just getting started in their careers?

Christine Pellini, director of client product operations: Being happy and successful in a male-dominated field is working for a company where your gender doesn’t matter. It is OK to be selective about the company you work for in order to find that balance.

Kristin Jackvony, QA engineer: I moved into the industry as a 40 year old, and I never once felt that my voice wasn’t being heard because I’m a woman. I am old enough to remember when it was odd for women to be pumping their own gas in their cars. How things have changed! Have confidence in your skills and speak your truth clearly!

What has the experience of working for Paylocity been like for you?

Sharde Agee, software engineer: It has been one of the best experiences in my career. I learn something new each day, and I have not only grown as a developer but as a person as well.

CP: What I find most valuable is the fact that as a woman, I never feel like that matters. It doesn’t change the work I am asked to do, it doesn’t change the opportunities available, it doesn’t change how I am treated.

 

Images via participating companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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