In the past few years, there has been a much-needed call for more diversity within the software industry, but the fact remains that the tech industry is still predominantly male and indeed very homogeneous. Throughout my journey from an engineer in my country of origin, India, to technical roles at Microsoft, founding a tech firm in Seattle, and eventually leading it through acquisition by a Silicon Valley company, I have been reminded on multiple occasions that I don’t look like the majority of my peers; a reality that causes many of them to view myself and work in a different light.
Although efforts are being made to accomplish greater equality and inclusivity, women of color still confront gender and ethnicity-related biases as they navigate their careers. However, my story is evidence that these challenges within the workplace can be overcome and that it is possible for individuals of varying backgrounds, nationalities, genders, and ethnicities to truly thrive within the tech industry.
As we enter the spring, there are many soon-to-be graduates who will make their way to the various technology hubs across the country in pursuit of their first jobs and lifelong careers. My goal with this article is to share some of the lessons that were perhaps not so obvious to me as I began my career but have proved to be valuable along the way.
Listen to everything, but respond selectively
When asked as a young girl, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” my response at the time was always: “a doctor.” As I progressed through primary school, it was my older sister who recognized my aptitude for science and mathematics and encouraged me to focus on engineering.
As a young woman in the 90s in India, she might as well have been recommending that I become a fighter pilot because, at the time, female engineers were relatively unheard of. However, her advice stuck, and as I pursued advanced degrees in engineering, my talents became more apparent.
Despite an innate knack for STEM, I inevitably encountered disbelief and criticism from my peers. Once committed to my studies in the field, I set my sights on Microsoft as a dream employer, and recall my fellow classmates’ (and later coworkers) laughter in response to my declaration that I would one day work for Microsoft and move to the U.S. (Spoiler: I did).
The ultimate lesson here is that not all advice and feedback is created equal. There are people who think that they know what’s best for you, and oftentimes their recommendations are based upon mitigating risk. While these considerations are valid, they fail to recognize that that the biggest payoffs are always the result of taking a risk to pursue success.
Ultimately I chose to listen to the advice of my sister because not only was I sure that she had my best interests in mind, but I had seen her face her own set of struggles as she pursued her education and career in the medical field, which was also dominated by men. For anyone who is currently doing their own fact-finding with respect to a career move, prioritize feedback from those who have experienced similar challenges and take the rest with a grain of salt.
Pick your battles, not your lessons
Regardless of gender, young professionals will inevitably encounter scenarios where their recommendations are at odds with other members of the organization. While it can often be beneficial to advocate for an initiative or idea, it’s important to proceed with caution.
When deciding whether or not to push back, the key is to approach from a business perspective; and to primarily ask, “do I have the data to support my recommendation?” Early on in one’s career, one must actively choose NOT to take anything personally, and use any potential confrontations as moments of learning.
Even in situations where your suggestion was perhaps not heard (and should have been), be prepared to walk away from these events feeling empowered by the thought that if you had to do it all over again, you would have a new strategy that would generate different results.
Turn moments of bias into opportunities for learning
Unfortunately, there have been more moments than I can count where I experienced disbelief in my capabilities, simply because of my gender. Comments like “Wow, so you actually know how to code?” or “Are you the owner of the company, or is your husband the owner?” were all too common in my career.
Rather than responding with anger, I’ve learned to react with curiosity and turn these moments into dialogue to improve my understanding. My go-to response to questions and comments like these were to simply ask “why?” with the goal to learn their reasons for stating what they did. In this situation, there are two possible ways I could react. I could get angry and walk away (likely complaining about the problem) or choose to explore and understand the origins of their viewpoint. I chose the latter, and eight out of ten times, this strategy worked in my favor.
The conversations that follow are not always comfortable, but they nearly always result in an opportunity for me to share more about myself, and for me to learn more about what makes the other person tick. Because of this approach, I have had several colleagues that have transformed from skeptics into lifelong friends and professional allies.
As you progress through your career, you will no doubt encounter people who have helped you along the way. Do not discount the impact that these individuals have had on your professional growth. Often, the support or advice that comes from these individuals is the product of their own trial and error. Likewise, when given the opportunity to share your own learnings with future interns and direct reports, respond kindly and wisely, as these young women are not just the next class of engineers, but also the future class of leaders.