Advice to my younger self as a woman in technology

Irene Pylypenko
Feb 23, 2016 · 7 min read
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“I came to realize that women in technology are in fact in a privileged position” — Irene Pylypenko

Last month, I was privileged to have been invited to participate on an entrepreneurship panel at the Annual Women in Computing Conference, and be on an Advancing Women in STEM focus group organized by a local non-profit. As usual, it included a lot of discussions about the challenges we face in the industry. But upon reflection, I came to realize that women in technology are in fact in a privileged position. Yes there are biases, yes we often have to work harder to prove ourselves, yes many of us have to read books like Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg to learn how to put ourselves forward. But I truly believe that the future is in our hands.

People with technical backgrounds are sought after and often put on a pedestal. Technology is prevalent and the demand for technical talent is not slowing down. In parallel, soft skills are more appreciated these days. Collaboration, emotional intelligence, communication skills, and other characteristics females tend to be stronger at, are sought after in the workplace. Thus, women trained in technical skills and committed to leveraging their natural abilities have a great advantage.

I’ve been involved in a few women in technology initiatives in the last few years, but have never written about my own challenges. My personal experience has been different than what is being debated in the media, so I just avoided the topic. Well, a few weeks ago I turned 30, and somehow I’m less interested in what others think, and more about empowering women. So here are my biggest lessons learned and advice to my younger self starting my career.

Don’t be shy to speak up and share your experiences — successes, awards, recognitions, side projects, personal achievements. Men are better at showing off, no doubt about it. Many easily slip in their achievements in the middle of a conversation. It builds their credibility and they get ahead because of it. Some are so good at it, that from my perspective it ends up looking like a battle of the egos. We don’t have to join the battle, but it pays to meet them on the playing field. Don’t be shy and share your relevant experiences. This also includes failures. We are lucky to live in a society that celebrates failures. That’s because what’s really valued is determination, curiosity, and hard work. And when you tell someone your lessons learned from starting a past project, they will be impressed, no matter the end result.

I’ve started a few start ups, and they all have failed. I proudly wear my ‘failures’ as a badge of honour. One of these failures was one of my biggest lessons in business building and management. A few years ago I was on the founding team of a flower e-commerce startup, the CEO of which had the classic bigshot resume: startup founder, McKinsey partner, MBA, etc. Working closely with him, I was personally trained and coached on what it takes to build a business. We built on the best e-commerce technology, used the latest digital marketing tactics to earn a top 3 business listing in Google search in 6 months, and bought a huge fridge to manage the beautiful inventory — fresh flowers. We took the company from idea to 15 people and daily sales in a year and a half, with lots of sweat and tears in between. But in the end we ended up walking away from the business. Why, is another long topic, but I carry the lessons learned with me.

Fast learners are valued in every organization, no matter your role in the company. How do you learn fast? From those that have been there and done that. Talk to those that inspire you — your boss, more experienced friends, colleagues in other departments, etc. Show interest in them, ask them questions, learn from them, share your ideas, ask for feedback. Most people are happy to give advice to genuinely interested and driven individuals, men or women. Most of my mentors probably don’t realize they’re my mentors, but I’ve been blessed with talented and inspirational advisors that have guided me.

Either I’ve been blind, or just lucky, but I haven’t really experienced sexism too much. I’ve always felt equal to men. My mom has been my biggest role model growing up so I’ll attribute this to her. She’s been working in the technology field for 30 years, and as an immigrant that raised two kids on her own, she knows a thing or two about determination and breaking barriers. Influenced by mom, I haven’t felt many limitations as a women, and have been taught since a young age that I could do anything I put my mind to. As a kid, I sat at the adults table, was introduced to computers at a young age, and was propelled to a male-dominated field with confidence.

I think part of being treated equally is actively maintaining equality. Meaning being aware of limitations imposed on you, taking on the opportunities presented, and putting effort (when required) to play at the same level as the boys. We can definitely question the reason why we need to put the extra effort, but that’s another topic.

For me, maintaining equality meant working extra hard at passing my first-year university computer science course. That was the first time I experienced my disadvantage as a woman in technology. I was surrounded my young men that spent their high school years locked up in their basements playing video games (and for many that lead to coding their own video games). This of course had a few repercussions on their social skills, but for the most part it helped them academically. For me, I’ve never been interested in video games. I was too busy playing sports, dancing competitively, and volunteering overseas throughout my teens. So when I got to university, I had to catch up. That was a hard lesson, especially for my ego, since school was always fairly easy for me. I failed my first mid-term computer science exam, and after crying my eyes out convinced I entered the wrong field, I decided take charge. So I asked for help and put extra time towards studying, in an effort to catch up with the boys. With a computer science degree under my belt, I’m glad I did.

Don’t waste your time improving your ‘weaknesses’. Be honest with yourself, reflect on your strengths, and focus there. Put energy where the highest value is. Yes, there’s a virtue to being balanced, but the real value is that which you’re naturally good at. Why? because doing what you’re good at excites you and puts you in a state of flow, which increases happiness and performance. And everyone wants high performing and happy employees/partners/entrepreneurs.

Many people are afraid of taking responsibility and making decisions, but I thrive on it. I love building teams, brainstorming ideas and managing the execution of the ideas, taking full responsibility for the success or failure of the project. This is why I love volunteering with Hacking Health. In my current role I do just that, I lead the Montreal team of 10–20 volunteers, depending if its hackathon season or not. The typical challenges that come with this role excite me — what new ways can we engage the HH community? How do we keep the volunteers committed? How do we communicate our success stories? I’m constantly being challenged and grow as a community builder and team lead.

There are many studies showing that women are more emotionally intelligent, better listeners, collaborators and multi-taskers. This means we’re better community builders, project managers, product owners and any type of position that brings people to work together. So if you enjoy those types of positions, go for it. Take initiatives, show your natural abilities and don’t be shy to take on more responsibilities than your job description. Which leads me to…

Inspired by the classic saying “dress for the job you want”, let’s take it to the next level. Whatever the ‘next’ position you want, either in the same organization, or another, make strategic moves towards it. Take on a relevant side project. Talk to people in that position to see how they got there. Go to places where decision makers hang out. Take initiatives in your current position. Show leadership, don’t expect your next job to be handed to you. Build your dream position.

Looking back, I worked towards my current job without realizing it. I’ve been involved with Hacking Health since 2013, without a clear idea or expectation of where it will take me. I always treated it as a side interest, because of my passion for the mission and the movement’s initiatives. I never really took it ‘seriously’ on a professional level. But it’s through Hacking Health that I met the CEO of the company I work at, PetalMD. The position has been a perfect fit and I love the company. You may be surprised where your next opportunity will show up. Like they say, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. So go out and create opportunities for yourself.

When I was Managing Director of FounderDating, a co-founder matching startup, it blew my mind at how sought after technical co-founders were. Coupled with female-esque skills of collaboration, empathy and communication, women in technology are in a privileged position. We have the opportunity to take leadership and change the tech industry for the better. Don’t like the trend of the boys-club in tech? Let’s step up and change that. Let’s leverage our emotional IQ, and work together. Let’s lead by example of what it is to be a woman in technology.

[Originally published in Montreal in Technology.]

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