5 ways to screw up as a woman in technology

I’ll never forget how weird I felt the first time I visited Romania. I had been out with a group of friends (all men), and now we were saying goodbye. The guys went around to shake each other’s hands, but no one shook mine— everyone just skipped me over. I thought it was an accident. Next time I met them, though, it happened again — they shook hands for hello and ignored me. Instinctively I felt something was wrong, but soon saw that was not the case by how nice they treated me during our meeting. When it was time to say goodbye I was already expecting the pattern, so I tried to be proactive and offered my hand. Some guys got confused but reluctantly took my hand, while others just pulled me into an awkward half-handshake-half-hug.

When I asked around later, Romanian men shared that they are not used to shaking hands with women here and that actually most women would get offended if a man offered them their hand. Instinctively that felt weird to me, as I come from Bulgaria where we shake hands with people all the time for hello and goodbye, regardless of gender and situation. What struck me even more though was how much this small thing bothered me and made me feel uneasy.

So I decided to check what science had to say. According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience,

“The handshake touches neural circuits inside the brain that predispose a person toward positive feelings of competence, trustworthiness, and it opens a relationship of positive cooperation while suppressing negative feelings.”

In essence, if I took things as they were and went with the flow, I would be skipping on an opportunity to form stronger relationships with the men I meet.

One thing I’ve learned is to keep an eye on instinctive reactions and try to understand them instead of building up negative energy. They are there to make me conscious of a rule my mind is subject to. Once I know the rule, I can make a decision — stick with it or change it. I usually go for the latter by persisting in what I want (in this case just offering my hand) as if it’s the most natural thing to do and then laughing at the many awkward moments I get into until things get better.

In IT today, on top of global gender equality & feminist movements, we hear ratios like ‘there is 1 women for every 10 men’ and we see a lot of effort into changing that balance with all sorts of events and programs for women. However, I believe the activity line of ‘get more women in’ should take second place to the line of ‘get the women who are in tech do better, so it makes business sense to get more in’. The key to that is recognizing that women in the tech world face some unique rules and challenges — because of being a minority or rather their own perception of what that means.

Most of them are very subtle and unconscious, and might seem as insignificant as shaking hands until you dive deeper. It definitely helps if men are aware of the troubles that women go through and help and support them. In the end, however, it is up to us women if we want to play victims by blaming the status quo or men and waiting for them to change something or take responsibility for our own attitudes, lives, success and the rules we play by. Since I believe in the second, I want to share with you my hard-learned 5 ways to screw up as a woman in the tech business, and what to do about it.

Screw-up #1: Allow yourself to be intimidated by a room full of men

Lesson 1 comes from the experience that pushed me towards the entrepreneurial path 5 years ago. I was writing my thesis for my MSc in Engineering Business Management and I needed to find a company to do my case study, and fast. My father got me in touch with an ex-customer of his and we arranged for a 1-day workshop for exploring business opportunities using some creative problem solving techniques I specialized in. When that day came, I found myself in a room with 14 managers, all men of average age of 45. I hadn’t slept all night and it was my first time doing a workshop like that — I knew how it should work in theory, but I’d never even seen anyone else do it and was scared as hell. I had no idea of the water power plant turbines business they were in and almost no practical business experience. To say I felt intimidated and out of place by the sight of the room is an understatement. Who was I, a 23-year-old university student, to be advising those guys with 25+ years of experience? I got myself together somehow and dived in.

It felt like a miracle that things actually worked out well. So well that the owner of the company decided to create 2 teams in their company that would innovate using the creative problem solving techniques we used that day. This was how I got my first customer and started my first business. Sounds like a win, but it was just the beginning. I’d have to face these men many times afterwards and learn to stand my ground — when co-founding my company and deciding how to split its equity with them, getting advised on how to do things, seeking their support for innovative projects the teams would come up with etc. It never got easy, but I did learn my lesson 1 — never get intimidated by a room full of men more experienced than you. The very fact you are there means that you have earned that right, you are bringing something to the table and you should do whatever you are there for. Just know what you want and do your best. Then, instead of an impostor that doesn’t belong there, you become a surprise — an unexpected person with an unexpected attitude and viewpoint that they rarely see around them and value as such.

Screw-up #2: Pretend to be a man, suppress your emotions and feminine side in the name of business logic

Lesson 2 comes from one of the lowest lows in my life, which happened around 1.5 years into my first business. Our first project was completed and I was finding it super hard to find new customers. I’d just fired my first employee and had huge issues with productivity and prioritizing my actions. Since my co-founders were in fact advisors with lots of experience and different major lines of business, on an everyday basis I felt completely alone in executing the things needed for the business to run. I felt I was in a deep dark swamp and needed to find a way to drag myself out by pulling my own hair or something.

The answer came from reading, specifically a book called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg, in which he explained the concept of keystone habits — picking out one area in your life where you most want things to change and focusing on just that. So I asked myself — what do I want most? The answer was love. A partner in life, someone who would know what it feels like to start your own business and we would support and help each other through the whole mess. I actually drew him out on a piece of paper with symbols around him signifying the things I looked for. Then underneath, I wrote down ‘PREPARE’. I decided to trust that such a guy would come into my life in the next months, and the only thing that was within my control was to get myself in shape so that when he comes, I’d be at my best and actually deserve him. As a result, I dropped the ‘rational’ approach and focused my energy at volunteering in Start It Smart entrepreneurship NGO I was part of, took on leadership for the most challenging project there and became a new person, doing stuff I love with awesome people. The community and friends I found there not only helped me find a team and a customer for my business with almost no effort, but shaped my mindset and ultimately defined the course of my professional life.

As for the love part, only two months after I drew my sketch, I bumped into my dream man at an event. He was everything I’d asked for — a startup guy, who had founded a business around my core values, loved to travel, read and talk about the future… He even physically looked like my drawing! Of course, he had a girlfriend and lived far away at that time, but here I am with him in Cluj, Romania 3 years later against all odds. So from this I got my lesson 2: don’t try to imitate the men around, use your emotions and femininity to do better. I had tried to use reason, to mirror the serious business approach I saw everywhere around me, doing only things that made sense and separating professional from personal. I found that my own way ahead was different — it was intuitive, emotional and very personal. I think this lesson can apply also to men, however, many of you probably associate good business with masculine qualities like I did — strong, determined, analytical, competitive, data-driven — and so try to develop/simulate these qualities. I think the feminine way can be more soft, creative, intuitive, emotional and just as good.

Screw-up #3: Let sex-based fears stop you from benefitting from the opportunities life sends you

Lesson 3 comes from a serendipity that marked the end of my consulting business and the co-founding of my first IT startup. It was a winter Friday evening. I was sitting in a Starbucks cafe in Sofia, buried deep in my inbox. All of a sudden, a man next to me asked me in English: “Hey, what are you so focused on?”. I looked up and saw a blue-eyed 40-something years old man looking at me with childlike curiosity. I quickly explained to him what I was up to. I felt I had no time for chit-chat and thought he was probably hitting on me (or trying to steal my organs or something), so I tried to politely get rid of him. But he wasn’t going anywhere. He kept asking me questions and the conversation was flowing better and better. Eventually, I understood I was talking to an Israeli millionaire & serial entrepreneur with several exits. I was stunned. He had to run, but told me he would be around for the next 2 weeks and we could meet again.

What followed is an amazing series of events that involved meditation, hypnosis, walking blindfolded and barefoot in a park, going in a lake in the middle of winter and a bunch of weird random experiences that he challenged me with. In two weeks he taught me more than I learnt in university in years. Most importantly, he made me understand that I am an amazing person who can do anything. And that I love myself. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me. We worked together several times and it is thanks to him that I started dreaming bigger and saw the beauty of creating products that can be used by millions of people. So lesson 3: Don’t let sex-based fears get in the way of opportunities that come your way. To be honest, that initial instinct that he was hitting on me stayed with me and I kept doubting his reasons to approach and seek to work with me for some time. Two years later, I can say that if I would have followed that instinct, I wouldn’t have a valuable friend and mentor who’s taught me so much about life and startups.

Screw-up #4: ‘I don’t know shit about technology, so I won’t do it’

Lesson 4 comes from ZenQ, the startup that I co-founded with some awesome guys at Startup Weekend Cluj 2 years ago. I walked into the event determined to have fun and win this thing, knowing close to nothing about building software products aside from the 2 weeks ‘crash course’ from my Israeli friend. I pitched, got some unexpectedly cool people together, we made a working app prototype in 2 days and won 2nd place at the event. All I did was draw out 3 screens of a mobile app on a piece of paper and use my basic photoshop skills to get those looking OK. The rest was done by the awesome team, with which just 2 months later we released our first app for iOS and Android.

It was an amazing experience that gave me lesson 4: Don’t be afraid that you don’t know shit about technology. There is this perception that in order to get into IT and do well in it, you need to know programming, which many women like me find unappealing and hard to understand. But the truth is, you don’t really need to know programming.

I had no idea of technology, but that helped me become a great listener. A mentor advised us how to best use our resources to move fast at the event, so we ended up developing our app’s backend in Python instead of Java and freeing up one of our tech guys to do our Android app later. My lack of knowledge also helped me lead the team with complete trust in the decisions of my co-founders. One of them said ‘let’s do this in 2 months, it’s really simple’ and we committed to that. Another one sat with me a couple of times so that together we defined what everyone needed to do for things to work out. A third one quickly learned to code in a new language so that we will finish on time. And we did make it in 2 months of part-time work. The fact you don’t know about IT is the best gift you have, because you can zoom out, focus on the user need and experience and work great as a team with tech guys who complement you. On their side, they are pretty happy to work with someone who can deal with design, marketing, business, organization and all kinds of other random stuff so that they can focus on what they like to do best.

Screw-up #5: Play the nice and all-forgiving mom, instead of letting your team sweat to make great work.

The last lesson 5 comes from my work with the Israeli entrepreneur on Fipin — a mobile app for travellers in Singapore to get their laundry done, by locals, Uber-style. Shortly after failing with ZenQ, we started developing the concept together and I became the COO of the startup. We started recruiting a team online, using the oDesk (currently UpWork) platform to find freelance developers. I probably talked to a hundred of them until we settled on our final configuration with a virtual team spread out across Singapore, Russia, Romania, Israel and Argentina. Our CEO’s strength was understanding and dealing with people and one of the things he taught me was how to be what we’d normally consider a ‘bitch’ when it’s needed.

You see, there is this thing that if you are a man and you are decisive, firm and clear, you are a great leader. For women, the perception can be a bit different if you show the same qualities. For example, whenever I’d talk to a job candidate, I learnt to push and ask for many things for the opportunity to work with us: that they will agree to make a test task for free, deliver every couple of days a testable product, communicate in a specific way, make the app look impeccable design-wise… and all of this for much less money that they’d normally shake hands to. It sounds harsh, but it guarantees the right guys will negotiate until you agree on something that fits both sides. They will feel they had to work hard to get to work with you and keep working hard to live up to your expectations. That in turn will help them do a better job and be more happy by the work they produce.

I wouldn’t be telling you this if our CEO hadn’t let me screw up by being nice and all-forgiving to a couple of developers at first. If your common success depends on you being demanding in the beginning and during your work together, then you should play that role in the game. There is nothing wrong in getting people to sweat a bit when needed — as crazy as it sounds, they are happier when they do.

To sum up — 5 ways to NOT screw up as a woman in tech:

  1. Surprise the room full of men
  2. Use your emotions, intuition and feminine side
  3. Have fun instead of asking ‘what does he want from me?’
  4. Develop skills to complement tech people
  5. Be a ‘bitch’ when needed

As you might have noticed, all 5 lessons have nothing to do with technology. They also have nothing to do with men. Just like the shaking hands thing, men are just playing by the rules they’ve known for a long time. It’s not men’s business to change things. I believe that it’s our business as women to spot and change the rules and patterns that hold us down, since we are the only ones in charge of our own minds.