How I learned to own my biggest career mistake

Today is International Women’s Day and I’ve been thinking a lot about the story I wanted to tell that aligns with this year’s theme Press for Progress. I once made a pretty massive career mistake and it took me nearly three years with a lot of soul searching to forgive myself for it. I want to share this story in hopes that other women and non-binary people in tech can relate, find the same resources that helped me climb out of the black hole of self-doubt, and Press for Progress together.

Three years ago, I turned down a job offer to manage an entire team with a six-figure salary, generous stock options, and a $40k signing bonus. I thought I was unqualified and was afraid the company would think they made a mistake if they hired me. Instead I took the safer job option for a lateral career move and a salary 20% below industry average. I settled because I had been conditioned to believe I wasn’t worth more than that. I was devastated when I walked away and ended up being unhappy in the position I took instead. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “What the hell did I just do? Why did I walk away from my dream job?”

It’s taken me awhile to not only answer that question but to also forgive myself. I have learned more about myself and my career goals in this mistake than I have in the last decade of trying to answer “Am I good enough?”

I settled because I had been conditioned to believe I wasn’t worth more than that.

I walked away because I’d been told I don’t belong on a technical team by a male engineer who also once asked me “What are you even doing here?” (He later apologized when I left the company and told me I had in fact proved him wrong.)

I walked away because I’d been ignored, overlooked, and spoken over in meetings when I tried to lean in and speak up with my own ideas.

I walked away because there weren’t enough women in leadership roles before me to look up to and show me that it can be done.

Again, a year later when another recruiter approached me for my current position I told him I was unqualified. I interviewed anyways and accepted the position, but I still struggled with impostor syndrome. I had a constant fear that others thought I didn’t belong on a technical team.

I eventually met with a career coach, kristina leonardi, I found on the Muse who took one look at my resume and told me I was more than qualified and no, I didn’t need to go back to grad school and bury myself in student debt in order to become a manager or get my next promotion. She told me to forgive myself for walking away from that job offer and have confidence in my career and the decisions I’ve made along the way. I needed to own it. She encouraged me to explore my personal goals and learn more about myself. I did this by taking time for self-reflection and also seeking therapy (by the way let’s also talk more openly about therapy and fight the mental health stigma!) My therapist told me to stop trying to answer the question “What do I want to do?” and instead ask “How do I want to feel?”

Through this career mistake, I also met my amazing manager from my current employer who taught me how to be a great manager, leader, mentor, and friend. She, and my employer, invest in my professional development and continuously ask me “How can you grow?” I am also deeply inspired and motivated by the fact that my boss is a woman, my boss’s boss is a woman, my boss’s boss’s boss is a woman, and my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is a woman.(that’s a lot of bosses!) For the first time in my career, I have at least four levels of women in leadership to look up to and learn from in a way that is meaningful to me. And it feels really good to work for an IT organization that supports women in leadership. There’s definitely still more work to do in our organization, but they are open to listening. Being heard is progress. Through all of this, I have found the importance of believing in the company you work for, and not just their product, but also their values.

…stop trying to answer the question “What do I want to do?” and instead ask “How do I want to feel?”

Through encouragement from my boss and our professional development budget I sought out a “women in tech” focused conference and found Write/Speak/Code. Write/Speak/Code is a 501c3 non-profit organization that works to empower women and non-binary coders to become thought leaders, conference speakers and open source contributors. I wrote my first blog post at the conference, which is now published on Product Coalition. I also co-led a session for the first time ever at a conference with 400 Stanford University IT professionals where I used a presentation I designed & wrote at the W/S/C conference.

Before W/S/C, I considered leaving tech altogether. I believe in this community and the work they are doing so much that I’ve also joined the Seattle leadership team to start our own local chapter. We’re currently seeking sponsorship for our national conference and our day-long workshop called “Own Your Expertise” on Saturday, April 28th in Seattle.

At the beginning of the conference, there was a space on our name tags to fill in the blank “I am an expert _______.” The first day of the conference I wrote something silly: “I am an expert at herding cats.” 🐱 By the end of the conference, and without prompting or forcing us to, I had changed my name tag to read: “I am an expert at leading successful development teams that build world-class web products.” I looked around at other name tags and saw other women and non-binary attendees were also doing the same thing. This is what owning your expertise is all about.

I have learned to own my mistakes and my achievements. So three years after my biggest career mistake, I am more motivated than ever. Whether it’s through Write/Speak/Code or through the work I do on a daily basis for my job, I want to support and empower other women and non-binary people facing impostor syndrome and struggling with the question “Am I good enough?” Because yes, you are. We all are.

“There is no greater threat to the critics, cynics, and fearmongers than a woman who is willing to fall because she has learned to rise.” — Brené Brown