Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “One of the top myths in the business world is that women are inherently uninterested in technology” with Johanna Björklund of Codemill AB

Penny Bauder
Feb 21 · 11 min read

One of the top myths in the business world is that women are inherently uninterested in technology. As a generalized group, women may well be less interested in tech than men. But if that is the case, it is only due to most of us being implicitly taught since our earliest childhood that tech is not for us.

Step into any toy store, and you will see how toys are color-coded with pink and blue. And guess which category the tech-related toys nearly always fall into? To attract more women to STEM, we need to challenge our very earliest, even unconscious assumptions. That is the only way more girls (and ultimately, women) will truly start to feel that tech is for them. And that tech is where they belong, as I undoubtedly feel it is for me.

a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johanna Björklund.

Johanna is Co-founder and CTO of Codemill AB, a digital product and service studio which she co-founded in 2007 in Umeå, Sweden.

Johanna’s background is as a computer scientist, with a special interest in theoretical computer science, multimodal data analysis, and machine learning. She holds a PhD in computer science from the University of Umeå, where she still contributes research, as well as being a regular event speaker on AI and technology.

She is the winner of a number of awards, including EY Swedish Entrepreneur of the Year, region north, 2017, as well as earlier in the same year being lauded as one of the top serial entrepreneurs under 40, a list compiled by Di Digital. In 2016, she was also on the list of Sweden’s ten most innovative entrepreneurs, a list compiled by the ÅForsk Foundation and the SISP, Swedish Incubators & Science Park.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Johanna! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

mother has always been passionate about women’s rights, and when I was little, she thought it was important that I played with toys aimed at boys, as well as the ones typically considered to be for girls. So, I was given Barbie dolls and My Little Ponies, but also air guns and radio-controlled cars. My father brought home his laptop and let me play with it, and I sometimes followed him to work and marveled at the big mainframe computers there.

I was very much into maths at school, and when it was time to choose a program for university, I chose an MSc in Computer Science. I reasoned that it would allow me to study my beloved mathematics, but also provide a good chance of eventually landing a well-paid job too.

At university, I made many friends and some of us hung out on an IRC chat named #lodis (roughly translated as #hobo). I learnt a lot about computers and programming from my friends there, probably as much as from the degree itself. This was during the IT boom, and we had the idea of starting a company and making our fortune just as soon as we graduated.

Alas, when the time came, the IT market crashed and we went our separate ways in pursuit of other careers. I started working on my PhD, my friend Rickard was employed at the university’s IT department, and the rest of the gang went to find jobs elsewhere. Then, just after I’d completed my dissertation, Rickard approached me and said “If we don’t start the company now, we probably never will.” So, we registered Codemill, and a few weeks later had our first customer.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting ones, I’m afraid I can’t share due to GDPR, but we have had a lot of fun over the years. Renting a small airplane and flying to Finland to meet with a team of computer vision researchers was one, participating in the creative destruction lab at Oxford University is definitely another.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once promised a customer that if we didn’t deliver on time, we wouldn’t charge them. But we also included a verification phase in the middle of the project, where we had to wait for their feedback before we could continue. The customer very rationally decided to delay this for as long as possible, with the obvious end result.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Since the day we began, myself and my co-founder Rickard’s mission has been to work with interesting technology and inspiring people, from little Umeå in northern Sweden, for customers all over the world.

What sets us apart is our company culture, which is very team oriented. At its heart is a notion we call “codemillism” — a set of values and behaviors where collaboration and personal growth are key.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’d highlight two in particular.

The first operates in the film and broadcast technology space: it’s called Accurate Video, and covers everything from quality control to editing to post-production. In a space that was traditionally dominated by monolithic providers and ‘one size fits all’ software, it’s part of a new wave that is modular and customizable. It’s all part of a movement we’ve observed legacy broadcasters embrace, especially as they seek to catch up with the Netflixes and Amazon Primes of this world.

Another exciting and timely project is Adlede. Essentially, it’s involved in using machine learning and computer vision to make smarter, more ethical choices around where to display advertising campaigns. All based on the right context — and content — instead of personal data.

For many of us, the misuse of personal data we’ve learnt about in recent times is deeply troubling. Particularly around advertising. And as legislation such as GDPR and CCPA gathers pace, more ethical approaches like contextual targeting are not just more important, they may ultimately be the only option left on the table.

However you feel about advertising, it still fulfils a vital purpose, both in business and society in general. As the saying goes, “Everyone hates advertising, until they lose their cat.”

The question is how to do it in the right way, without alienating and annoying your neighbors.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The diversity question is an important one. First and foremost, it’s about democracy. Technology is changing the world, and those that create it have an immense influence on our society.

If women are not part of this, then we cannot expect our interests and perspectives to be represented. Second, there’s the purely economic question of human resources. It doesn’t make sense to only look at half of the talent pool when hiring. Finally, it’s about workplace culture. Quite aside from the great importance of equality, I personally believe that diverse work places are also healthier for everyone involved.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

If you’re a white middle-aged man in STEM, people just assume that you probably know what you’re doing. This is particularly true if you claim to be some type of expert. If you’re a woman on the other hand, you have to prove that you have the right competence over and over again. It’s tiring, but on the plus side, at least you get to constantly practice your skills.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the top myths in the business world is that women are inherently uninterested in technology. As a generalized group, women may well be less interested in tech than men. But if that is the case, it is only due to most of us being implicitly taught since our earliest childhood that tech is not for us.

Step into any toy store, and you will see how toys are color-coded with pink and blue. And guess which category the tech-related toys nearly always fall into? To attract more women to STEM, we need to challenge our very earliest, even unconscious assumptions. That is the only way more girls (and ultimately, women) will truly start to feel that tech is for them. And that tech is where they belong, as I undoubtedly feel it is for me.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You are not your team’s mother. While it is your job to create the conditions needed to let them perform at their best, it is not your job to iron out every single last wrinkle for them. On the contrary, if you are not careful with how you spend your time and effort, you are likely to fail your team on something that actually is your responsibility.
  2. As a woman, it can sometimes be difficult to get enough airtime to express your views. If you want to lead a conversation, then listen very actively to the person talking (that is, make eye contact and nod along). In 9 out of 10 cases, they will pay attention back to you, and the rest of the group too. When they are finished talking, you can naturally have your say, without ever having to raise your voice.
  3. When I started out, I found it very discouraging if I proposed an idea and nobody took me up on it. I thought that meant my colleagues had no trust in me, and that made me warier of making suggestions in future. Over time, however, I changed my opinion on this. Now I make a point of always saying what my preferred course of action is, and simply accepting that many times other people may not agree. What I’ve found though, is that simply repeating the opinion over time bring people over to my side, because what you hear often enough you accept as the truth.
  4. My colleague Mona Forsman and I talked about leadership and she made the excellent point that whether you are a formal or informal leader, you have a great impact on the general mood of people around you. If you complain or act worried, then this will spread to your team. It’s difficult to always control one’s emotions, but we can at the very least control our reactions to some degree.
  5. Finally, if you want to be a leader, then simply lead. Leadership positions are often given to those who are already recognized as informal leaders. And true leadership is not so much about ordering people around, as setting a direction and inviting others to join you.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I read the following advice in a book about raising children, but I think it applies to all relationships: Try to have five positive interactions with each team member for every one negative. Disagreements and arguments help us grow and develop new perspectives, but only if there is a background of mutual appreciation and respect.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

It makes sense to subdivide very large teams into smaller autonomous units and make them responsible for themselves, in term of financials, technology, planning, etc. for a couple of projects each.

Also, encourage each of these team units to finetune internal company processes to their own needs, and establish an individual culture. Finally, encourage them to share their experiences with their fellow teams. In this way, the company can try out many different approaches in parallel, and converge over time to those that are the most effective.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Many years ago, I had lunch with Kristina Detlefsen, who had had a long career in banking. She told me about her professional life and how she had balanced family life with her career choices. One of the main takeaways from our conversation for me was that seemingly impossible life decisions can be resolved if you are willing to live a little bit outside of the norm.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I do my best to drive the ongoing trend towards a greater awareness of gender and sustainability issues. At the companies that I co-founded, we are proactive in our recruitment to hire equal numbers of men and women, and have a positive view of diversity in general.

Despite working with international customers, we try to avoid flying by using teleconferencing, and exclusively serve vegetarian food at our customer events. We are also particular about our customers, and choose not to work with companies that produce military equipment, market alcohol or tobacco, or conduct animal experiments.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think much could be gained if we were able to ignore what most us perceive as socially awkward. I once saw a woman kneeling down by a drunken man, who was unknown to her, and offering him water. The man had been lying in the street in the hot sun for some time, his trousers were soiled and he sometimes muttered an incoherent phrase or two. The woman’s simple act of kindness somehow transformed him for everyone around from an object to be stepped over, to a human being in need of help.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I like most things Bertrand Russell has said or written, but my favorite quote is “love is wise, hatred is foolish”. When I face an important decision and think that I have made up my mind, I always try to review and question my own motivation. For example, for any elements of envy, competitiveness, aggression, etc. Then I try to re-evaluate the situation and find a solution that aims for the common good. Anger might be powerful fuel for short sprints, but love and compassion is better for a marathon.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to meet the British journalist and author of ‘How to be a Woman’, Caitlin Moran. She has an amazing amount of good sense for just one individual. And I love the analogy she uses of the future as a quilt, where everyone chips in and works on the patches that are most important to them.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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