10 Lessons From a Happy, Successful & Rich Woman in Tech

When I was a little girl I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m still little (5’1”), but hardly a girl (over 40). The jury is still out on the grown-up part. I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse; my mom is that. She loves it — still doing it even though she could retire. My dad worked in the oil industry, and that meant we moved around a lot, including living in Algeria. Eventually we went back to England, but we lived in the South, near London. I didn’t like it much there. I’ve always been more of a country girl — I prefer the fresh air, the ocean, nature. I was bullied by this girl called Vicki, who I learned didn’t even realise she was bullying me. She was just a real mean girl, and I learned very early on that I hate being around negative people. [Lesson 1: Surround yourself with people that lift you up.]

Wirral County Grammar School for Girls — Awesome bunch of ladies

I convinced my parents to send me to live with my grandparents in the northwest and I got to go to an excellent girls’ grammar school. Until that point I hadn’t really had to try hard to maintain a place in the top 20%. At that school I had to work my ass off to stay slightly above average. We didn’t have tech classes; no one did in England in the ‘80s. I think I saw myself more as a creative type; I loved writing stories and painting. But I also didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. I wasn’t ready to decide yet who I was. So when it came to the part where we were supposed to select Science, Arts or Social Science, I refused to specialise and I picked one of each. Mathematics, Government & Politics and English Literature. But actually, I was making a choice by not choosing — and it has stood me in good stead. [Lesson 2: Refusing to make choices is in itself a choice.]

I wanted to go to one of the best universities, but being a B Student with no speciality, they were not convinced I was the best candidate. Oxford, Durham, Edinburgh, Bristol, Warwick — they all rejected me. Which actually set me free. I had been planning to do English Literature at university. Getting rejected from all of my choices meant that all of a sudden, I was not faced with five options and one major. I could pick any school and any course, assuming my grades were good in my final exams. So I refocused and applied myself. Got my grades and then started calling around. Durham University had a place for me doing philosophy. I had no idea what that was, but it sounded awesome. So I took it. [Lesson 3: Say ‘yes’ to opportunity, ‘yes’ to life.]

When I was in my second year of University I shared a house with a bunch of physics students. Yes, it was exactly like “Big Bang Theory.” Those guys used to give me a hard time about doing an arts degree. Saying it wasn’t a real subject. It wasn’t as hard as their degree. That I couldn’t survive in a course like theirs. I hate it when people try to tell me what I cannot do. One of those guys had his own computer company back in Cornwall, at 20 years old. He was the most arrogant of all of them. And of course, the one I most wanted to prove I could beat.

I hate it when people try to tell me what I cannot do. So I applied to do a master’s degree in computer science.

So I applied to do a master’s degree in computer science. It was a really intensive conversion master’s designed to bring people over from arts degrees. The undergraduate classes I did in artificial intelligence and logic had peaked my interest, but I was not prepared for how hard the jump from 10 hours a week of classes to 35 hours + homework. I had to learn seven coding languages which included Assembler. It was a really rough awakening. But I’m glad I did it. [Lesson 4: You can do anything you set your mind to, but it will be hard.]

Beer Fairy at Anheuser-Busch Inbev

When I applied to start work I was looking for graduate scheme stuff. I wanted to follow a leadership track to the top. I told them I was interested in starting in hospitality or tech. I was picked up by Whitbread Inns (Travel Inn, Pizza Hut, Marriott Hotels, Brewers Fayre etc) and I started deep in the grass roots — new openings in a pub/hotel chain. Before six months were up they moved me to the head office in glamorous Luton to work on an EFPOS project — putting in tills that linked to each other, a back office computer and had a feed back to head office for stock, rosters, financials etc. I started on the help desk, then moved to a role in desk-side support back in the northwest, then became manager of those regional teams. I then took an architect role for the Windows 2000 upgrade, before moving on to manage the service desk, network and desk-side support teams. In those years Whitbread had been taken over by Anheuser-Busch (largest brewer in the world by volume) and eventually they outsourced us all to IBM.

This was a tremendous opportunity for all of us. Outsourcing is a particularly unhappy time for most employees undergoing the procedure. First of all, your employer declares you are no longer part of its family. Also that they think someone else can do your job more effectively and cheaper. It tends to make people feel a bit undervalued. And we had loved being part of the Hospitality Industry — apart from working in chocolate, it surely has to be the best industry in the world… they gave us free beer! But, looking at it objectively, all the smart and talented people who worked for me had nowhere to go. They were all stuck in their jobs waiting for someone to leave or die. Being outsourced to IBM was the most wonderful thing that could happen to us. They brought us in, welcomed us as their own, gave us the blue blood infusion, the tattoo on the back of our necks. We were assimilated into the collective and it was awesome.

All of a sudden everyone in all of my teams had a career path. They had choices. They could grow. I went from being a national manager to working globally. I moved to Belgium, the land of beer and chocolate and lead teams in Dublin, Czech Republic, Brazil, India, South Africa and China.

It wasn’t for everyone. The best boss I have ever had refused the transfusion. He had worked for one company his whole life. Known people who had started there at 16 years of age and people who had died there. It broke his heart when they outsourced us and he refused to become part of big blue. He had been a great mentor and an amazing friend to me. I thought we would work together forever. I was devastated to watch him leaving me — is it worse to lose a work husband than an actual husband? [Lesson 5: People make their own choices, and sometimes it means you lose them.]

In my early career nearly everyone I worked for, and with, including those that worked for me, were men. Maybe, I didn’t have to prove I was better than them — but I did have to prove I could do anything that they could do. Even when I was managing them I was taking my Microsoft Certifications and studying CISCO courses. They respected me for understanding what they understood. I know plenty of Managers who have never had to do that. They manage without understanding the technical details. I don’t think I understand the details anymore, but I understand enough that they know I know something. I don’t think they require it from me anymore. I think they like that about me though. [Lesson 6: Be the best you can be]

Mary and Me and the Big Day In Careers Fair

I had a 10-year plan that involved leaving Europe, that despite most people’s romantic visions is cold and dark and wet most of the year and emigrating to the sunniest city in the world, Perth, Australia. I worked for a local company for a year or so and worked with an amazing team. But I missed the culture of a big company. I moved across to Microsoft and it was like going home to IBM, but better. It was harder, so much more challenging — this was a company attempting to reinvent itself. To move from its large, complacent position to something relevant and exciting again. Every employee had to step up and push themselves very day. It’s hard, but I love being part of that.

I don’t have some horrific story about bullying and being driven from my role. But I have seen that happen. I think the more common story that resonates with many women in my field is the death by a thousand cuts scenario. The snide comments. The overlooked good work and the exaggerated mistakes.

It would be easy to let those tiny slights build up.

I spoke at an event earlier this year. It was pretty impressive because they had quite a few prominent industry women there. A games industry specialist, who I am a huge admirer of, received some quite aggressive questioning from one of the school boys in the audience. It might have been nothing, but in the light of the recent #GamerGate stuff, it seemed particularly insensitive. The specialist (who is a woman) complained to the organisers and asked for a Code of Conduct or a Safe Space Policy to be implemented in future years. She was dismissed by the old guy who acts as president for that association — he thought she was “overreacting.” I voiced my surprise at his response, since what she asked for was very easy to implement and a small, reasonable request. He dismissed me too. I represent Microsoft and am vice-chair of the Australian Computer Society — so he was dismissing quite a serious industry heavy-weight. He just couldn’t see what we were upset about. I asked my ACS co-chair if he would raise it at the next board meeting of that association. He did and after some argument, they accepted it. Now perhaps it was because he sits on their board, and he made his arguments in person. But it is concerning to me that both the person who leads the games industry in our city — a respected doctorate holder — and a representative of one of the largest technology companies in the world were dismissed so easily (perhaps because we were women).

It would be easy to let those tiny slights build up. To let those wounds seep slowly into the world around me until I am weak, and vulnerable and broken. But I do not. I think that as women we face those slights in many areas of our lives, and letting them drive us out of a really cool field that is filled with opportunity and perfectly suited to us would be the ultimate defeat. [Lesson 7: I am stronger because of what I have overcome, and I will not be chased away from what I love.]

Premier Field Engineers at TechReady
People always smile when I say it, and so do I.

What keeps me going is the wonderful people I find around me, supporting me, working with me to make the industry we work in better. Both women and men. I work for Microsoft these days. It is an incredible company to work for. I am surrounded by the brightest and best people. They give me huge amounts of support and freedom to do work with the technology community, which I do on top of my actual day job. They have given me a Monthly Blog on their Asia Pacific page (starting September 2015) where I can talk about women in Tech. Every single Microsoft employee in the world has $1,500 worth of software they can donate to NFPs to use for fundraising purposes, every year. I get to act as a judge, panel member and speaker on behalf of Microsoft or on behalf of the Australian Computer Society, and I have a TEDx Talk, which is mostly just me up there laughing at my own jokes — but I do manage to raise a few points about why technology is the coolest industry in the world for women.

In my TEDx Perth talk I tell the crowd that I am Happy, Successful and Rich. It is a mantra I repeat often. People always smile when I say it, and so do I. When they ask me if it’s true I tell them the story of a former colleague I had in Melbourne. Jenni offered to take me out ice skating one evening when I was over there for work. She and her boyfriend picked me up in an old junker of a car, and it was a miracle we made it to the rink. When we got there her boyfriend said it was his treat. I looked at him, a struggling musician with his hipster beard (this was years before that became a thing), and his tie-dyed clothes and said that I was pretty sure it should be me paying for the evening. He smiled at me, the most relaxed and gentle smile I have ever seen, and said — “Don’t worry about it, I’m rich.” He went off the buy the tickets. I looked at Jenni and she said, “He has enough money tonight to treat us, and he doesn’t need much money to live. He doesn’t need much stuff.” I never get stressed about money, or material goods anymore. I think of how rich these two were, with so little stuff, and it makes me smile. [Lesson 8: You can be Happy, Successful and Rich just by recognising what you already have, by understanding what is valuable.]

Happy, Successful and Rich — It’s not about the money

What makes me Happy, Successful and Rich is that I try to always live my best life. I don’t let the stories in my head hold me back from opportunity (i.e., I’m too old, too young, not experienced enough, not skinny enough, not strong enough, not qualified enough etc). If I see something I want to do, or something I think I should do because it would move me forward, I step forward, I put my hand-up, I apply, I ask, I do it. [Lesson 9: Just do it.]

I try to be remarkable by doing what others are too lazy or scared to do.

I don’t try to be like the crowd. There are too many sheeple. What makes us useful, and what makes us interesting, is our differences. Those become our strengths. I’m not one of those Type-A women, super-smart, super-strong. I’m short, a little plump, charming, clumsy, cute. I try to be remarkable by doing what others are too lazy or scared to do. Perhaps those words are too strong — but complacency and fear are definitely our enemies. They hold us back and I try hard to recognise them and push through them.

Perth <Web> Girls

I will not step on someone else to get ahead. I deliberately seek to lift up those around me. To highlight their strengths and skills. I am a strong believer in karma and the law of attraction — and I think my life proves the efficacy of that lifestyle. I help people, and people love and support me. I am leading a positive movement — and I find supporters everywhere I look.
It’s easy to look around us and see a world filled with hardship — and there are many wrongs, many bad people, too much pain… but there are the people fighting against those things, there are the people in our lives that help and support us. There is opportunity. There is love. There is sunshine. There are waves. [Lesson 10: Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.]

Michelle Sandford surfs waves and webs, thinks outside the Xbox. Follow her on twitter @msandfor.

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