3 Lessons From Working In The Tech Industry

For 50 years, Peppermint Patty has been a cultural icon for women and girls trying to find their place in a sports world dominated by men. (Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz’)

Like the world of sports, the technology industry has been also dominated by men. My entire career has been spent in the technology industry. Prior to that, coincidentally, my post-secondary education was also dominated by men having done a degree in Computer Science. So what?

Whilst I personally never gave it much thought, the ratio of male versus female in the workplace has become quite the public conversation in recent years. I’ve always focused on what I wanted to achieve with my career and how I would go about achieving my goals; the focus was never on how much less or more of a chance I had because I was female. About 6 years ago, I made the decision to take a leap and start my own business. This exposed me to a new set of challenges and, in some ways, highlighted that I was a minority being a female business owner. But this only motivated me further to achieve what I set out to accomplish and continuously evaluate the way I approached each mission. And over the past 14 years, there was one of the common aspects of every approach which remained the same — “keep your eyes on the prize”.

I’ve learnt many things from being a female founder and business owner in a “boys club” like environment and wanted to humbly share 3 things that perhaps may help or inspire you. These 3 learnings came from repeated experiences where I’ve achieved my goals, sometimes a bit bruised, but all the more stronger for it.

Note whilst these learnings may come across as being more relatable for females, they are equally intended for anyone else who is curious to build on my experience.

Lesson 1: Courage & Confidence Over Intimidation & Fear

“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” — Sir Winston Churchill

Our minds can be our greatest asset whilst also being our greatest weakness. I believe that it all comes down to perspective and one’s frame of mind. For example, last week I went to a cybersecurity networking and pitch event on my own without knowing anybody there. When I arrived, I walked into a large open room full of people, which happened to be a male-dominated crowd. The first thoughts that came to my mind were “Who looks interesting to speak with?” and “I hope that I will learn something new here”. I consciously choose not to allow myself to be intimidated by the thought of being the minority in the room or to be less confident because I didn’t know nobody else in the room. This is simply because it wasn’t relevant to why I chose to go to the event. Plus, what good would it do me by dwelling on these “irrelevant” thoughts if my objective was to learn something new? I chose to attend the cybersecurity event because I was curious about cybersecurity related innovations and who were the “movers and shakers” in this space. By staying focused on my reason for attending the event, I learnt some insightful things about cybersecurity itself, in addition to meeting some new people and how other great minds were attempting to innovate with cybersecurity.

The learning here is that we should not allow ourselves to be intimidated or less confident by issues irrelevant to the main purpose of our actions. If we welcome intimidation and fear, we have allowed our mind to make us weak. It takes courage to try something new and/or a healthy mindset to positively frame the way we perceive things. With time and practice, intimidation and fear can easily be overcome.

Lesson 2: Knowledge Always Win

“More the Knowledge Lesser the Ego, Lesser the Knowledge More the Ego…” — Albert Einstein

The above quote can also be looked at as the following mathematical equation:

Ego = 1/Knowledge

which describes the relationship between Knowledge and Ego. John Meagher explains that “the equation suggests that the more knowledge the less ego or that the more knowledge, the less need there is to shore up one’s self-esteem.”

Time and time again, knowledge has served me well. Why? Because it has enabled me to engage in productive conversations. For example, having both broad and deep knowledge has enabled me to have the kind of conversations where I can drill down to the core problem with stakeholders rather than participating in the never ending circle of conversations that get nowhere. Another example where knowledge has proven useful is in the many workshops I conduct. These workshops include a variety of decision makers and contributors (eg. managers, designers, engineers). And in order to maintain attention, productivity and “control” of the room, I needed to have some understanding of the areas and objectives corresponding to the people in the room as well as being able to stand my ground, eg. showing that I knew what they were talking about and had a sound plan to address the issues/problem at hand. This can only be done if you are knowledgable.

Some also say that “knowledge is power”. In my experience, knowledge has helped to gain the trust of the people that I work with. This has opened doors for new projects and a opportunities to educate others to support them in making more informed decisions. For example, Interesting By Default has been brought onboard, in multiple instances, to help with collecting insights and validating key concepts before the development of large projects are to officially kick off. The outcomes of these research projects provided strategic direction for the business and insights for the product development team to further shape the benefits (thus, features) that they were looking to deliver. Both the knowledge gained from the research project itself and the knowledge that was created through our collaboration enabled the team to reduce uncertainty and thus risk to enable more confident decisions.

The learning here is that you can never have enough knowledge and there is always more to learn. The key is how to go about collecting the knowledge (eg. asking the right questions) and knowing when to apply it. Many of the most successful people, such as Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, have had a vast range and depth of knowledge.

Lesson 3: Demonstrate Not Demand Respect

Respect ”comes down to equality. Gender shouldn’t even be something that crosses your mind but sometimes it’s hard for it not to.” — Lucy Ward

There is no worse feeling than the feeling of being disrespected by another person, whether it is in the workplace or not. Today, many people demand and expect a certain level of respect in hopes to gain power and/or control. But the reality is that demanding respect results in the opposite of gaining power and/or control. Respect is an earned privilege and is not given to an individual based on social status, gender or race. In my experience, the best way to earn respect is to simply respect others. This means treating others how you wish to be treated and equally helping others in ways you hope to be helped when needed. A few years back, I had an example of this at a company I was consulting for. My direct report demanded that I “respect” her (which I did) but I feel as though she also confused this with control and micro-management. Well that’s no good because it is the opposite to spreading knowledge and empowering your team. Anyways, the point is that she didn’t see it that way because I sensed that she felt less powerful and a lack of control (at least to her liking). Whilst that annoyed me, I continued to treat her like any other colleague, with respect and professionalism, the same way I would expected to be treated. When things got bad, I voiced my concerns to our superior but also built a respectful relationship. This served me well a few years down the track where I was provided an opportunity to work with innovation leaders and make change.

Often people say that being successful has a lot to do with “who you know” in addition to “what you know”. Indeed, this is true from experience. It also has to do with luck. Having said that if you don’t treat these people with respect, you probably won’t get very far. On the other hand, demonstrating genuine respect (as well as courage, confidence and knowledge) tends to get you a lot further. This extra help from people you demonstrated respect to can make a huge difference in achieving your mission or goal which ultimately leads to personal satisfaction. I’ve had countless situations where simply demonstrating respect towards the people I work with has played to my advantage.

The learning here is that one should not demand respect but rather focus on earning the respect through demonstrating it themselves. Having said that, we naturally would like to be disrespectful in return when being disrespected but what good would that do either person? It takes a bigger person to walk away or to have an open and direct conversation if you felt comfortable enough. Alternatively, a little bit of advice from Michelle Obama:

“When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high”

In summary, demonstrating respect benefits both you and the people around you from reducing stress to improving collaboration and ultimately better chances of achieving the desired goals.

One Simple Principle

At the end of the day, we always have a choice. My choice is to live by one simple principle in business and life:

If you want it, go get it! Nobody is going to do it for you.

“Slow and steady” in the race of getting what you want at work, in business and life is unfortunately not the way to go. You’ve got to pick or know the direction you want to be running in and have a plan (at least the first part) of how you’re going to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. Also, don’t let yourself be distracted or slowed down by the irrelevant things such as being the minority. Dictate your own actions and define how you want to feel about the actions you take because it all comes down to your perspective. “If you want it, go get it! Nobody is going to do it for you”. I don’t mean to sound like a nagging big sister but it is the way of the world. No person or organisation racing to the top will simply step aside to let their competition pass by, especially when it comes to business. Just remember:

  1. Be Confident & Courageous
  2. Knowledge Always Wins
  3. Demonstrate Not Demand Respect
  4. “Eye on the prize”

Personally, if I knew that I was hired or provided an opportunity just to help meet the 50/50 gender ratio of an organisation or initiative, I’d be the first to say “no”. I believe that we should all have an equal opportunity based on abilities and achievements. Hence, we shouldn’t be “proactively addressing the imbalance”. What are your thoughts?

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Amanda Woo

Amanda Woo

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Obsessed with technology, products & people | Founder of Interesting By Default | Director of Product at Cognizant