Julie discusses the most significant opportunities and challenges for women when navigating careers in tech and highlights why communication is such an important skill in the industry.
W.I.T. Republic (WR): What has been the driving force to get you where you are today?
Julie Kenny (JK): Mostly a determination never to be bored. Early in my career I worked on traditional accounting systems before eventually ending up in Business Intelligence. Over that time, I’ve worked with many different systems, languages, and roles. There has always been something new to learn which has been a huge amount of fun. I enjoyed working in smaller companies most because you can get a lot of autonomy there.
WR: Since your career began, how has the industry changed in terms of diversity & inclusion?
JK: I think it depends where you look. I did my computer science degree in 1987 and there were fewer than 10 women out of the 160 intake, my son did computer science much more recently and there were just one or two women in his year so that was disappointing to hear. Most software teams and tech events still seem dominated by men too, so it often doesn’t look any different.
It’s not all doom and gloom though; the internet has made entrepreneurship easier and I’m seeing many successful tech businesses being created by women. Of course, Dame Stephanie Shirley did that years ago, but she had more hoops to go through. There are more training options available now too, so the numbers doing degree courses don’t tell the whole story either.
Attitudes have certainly progressed. Back in the 1980’s women bosses were caricatured, “role reversal” was a subject for sitcoms and people (not just men) openly discussed whether they could “work for a woman”. There was also a horrible practice of ‘demo dollies’: supposedly a non-technical but pretty woman who showed the software demo which her male colleagues then answered the technical questions on. I hope we’ve moved on from all that.
WR: In your opinion, what are the most significant opportunities and challenges for women when navigating careers in tech?
JK: Being a woman in tech is an opportunity in itself because you stand out. Good organizations understand the benefits of diversity and the reason why a company or event doesn’t have more women is often that they haven’t received enough applications. Whether it’s a new job, a promotion, or an opportunity to speak at a tech conference be brave and apply.
Secondly, through responsibilities of home and family many women have learnt how to be flexible, adaptable and deal with a wide range of people. If you can do all that you are more prepared for the tech world than you think. Most people can learn the technical skills, but the tech world needs people who can do both.
Finally, when it comes to opportunities, the tech industry practically invented flexible and remote working so that’s certainly something to consider, although not all companies offer what they should.
One key challenge is that women can suffer from lack of confidence and visibility within the workplace. If you’re not confident speaking up and sharing your expertise then your visibility suffers. Far too many assume that confidence equals ability so you can get overlooked while those with less skill make noise. It’s not a problem that only applies to women but we’re often quite bad at singing our own praises and putting ourselves forward.
I think the biggest challenge is that there’s just not enough women around you and it can be difficult to form close bonds in the workplace. You can find yourself quite isolated if you are the only women in the team, informal networks are often gender split. These are the networks where creative ideas emerge, and groups get to know the passions and ambitions of each other, so an unconscious bias emerges. The isolation issue can be a problem everywhere, local meetups, conferences, and training courses. I’ve always blundered my way through this but I’m not a very ‘girly girl’.
WR: Softly Inspired helps tech professionals to develop their careers in the industry, what are your top tips for women who are looking to take on senior leadership positions?
JK: Work on getting seen and heard, make it clear that you are interested and capable of progression. Ask your manager what you can do to move up and follow their advice to show that you are serious. Consider what skills you may need to have in future roles and find ways to develop and showcase them now, such as offering to chair meetings, or deliver presentations.
Build your network however many ways you can, through meetups, conferences, LinkedIn, whatever is possible for you. You’ll find support of different kinds in each and you’ll discover new ideas and ways of working that you can bring back to your teams. I’ve found that the tech community is incredibly open and most love to share ideas so tap into that as much as you can.
Get a mentor, male or female. Some companies have a formal mentor program, but it can be just someone you can talk to on a regular basis who has the right experience to guide you and give you a steer when you need it. I’ve never had a formal mentor, but I had one particular manager who certainly filled that role, and it made a huge difference to me. Thanks Chris!
WR: Communication in any role is key, at Softly Inspired you pay specific attention to the development of communication skills in tech professionals. In your experience, why is communication such an important skill in the tech industry?
JK: Considering most teams are working some sort of agile methodology which relies entirely on good communication, it’s more than critical. If the communication in your daily meetings isn’t effective, then at best they will eat time for little gain. A worse but sadly common result is that issues aren’t raised in a way that the team clearly understands so they are not taken seriously until too late. All of this affects both team cohesion and the bottom line for the company.
There are additional challenges with having to communicate with people who’s goals are very different to but intertwined with the technical ones. As a crude example, if you need to explain why it’s worth spending weeks migrating to a new technology, detailed explanation of the coding functionality won’t sell it to management but explaining that it will enable you to create the most requested product feature might.
There’s also a misconception that good communication is something you’re born with. This can lead to training only being offered to already good communicators in customer facing or higher-level roles, others can find themselves stuck. That’s why I want to help people get unstuck and communicate well in the role they have and the one they want next.
WR: What advice do you have for tech professionals at any stage in their career who are looking to evolve their communication skills?
JK: Come to Softly Inspired of course – but other than that?
Take whatever opportunities you can get to speak. If someone asks, “who’s going to run this meeting”, “who wants to present this”, or “who wants to give a summary”, then offer to do it. Take a breath and try not to speak too fast, it will help you sound and feel more confident.
Look for a supportive advocate who will give you feedback, particularly if you are presenting something a bit more formal. Tell them the sort of thing you’re looking for so they can be specific. This can be really important when your presentation contains disappointing news such as deadline overruns, audience reaction can knock your confidence although your communication skills may have been excellent.
I can’t end this question without mentioning Toastmasters International. My local club, Ipswich Electrifiers’ Speakers club has been a massive help to me, and I’d advise anyone to find a local or online club that suits them. There’s nothing I know that beats it for regular practice and feedback.
WR: Finally, what’s the best piece advice you’ve received throughout your career?
JK: I think the best advice I had was to start with your ideal outcome in mind and then work backwards from there. It applies to communication, your career, a new project, pretty much anything really. It can be easy to get stuck in just seeing a few steps ahead of where you are now, but if you start with that perfect ending, it’s a game changer.
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