In our most recent #WomenInTechQA we caught up with Engineering Manager at Miro, Susan van de Ven.
Susan offers her advice to others who are looking to take on senior leadership positions in the industry and discusses what businesses should be doing to help increase the number of women in leadership.
Susan also talks about the biggest challenge ahead for the next generation of female tech leaders.
W.I.T. Republic (WR): Could you tell us a bit about what influenced you to pursue a senior leadership position in engineering?
Susan van de Ven (SV): I became a team lead due in part to my manager seeing my potential and being open to my different profile providing a valuable point of view. I volunteered where I could, to be part of groups addressing challenging problems, and enjoyed being part of solving cross team problems and driving change. My participation in these groups made me realise that I wanted to be involved in decision making to be able to improve things further.
I joined Miro as an Engineering manager and am glad that they appreciated the fact that I brought unique experience and ideas to the table.
WR: In your experience, what is one challenge of managing a team that people might not consider before they take on the role? How can this be overcome?
SV: A couple of things spring to mind. First, it is easy to try and do too much. Over time, you just become overworked and overwhelmed. Plus, your team may get disengaged by thinking they don’t have enough ownership or responsibility. Delegating is a leadership skill, in part because it gives you time to think.
Secondly, it’s sometimes hard to know what was a good day. There is no green build or push to production to tell you that you completed a task well. The positive impact you make can take years to hear about. My advice is to get feedback early and often, and try to find a way to see how you are improving and growing in this role, reflecting and adapting along the way.
WR: Leading on from that, are there any challenges you think that are specific to female tech leaders?
SV: When I first began leading the team, I heard that I was being referred to as the ‘Mum of the team’, or I was being a ‘Mama Bear’. On the contrary, a man would have been described as a strong leader or someone who really cares about his team in the same situation. Sure, there probably was some valid feedback about shielding my team too much, but having it attributed to my being a woman (with children) suggests it’s something that I couldn’t fix. To that end, be aware of the double standards that exist between men and women, especially in the tech world, and don’t be afraid to speak up when you feel you may be criticized or characterized unfairly. Be sure you are receiving feedback that’s actionable.
Also, be aware of taking on tasks that can interfere with your role. For example, be careful with overloading women with diversity work. It’s easy to say we want women in all interviews, but that means those women are spending more time interviewing than everyone else, which ultimately impacts productivity and performance.
WR: As the Engineering Manager at Miro, working in a completely remote setting, what would you say are the key benefits and challenges for managers of working in this environment?
SV: I do think the pandemic just made us all a little bit kinder, more forgiving and adaptable to others needs. There is always something quite nice about seeing cats/dogs or children interrupt the call – it reminds us that we are just people. My colleagues got to hear my daughter’s saxophone practice in the background of our calls – perhaps not always a good thing.
I used to be very matter of fact, straight to business on calls because people are sick of video call fatigue, but over time, working remotely has helped me to slow down and get to know my teammates more.
Of course challenges still arise from lack of face-to-face interaction. You only hear about what you are directly involved in, so it’s really important that your manager and others are aware of what you are passionate about and would like to be part of.
WR: What are your top tips for others looking to make the leap from senior to leadership positions in their tech team?
SV: This might seem counterintuitive, but you need to do less. You can’t move into a new role if you are impossible to replace in your current role. Demonstrating that you can spend your time on the most important work gives you more opportunities than being the busiest person on the team.
WR: What do you think businesses can be doing both short and longer term to increase the numbers of women in tech in leadership positions?
SV: I think it is important to be more open to different routes to tech and to keep women in tech by not tolerating toxic behaviour, and being active to prevent discrimination in hiring, salary and promotions.
Formally or informally, make an effort to ensure that women are not pushed into non-technical roles unless they want to be, and make sure that women and men are judged equally when opportunities arise.
Hiring at every level needs to be a bit more open-minded. Perhaps the picture of an engineer you have is a bit restrictive and is already well covered in your org. Remember you can afford to take a chance every now and then on a slightly different profile or experience. Miro does this very well and I am thankful for that. Encouraging different perspectives has helped me to be part of and build some of the best teams.
WR: In your opinion, what do you think will be the biggest challenge ahead for the next generation of female tech leaders?
SV: It feels like this is a problem that is getting worse rather than better, and it’s important that we support each other and not allow ourselves to be in competition against one another.
I massively value the network of smart women from engineering, product and business that I have worked with and kept in touch with, where we catch up and give each other advice, coaching and support.
WR: Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received throughout your career that will help other women navigating their career in the industry?
SV: The best advice I have received is to try to improve things within your circle of influence. I’ve watched people burn out trying to fix everything and getting really frustrated when they can’t.
For example, I was in a course where I was being completely ignored by the rest of my table, and the same was happening to a woman at another table. I noticed that she was annoyed and upset and normally I would be too but I was pretty calm. I realised that I had chosen to take what I needed from the course and not spend my time on the others who were at my table asking them for better behavior. I don’t advise others to put up with bad treatment, but I realised that by focusing my energy on them, I would lose out on the education I needed from the course. In this instance I made a conscious choice and was happier for it.
Overall, I find it’s more effective to volunteer to join or build communities within your organisation than try to improve things and put your focus on what is most important to you.
If you would like to join Susan as part of our Q&A series, get in touch today!