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7 Women In Tech Explain How They Broke Into The Industry

Anabel Pasarow

It's no secret that women are underrepresented in tech. According to statistics from the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up half of the overall workforce, and yet hold just 28 percent of STEM-related jobs in the U.S. According to Code.org, only roughly 18 percent of computer science degrees go to women.

The road to gender parity is a slow-moving and bumpy one, especially in tech — but one such barrier to entry is the idea that you have to have majored in a STEM field to go on to work in the industry, which is simply is untrue. According to a new study conducted by Handshake, a career-finding platform for college students in the U.S., 35 percent of 100,000 women who applied to software engineering and developer roles did not major in STEM-related subjects.

"More and more college students are discovering that the true value of their education is not defined by their major," says Christine Cruzvergara, VP, Higher Education & Student Success at Handshake. "College students without STEM degrees aspiring to work in the technology field should embrace and lean in to the skills and assets, including the ability to synthesize information, think critically, and communicate well, that they bring to the table. The unique perspective that these students bring to problem solving and finding creative solutions is just as valuable to employers as theoretical domain expertise, and deserves to be highlighted and emphasized through the recruitment and hiring process."

Ahead, we talked to seven women in tech — from a senior policy director at Spotify to a marine turned waitress turned software engineer at Adobe about how they broke into the industry and what advice they would give to their younger selves.

Jody Kelman, Director of Product Management, AV, Lyft

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A senator.

What did you study in school?
Social Studies — a mix of economics, statistics, and philosophy. I was also a Fulbright Scholar and got my master’s degree from the University of Sydney.

How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
We help Lyft passengers try self-driving technology just by opening their Lyft app in locations like Las Vegas and Chandler, Arizona. For the majority of these riders, this is the first time they’ll experience self-driving technology. People are often surprised, thinking that self-driving technology is something far away in the future, but we’re actually doing it today, powered by some of the best self-driving technology companies like Waymo and Aptiv. So my job is to make sure people can take a self-driving Lyft ride as soon as possible, while making sure it's as safe and comfortable as possible.

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
I would have realized that technology is an accessible field at a younger age. I really got interested in technology when I took a role on President Obama’s Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform transition team in 2008 to make recommendations to his administration on how technology could help them govern better. Until then, I didn’t understand how important many of the skills we learn as those with liberal arts degrees can be to thorny technology problems. I think about this daily in my role now, introducing self-driving technology to consumers.

What professional advice would you give your younger self?
Stop being so scared! Do good work, be kind, and take big leaps, and the world will respond accordingly. In all honesty, I think I would still give this advice to my current self — anyone who tells you they grow out of fear isn’t pushing hard enough

Describe your career trajectory.
I started my career in international development, working in Uganda in the human rights office of a local NGO. My job was to go village to village talking to women about their rights and how they could enforce them. My Fulbright in refugee policy ultimately led to a role at McKinsey and Company in their Sydney office, where I focused heavily on projects that had a public-private component: Australia’s green jobs policy, for example, or how to build a high-speed broadband network to support technology development across the country.

But it was really serving on President Obama’s transition team that got me excited by the power of technology and spurred my interest in working in tech. So when I moved to San Francisco in 2013, I was looking for a tech company that took a mission-driven approach. I was lucky enough to find a few of these — I started at Serena + Lily, an e-commerce company founded by two amazing female entrepreneurs that has a decidedly social entrepreneurial bent. And then in 2015, a friend introduced me to Lyft’s founders, and the rest is history!

















Allie Shaw, Software Engineer, Adobe

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I would’ve never imagined I would be a software engineer! I wanted to be either a dolphin trainer at Sea World or the president of the United States.

What did you study in school?
I struggled early on in school and actually went to a nontraditional high school. I used to get really frustrated with my school work when I didn’t get things right away, or when I wasn’t immediately good at the things I was learning. Because of the school I went to, I didn’t have college scholarship options. I also didn’t have money saved for college. But after graduating high school, I decided I did want to pursue higher education. I joined the United Stated Marine Corps so that I could use the G.I. Bill to go to college and get some work experience. 

After my term was up, I went to school for nursing for a while, but it didn’t feel like the right path for me. After that, I started teaching myself to code, and I fell in love with it. It was the first thing I had tried that really intrigued me. I found that I actually didn’t want to put down my computer at the end of the day. I wanted to keep learning. Around this time, I heard about the Adobe Digital Academy, a program that provides an accelerated path into tech careers for candidates from nontraditional backgrounds. Adobe offers a scholarship and living stipend for candidates to attend a 12-week immersive bootcamp, followed by an opportunity to interview for an apprenticeship at Adobe, and then potentially land a full-time role. The program allowed me to go all-in and focus on learning coding as quickly as I could. After the bootcamp, I was offered the apprenticeship, and then a full-time role as a software engineer.

How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
I get to work on Adobe Analytics products in partnership with not only my team, but other teams as well. A typical day for me might include working on bugs and features, releasing new versions of our product, and collaborating across teams. I love that I have an outside-in view of the product since it’s all still fairly new to me, and I get to bring in a fresh perspective to the things my team is working on.

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
While my path might be somewhat unique compared to other software engineers on my team, I wouldn’t change how I got here. I’ve learned so much along the way that prepared me for the role I’m in now. I learned values in the military that shaped me into how I conduct myself professionally. Learning web development in only 12 weeks furthered my grit and perseverance. I’m still learning how to overcome imposter syndrome and am lucky to have the support of my team guiding me. I think all of this has added up to make me who I am today, so while I could have taken a different path and maybe gotten here a little sooner, I think I took the path that was right for me.

What professional advice would you give your younger self?
I think I would have told myself to be more patient and forgiving with myself. I thought I was limited in what I could accomplish professionally because of the school I went to and the path I had taken. One of the biggest thing I’ve learned is that almost everyone experiences imposter syndrome, whether you’re brand new in your role or you’ve worked at a company for 20 years. Most of us have that feeling some days that we aren’t qualified enough to be in the role we’re in, or that we somehow snuck our way in. My advice would be to not let your past dictate your future, and to acknowledge that imposter syndrome is a feeling that can be conquered.

Describe your career trajectory.
I served as an Administrative Specialist in the Marine Corps. After my Marine Corps career, I wanted to go on to explore other options. I wanted to go to school and decided to study nursing, but I wasn’t really set on it.
 
I decided to take a break from school and explore other options and save the limited months left on my G.I. Bill for something I was passionate about. When I started learning how to code, I was waiting tables. It was then that I heard about the Adobe Digital Academy from a friend. The program really spoke to me because a major technology company was willing to take people who had no knowledge of coding, teach them how to code, and then give them an apprenticeship and the potential for a full-time role. It was less than a one-year journey from starting the bootcamp to being hired full time. I had several mentors, on my own team and other teams, that helped me feel like I fit in and I could do this, even though some days were extremely hard. All of that combined helped me land my current role.

I went from the military to waiting tables to being a software engineer. Growth mindset is something I’ve learned is so important. We all have to work through that imposter syndrome and the fear that we don’t belong or can’t succeed. Having a network to help you through this and encourage you is so important. I’m involved with an organization called Operation Code that helps other veterans get into tech.





















Seema Lakhani, Chief Product Officer at Wattpad and General Manager of Wattpad Labs

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 
I wasn’t entirely sure. At times I wanted to be an entrepreneur like my parents, and at other times I wanted to pursue something in the arts, something creative. I definitely cared about making an impact though.

What did you study in school?
I went to the Ivey Business School at Western University and graduated with an Honors in Business Administration with a Certificate in Entrepreneurship.


How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
I wear many hats at Wattpad! As Chief Product Officer, I lead Wattpad’s overall product strategy and product management team. This means building a practice of strong product thinking to focus on solving the right user and business problems. We’ve introduced a number of new product innovations and monetization models in recent years, including Wattpad Paid Stories, our company’s exclusive paid content program, and Wattpad Premium, our company’s ad-free tier.

As General Manager of Wattpad Labs, I’m responsible for the research and development side of our business, creating storytelling innovations that can support and grow our business. As an example, my team developed Wattpad’s Story DNA Machine Learning technology, which we use to personalize Wattpad and find stand-out stories among the hundreds of millions of uploads on the platform. 

And I also lead Wattpad’s Diversity & Inclusion committee, where we develop initiatives to make Wattpad a truly inclusive workplace where people can be their authentic selves. We want to push the industry to also be more welcoming and produce technology that really is for everyone. Our intersectional programs have resulted in Wattpad being a place where people of color make up close to half (45 percent) of all employees. 21 percent of Wattpad employees are women of color, 15 percent are non-native English speakers, 8 percent identify as having a disability, 13 percent identify as LGBTQ+, and 3 percent are transgender. This is the real work of making tech a more diverse and inclusive space for everyone, and I’m proud to be leading these efforts. 

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
I didn’t gravitate toward the tech industry at the start of my career. I was much more interested in the arts and how I could merge creativity with strategic business thinking. It wasn’t until after university and some time in management consulting that I became interested in tech, particularly the dynamic between people and products. In my early 20s, I was also heavily involved in the comedy scene in Toronto and founded a sketch comedy troupe with a number of others after studying improv at Second City. This incredible experience taught me how to cope with being in environments where anything can happen and that sometimes you have to trust your gut instinct. Perfect for working at a startup! So, while I didn’t start out in the industry I ended up in, each job and passion helped shape my experience and contributes to the work I do every day at Wattpad. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What professional advice would you give your younger self?
Making career decisions comes down to knowing yourself and what you want, and it's okay if it's different from what others want. Everyone is in a different place from the person next to them. We all have different values, experiences, and privileges, so sharing universal advice is often difficult. For me, the thing that helped the most was being self-reflective and in touch with my values. I would tell myself to follow those values above all else and not worry as much about all the other noise.

Describe your career trajectory.
After graduating from university, my first job was in management consulting. I quickly realized that this wasn’t my passion. I didn’t want to stay in a traditional business environment, so I turned my sights to working at a startup incubator, where I didn’t need to choose between being strategic and hands-on. I joined Torstar Digital, the digital arm of Canada’s biggest newspaper, leading the strategy for disruptive innovation before joining the business team at Wattpad.

From there, I transitioned into product management and then became Head of Product. I also became GM of Wattpad Labs before taking on my current role as Chief Product Officer (while remaining GM of Wattpad Labs). I have been able to marry my background in business with my passion for tech and creating responsible products that improve lives and allow people to express themselves.






















Olinda Hassan, Senior Policy Manager, Spotify


As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A flight attendant or a pilot — my family traveled a lot when I was a child and I was always fascinated by airplanes and the entire experience. I found flight attendants in the '90s to be glamorous — I loved how they dressed and since they smiled all the time, I assumed they were the happiest people in the world. I thought pilots, especially those who were women, were badass, and since I rarely saw any, I thought it might be cool to be the one in the cockpit.

What did you study school?
I have a BA from Wellesley College in International Relations, Economics, and South Asia Studies, and a Masters in Public Administration from Cornell University.

How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
I work with various stakeholders to make sure that our products are creating the best experience for our users. I help develop content policies that ensure that content on Spotify is safe and has user trust. This means that I have a lot of meetings with various stakeholders to better understand the product, new features, and what we can do better to experiment and get creative in supporting our ever-growing user base. It's a lot of person-to-person interaction, necessary coffee breaks, and tons of opportunity to learn about the business. 

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
I did not think that I would ever be in tech working on policy. I took a risk by connecting with the right people and boldly asking for opportunities. When I was at Cornell, I didn't even know that policy jobs existed in tech. I networked with an alumna who happened to work in policy and then we kept in touch, so when an internship came up, I eagerly applied. I would not change a thing.

What professional advice would you give your younger self? 
Worry less. For my family, who are immigrants from Bangladesh, their thought was that we get an education to become a doctor or a lawyer, or maybe work in finance. They didn't understand (and neither did I), that there could be other careers that would make me happy and challenged. I would tell my younger self to take more risks, and also take time to learn— going up the ladder in your career is no straight path. 

Also, seek feedback. I wish I hadn't been afraid to ask for more feedback or assumed that everything would be a criticism. We are often hard on ourselves and forget that asking for feedback shows maturity, gives you direct action items to grow, and also builds trust. 

Describe your career trajectory.
After college, I was a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh. I taught English and worked on research that evaluated the use of mobile technology among the youth in public education. That's where my interested in technology and society stems from. I was fascinated by how global social media and other internet platforms have become and the different ways that communities use them. 

While at Cornell, I was able to get an internship with Twitter's Trust & Safety team. That's where I really learned what policy-building looked like and how complex it can be to balance business goals and user experience. I was at Twitter for four and a half years in San Francisco, working on various policy issues and products when I had the opportunity to join Spotify and move to New York.




















Asha Sharma, Head of Product, Messenger, Facebook

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 
NFL Team Physician (I’m from Wisconsin, Go Packers!)

What did you study school?
I have a BSB from Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job? 
Every day is entirely different, but the commonality is problem solving, understanding our users, and having ambition to serve our mission. 

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
100 percent, but I try to see the journey as the reward.

What professional advice would you give your younger self?  
Focus on what you want to do — not on what you want to be. 

Describe your career trajectory.
My first “real job” was working as a park attendant at a golf course so I could pay for university. That led me to a finance internship for the company that owned the golf course (SC Johnson). From there, I explored most functional disciplines in companies across continents and industries while eventually starting a few companies of my own. I learned a lot, met remarkable mentors, failed many times, and discovered what I cared about most. I now build products at Facebook because it has the parts of my journey that I’ve loved the most: a mission that I deeply believe in, unforgettable people, and society-changing impact.  














Iris Nevins, Software Engineer, Mailchimp


As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a lawyer.

What did you study school?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies from Pomona College. It’s an interdisciplinary degree that looks at the history, economics, politics, psychology, and literature of the African Diaspora.

How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
I am a product engineer, which means I work on Mailchimp’s software products. I help to create new features and update existing features in our all-in-one marketing platform, and I fix bugs. So my day-to-day is a mixture of working on technical assignments, participating in planning meetings, and contributing to non-technical engineering initiatives.

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
There’s really nothing I would change, because I believe everything happens for a reason.

What professional advice would you give your younger self?
I would say: Follow your passions. Let that lead you and don’t get distracted.

Describe your career trajectory.
My first job was in finance selling life insurance and investments. After that, I went into community organizing, then teaching, then software engineering. While teaching, I continued doing grassroots organizing on the side. I wanted to help the organizations I was working with become more tech savvy, so I started teaching myself how to code. I decided to become a software engineer once I realized what coding was and that the ability to build/design software is pretty much a super power. Eventually I quit teaching to pursue software engineering full-time with the goal of finding ways to use tech to help progressive activists become more effective. I definitely have a knack for management and leadership, so eventually I’d like to go into engineering management.












Emuye Reynolds, Head of Mobile, Superhuman

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I actually wanted to a different type of engineer! I wanted to be a train conductor.

What did you study in school?
I hold a BS in Computer Science from Brown University. I signed up for a computer science class my freshman year with no programming background, and frankly had no idea what I was doing. Despite the initial hurdles, I fell in love with computer science. I was totally immersed in the work and knew I wanted to pursue it as a career. When I graduated in 2006, I was the first Black woman at Brown University to graduate with a computer science degree since 1984. 

How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
As Head of Mobile, I lead product and engineering for Superhuman’s mobile app. On a day-to-day basis, I write code, think about product, mentor people, meet with companies, and recruit. I get to work with my team to solve problems that no one knows the solutions to yet. The role is fun and dynamic, and I’m learning every day. 
Early on, I worked on architecture and the pre-alpha app while building out our mobile team. As my team has grown, my role has also transformed. My role now involves helping our engineers reach their own individual goals while we work as a team toward our collective goal of building the fastest email experience in the world.
In addition to mobile product and engineering, I also lead our customer delight team. We’re a team that ensures that every single customer has a delightful experience with Superhuman. 

If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
That’s an interesting question. In one sense, I think that all of my career experiences have brought me to where I am today. Even the more difficult challenges have been learning experiences that contributed to later successes.

What professional advice would you give your younger self?
Be comfortable with your discomfort. Diving into new experiences will help you grow faster, while staying in your comfort zone will inhibit growth. And find mentors. There is a lot to learn from the people who have been there before, and you will benefit from their wisdom.

Describe your career trajectory.
I interned at Microsoft in college, but after graduating in 2006, I wanted to work for a company that was completely different. At the time, that was Apple. The team I joined turned out to be the Apple TV team — before Apple TV even existed. I was part of the team for the first three iterations of the product, from 2006 to 2011. In the first year, my team and I routinely worked 80 hour weeks. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. 
I then spent three years as a developer and product manager at Zite, joining a small team and staying through the company’s integration into Flipboard. After shorter stints at The Factory and MoveWith, where I was Head of Technology and Mobile, I decided to join Superhuman. In fact, I was ready to accept another offer when I got a persuasive email from Superhuman’s co-founder. After just a couple of conversations, I knew walking away from the opportunity would be a mistake. 

There were a few things that stood out to me about Superhuman from the very beginning. First, the high-quality work: I saw a diligent team obsessed with detail and dedicated to user experience. Second, the ambitious vision: email is ubiquitous and used in a million different ways. It takes boldness to commit to building the world’s most powerful email experience. Finally, the kindness and respect we have for one another. This quality is often overlooked in the job search, but it is absolutely critical. This has allowed us to build a close team of wonderful people who are brilliant at what they do. 





















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