My name is Dana Kuhn, and I am the Head of People, Strategy, and Partnerships at Personify. Durham Women in Tech is a safe space for women at tech firms to share their challenges and discuss solutions that can help our local tech companies improve recruitment and retention of women.
On Wednesday, November 15th, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel discussion hosted by Durham Women in Tech at American Underground. I was delighted to participate — after 10 years of experience in SF Bay Area Tech, I’ve found the startup and tech community in Raleigh-Durham to be warm, welcoming, and committed to diversity. I was joined by three other Triangle HR professionals as panelists: Anya Fisher, HR Operations Manager at Smashing Boxes; Leslie Neitzel, VP of People at Pendo.io; and Fela Powell, Sr. Talent Acquisition and Diversity and Inclusion Strategist with Red Hat. Our topic: “We Want You to Work Here: What HR Wishes You Knew.” We shared ideas and insights about what people operations looks for in candidates during the recruitment, hiring, and promotion processes — how to get your foot in the door, kick it open, and take yourself as far as you can go in an industry where the gender gap remains stubbornly persistent, with only 26% of computing and IT jobs held by women.
Discussion moderator, Lina Breslav, with panelists: Leslie Neitzel, Anya Fisher, Fela Powell, and me.
The infamous memo written by a Google engineer against diversity policies has more than reignited a debate about the tech industry’s commitment to diversity and inclusion — it’s made it clear that regardless of the formal existence of D&I programs and optics, there’s a lot of work to be done to truly ensure equity in hiring and promotion, and perhaps the biggest block is the industry’s myth of meritocracy. The debate is far from over — indeed, before the tides could turn, there was already a backlash.
As panelists, our goal wasn’t to “settle” the debate, or even to focus on it — our goal was to provide practical, actionable tips for advancing your career in tech, or making the transition from another profession. We focused on what an individual woman can do to determine her own professional journey and practical tips beyond “leaning in.” What’s the best way to put forth your resume? How can you credibly show your skills and achievements when you’re trying to transition to tech from another profession? How do you battle imposter syndrome? There’s always going to be elephants in the room — the big, self-stymieing questions of “am I welcome here?” and “do I deserve to be here?” — we don’t claim to answer those questions for all individuals and all companies out there. But we can say, with much support, that you deserve to put yourself out there and try, and we welcome you to apply to any of the jobs you find at our companies. And so here are some tips for trying to advance your career in the tech industry.
At the end of the day, we can only share our experiences as we’ve lived them, and how we try to perform our commitments for advancing diversity and inclusion at our own companies. But what was remarkable about the panel was how much we cohered in our responses. We each came from different professional backgrounds — SF Bay Area technical startups (Leslie and me), NY and NJ healthcare industry (Anya), and the Southeast technical recruiting (Fela). But we all agreed that the best advice we could give women who are trying to “break” into the technical industry or advance their careers was to be authentic. Be realistic about what you are getting to, but also be real — know what you want, what you’re willing to do — and be ready to take “no” for an answer yourself — before moving on and asking the question again. And above all, even if you hear “no” as an answer, don’t say “no” to yourself — or as Leslie puts it, “never give up.”
So here are some tips — mainly mine, but feel free to reach out to any of us, and I encourage you to join communities like Durham Women in Tech.
You can’t get what you want unless you know what you want. And you have to be honest — not just in terms of not committing resume fraud (which is fairly obvious advice) — but also by being honest to yourself about what really are your must haves and “nice to haves” in a job, team, and company culture. And be honest about what you can do and and are willing to do, so that you have the best chance of setting yourself up for success. By being authentic, you’ll put forth a better (and truer) narrative about why you would be a good fit for a particular role at a particular company.
I use a metaphor of online dating — no one wants a generic intro that seems like it was just sent to everyone with a pulse — you want to feel special. Job hunting is similar to online dating; it is important to frame your resume and cover letter as “what about me should interest you, and why I’m a great fit for what you’re looking for.” Avoid generic statements, and tailor your narrative to relate to the company’s story, so that the company can see how you fit in their team and culture.
When describing your experience, make sure to match your language with the keywords listed in the specific job description. Highlight your most relevant skills at the top of your resume, then explain how other tasks or specialties you have relate to the job for which you are applying. It is important to not only list your skills, but also emphasize the projects you’ve worked on and the impact you’ve made at your current or previous company.
If you do not have all the desired skills or exact background outlined in the job description, highlight skills you are learning, whether through coding bootcamps or volunteer projects, and include links to your Git repository or Behance/Dribbble portfolio, to show you have passion for growth and learning, and are self-motivated enough to drive it yourself.
Find an Advocate
An advocate is different from a mentor. True mentorship is incredibly time intensive, and mentors are often outside your company. They’re people from whom you get overall career and life guidance, and with whom you have a personal relationship. Identify a mentor — whether a senior team leader at your previous company or an industry thought leader in your area — invite them to lunch and pick their brain around for career and development advice, but make sure to follow up with the consistently and in a timely manner. Build relationships by attending lunch and learns and lectures or participating in volunteer events. Opportunities like these allow you to make connections that are genuine and authentic.
But in addition to a mentor, find an advocate. Find someone at your company who will listen to your goals and aspirations, and help champion your case. An advocate might be your manager, or a senior team leader in the same or different department. Again, their role is different than mentor — they may not be giving you direct training or guidance. But they will push for opportunities for you.
In my own experience, I’ve been both a mentor and an advocate. I’m formally a mentor at UNC Law, for lawyers pursuing alternative career paths to law. I give general advice about how to translate “thinking like a lawyer” into actionable insights and job skills. I’ll meet up informally on a quarterly basis with a couple of people I’m mentoring, to give them career advice and a sympathetic ear. But as an advocate, when I learned that an executive assistant wanted to transition into project management, I gave her an opportunity to learn the skills (understanding Gantt burndown charts, using Jira/Confluence to manage work/stakeholders) and apply them to a project she was working on in her “normal” job. I pushed for her ability to learn under more experienced project managers, and helped her identify online courses and university extension courses. We created a career development plan. After a few projects over the course of the year, and an opportunistic opening in the right department, she applied for the job — and got it.
Never Give Up, Never Say No To Yourself
The best advice we can give to those seeking to advance their careers is to constantly put yourself forward for opportunities. This doesn’t just mean advocating for your pay and promotion — it means asking to be put on projects and teams that will help you develop your skills and give you opportunities to give visibility to your work and showcase your potential. When evaluating a job opportunity, one important thing to consider is how decisions are made as to how work is assigned in the organization. Departments may be organized by business function (engineering, product, marketing, etc.) — but product teams are cross-functional, composed of developers, product managers, and designers. How will you gain access to opportunities to build/deploy features, develop your skills, and learn new programming languages? This will be important, whether you’re seeking to enter the tech industry, or wish to progress on a path from quality assurance to software engineer.
If you are looking to advance your career or switch departments within your current company, talk to your manager about stretch goals or approach another team and to help with a current project they are working on — possibly in addition to your current duties. This not only makes you visible to leadership, but also shows you can add value to the team. If your company doesn’t have formal Learning & Development programs, try to organize your own study groups and
But let’s say you keep putting yourself forth for opportunities, and ask to be put on projects and teams that will develop your skillset — but you hear “no.” Or more likely, you hear something like “it’s great to see your initiative, but we don’t have the bandwidth/resources to support your training, and we need you to do the work you’re doing now — so we can’t afford to shift you from your current team.” You may hear a lot of “no’s” — but the important thing is to never say no to yourself, and never give up on learning and developing yourself. So my best advice for you is to keep advocating for yourself, especially if you hear no — and indeed, prepare yourself to hear it.
This will mean your own advocate to learn new skills outside your current role, which might mean working at night and on weekends. There are numerous options available to help you, from online classes and Youtube tutorials to opportunities to gain hands-on experience in the real world.Non-profits are always looking for individuals to donate their time, allowing you to develop your skills and support a good cause. In North Carolina, we have NCTech4Good, and nationally, there’s Code For America — and there are countless social impact nonprofits and b-corporations you can contribute. You can also reach out to small start-ups and offer to help with projects; in exchange, you can add the experience to your resume.
Impostor Syndrome is Real
Impostor syndrome, at its essence, means that you don’t think you deserve your success, and you think at any point, someone will find out that you’re not good enough. We don’t purport to be able to solve this problem for you — it’s something only you can do for yourself. But again, we can give you practical tips, that, with the habit-forming nature of practicing relentlessly, may help you internalize your own worth. Our advice to you is to apply to jobs even if you do not believe you have 100% of all the required and “nice to have” skills — instead, make a case for how you intend to make an impact, and and show how you learn and continually develop yourself. Accept praise with grace — do not deflect and minimize your own efforts, knowledge, and contribution — simply say “thank you.” Don’t sit on the side, or minimize your footprint in the room — take a seat at the table, and use your voice. Even if it feels uncomfortable, even if you don’t have 100% confidence that what you’re about to say is the best, most insightful contribution to the discussion — say it anyway. You can’t control everyone’s reaction, but you can keep going to meetings and pushing through the discomfort and speaking up.
Prepare for Potential Culture Shock
Every organization has a different culture — and sometimes cultures are specific to industries like accounting, sales, and tech companies. So brace yourself for that change. And prepare yourself for learning new ways of communicating and working. For example, my previous career was as a lawyer and academic. These fields are highly structured, hierarchical, and status/respect is conferred by virtue of degrees and years of experience. When I transitioned into tech startups, the opposite was true. I wasn’t presumed to be a subject matter expert (despite my degrees) — I had to show my work. I worked in disagree and commit cultures of radical candor — I had to quickly get used to having ideas challenged, and to be willing to speak up and challenge others.
However, the tech industry is all about wanting to learn and be a part of something big, so focus on how these factors drive you. In tech, things are always changing and moving at a very fast pace, which requires you to be collaborative, adaptive, and have thick skin — during the recruitment process, highlight how you have demonstrated these traits throughout your career. Alternatively, find an entry point, like the company’s core values, and describe how you identify with them. Above all, be open, and receptive — just because it’s different than what you’re used to doesn’t mean you can’t fit in.
Know Your Limits
I don’t mean to say that you should set limits on your growth — but you should know what you’re willing to do, what you want out of your career, and to ask for it. And again, be prepared to hear “no”, and be prepared to say it yourself. The tech industry, particularly startups, has a reputation for being high intensity, with long hours. So is the legal industry. But if work/life balance is important to you, or you you have family responsibilities that you need to account for outside of normal working hours, then you have the right — and responsibility — to advocate for what’s important to you.
Do your research on the company. Read Glassdoor reviews, and talk to anyone you know who has or previously has worked there. You can glean information from questions about how sprints and release dates are organized, and what the on-call rotation is like. Have them walk you through a typical week at their job. Ask probing questions about their culture, to make sure you see yourself fitting into it.
In the world of tech, career paths aren’t linear; someone who has eagerness, grit, and the desire to learn will accelerate in this ever-changing industry. I wish you the best of luck.