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Navigating your career as a woman in tech

Getting into tech is hard, but staying in tech is harder. In this guide, we tell you all you need to know to build a successful career as a woman in the tech industry.

To commemorate International Women’s Day this year, we’ve asked Software Development leader and unicorn wrangler Celeste Rance to put together the ultimate guide for women looking to grow their careers in tech. Celeste is a Director of Engineering at Mailgun by Sinch and has been working in the tech field for over 15 years.

I’m often asked to write something about women in tech for International Women’s Day, and it’s always an honor and a daunting task to undertake. I’ve spent many hours with my leaders and teams to discuss these topics, and distilling it into a few short paragraphs is always hard when you’ve spent the better part of your life building a career in technology.

One of the questions I’m asked most often is where to start. “How do I get into tech? What do I need?

Let’s start with a little truth: Getting into tech is hard, but staying in tech is harder. You need a passion for technology and constant change. Once you decide to pursue a career in this field, you commit to becoming a lifelong learner and a student of change. Technology moves fast and you need to be prepared for that. If you can embrace that change and have a passion for tech, you can be very successful. 

Pinpointing the area you want to explore and dive in

When meeting with women and girls, the statement I most often hear is: “I want to work in technology.”

My next question is always, what part? Technology is a vast field. There is not a lot of attention put on explaining what technology is and the different options available within the field.

Many women don’t know about the differing areas of engineering. Fields include software engineering, cybersecurity, software testing, site reliability, and much more. There are so many different types of career opportunities for women to explore, the first challenge is often to figure out where your passion lies.

Do you love to spend hours problem-solving? Consider cybersecurity or software development. Do you like to talk to people and understand them? Consider becoming a Business Analyst. Do you want to change the future of technology? Consider a career as a product owner.

There are plenty of options, but you should evaluate your skills and match them to the right opportunities. At Mailgun by Sinch, we have many available roles for women in tech – read through the postings we have and try to find a few that match your skills! 

Getting into the technology field is not as hard as you would expect. Here’s some specific advice for women at different stages in their journey into a tech career.  

Advice for those prior to college

Take the harder classes, especially high school math if you’re looking to get into an engineering field for college and beyond. Does your high school offer a technology academy or robotics program? Consider getting involved. 

Don’t have access to those? No problem – get on YouTube or check out Hour of Code to find fun tutorials and local coding events near you. Practice at home and consider building out a Github profile to showcase your projects.

Here are some other great resources for the next generation of women in tech:

Advice for those in college

The advice on harder courses and Github still applies as you further your education. If you’re in college, take summer internships to gain practical experience and try different internships. The engineering field is vast and trying different areas of interest will give you better insights into what opportunities are out there. 

Apprentice, intern, and get experience

That’s how you win. Get access to the right opportunities inside and out of college, join boot camps, etc.  In my role, I rarely see women applying to our internship roles. I think the lack of female participation, even at that level, contributes to the widening opportunity gap throughout the lifecycle of a woman's career.

Here are some places to find tech internships and job openings:

At Mailgun, we have an internal program – the Dev Apprentice program – to take aspiring developers to the next level. We train, mentor, coach, and provide opportunities for advancement in various areas of Software development and testing. It allows our internal staff an opportunity to gain experience without having to give up their “day job”– it doesn’t guarantee you a career in the field, but we aspire to provide opportunities for those that want to grow. 

Kicking your career into overdrive

Once you get your foot in the door of technology, that’s where your passion has to shine. This doesn’t mean working 80 hours a week and spending all your waking hours in cyberspace. What it does mean, though, is looking for opportunities to take initiative, growing and assessing your skills on an ongoing basis, and building good relationships with those around you.  

Here’s some essential advice for advancing your career as a woman in the field of technology.

1. Don’t wait to be asked

One of the keys to my success and the success of other women in the field is that we take initiative. We don’t wait to be asked to do a project – we volunteer. We build relationships with our leaders and insert ourselves where needed.

So, be confident, be assertive, and step up to challenges. Need some inspiration? Discover the stories of groundbreaking pioneers when you explore 10 of the most famous women in tech.  

2. Grow yourself

No one knows your career aspirations better than you. You need to make a plan for how to grow yourself and make yourself more valuable to the organization. Think about where you want to focus for the next few years in your career. Then find the training, conferences, meetups, or certifications that you need to meet those goals and ask if your company has a training budget to support your growth. You won’t know if you don’t ask.

Not sure where to start? Browse this comprehensive list of upcoming tech conferences around the world to find one that interests you.

I also read a lot of leadership and business books (yes, for fun!), so I have an assortment of books that I give away or recommend to my teams. Here are a few that span women in technology and some of my favorite leadership books. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few to get you started. 

3. Grow others around you and it will help you be successful

This may seem like an odd truth. After you make it through the first few years in this field, you will have made several professional relationships that have probably helped you grow. In return, it’s just fair that you help them grow too. At Mailgun, for example, we have a strong referral program to support our hiring efforts. We encourage our team to recruit high performers from their network and bring them to our team. 

This only happens when you’ve built good relationships, though. So spend time building and nurturing those relationships, look out for opportunities to mentor and sponsor others, and surround yourself with people that will help you grow and develop new skills.

These organizations can help you network, find mentors, and let you mentor others:

4. Pivot your career when appropriate

The pivot can be a new job because your current employer isn’t providing you with the right opportunities, or it can be a career pivot within the field itself. Or maybe it’s time to break out and start your own business.

I notice that sometimes women get stuck in dead-end technology jobs with no room to advance. When I ask why, their reasons include fear of being viewed as a job hopper or financial security for themselves or their family. I can understand both of these reasons, but it’s valuable to periodically assess whether your current role/company is helping you meet your career goals. If not, it’s time for a change.  

Dealing with challenges in your career

Challenges in your career will come no matter what. How you deal with them is important, and it’s something you need to think about.  

While there are known issues like the gender pay gap and the tech bro culture I encourage all women in the field to familiarize themselves with, they are far from the only challenges women face. So instead of talking about the most popular ones, which are probably covered better elsewhere, let’s talk a bit about the myth of work-life balance, feedback, and introversion.

Work-life balance is a myth

I know that sounds counterintuitive to everything popular culture has to say, but from experience, the deal with work-life balance is that it’s more ebbs and flows than a true balance. It may be wiser to pursue work-life harmony instead.

I have been a working parent throughout my entire career in technology. That dynamic has profoundly impacted how I approach my job and how I mentor others. I’ve had to balance picking kids up, cooking dinner with work obligations like late-night meetings, and off-hours emergency software patching. 

This is a reality for many working mothers. We saw it clearly during the pandemic when the walls between home and work became very blurred. The ebbs and flows of your life and career can be hard to predict, but when the tide is flowing, it’s time to really kick your career into overdrive again.  

Ask for hard feedback

Feedback is the key to success. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken and you can’t develop if you don’t know what you’re lacking.

Are you noticing your peers getting promoted and you’re not? It’s time to ask for feedback. Don’t wait for your annual review, ask for a one-on-one and ask the hard questions. Where are my gaps and what can I do to accelerate my career? Once you have the feedback, do something with it. 

You are qualified and you are worthy

Imposter syndrome is something that I have seen far too often with women on my teams. A role they were qualified for would open up, and even after I encouraged them, they wouldn’t apply! [Insert exploding head emoji]. It was discouraging to watch.

You don’t need to be 150% qualified for an opportunity to apply. Do not wait for someone to notice your contributions and just hand you your dream job – you have to take the initiative. If you don’t get the job, ask for feedback. Ask where your gaps are for the role and what you should focus on to be more prepared next time.

Introversion is not a barrier to success

Here's another myth: "I'm introverted, so I'm never going to be successful".

This is one of the most common misconceptions that I hear. But it’s completely unfounded and unrealistic. Remember that in technology, the extroverted professional is the rare exception. 

I have worked for several companies in my career, and most of them have given me some type of personality test. You know what they all say? I’m so far on the introverted side of the scale, that it's almost comical.  

I am an introvert and I have not let that stop my career aspirations. But that means I often have to challenge myself to step into uncomfortable situations and continue to push my limitations, and that can sometimes feel daunting. So know yourself and find what works for you. In my case, I know that when I have to give large presentations or be more social, I need to build in downtime after that so I can recharge my batteries.    

Do you know who else is introverted? According to Inc.com’s list: Bill Gates, Larry Page, Marissa Mayer, Steve Wozniak, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt – just to name a few.

Inspiring future women in tech

Whether you’re just getting into tech or you’re an established professional, there are a lot of opportunities to inspire others to at least learn about the technology field.

I’ve been lucky to work for companies that believe in giving back. I took my teams to STEM days for Girls Inc. I have done an Hour of Code, and I’ve helped write for the Boy Scouts of America as they developed their Digital Technology and Programming Merit badge books. Opportunities are ever-present.  

Sometimes, just showing up and telling your story is enough to inspire others into action. When I used to do scouting activities, it was always fun to talk to the girls about what I did. They would be invested in the conversation because I worked in jobs like their dad or uncle. They didn’t think those were jobs that they could do. Let’s admit it, mine isn’t a typical “Mom” job. Though, I wish it was.

Come join the dark side – we have cookies!

If you’ve stuck with the post this long, I will award you a gold star. It’s not easy to distill all the career advice into a few pages. It’s something that I usually give over months during one-on-ones. A career in technology has a lot of rewards but requires a fair amount of work.    If you’re looking to jump-start your career or make a move into an organization where you’ll be valued, Mailgun, Mailjet, and Email on Acid are all hiring in 2022. Explore our current list of openings. You can find even more job openings at Sinch.

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