Three Lessons from the Lesbians Who Tech Leadership Summit

I just came back from a tech leadership conference for queer women and nonbinary people. I have to admit that on the plane ride there, I briefly worried that I could be walking into a Fyre Festival type situation. It just seemed too good to be true that it exists at all, and that my application was accepted, and that this was all happening at the exact time when I needed it most.

I’ve been lucky enough recently to begin my transition into a leadership role here at Augurian. While I’m thrilled at the new opportunity and all of the fresh challenges it will bring me, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared. It feels like completely uncharted territory — not just for me as an individual, but also for other people like me. I have complete confidence that I can do the work, but the context of being a woman as well as an out, married lesbian just isn’t something people (myself included) are familiar with. 

…or so I thought.

The way I move through the world is inherently political, which you can imagine presents some special challenges. To be honest, I’ve had my share of professional issues because of it. A few weeks ago, I was feeling desperate for just one role model I could look to as an example of how to navigate all of this. I felt how I always feel – inwardly terrified, but too ambitious and stubborn to be deterred. Today, I can happily admit that I am still too ambitious and stubborn to be deterred, but I’ve got several “North Stars” to guide me through the next stage of my career. 

Let me tell you a little bit about what I learned.

Lesson One: Radical Motivation

Roxanne Gay and Debbie Millman interviewed each other on the first full day of the summit. Roxanne put my ambition-terror-complex into perspective immediately when she started to talk about how she never turns down a project. “For those of us who are marginalized,” she said, “we are often the first and we have to do a better job than anyone else so we won’t be the last.” 

Ok, Roxanne, point taken. I was feeling more spoken-to than any other tech conference I’ve attended. You know the scene – the crowd typically skews male, white and very heterosexual. I’m not the typical target audience, which I understood from the marketing perspective. 

They continued to interview each other back and forth, showing us a charming glimpse into the lives of two women in a relationship with each other at the extremely high peaks of their careers. (Google them, I’ll wait) Debbie also spoke about the different challenges that she and Roxanne have faced personally and professionally and illustrated some of them with stories. As they neared the end, Roxanne challenged the audience to wake up each day and ask themselves one important question: Am I being radical enough? 

As I am re-reading these notes and writing this blog, I’m reminded of many times in the past when the answer to that question was a resounding “no.” Whether out of fear or uncertainty or simply being too busy and focused on my work, I’ve dropped the radical ball more times than I can count. 

Today, as I consider what it means to lead, I realize I’ve become much braver over the years as I’ve expanded my focus beyond my personal success and onto the success of other people like me. I’ve spent so much time studying the women on whose shoulders I stand at this very minute that I can’t help but turn my attention to the women who might stand on mine someday. That question really clicked for me and filled me with (if possible) even more determination than I have ever had.

 

Lesson Two: Climbing the Lattice

One speaker that I’d never heard of before I read her name in the program was Cindy Finkelman, the CIO of FactSet Research Systems. She taught me something that adjusted the balance of my fear-ambition-complex to a healthier place. It’s called climbing the lattice. If you’re like me, you were under the impression that a career was supposed to work like a ladder. That’s actually not the case for a lot of people. The more experience and skills you add to your resume, the more you come to learn about yourself and what your real potential is.

I actually majored in art and got my first ever C grade in statistics and my second in computer science. If anyone is qualified to tell you about a non-linear path to fulfillment, I suppose it’s me. Without knowing it, I was already taking Cindy’s advice. She said, “your bag is your responsibility – you have to add to it.” She’s talking about your resume, your skill-set, whatever you’d like to call it. You’ve got to proactively  manage your career and build the skills for things you want to do and just trust that you’ll find ways of using it. Gone are the days of finding a great job right out of school and setting the cruise control for the next 40 years. If we’re being honest, that was never the reality for most people anyway. 

It’s more than okay to do something new, or to move horizontally into an adjacent area of expertise, or to take a diagonal step into something unfamiliar with a ton of new challenges. And it’s okay to do that whenever the time is right for you. If I hadn’t, I’d never have found that I’m actually great at statistics and enjoy writing code and I get a lot of creative satisfaction out of telling stories with numbers. 

Since your path will be as unique as you are, here’s another lesson from Roz Harris, Senior Manager of Recruiting at Slack: stop seeking mentors, seek champions. You will find mentors in some aspects of your career over time, and they’ll certainly assist you in overcoming imposter syndrome, but the jobs of the future are changing and you’re a unique individual. So your greatest need probably isn’t a mentor who can show you a path forward. It’s more likely to be a champion in a position of power who will speak up for your work, add your name to a project or advocate for you when you’re not in the room. Or, as another speaker Claudia Brind-Woody (VP & Managing Director of Global Intellectual Property at IBM) so perfectly put it, “It’s not what you know or who you know, it’s who knows what you know.” 

So, advocate for yourself, build your bag and work the lattice. And remember something else that Claudia Brind-Woody said, “Own your differentiation because nobody ever came into a company and said hire me because I’m exactly like everyone else.”

Lesson Three: Know Where You’re At

Whenever I have a new realization that alters my world view or take a non-linear step in my life, I can’t help but feel like I’m standing at square one of this entirely new path. Like I’ve got to toss out what I used to be or know in order to move in this exciting, new direction. As I write this, I understand that’s not the case this time. In the full context of who I am as a professional and a person and everything that has brought me to where I am now, I’m already part way down the path that will take me wherever I end up. 

Am I radical enough? No, but I’m working on it. I did get us access to free tampons in our building. Baby steps! 

Am I building my bag? You bet. Right now I’m actually taking an online class to learn a new code language.

Have I sought out champions instead of mentors? It was a complete accident, but yes, and I really do think that’s how I was able to find the opportunity that I have now.

Do I own all of the hats I wear and create unique value out the combination of them? You’re darn right. 

Just today, in fact, I had a conversation with my boss about a quarterly project that I failed to finish. Working from my bed in the wee hours of this morning, I heard Roxanne Gay in my head telling me that I’ve got to do better than anyone else has ever done because I stand on the shoulders of people who’ve done so much more. I wouldn’t dare quit. 

Well, I didn’t quit, but I did run out of time to hit the high standard I set in time for the end of the quarter. So, I learned another lesson: there’s something magical that lives in the space between your ambition and your failure. Maybe it’s growth. Whatever you want to call it, my boss told me that if we consistently accomplish every single thing we set out to do, then we’re not ambitious enough. You have to fall short of your ambition every now and then to make sure you’re pushing yourself hard enough to reach your potential. 

As an analytics nerd, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t include a few data points in this blog. 

  • I learned from the founder of Lesbians Who Tech, Leanne Pittsford, that there are over 50,000 queer women and nonbinary people who work in tech. 
  • I learned from a passerby and verified with a well sourced article from the New York Times that there are more men named John who are CEOs of fortune 500 companies that there are women who are CEOs of fortune 500 companies (among many other appalling statistics).

The worry that I felt on the plane ride to New York City that a group like this couldn’t possibly exist, let alone thrive, was unfounded. There are so many of us that we ought to expect more diversity in every tech-centered group, not just dream about it and wish for it. Next time I attend an event or sit in a meeting with a homogenous group of individuals who are nothing like me, I’ll ask myself, “What is the most radical thing I can do to change this?” and keep moving ahead, balancing my fears and ambitions like a leader does.