WTM IWD - Women Techmakers International Womens Day 2020: Panel Discussion

Banner image for the article

This article follows on from the article about Bernadeth Lucanas's presentation at Google Developers Group Melbourne and Women Techmakers Melbourne International Women’s Day event.

I am expecting a video of this event to be posted online. Once it is available I will update this article and link to it.

# Panel Discussion

Following Bernadeth's presentation was a panel discussion. The panel members were:

The panel discussion was run as a question and answer, with Katie Barnett posing questions (the majority of which came from the GDG Slack group (signup link on the GDG Melbourne homepage) during the night) and the panel members all having an opportunity to answer. Many of the answers were quite in-depth, and I did not get the chance to not all the detail; I have attempted to capture the essence of each answer and have verified my notes[1], but I have not added to the original notes I took on the night.

# What Was Your Greatest Accomplishment at Work?

Each of the answers to this question were centred around the early phases of the panel member’s career. In one case I was quite surprised by this as I’ve talked to the panel member before and thought she would have mentioned a more recent highlight; I guess this just shows how important and shaping the early parts of our careers are.

Kruti talked about the time quite early in her career where she needed to submit some code changes to the Twitter API. These changes were accepted by Twitter and ultimately led to her being invited to visit the Twitter offices.

Gwendolen mentioned her experience as a new developer and being assigned a project to help her get up to speed in her new role. The outcome of the project was to explain and demonstrate some new technology to the senior and lead technical people in her team; this led to a significant confidence boost.

Suesi was proud of her achievement in the early days of Android, prior to the introduction of such a wide range of hardware devices (around 2009), when she managed to get Android installed and working on some non-standard hardware and ultimately managed to display the output on a TV.

# How Do You Keep up with New Technologies and Learn Them?

Many of the answers to this question were quite short, but were still full of useful information that applies to all levels in the technical/developer journey.

Suesi uses Google searches (I use this method too, and have found I have become extremely efficient at working out the right search terms, I’m sure it is the same for Suesi). Melissa likes to use educational sites such as Pluralsight and other online tutorials; she also finds it useful to actually implement a new technology as part of learning and understanding it. Hwan-Yi’s preferred source of information is attending meetups and learning from other experts.

# How to Advocate Equality in Day-To-Day Life?

I think this is a question many people wanted to ask, but may not have been able to find the right phrasing. Three great suggestions were made and all three could be implemented by members of a dominant group as well as minority groups.

Gwendolen suggested it is important to speak up for others and to be willing to amplify each other; this will allow individuals to have “off” days, and to still ensure they are given appropriate airtime and consideration.

Kruti talked about the importance of self-awareness and being willing (and able) to give ourselves credit for our achievements. This answer was hinting at impostor syndrome which will be covered later in this article.

Hwan-Yi highlighted the important of publicly thanking people, and suggested the use of a thank-you wall was beneficial in ensuring everyone is aware of an achievement.

# How Would You Rank Melbourne in Terms of Career Opportunity?

I initially thought this question would be answered in terms of the pros and cons of Melbourne as a career hub; instead it became somewhat of a comparison between Melbourne and other locations within Australia.

Kruti jumped in on this question to highlight the community and meetup scene in Melbourne and Brisbane and how it makes these cities great for startups and scaleups. She then talked about how Sydney seems a much better location for enterprise based careers.

Gwendolen reflected on Melbourne having a more diverse and bigger community, and (based on my notes being simply “Sydney = 😦”) didn’t seem to think much of the opportunities in Sydney.

Melissa has recently relocated from Perth, and said that she thought the opportunities in Perth were good, but it was important to recognise that it is a much smaller city than Melbourne.

Suesi’s favourite aspect about Melbourne is that the technical meetups are actually technical.

# Gender Imbalance in Tech, Especially at University, and How to Counter the Need to Compete with “The Boys”

This question was quite long and had some background attached. The question was asked by a mature-age student who is attending university, getting excellent grades, but struggles with the feeling of needing to prove herself beyond the level of the males in the class.

After agreeing that the environment and feeling the need to complete with others can be toxic, Gwendolen recommended focusing on yourself and not others; there’s no need to prove yourself to others, do the best you can and be happy with it; and remember you’re on your own path.

Melissa suggested getting feedback from peers and lecturers can be good as it helps to align your recognition of your ability and also helps them to see where you’re up to.

Hwan-Yi said it was important to find a group of friends; it doesn’t matter what their gender is, they will help to realign you when you need it and will also provide help and support.

Kruti approached this question from a different angle to the others and suggested the gender imbalance could be used as a motivator to prove yourself and excel beyond the others. She also suggested working on ways to cope with the feelings that arise in this situation as it will be a necessary skill for coping in the (currently male-dominated) industry.

In further discussions on the Slack group some people identified that the feeling of having to prove oneself is not unique females in the industry. In relation to this I countered that the biases experienced by women mean that there is a much greater challenge for women. This led to some discussion around the manifestation of gender biases.

# If You Could Give a Message to Your Younger Self, What Would It Be?

I was really interested to hear the responses to this question as I often end up giving advice to younger developers.

Gwendolen had a very simple piece of advice, and that was to start younger. This answer probably requires some context as we had on the night, and that is that Gwendolen started in the education industry as a teacher, and has only recently moved into IT.

Unfortunately I missed Hwan-Yi’s answer, but after reviewing the video, she suggested her younger self needed to be more proactive as it took her 14 years before she decided to pursue her engineering passion.

Melissa said she would tell her younger self to be more open to change. She never expected to end up in Australia, or to then come to Melbourne, but being open to those changes has been very rewarding.

Suesi said her younger self would have benefited from living life for herself. I could read into this that she (like I have done at times) has pandered to others’ expectations and desires, but by focusing on what she wants and needs her life is much better and more enjoyable.

Kruti’s advice to her younger self was to always be learning, don’t focus on results, and to always be kind to herself.

A few people added additional information to the Slack channel about this topic. Here are some of the comments:

  • No one will take care of your career except you. ~ Sarah Tabrizi

  • Don’t chase the money, you work in IT, an entry level wage is more than a lot of people will ever earn. Find what you’re passionate about, get good, the money will follow. ~ Michael Lambert (me)

  • Don’t be afraid of being more proactive to follow your dream. If you want a particular job/role, go for it without regret. Procrastination will just mean your dreams will take longer to achieve. ~ Hwan-Yi Choo

# What Would You Say to Young Girls About Getting Into Tech?

I expected this question to result in some specific calls to action that could be directed at young girls, instead the answered focussed on how to best present technology for girls and how to make sure they have an environment where they can learn about technology.

Gwendolen kicked off the answers by talking about some of the generalised differences in learning styles between boys and girls. It has been found that boys will often grasp a theoretical concept, but girls learn much better if given a real world example of the use. With this in mind she suggested that girls need to be presented with real uses of technology to help them learn about it.

Hwan-Yi backed up Gwendolen’s comment, and had a fantastic example involving turtles. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m up to the task of relaying the story properly, so you’ll have to contact her to find out about it.

Melissa mentioned the benefits of girls only events and how this can reduce the feelings that the girls must compete with the boys.

Suesi suggested gamifying the learning process. This works for both boys and girls, and she suggested a few resources to help with this (but I didn’t get to note them down).

A number of suggestions for resources were posted in the Slack group after the event:

# What Was a Career Defining Moment?

Those of us that have been in the workforce for a while can usually identify a career defining moment. For me it was getting a position with the Victorian Government Department of Primary Industries, this was the point at which I ceased self-employment and began to focus more on the future and less on the short-term.

For Suesi, her defining moment was when she moved from embedded programming into the world of mobile development. Kruti identified her moment as when she submitted a presentation for PauseFest and was ultimately accepted. Melissa’s career made a significant shift when she listened to the encouragement of the people are her and stepped up a level before she felt she was ready. And for Hwan-Yi, her moment was making the decision to apply for an engineering role during an internal restructure at her employer.

# Impostor Syndrome, Do You Experience It and How Do You Deal With It?

This was the question I asked, it’s a topic I’m interested in as I’ve had to work to overcome it. I’ve previously written about how it manifests in me, and I’m always eager to learn about how it manifests in others and how they overcome it.

Melissa has prepared a conference talk on this issue[2], but she summarised her strategy as learning to understand what it is and how it displays itself, then learn to recognise it so you understand that your thoughts are not justified, and reflect on your achievements to better align your thoughts with reality.

For Gwendolen, impostor syndrome seems like it will always be present. She focuses on controlling her thoughts and choosing not to give air time to the ones that come from impostor syndrome. She also tries to recognise when it is impostor syndrome invading her mind and chooses to do things despite her reservations.

Hwan-Yi suggested finding like minded people who will help to refocus you and who can tell you when your negative concerns are unjustified.

# How Do You Keep Up With New Technology?

I’ve never given this topic much thought. I seem to just keep up with the bits that interest me and are relevant to my job. Having heard this question, it made me think about the importance of keeping up with technology, especially if we want a long term career in IT.

Kruti likes to write down any new terminology and research it when she has time (for example while commuting on public transport). She’s also an advocate of using new technologies and trying to implement something with them, even if it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried and gained an understanding of some of it.

Hwan-Yi listens to podcasts during her commute as a form of learning about new tech.

Melissa is a fan of attending meetups and conferences (this is one of my preferred methods as well).

Suesi likes to listen to others, especially those who are experts on the new technologies. I think this could easily include the options that the other panel members suggested.

# How to Get and Maintain the Self-Confidence to Ask for What You Want?

I think all developers struggle at times to ask for what they want and need. As we progress through our careers we find ways that work for us and also learn what we are and aren’t willing to forgo. As part of this learning process it’s always good to have some advice from others as to what works for them.

Suesi relayed a story about he first public presentation. While preparing for the presentation, she practiced a self-affirmation technique of standing in front of a mirror every day and telling herself she was able to do the presentation. By repeating this to herself every day she gained the self-belief that she can do it, and was therefore able to allay some of the nerves about giving the presentation.

Gwendolen seems to have been on a journey of self-discovery (something I highly recommend) and said it is important to know and speak your truth. To me this means standing up for what you believe if important, and fighting the battles that are worth fighting. She also mentioned it is important to understand the position and interests of the people you are asking something of; make sure you frame your request to suit the audience, and when defining the benefits and risks, make sure they you focus on what the other person needs to know.

Hwan-Yi has found advocates who are able to help support her and refocus her; this helps her to maintain confidence by knowing that she’s got other people who want her to succeed and in moments of weakness can help to rebuild strength.

Kruti’s answer focussed more on career development and ensuring you get what you want in this sense. Kruti recommended being open and honest in job interviews, don’t be afraid to state what you want. If you aren’t able to get what you want from your current role, don’t be afraid to change job if required.

# What Was Your Funniest Tech Experience?

The last question of the evening was aiming to finish on a humorous note, but ended up containing some horror stories (that are amusing with the benefit of hindsight).

Melissa reminisced about a time when she and a coworker were doing support and used some downtime to clean up a number of old deployments. When running the cleanup script on the test servers a bug meant that it deleted the current deployments as well as the old ones. This ended up blocking the test and deployment pipeline for around a day.

Hwan-Yi talked about the time she deleted an instance only to discover that is was heavily utilised. Thankfully they were able to restore from a backup.

Suesi mentioned that in one of her roles (working with IoT devices) she described her job as “turning on and off the light” (in a literal sense). She was working late one evening, and at around midnight the light began randomly turning on and off. She spent around 4 hours debugging the issue before deciding to come back with a clear head the following day. Upon returning to work the following afternoon, a coworker asked if she’d been visited by a ghost the previous night. It was at that point she realised she was the victim of a prank and had spent 4 hours debugging a problem that didn’t exist.

# Questions That Didn’t Get Asked

Due to time constraints a number of questions didn’t get asked. These were:

  • How can I get involved in teaching your girls to code?
  • How important are mentors and how do you find them?
  • What technologies do you work with?
  • Do you have any female role models? And who?

# Notes

  1. Thanks Maksim Lin and Katie Barnett for allowing me access to the raw video footage of the night to verify my notes prior to publishing this article. ↩︎

  2. Melissa is planning to present at Full Stack Day on the 19th March 2020 depending on travel restrictions and the conference proceeding in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. She has previously presented at DDD Sydney in September 2019; the slides, an abstract and a video of the presentation is available. ↩︎