It seems as if every day someone in my network is sending me an article about challenges facing women in technology. If I had to summarize all the articles into a six word story, it might read, “75 percent pay, 25 percent women, 5 percent CEO.” On nearly every dimension that can be calculated, women are coming up short.
I have been loving my work in Silicon Valley since graduating from Harvard Business School in the late ’90s — first as an entrepreneur, next as a researcher, and now as a venture capitalist. For the last several weeks I have been thinking about the best way to channel my positive Silicon Valley experiences into useful advice for women who are building careers in technology.
I thought it might be helpful to share five strategies that have helped me build my career.
1. Invest in relationships in all dimensions of your life.
While there is often discussion about “work life balance,” in reality, I think “work life integration” might be a better term. When I was writing case studies for Harvard Business School, I found many of my favorite “protagonists” through the parents at our kids’ preschool. Work is about relationships, but those relationships don’t need to start at work. For me, some of my most important work relationships have started through school networks (mine and our kids’), tennis teams, book clubs, non-profit boards, and hanging out on the soccer sidelines.
2. Seek out high visibility projects.
Somewhere along the way — probably from my parents — I learned the importance of raising your hand to take on that risky project. While I was at Intuit during the early Internet days, founder Scott Cook was looking for someone to investigate an online mortgage offering. This was a new, unproven area for Intuit, and I had been at the company for three months. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of starting a new business inside a bigger company and I raised my hand to tackle this high risk project. I worked nights and weekends with a senior engineer in San Diego, and together we prepared a business plan for Quicken Loans. I was thrilled when the Intuit executive team gave us funding to pursue the project full time, and my role changed overnight from being an associate product manager on Quicken to the business lead for a new internet business.
There are times, however, when those high visibility projects don’t pan out. While I was running the California Research Center for Harvard Business School, I wrote up a proposal to open a HBS teaching center in the Bay Area. I talked to landlords, and we even looked at real estate in Palo Alto. I submitted a project plan to the Dean, and it was ultimately decided that it didn’t make sense for HBS to pursue. While this could be seen as a failed proposal, it actually turned out to be an important project for the school. Some of the research I did helped inform the new teaching centers that were opened in China and India a few years later. In addition, I was consulted about the design of the new Harvard i-Lab because people back in Boston had come across my proposal. I have found that raising your hand to engage in high visibility projects can help build your career, even if those particular projects don’t come to fruition.
3. Make time to help others.
Just three years after business school, I was fortunate to be selected to participate in a relatively new 12-month women’s leadership program run by an organization called Women Unlimited. The experience was eye-opening on multiple levels, but I think my biggest take-away is how important it is to make time to mentor others. There were at least 10 people that I met through the program who invested time in helping me grow, and their advice and guidance truly impacted my career. Interestingly, some of those encounters were less than an hour, but they were equally important. Today, I make the time to help other women (and men as well!) who are early in their career.
I also take the time to share feedback after interviews, because I know how important a few tips can be. My most frequent feedback to women interviewees is that they need to highlight their successes during the first half of an interview. If they are too modest, it puts them at a disadvantage relative to people who are more comfortable pointing out their skills and experiences.
4. Feed your brain.
Curiosity is one of the most important traits in business. While it is easy to get focused on the task at hand, it is crucial to keep picking your head up to investigate what else is going on. If you hear about a colleague who is working on a new project that interests you, ask if you can meet for coffee so you can ask questions. If I come across an interesting topic, business or otherwise, I dig in and read everything I can find. Personally, I have become increasingly fascinated about how and why some coaches and managers can create consistently winning teams. (How does Bruce Bochy do it?!) It doesn’t matter what the topic is, what is important is that you keep feeding your brain.
5. Practice makes progress.
I have found over the years that some people seem to take pride in “winging it” for an important meeting or presentation. I have a hard time understanding why this makes sense. As Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.” Practice has always served me well as a career strategy. If you are thinking about a new role or want to ask for a raise (if you don’t trust “karma”), practice the ask with a spouse/partner, friend or former colleague. One of the many benefits I have found through women’s networks over the years is having a set of practice-mates who appreciate being asked to do an occasional role play.
I hope these strategies provide some guidance for the thousands of women in technology who are building their careers. Two truisms that I have found over the last 18 (gulp) years of working in technology is that there is never enough talent and there is never enough diversity. Over the next few months I hope we can shift the conversation about women in technology away from the problems and spend more time talking about the solutions.
Follow Alison Wagonfeld on Twitter: www.twitter.com/awagonfeld.