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The Fork in the Road: Learning to Lead in a Male-Driven Industry


June 27, 2018

The Fork in the Road: Learning to Lead in a Male-Driven Industry

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a software engineer. I certainly never expected to be leading a team of them. But as I moved through my career, often as the only woman in the room, I learned some key lessons about leading in a very male industry.

When I was 15, my family moved to Canada from China with $10,000 and not much else. I spoke very little English and no French. The cultural adjustment was hard, juggling the language barrier and my course load at school. Through those hardships, my strength in math and physics were my escape and my saving grace. As I was looking at University programs, entering STEM was the natural choice. ​

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Helen (far left) with her team[/caption]

I graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelor’s degree in actuarial science and a minor in computer science. I had a passion for programming and loved the challenge of thinking on my feet and solving on-call production problems. ​

I gravitated towards the the server or backend side because I found the role of unsung hero rewarding. If everything was running smoothly, you didn’t hear from me. I liked that I could easily measure my job performance; as long as my code worked, I was doing a good job. ​I quickly moved through the natural progression: software engineer, senior software engineer, team lead.

Then my career stalled.

I had to learn my first big lesson. This point in your career is a fork in the road — do you want to continue to be an individual contributor (IC) or do you want to become a manager? The worst thing you can do is what I did: nothing. Indecisiveness will limit your career. Make a decision and take the leap. It will force you to learn and grow.

Unfortunately, when I finally worked up the courage to choose, I made the wrong decision. I accepted a position as a software architect at a large corporation, and I was miserable. ​

This leads to my second piece of advice: make sure you’re committing yourself to a company with a culture that puts you in a position to succeed. At my new job, I was the only woman in my department and the floor was run like a boy’s club. One colleague made sure to update me on how much weight he lifted in the morning, another told me that it was time for me to go home and get dinner ready for my family. I put in extra hours to prove myself, but it was clearly a toxic environment for a female engineer, and I didn’t stay long. ​

The experience was transformative — it put my values into proper perspective and put me on the path to management.

Tackling Impostor Syndrome

After that experience, I wanted to take on a position of influence to allow my voice to be heard about things that mattered to me, like technical directions, team dynamics, and culture. At this point in my career, I was frequently the only woman on my team. It could get lonely, and I wanted to encourage other female engineers to move up the ladder.

This led to my third big lesson: don’t tie your self-worth to your output.

When I moved from day-to-day engineering to management, the safety net I had relied on since I moved to Canada was broken. I could no longer point to my technical success as proof I belonged. My confidence started to fade and was replaced with self-doubt. I started to wonder if I was good enough, if I deserved my position.

To become an effective leader, I had to realize that my new position required a different skillset. I had to be myself and learn to be okay with some failure. I had to trust others, seek feedback, and accept constructive criticism. And finally, I had to build confidence through my team. Although I was no longer writing all of the code, I realized that I was a small reflection of my team. ​

You are One of Them

Through this writing process, I’ve been thinking about how to put my leadership style into words. When in doubt, I turn to my most trusted advisors — my teenage daughters. I asked them what makes me a good leader. They both said without hesitation, “you are one of them”. I fit into a mostly male environment because I am straight to the point, I don’t take things personally, and I am direct. I’ve even learned to drink scotch. That bothered me a little bit — had I lost myself and assimilated into this male-driven culture?

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Helen with her most trusted advisors[/caption]

For decades the tech world has rewarded masculine traits like action, results, competition, and linear thinking. ​

But innovative businesses call for leaders that both do good and do well, embodying feminine traits such as being, caring, cooperation, empathy, intuitiveness, and holistic thinking. This modern way of thinking has slowly made its way into company cultures and leadership styles. Employees aren’t only interested in how much you know, but how much you care.

Leaders are finding ways to bridge the intuitive and logical, the masculine and feminine, the inner and outer, the personal and global. ​​

As a female leader in tech, you can’t lose your true self. ​​

Your team members will appreciate the authentic, caring, and empathetic leader in you. ​

They also need a leader who is assertive, confident, sets clear expectations, and holds people accountable. ​​

It will take all sides of your personality to effectively lead. And I can say that as I’ve grown into management, I’m still myself — I just also enjoy a scotch with my team at the end of the day.

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