7 Career Lessons I Learned from Reading "Women In Tech"

According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic, women make up 57% of the overall workforce, but only 25% of computing jobs are held by women. What gives? What’s causing this disparity?

In Women in Tech, published by Sasquatch Books and supported by a Kickstarter campaign, author and tech entrepreneur Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack argues that there are numerous reasons why women don’t hold more tech jobs. A lot of it has to do with unconscious biases and societal expectations on women that start as early as childhood. Other factors include work environments that aren’t friendly to women, especially if those women ever want to have children.

Throughout Van Vlack’s entire successful technology career, she’s worked hard to help women find the mentorship and resources they need to land solid tech jobs. Van Vlack knows systemic change must occur in order for women in tech to be entirely comfortable. But she also knows that not all women have the privilege (or the patience!) to wait around until the tech world becomes more inclusive. Women deserve the chance to be awesome in the careers they wish to undertake, even if the field hasn’t fully warmed up to the idea that women belong there yet.

Women in Tech is essentially a portable version of Van Vlack’s mentorship. It has practical advice and personal stories from a variety of voices, and it covers every stage of a tech career, from applying for your first job to starting your first company. The book is lively and entertaining, and it’s a vital read for any woman, non-binary, or transgender person working in technology.

But even if you don’t know the difference between C++ and C#, if you interact with technology-focused companies at all (or really, if you’re navigating any traditionally straight-white-cis-male-dominated field), you can learn a whole lot from this book.

Here are the seven most important career lessons I took away from this book.

1. “Tech is not like airplane maintenance, where not having had the job title before means that you have never done it. Instead, think of yourself as average until proven otherwise.”

When applying for jobs, especially when applying for your first tech job, don’t automatically sell yourself short. Women are more likely to assume they aren’t qualified for positions if they don’t check off every single box on a job listing. Show the company what you’ve got and let them decide.

2. “The greatest and best mentors will appear for you if you appear for someone else first.”

Even when you’re just getting started, you must have both mentors and mentees. Van Vlack says this is absolutely crucial. More often than not, you’ll learn even more from your mentees than your mentors. Plus, you can change the tech world’s demographics through mentorships. According to Van Vlack, there are very few women in higher-up technology positions, to the point that only 2.9% of Silicon Valley’s 138 largest companies have women as CEOs. Support and mentorship help “plug the holes in the pipe,” as Van Vlack puts it.

3. “Your job does not merely consist of keeping your current job. In this economy, your job is 1) keeping your current job, 2) keeping your skills more current than is necessary for the job you are in and preferably ahead of the market as well, and 3) keeping your network ready for an onslaught of job request emails.”

If you want to get ahead in your career, your “job” isn’t just that thing you go to every day to make a paycheck. Your job also includes preparing for your future by networking and diversifying your skillset. Van Vlack suggests tacking on ten hours to every work week and considering this “nonoptional professional development time.”

4. “Start making a habit of being on time by being early. People who are habitually punctual usually have a whole lot of other life skills nailed down … Habitually late people are not honest with themselves about their commitments and how long their daily tasks will take to execute—or they’re pushovers about letting others dictate their schedule. That’s not someone I want managing others.”

As someone who has to run to catch the same bus at the same time every single morning, this one hit a little close to home. But if you’re looking ahead to becoming a leader, you have to master the art of punctuality. It shows that you value others’ time and that you manage your own well, too.

5. “Do not schedule your work. Schedule your free time and activities. Do not touch work during your free time … Your physical and mental well-being are the fuel that lets you pursue your dreams. Maintain them diligently.”

Van Vlack gives this advice in the chapter on starting your own business, but it’s applicable to any busy stage of any professional career. This seems obvious, but it’s so easy to ignore self-care when you’re facing a million deadlines. Prevent burnout by allowing yourself time to recharge and do other things you love.

6. “Start learning to consciously harness the judgments you make about people, because if you don’t, you’ll judge unconsciously. That’s how poor hiring decisions are made, like hiring a team of nothing but straight white men and thinking it’s because they’re the only ones tough enough to stand up for their coding choices. Without examining how you judge others, you’ll behave reflexively and reactively.”

All of us possess unconscious biases that can lead to homogenous staffs. Actively working together to include diverse voices is the best way to fight these prejudices we may not even realize we have. 

7. “There is a price to success, and constant criticism from others is that price … Do your best to be gracious and helpful to the people who helped you and supported you along the way.”

If you’re a high-powered tech executive, you can be criticized for anything you do. Clearly, in the right hands, this is a good problem to have, since it means you have some sort of power to make decisions. But don’t let that power trick you into thinking you’re invincible. Take a cue from Beyoncé: “Always stay gracious / best revenge is your paper.”

Jess Kibler, holding a book
by Jess Kibler
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Jess Kibler is a Portland-based writer, editor, and sad-song collector.

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