Lessons from the Supercool Tech Superwoman Summit

The inaugural Tech Superwomen Summit (#TSWS15) in San Francisco last week was an inspirational event that drew more than 400 students, developers, business executives, and policy makers—including a 10-year-old girl named Ava. New Relic was a proud sponsor and exhibitor at the event, and I’d like to share some of my impressions.

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Women’s mobility in the tech workplace

The day-long conference was dedicated to uncovering the forces hindering women’s mobility in the tech workplace, and offered a unique venue for discussion of how to overcome these challenges.

The program was packed with talks from exciting and thought-provoking speakers, but perhaps my two favorite sessions were a fireside chat asking why the STEM “pipeline” seems to “leak” talented women, and a presentation by Harper Reed and Dylan Richards on how men can be part of the solution, not the problem.

The chat was headlined by Kimberly Bryant, founder and executive director of Black Girls CODE; Julie Elberfeld, senior vice president of commercial banking technology at Capitol One; Zassmin Montes de Oca, executive director of Women Who Code, and Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. The subject was “The STEM Pipeline, does it leak?”

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That’s a hot topic in the wake of many large tech companies finally disclosing just how few women they employ: Pinterest and Apple have 20% female engineers, for example, while Pandora and LinkedIn come in at 17% and Twitter at 10%. Pretty sad when you think about it.

Elberfeld noted that when she graduated in the late ‘80s, the number of female tech graduates sat at 36%. Now it sits at 18%. Just as damaging, she said, 56% of women drop out of the technology at the height of their careers. The problem isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. See this NPR blog for more info on When Women Stopped Coding.

What’s the solution? According to Bryant, it’s critical to feed the funnel of women entering STEM fields. Nationally, we need to make an effort to get girls excited about coding and computer science in elementary school, with computer science taught both as standalone classes and integrated into other disciplines. Once girls enter college, she says, we need to create an environment that makes it easier for them to stay there, citing Harvey Mudd as a technical school that does a great job of recruiting and keeping women.

The panelists also encouraged everyone to be part of the solution once women enter the workforce:

  • Talk to your peers, the women in your community, your nieces and sisters.
  • Get them to attend and speak at coding events, donate when they can.
  • If their city doesn’t have a Women Who Code meetup group, start one.
  • If the organization you work for doesn’t yet have a meetup group, donate to an amazing women’s organization, and encourage them to start one.

Tips for building teams that don’t look like you

My second favorite talk came from Harper Reed, former chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and now CEO of Modest.com, and Dylan Richard, CTO of Modest.com. Reed joked about being confused by the organizer who wanted a couple of men to present at a women’s technology conference, but he soon got the picture.

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Reed and Richard have worked together for more than six years, now assembling their third different team. The first two, Reed admitted, ended up being “all white dudes.” The first time, he explained, they didn’t realize they had hired people that looked just like them. The second time they actually tried to hire a diverse team—and failed.

This time, though, while recognizing they still have a lot to learn, they’re committed to doing things differently, with a four-point plan that could serve as a model for many companies:

  1. Don’t hire only masters. For their first two teams, Reed and Richard thought they needed to hire the best of everything. They now realized they can grow people into specific roles through mentorship, pair programming, and time. The key is to hire people who can think creatively and constructively, and know how to solve real problems.
  2. Update the interview process. The new approach calls for candidates to pair program with multiple engineers—adding a feature to the API or solving a problem, often in a new language. This demonstrates the ability to work in a team and solve problems together.
  3. Better onboarding. If you are no longer hiring only masters, you need to make people effective quickly. Reed and Richard found that cross-team work, open communication, and continuous code review empowered people to become masters quicker.
  4. Create a safe work environment. The pair’s first team featured a “Tech Cave” that was practically a bro-gramming clique. The new goal is to create a safe space that fosters learning from everyone. That means thinking about everything from the art on the walls to the names of the conference rooms.

These two talks represent only fraction of the inspiring presentations at the Tech Superwoman Summit. The conference simultaneously showcased leaders fighting to make the technology industry more inclusive to women while also helping regular folks learn how to navigate their own careers. The attendees I spoke with left feeling hopeful and excited about the future. The content and speakers at the Tech Superwoman Summit set the bar very high, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

Jana is one of the happiest people you will ever meet. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that she loves what she does. She started at New Relic as their Offline Community Manager and now she manages all of New Relic’s internally organized conferences. View posts by .

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