GUEST BLOG: Two women in tech, two diaries, one firm

This guest blog features two women in tech from the same firm – product manager Therese Stowell and senior software engineer Maria Ntalla – both explain their career paths and how they became women in tech

Therese Stowell, Product Manager at Pivotal

Although technology has been a major theme throughout my working life, at school I was more interested in science. I was heading for a college major in cognitive sciences before I discovered programming in my sophomore year. Before this point I had never worked with computers, but decided to take an introductory course into computer science to broaden my learning – something that the American university system really encourages. I was lucky to have amazing professors, and helpfully, my boyfriend at the time was a keen programmer and his enthusiasm inspired me.

I immediately fell in love with programming. I enjoy making things and solving problems and programming involves both. I headed straight to Microsoft after college to work on operating systems, including writing the command line environment for the first version of Windows NT. While at Microsoft I also worked in UX design and project management. I then moved to Sony Research Labs in NYC to oversee the development of a product based on a university research project.

Having discovered a visual talent and a love of painting, I moved to London to get my MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths. My art career started to take off once I incorporated my tech skills – creating computer-based word diagrams. After my son was born, I retrained myself in web technologies and built a business designing and building CMS-based sites. At the same time, I had a growing concern about the environment and climate change. I co-founded an environmental social enterprise which involved building a SaaS vegetable subscription service to increase local consumption and production of vegetables – great for teaching me how creative business could be. Then, combining my business, design, and technical experience, I moved into product management at two startups.

My current product management role uses skills from all of my past lives: being able to deep dive into new and exciting technologies; understanding how a business works from end-to-end; and finding creative, empathetic solutions for customers. I am so pleased to have found a role that engages different parts of my brain – requiring creative-thinking as well as analytical problem-solving. I was also drawn to Pivotal’s culture of empathy and collaboration; the healthy, ‘no blame’ culture is remarkable in the tech industry and makes for a highly inclusive working environment.

Cultural factors are often the reason that women are not inspired to pursue technology careers. For me, the problem is not about women being daunted by the work, but doubts over whether they belong. There is a well-defined programmer archetype and it isn’t a woman. These image issues are instilled early on in the educational system.

One big change that needs to happen is giving women the confidence to imagine themselves in technology roles, which is about role models, encouragement and exposure. I do owe a lot to that boyfriend at university because he demystified programming and made it sound fun.

The great thing about technology and engineering disciplines is that you can marry them to almost any issue to help solve a problem. The idea that you can merge any passion, from climate change to medicine, with technology is a message we need to be telling more women.

From my perspective, I’d say don’t be afraid to try something new, whether it’s retraining in a different field or a lateral move – my career path might not be one that a traditionally-minded career counsellor would advise but it has certainly suited me!

Maria Ntalla, Senior Software Engineer at Pivotal

During my upbringing in Greece, a career in technology was far from the obvious choice for me. I really enjoyed the sciences and therefore chose to pursue maths and physics for much of my education. I considered a number of careers growing up, including becoming a doctor. As I was finishing high school, I chose to focus on a route that would allow me to work across multiple industries.

I applied to university for an engineering major, because I liked that technology could be used in conjunction with other sectors and so would allow me to be flexible and apply my skills in a variety of areas. Ultimately, I realised that engineering is at the crossroads of everything – it can be applied to medicine, physics and a range of other disciplines, which appealed to me.

The variety of study in my electrical and computer engineering course was excellent and it was there I realised that software was my passion. My studies helped me see how broad technology careers can be, with opportunities ranging from software development, to graphic design, user experience, data science and many more. My professors helped me focus my career aspirations, but I was also quite proactive in reaching out to people who had been through similar experiences, which helped a lot.

After university I moved to the UK to start my first software role with BT, where I saw first-hand the central role that software plays in running one of the world’s largest telecommunications networks.

My cohort at university was only about 20% female; a proportion which is symptomatic of the gender imbalance in engineering. It’s hard not to notice the difference in numbers, but it’s important to not let the disparity discourage you from a path you are passionate about or keep you away from what you want to create and contribute. I believe that it’s important to be bold and embrace challenge throughout your career, and to try out unfamiliar subjects that interest you. Mistakes and failures will happen and are an essential part of growing and developing your skills and experience.

In my current role as a software developer, I love the feeling of creativity that comes from building something from scratch. I get to go home having solved a problem or created something that was not there the day before. A benefit that I wasn’t expecting is that agile software development is such a team sport, something that really manifests itself at Pivotal via pair programming and Pivotal’s general culture.

Great culture doesn’t happen by accident in companies; it’s important that cultural investments are made that encourage individual growth and support – I loved that collaborative aspect at Pivotal on day one and I still do.