Profile: Sara Brodin, Head Of Engineering at VAI

How to succeed in tech: Keep your coding passion alive, it will make a difference as you move forward in your career

Gabriela Motroc
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Sara Brodin, Head Of Engineering at VAI.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Sara Brodin, Head Of Engineering at VAI.

Sara Brodin, Head Of Engineering at VAI Trade

© Ulrike Schlickeiser

Sara is a technical, extroverted and goal-oriented generalist. She uses her experience in engineering & product, startups & cooperates, to work at the right abstraction level turning visions into products.

What got you interested in technology?

Growing up with two older brothers brought technology right into my childhood home. For that, I am very thankful. I remember sitting next to my brother, watching him for hours while he played strategy games. From there I got my passion for gaming which led to taking a class in web design in 11th grade and a C++ class the following year.

Back then I had no clue what stdio.h was but I had to memorize it because someone told me it needed to be in each file! ;)

During university, when all my classmates moved towards Java and C# applications I was more interested in how the computer actually worked. I started my career as an Embedded Software developer at ARM and after a few years, I moved towards web systems. At that time I realised I was strong at holistic thinking, architecture and caring for systems, not just code and apps, so I decided to start my CTO journey. Currently, I am the Head of Engineering at the Financial tech startup called VAI Trade based in Berlin.

I would not say that I had external obstacles, but more than once I had to ignore my brain trying to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to pull something off, or that I took on too much responsibility. The best way to handle this was to focus on doing things one by one and six months later my brain had to accept that it was wrong. I did pull it off.

A strong support system

I definitely felt support from people around me. People are very good at giving and when you have a tough time there is so much energy out there to take in. But you just have to stop, de-stress for a moment to actually see it.

I always look for role models around me. The crazy talented developers at ARM and TomTom who knew they had found their passion in life, and a few CTOs along the way. Right now I have more role models in the world of business. My CEO, Garry Krugljakow, has a knack for using the little things to make people feel special and his unwavering passion is great to be around.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

The only thing trying to stop me has been my inner voice, my insecurities. I did manage to adapt rather quickly to the unspoken rules of higher levels in companies. Being good at what you do and building relationships will always be the foundation, but taking space and inspiring people is a skill everyone has to learn.

A day in Sara’s life

I am currently the Head of Engineering at the Berlin startup VAI. We enable companies to access financing at the push of a button. Our customers can pre-finance goods, with an option to pay back in monthly installments for up to 180 days. It’s a fully digital experience with a smart technical foundation. No paperwork. No waiting times.

Right now we are 30 people and with 5 fulltime developers. My workday is a combination of challenging our engineers and supporting management with strategic topics. Hiring is, of course, one of the most important tasks. Thankfully I have a great HR team allowing me to focus more on evaluation than on sourcing. I still enjoy being hands-on with code even if it is no longer my main priority. A smaller company allows me to do just that.

It’s a lot of things to juggle at once, but the key is knowing when to delegate and setting priorities. Finishing three out of five things I planned to do during a day is still better than having five things half done.

Back in 2011, I was part of a small team at TomTom who were tasked with breaking apart their C++ code base with over 1 million lines, modularize it and porting it to a new platform. Man, all those compiler and linking errors! A few years later ten teams spread across different countries were working on the new platform. I feel proud having played an important role at the beginning of a project which impacted the company. I have a bunch of these stories which brings a smile to my face thinking back.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

There are a lot of women in tech. Look at universities, look at entry jobs, and, most importantly, look outside of our small bubble in Europe. Over the next years, I think we will see more women in senior developer roles, technical product management, engineering management and quality automation as a natural progression.

The area where I think will lag behind for a while is women in technical leadership positions, such as Head of Engineering and CTO.

Women in STEM

During the last 100 years, the female role endured many social dogmas, thus bringing us to where we are today. We can only answer this question [what would be the economic impact if more women worked in STEM] in another century by comparing with the past.

In the end, I don’t think talking about the world impact is a good measurement. We live in a time where we strive for people being accepted for who they are, for people achieving career success regardless of their financial background. Based on these guidelines, we should see more women in financially stable and challenging jobs in STEM. But of course, it’s not for everyone. There are a lot of important social jobs today that I would not be able to manage.

Challenges women in tech face

In an engineering leadership position, working close to business, without putting myself in uncomfortable situations I would not have ended up where I am today. Here I think we need more role models and coaches for minorities out there.

You should not need to adapt, but you need to give people around you the time to do it. I remember a feedback session with a developer telling “I never thought my boss would be a woman”. This was delivered as a genuine compliment and reminded me that you can’t change people’s past but you can give them something on their journey into the future.

Tips & tricks

This might sound harsh but keep coding. Even if it is a yearly online course. That promotion to Scrum Master, Engineering Manager or Product Manager at an early stage of your career will give you a lot of joy and a whole lot of more responsibilities. If you manage to keep your coding passion alive during these years, you can really make a difference at the next level.


Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc was editor of and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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