How to succeed in tech: Diffblue’s Jane Silber shares her tips
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 Jane Silber, Executive Chair of Diffblue and board member of Canonical.
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 Jane Silber, Executive Chair of Diffblue and board member of Canonical.
Jane Silber, Executive Chair of Diffblue
Jane is the Executive Chair of Diffblue and a board member of Canonical after holding leadership roles since 2004, including CEO. Prior to joining Canonical, Jane held various positions in business development, operations and software management at companies including Interactive Television Company and General Dynamics C4 Systems.
What got you interested in technology?
I started learning to code in high school, continued through university and grad school and was a developer in my early career. At the beginning I didn’t actually realise I was interested in tech – it was just something new to try at a time in my life when I was trying things and learning a lot. And I discovered that I loved it. Designing and writing code felt like a puzzle to me – the ultimate combination of creativity and problem-solving. That just clicked with me and I never looked back.
I started my career as a developer at a startup in the US. After a few years, I went to graduate school and then worked in Japan, again as a developer. I had my first management experience in Japan, and naturally learned a lot about communication and teamwork! I then spent 8+ years at a software company in Virginia which was my proverbial “stretch job”. Most people have at least one role in their career where they are really stretched in terms of skills, opportunities, career steps, etc.
In my case, I started as a developer and ended up largely running the company, and then successfully sold it to a large blue chip corporation. After a short break (and another stint at grad school), I landed in London around the time of the founding of Canonical (the makers of the Ubuntu operating system). I was excited about the vision of Ubuntu and was pleased to join as COO. That led to taking up the reins as CEO after 7 years, a position I held for the next 7 years.
As I look back on my career, I don’t really think of it in terms of obstacles. Everyone has challenging situations – difficult managers, limited room for growth, etc. I think the key is figuring out what works for you, what obstacles can be addressed and when it’s time to move on. I was often able to create or find sufficient career development opportunities where I worked – I changed roles regularly but not companies and have had fairly long stints with each employer. And when I do change companies, I tend to make large changes – e.g, in a different country, a different domain, private sector vs academia, etc. Those big changes can be more difficult to orchestrate, but I knew that small incremental changes wouldn’t give me the reinvigorating challenge that I was seeking.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
No. In fact, I have worked with people who supported my quest for new challenges, for learning, and for professional advancement. I am certainly aware that many women have faced and continue to face obstacles in their career, but I think it’s important for young women, in particular, to understand that that is not the experience that everyone has.
A day in Jane’s life
I work part-time as the Executive Chair of Diffblue, which is a start-up which produces AI-based developer tools. Diffblue software can write unit tests for your code, help find and repair security vulnerabilities, and more – it’s a great product.
And the company is a spin-out from Oxford University so is full of talented people. It’s very exciting to be a part of it. I am also advising the CEO of another developer tools company and serving as a Non-Executive Director (NED) of a few others. Every day is different, and I’m loving the variety!
I’m proud of the decisions I’ve made, and the risks I’ve taken. I’ve been pretty willing to jump into the unknown in terms of changing countries (US, Japan, UK), changing fields (healthcare, defence, IT infrastructure, developer tools) and generally stretching myself professionally. It’s not always comfortable, but it is always educational, exciting and ultimately rewarding. I think it’s been the confidence to try that has lead to both opportunity and success.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
This is a complex problem with few easy answers. Young children are bombarded from an early age with gender stereotypes in toys and clothing. In school, girls start to drop out of math and science classes at a young age, despite superior performance. In business, companies with more diversity are more successful. Women who do embark on tech careers leave the industry at a much higher rate than men, usually driven out by the cultural issues at work.
Young women are put off a career in tech because of the coverage of the preceding issues. I don’t have a prescription for a simple solution – I wish I did! We need to continue to chip away at the systemic and cultural issues which drive all these trends.
Women in tech face the same challenges that women face in our society in general. I don’t believe that people in tech are better or worse than people in other fields. Unfortunately, that means there are problems – in language, in attitude, in actions, in pay gaps, and in opportunities. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” as they say, and shining light on these issues, followed by specific action to address them, will help to gradually bring us to a more equitable position.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
There are changes happening now. Sometimes it feels like a “two steps forward, one step back” scenario, but the greater awareness of diversity and inclusion priorities, constructive debate about the issues, the increasing number of positive role models, the participation of men in addressing the issue, etc all have an impact. I am optimistic that we will continue to head in this direction.
Tips & tricks
I want women to know that they can have a very fulfilling, fun and rewarding career in tech. The stories of egregiously bad behaviour rightfully garner attention and we all should be concerned with the frequency with which they occur. But you also don’t need to wrap yourself in protective armour and steel yourself for controversy – there is opportunity for learning, achievement, supportive colleagues, success and genuine enjoyment in tech.
Find something that you enjoy and go for it!
Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:
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- Creating an equal playing field is about more than just teaching someone coding skills
- The more women you see in STEM, the less intimidating it is for others to join
- The tech industry tends to lose women along the way. Change is underway
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- Everyday superheroes: “I don’t have a role model, my career was based on my mistakes”
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- Diversity talk: The biggest obstacle we currently face is the idea that equality is here already
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