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Profile: Molly Hellerman, Head of Strategy & Programs at Atlassian

How to win the diversity battle: Tips from Atlassian’s Molly Hellerman

Gabriela Motroc
diversity
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also 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 Molly Hellerman, Head of Strategy & Programs at Atlassian.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

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?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Molly Hellerman, Head of Strategy & Programs at Atlassian.

Molly Hellerman, Head of Strategy & Programs at Atlassian

Molly Hellerman is the Head of Strategy & Programs at Atlassian. In this role, she drives strategic business decisions for Atlassian’s R&D team, working directly with the CTO and other company leaders to encourage, inspire and operationalize innovation. Molly’s enthusiasm and team-centric attitude can be seen daily in the Atlassian hallways – usually in the form of a high five that only an ex-professional athlete would be able to deliver.

Prior to Atlassian, Molly’s experience shows that she isn’t afraid to flip a model on its head. From managing merger and acquisitions to commoditizing the online metal market in the U.K. to co-founding a non-profit – her thread of disruption runs deep. She’s also a former collegiate and professional athlete (Chelsea Ladies FC) and a trainer for Positive Coaching Alliance. Molly currently serves as a Fellow to both the United Nations (Alliance of Civilizations) and the British Council (Transatlantic Network 2020).

Given this background, Molly is passionate about the role of sport to empower youth, especially young women and girls, developing cross-cultural understanding (through her Fellowships) and ultimately building the next generation of leaders. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College.

What got you interested in technology?

I am very lucky in that all sorts of technology found me very early in life.

One fond memory is of my father showing me and my siblings how to use a big reel-to-reel music player. I also remember a trip to Japan, where my family and I found a handheld “pong” game. We were mesmerized by the ball bouncing between the two paddles and the fact that we could actually control it.

However, what solidified my interest was the day my mom and dad brought home a desktop computer. While we were amazed with how the information from a little CD-ROM Encyclopedia would appear on the screen, my fate was sealed when they introduced the game Oregon Trail. In the version we had, for the hunting portion of the game you had to type in things like “POW” or “BANG.” The fact that we could control and interact with this computer was the beginning of a lifelong interest in technology.

If you look closely, the common theme of my career is always putting myself in positions where I can disrupt an existing model or create something new.

I’ve had a pretty eclectic career path, which appears to have a lot of zigs and zags. But I think those zigs and zags, and overcoming preconceived notions that paths are supposed to be a straight line, are what has created the richness in my experience. It’s also contributed the most to my ability to succeed in a lot of diverse environments. That said, if you look closely, the common theme of my career is always putting myself in positions where I can disrupt an existing model or create something new.

I started my career working as a Finance Analyst in mergers & acquisitions in the water, pulp and paper, and energy sectors. We were trying to flip the existing model on its head to understand how these three assets could be tied together while pulling in the ability to buy and sell them financially and physically. While doing this work, I wondered how this might relate to the steel industry and constructed a model which would predict where a “virtual steel mill” would be located given the inputs and buyers.

When the company I worked for expanded into metals, I was selected to be a part of a small team focused on disrupting the existing model – changing in-person ring-based trading to online trading and, as a separate project, commoditizing steel so it could be traded financially and physically. It was all very forward thinking, especially since this was almost 20 years ago and both online training and commoditized steel didn’t exist.

At the same time, I had been playing professional soccer and doing a lot of volunteer work. Each activity really existed in its own silo, which isn’t uncommon. But again, just because I hadn’t seen them combined before, didn’t mean they couldn’t be more closely aligned. I starting thinking about how I could craft a career which entailed making the world better, using best practices from the business world, and actually doing something I love (soccer). I used business school as a springboard to do this, even receiving a Fellowship from Harvard Business School upon graduation to do make it happen. And for almost eight years, I helped turn around, build, and start non-profits that use sport as a hook to have a major impact in the communities they serve.

This work brought me into contact with amazing thinkers and leaders in a wide range of sectors. Through this, I was fortunate enough to become a Fellow at both the British Council and the United Nations on programs that focused on finding unique ways to bridge cultural divides. Essentially both were focused on disrupting existing models through work with a full spectrum of influencers ranging from grassroots organizations to government leaders.

It would be hard to find bigger cheerleaders than my parents.

I tied all these experiences together when I moved to the SF Bay Area and took on a consulting project working with the 16 largest non-profit foundations in the country. We were trying to reimagine how each of them used data. The ultimate goal was to expose collaboration opportunities and amplify they impact they could have in the world. Today, the work lives on at each of the institutions as well as through the partnership we formed with GuideStar, the world’s largest source of information on nonprofits, to help them craft their strategy and understand new ways to provide information about philanthropy to donors and institutions alike.

After so many diverse experiences, I thought it would be interesting to bring my skills back into a traditional business setting. I was very fortunate to find Atlassian, a company whose core values directly aligned with my work so far. Their commitment to collaboration and the expectation that employees take initiative to make the world a better place really resonated with me. I began as the first external hire to a group dedicated to looking at the business and driving toward finding inclusive solutions. In my current role, I’m able to use that background in the R&D organization to help grow teams that impact the trajectory of Atlassian.

As I said, I’m extremely fortunate to have an amazingly supportive, loving family. It would be hard to find bigger cheerleaders than my parents. It didn’t matter what my siblings and I were interested in, as long as my parents could see that it was good for us in some way, they were right there supporting us. In technology, I recognize that not everyone gets that kind of support or encouragement. I’d say they were, and continue to be, role models. As a working mom, I have no idea how they provided us with so many opportunities and love, and still managed to move forward both of their careers. If I can do even a portion of what they have done for us, I’d see it as a major success.

Challenges

I distinctly remember a moment in my first role out of college. I had been doing a bunch of tutoring and working with youth in the community outside of my work in finance. I was considering leaving my role and taking a position at a nonprofit. When I went and talked to my boss about it, she leaned back in her chair, put her feet on the desk and told me that there were two types of people in the world: Those that made money and could then give it away to help others; and those that worked directly with communities in need, but were not business savvy and, thus, were constantly looking for resources and help to do their job.

She stated without reservation that I was the former and that entering the nonprofit world would be a waste. Full stop, feet off the desk. At the time, I knew I disagreed, but didn’t yet have all the pieces to say why. While I didn’t end up leaving the company then, it piqued my curiosity as to why she saw only these two models. Over the next four years, I began to focus on how I might craft a space where you could do amazing work with, for, and in communities of need while bringing in more solid business acumen. I went on to do exactly that after business school.

This experience has always stuck out as an example that illustrates both lack of creativity and the inability to function in the “and” (vs. the either/or) and has further spurred me to take a collaborative “what if” approach to all that I do.

A day in Molly’s life

I am the Head of Strategy & Programs at Atlassian. In this role, I drive strategic business decisions for Atlassian’s R&D team, working directly with the CTO and other company leaders to encourage, inspire, and operationalize innovation. That’s a lot of fancy words to say that I’m essentially a professional juggler.

As a team, we have many initiatives that we are trying to push forward. These can range from large company efforts like understanding our geographic footprint and strategic planning to driving some of our most innovative programs like ShipIt (a company-wide innovation day) and building out new programs (like onboarding, profiling and other cross-company efforts). I also run a team of amazing program managers that work across R&D and serve as the grease and glue to making our teams stronger.

I am most proud of the teams I’ve been able to build and the enduring friendships that have formed within those teams. Whether it was turning around a soccer hip-hop poetry non-profit in Chicago, starting up a new sport leadership organization in Washington, D.C. or building up the BizOps group and later the Program Management team at Atlassian, creating balanced, inclusive teams with impact has been at the heart of each role. The opportunity to identify, develop and nurture all different types of talent and then to have those team members want to continue those relationships beyond any one role is what makes me most proud.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

I think a lot of times we talk about women in tech in a very narrow way – a developer, a coder, etc. We miss that the group “women” is diverse in and of itself. However, I have noticed that there are a lot of roles that “women in tech” can play and how they look really does vary: it’s not just about writing code, and not just about being a woman. Some are developers, but women in tech are marketers, product managers, business strategists, CEOs, and more. They’re also moms, women of color, immigrants, and lots of other things too.

We have to stop believing and reinforcing the stereotype that innovators and technologists only look like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. It exacerbates the unconscious biases we all have, and causes our teams, companies, and industries to miss out on huge amounts of innovation and financial potential. If we can continue to highlight all these different “looks” – both in types of roles and the women who hold them – I think we would be able to both advance the number of women in tech today as well as inspire more young girls to pursue tech careers in the future.

In my experience, more brains are better and the best ideas are rarely created in a vacuum. As you know, I’m not alone in thinking this. There’s tons of research that has shown diverse groups – be it gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. – are more innovative than homogenous groups. I remember a Grace Hopper Conference several years ago where the speaker (Nora Denzel) pointed out two areas where the inclusion of women would have made a significant difference in end results: speech recognition failed to recognize female voices (and thus failed as a product) and car airbags were tested with dummies that were the size of the average man (leading to preventable deaths for women and children). Research also shows that companies with more women in leadership have greater financial returns (even more so when considering leaders of color), lower attrition, and lower instances of sexual harassment.

But, at the base, I believe that the creative tension a diverse group of people brings to the table is valuable in and of itself. Having a group of people with diverse identities and life experiences at the table changes the discussion and decision-making framework in a way a homogenous team just can’t replicate.

That said, it’s important to celebrate the little successes along the way.

Social media has had a huge influence on this [diversity] movement. It was a Medium post in 2013 that really kicked off the current discussion of diversity in tech, when (then Pinterest engineer) Tracy Chou asked “Where are the numbers?” That started a tidal wave of openness in the industry around what diversity actually existed here, and where we needed to improve.

As for results, I think big systemic changes will take some time. We’ve seen some companies make progress, but there’s obviously a lot more that needs to be done. At Atlassian, we’ve taken ‘progress over perfection’ as our mantra on diversity & inclusion. That means that we set ambitious goals and do what we can to achieve them. We won’t hit them 100% of the time, but we will learn from every instance in which we fall short. It’s not really about achieving some targets in a single year – it’s more important that we’re holding ourselves accountable for improving every quarter, every year, and every decade. That said, it’s important to celebrate the little successes along the way.

The fact is, this is an industry-level problem and it will take industry-level cooperation to solve it. I’m fortunate to work for a company that has made a commitment to improve our representation and culture and is also committed to helping the rest of the industry do the same. We’ve developed a new team-level paradigm for reporting on diversity (instead of just overall percentages), which will help companies more effectively identify the right areas for investment. It’s already helped us move the needle in big ways. You can take a look here.

Top 3 obstacles women in tech face

From my experience, there is a lot of room for us to advance on this front. Three things that stick out to me are:

  1. We need more female and non-binary role models. I try to be a role model myself, and also appreciate that Atlassian is focused on creating more of these as well. We’ve committed to employing the diverse slate approach (sometimes called the Rooney Rule) for all of our hires that are director-level and above, which helps us ensure that we’re building a balanced leadership team. We’re also heavily investing in creating opportunities for women to grow at Atlassian, and thinking about how to make sure these investments also support women with intersectional identities.
  2. Women need to support each other. When you’ve been given an opportunity, it’s important to see how you can create more opportunities for others. It is especially important for women to think about how our other identities (e.g., motherhood, race or ethnicity, gender expression, etc.) play into our experiences, and not only acknowledge where we have advantages but also share them with other women. At Atlassian, we offer many ways for women to get involved – from facilitating mentoring rings to grow the next generation of leaders to participating in our ‘Coffee Dates’ program, we’re all expected to support our teammates.
  3. There need to be more male allies. No real change has ever happened without people from the majority group getting involved. We have to create opportunities for allies to have a meaningful impact, whether that’s through advocacy or something as simple as mentorship or sponsorship. We also have to create spaces for more men to truly learn about these issues and how they can help. While allyship will look a bit different to every person, the key is to consider how you can use your advantages for others. Our Side by Side initiative aims to make this easier by providing a space for Atlassians to talk about their own identities and how it might impact their work experience, to help others better understand how to support them.

Tips & tricks

  1. Find roles where you can learn and grow, you never know where it might lead you.
  2. Attack your goals with passion, not being afraid to let others join you on the journey (teammates make everything more fun).

Zigs and zags in your career are OK. Be confident in the fact that the difference in your path may actually be your superpower.

 

Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at S&S Media she studied International Communication Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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