Women in Tech: “Accept opportunities, know your worth, and find mentors”
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 Alyssa Simpson Rochwerger, VP of Product at Figure Eight.
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 Alyssa Simpson Rochwerger, VP of Product at Figure Eight.
Today’s woman in tech: Alyssa Simpson Rochwerger, VP of Product at Figure Eight.
Alyssa is a customer-driven product leader dedicated to building products that surprise, delight and bring new value to market. Her experience in scaling products from conception to large-scale ROI has been proven at both startups and large enterprises alike. As Director of Product Management at IBM Watson, Alyssa saw first-hand how thoughtful, sophisticated use of data has the power to transform industries. During her recent tenure at IBM, she oversaw the development of a large portfolio of AI products including vision, speech, emotional intelligence and machine translation.
Alyssa was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in American Studies from Trinity College. When she is not geeking out on data and technology, she can be found hiking, cooking, and dining at “off the beaten path” restaurants with her labradoodle, Scout.
What first got you interested in tech?
I got my first job out of college at a startup in the customer service organization. It was my job to talk to customers and figure out (and try to stop them) from cancelling the service. I quickly figured out that I wanted to be solving some of the customer problems I was hearing about daily. That got me working closer with engineering teams, which is how I got into technology.
How did you end up in your career path?
I have a liberal arts degree, and a background in design and photography; I have always loved building and designing things. I have found that I have a strength in dot-connecting and navigating complex and ambiguous situations. At one point early on I seriously considered going into architecture. Product management in software gives me the privilege to play to my strengths and help design and craft experiences that people use.
What obstacles did you have to overcome?
Earlier in my career, I often had to overcome the obstacle that because I don’t have a computer science background I “wasn’t technical enough” to fulfill my role. I’ve found that it’s always served me well to partner closely with engineers and learn enough to be dangerous.
Did you receive support from your family and friends?
I get lots of support from friends and family! I rely heavily on my proverbial village to help me navigate career decisions, calm me down when I’m flustered, and generally support and motivate me. I don’t have role models specifically, but there are many mentors that I rely on to help me navigate in various situations.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
Yes, on more than one occasion. When I have encountered unsupportive people professionally I find it usually boils down to their insecurity. Insecurity about their own job security, their abilities, their perceived safety, or their own advancement. It’s not uncommon to encounter professionals with a zero-sum mindset. I find it best to have compassion for these individuals and not let their negativity impact my own outlook. Ideally, you create distance from negative or toxic folks and pave your own way. It’s usually difficult to avoid these people and create your own path, but much easier to navigate and handle your own trajectory once you’ve identified how to approach these situations.
What does your typical workday look like?
I run the product management and design teams for Appen (which acquired Figure Eight in March of 2019). My typical workday is all over the place. It’s full of meetings and one-on-ones. I have very little quiet time to sit down and get work done. I help sort out organizational issues, manage strategy discussions, and work on product positioning and pricing. When I’m not working on the product or organization specifically, I am often coaching someone on interpersonal issues, or speaking with customers, and even dealing with escalations. No two days are the same, which is why it’s fun!
I find it best to have compassion for these individuals and not let their negativity impact my own outlook.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m most proud of being able to lift others into leadership positions – particularly minorities or other under-represented people in technology. It’s no accident that my team is made up of individuals who come from all over the world and identify as immigrants, LGBT, women, people of color etc. I believe strongly that diverse teams get to better business outcomes that better serve our world. I’m proud of creating an environment where people feel safe to be themselves and communicate their ideas. It’s something I work hard at every day and continue to nurture since it’s easy to fall out of.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
It’s complicated. There is no easy answer, and the problem has been well studied and researched. I look to the research that demonstrates how pervasive the cultural and societal pressures are—starting as early as middle school—that keep women out of tech. There is research that demonstrates a “mommy tax” on careers, and research that shows how bias creeps in and holds back the advancement of underrepresented people. There aren’t more women in tech because it’s difficult for them to break past these barriers that don’t exist for everyone.
What challenges do women in tech face?
Discrimination, sexual harassment, and bias. I’ve experienced all of them at different points in my career. Talking about it and acknowledging it is important to change, and I want to do my part so that the next generation of women in tech don’t face these same obstacles.
There aren’t more women in tech because it’s difficult for them to break past these barriers that don’t exist for everyone.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
Yes! Some of the impact might be simple things, like my home-assistant might understand me better if more women helped build the product and the algorithms that power it. I think that if there were more women in tech, the products and solutions the industry creates would better serve a broader audience.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
I see the results of more inclusivity every day. I also look to history, which sadly shows that the arc of change is slow.
What advice and tips would you give to women who want a tech career?
Know that you belong. Know that you are desperately needed and wanted to work in this industry. Accept opportunities, know your worth, and find mentors and supporters who will lift you up!
Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:
- Women in Tech: Hanna Stacey – “Diversity drives innovation.”
- Women in tech: Danuta Florczyk – “Professional competence against inequality — a perfect tool”
- Women in tech: Lina Zubyte – “We are building so many biases into technology”
- Women in tech: Reema Poddar – “Women MUST promote and support their fellow women.”
- Women in tech: Sivan Nir – “You need to have passion and a thirst for learning.”
- Women in tech: Karen Hoyos – “Diversity should be represented at every level”
- Women in tech: Meghan Jordan – “Good products and good teams require empathy”