Women in Tech: “Degrees can matter but they aren’t required”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three 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 Julia Wester, co-founder of 55 Degrees AB.
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?
Three 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 Julia Wester, co-founder of 55 Degrees AB.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Julia Wester, co-founder of 55 Degrees AB
Julia Wester is a co-founder of 55 Degrees AB, an outcome-focused consulting company and Atlassian Solution Partner in southern Sweden. Julia leads the consulting practice, leveraging her 18 years of experience working in and managing high-performing teams at companies such as Turner Broadcasting, F5 Networks, and LeanKit. She is passionate about teaching others how to tame the chaos of everyday work by embracing transparency, continuous improvement, and a lagom mindset. She also loves talking about how management doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Julia blogs at everydaykanban.com and tweets at @everydaykanban. Find out more about her company, 55 Degrees, at https://55degrees.se.
When did you become interested in technology?
I never set out to have a career in tech. I had a job in accounts receivable at Quikrete. That paid the bills, but I was bored and we weren’t even trusted to have email accounts. Half of business is who you know. My husband was a techie and had a job coding. It sounded like fun and he had good friends there.
I asked him to help me learn to code in the evenings. I spent nights fixing broken tables, debugging web pages, and building them from scratch on a blank page. I thought that this was something that could be more than a job. It could be an actual career.
How did you end up in your career path?
I had graduated from college with a Bachelors in Music Education and a license to teach grades K-12 in Georgia (USA). But, after a semester of student teaching I decided that wasn’t for me. I liked being “on” but I needed my downtime. It wasn’t something I wanted to do all day every day. The job I got was just that, a job. It paid the bills but it wasn’t a career.
Once I learned how to code, I leveraged contacts at CNN to get a job interview and got a job scheduling the webmasters. Hey, whatever it takes to get a foot in the door, right? From there, I worked my way up the ladder through the developer jobs up to management. I have never been a real techie but I like problem-solving.
My Dad, in his excellence told me that an education was never a waste… that I learned how to learn.
I do have to say that working with my husband did create obstacles to my career progression. At times, he was in the way of promotions for me due to company policy. But, it all worked out in the end. We have worked together for much of our careers and still do today.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
I did receive a lot of support. I was worried that my parents, who worked doggedly and saved to send me to college (with the help of some great scholarships) would be upset that I was essentially throwing away my education. But, my Dad, in his excellence told me that an education was never a waste… that I learned how to learn. He is always a role model for me. He works hard and has an unprecedented work ethic. My mom does too.
My husband was a great support as well. Not only did he help me start my career in tech, he seemed to provide context at other pivotal moments, such as when I became a manager and needed to figure out why my team wasn’t delivering. He introduced me to a Kanban book and that started a whole different trajectory for my career.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
No, the closest thing I ever had to a barricade was when a CIO told me I had to be more aggressive to be a leader. When I explained to him how I wanted to be focused on improving processes and outcomes, he said that perhaps I didn’t need to be more aggressive for that.
But, I don’t think he saw that as being the same type of leader. Sometimes more subtle and supportive ways of leading aren’t valued as much. I didn’t stay there very long after this revelation. I loved the company but I knew that I was no longer the right fit for our new leadership.
A day in Julia’s life
As a co-owner of 55 Degrees AB in Svedala, Sweden. I wear many hats in a typical workday. I am a coach to team leads, managers, and other coaches at times. Other times I am a product owner for ActionableAgile for Jira. Some days I teach workshops on Scrum, Kanban, facilitation, and/or metrics. In between it all I have to do the activities of running a business – one that we are trying to expand.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I have been a manager at 3 separate companies of widely varied size. I am most proud of being, in all 3, a manager that people trusted to have their back and be reasonable. They respected me because I did things that needed to be done. They appreciated me because I treated them like a whole person and cared about them beyond what they could do for me or the company. This feeling trumps any individual project launch or achievement.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
Honestly I haven’t done enough research to know the real information on this. I’m sure it’s multi-faceted, ranging from gender-bias in toys growing up and shaping girls’ interests, to how girls are treated as they grow in school and begin to focus on traditionally male areas.
My cousin was majoring in biomedical engineering and she was outright told that it was unlikely she’d make it. (Narrator: she did!) There’s more occurring once you’re in the field, but I’ll start with those.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
I have to say I’ve been fortunate enough not to feel many obstacles due to my gender. The only time I really felt a gender gap was when I was attending a company sales conference and all the other IT folks were going out for golf and they didn’t even think to ask me, the only woman. Fortunately I didn’t want to play golf anyway, but they could have asked. If that’s happening, what else is happening?
Others I know and love dearly have experienced rampant sexual discrimination. This is a problem that is finally thrust into the spotlight and we all have to take a stand against it.
Finally, self-doubt can be a huge obstacle for women (and men). As soon as it peeks out, we need to send it packing. No one is expecting perfection. Let’s just get out there and make it better than we found it.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
If you want people to be involved they have to know they’re welcome. It is easier for a group to participate if there are others like them already represented.
I think that, as more women are represented in traditionally male careers, you’ll see more changes away from “guys’ club” like atmospheres. It took a female at NASA for them to have women’s restrooms. The same applies here. If we want a change in culture, we have to be present and we have to (peacefully) force the issue.
I think there have been great strides in adding women to tech, but we still don’t see many women of color. We have more work to do.
Focus on what you want to do, learn how to do it in a way that works for you, and find a person that will give you a chance to prove yourself.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
I think that we are spending a lot of time focusing on the kinds of diversity you can see but often the most important kinds of diversity are invisible. Cognitive diversity is what can really make a difference in how we view our workplaces, how we look at problems, and how many different ways we can think of to solve them.
A great book I really recommend is “In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business”. It discusses this in detail. If you focus on creating cognitive diversity you can see impact very quickly.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
You absolutely can do it and deserve it as much as anyone else.
Degrees can matter but they aren’t required. I looked at that section of resumes last, if at all, when I hired people. So, if you don’t have a degree, don’t despair. Focus on what you want to do, learn how to do it in a way that works for you, and find a person that will give you a chance to prove yourself.
Know your own value. Don’t let the occasional problem make you doubt yourself. No one ever starts out knowing everything.
Be open to feedback and even seek it out, but remember everyone has bias. Understand what theirs might be. Don’t change who you are!
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “The IT sector requires a lot of energy and will”
- Women in Tech: “I got to be a self-taught, self-managed, problem solver”
- Women in Tech: “Don’t let irrational advice keep you from tech!”
- Women in Tech: “Don’t be afraid – bite your way through!”
- Women in Tech: “Women empowering other women is a spectacular thing”