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What Kind of Leader Do You Want to Be?

My career story so far 

I am very lucky to have worked across lots of different types of tech teams. I’ve worked with DevOPs teams, pure operations, IT and even with Product Development teams. But I came to tech by a strange route. My background is actually in organisational psychology, leadership and sociology.

I started working with tech teams originally as a Scrum Master who was very interested in Agile. I was leading very big scale digital change projects through organisational development and an organisational change. Thankfully I studied Applied Science at school so I could keep up and understand what they were trying to do. I was able to bridge the gap between the people part of the organisation and the tech part. I enjoy thoroughly working with teams that are trying to solve really difficult problems and that are working in a creative space.

This led me to the Bank of New Zealand where I worked for many years. It was great fun and they were recently voted the most innovative bank in Australasia. I was heavily involved in that when we started it so although it was a 150-year-old bank at the time, it was actually running it’s digital team as a start-up inside and it was very cool. That was when I started working with Agile and Lean and test-driven development and all that good stuff.

From there I moved and went to live in Sweden and Stockholm with Spotify, which for me was like going to church! Agile is in their DNA so that was very exciting. After 2 years I decided I wanted to go home and live in Ireland after 18 years away. When I left Ireland in the year 2000, all those tech giants weren’t here in Ireland and the tech scene didn’t really exist. So, when I returned I had a lot to choose from. Slack were definitely someone that spoke to me. I had used the tool myself every day since they had started and I am really passionate about communication and collaborations so that just seemed like the logical fit.

The other part was that it was a tiny team that barely existed in Dublin and the idea was that I needed to build a team and a presence and that’s what I have spent the past 2 years doing. When I started we were only 3 and now we are 11. For me, that is not enough and I want more. We had to kind of slow down some of the growth but I am really passionate about leading that team. One of the teams I have is 66% women which is amazing.

Advocating for the human story

At Slack, creating an environment that’s diverse and open-minded is a big part of our hiring culture. What we have done, even when we have hired men, we make sure they really care about diversity and inclusion. We hire people that see the value of having all those voices and ensuring that we give space to all of those things.

As a woman and I believe I bringing those female strengths to the table. And with my background in organisational psychology, I understand people, and the human factors around the work we are doing. That’s definitely been a benefit for me as I haven’t had to let go of that feminine side of me. If you can even call that the feminine side but just someone who is advocating for the human story in the room.

We also have a member of the team who is non-verbal and she speaks through a text speech device. That makes us slow down our conversation which ensures that everyone has a voice, creating a really relaxed atmosphere in our team meetings. Everyone isn’t trying to talk over each other. It’s developed into this really lovely space. Everybody is super-inclusive which is really awesome.

Hiring diverse talent

Part of the interview process at Slack is that I want to make sure that the candidates see a wide range of people interview them. When I have a strong female engineer as a candidate, I want to make sure she’s interviewed by other really strong female engineers. So, we ensure that the interview panel includes a diverse group of people. I am a firm believer that people interview us as much as we interview them. It’s really important that we let them see who they would be working with and what the environment is like.

We are committed to the diversity and inclusion story, so we go and find people proactively. We don’t wait for the pipeline and recruiters to give me people, we actively participate in communities and talk to people and then we can source candidates from different places.

For example, the Head of Reliability in Slack presently is a woman, the Head of SRE is a woman, the Head of DevOPs is a woman, our Senior Director of Infrastructure is also a woman. I think the message here is very much that, the individuals in the organisation need to work their networks. I participate in women in tech and girls in tech because I think it’s about us working our network. I can’t rely on the recruiter to fill my pipeline. I have to get out there and also be part of the search.

Advice for women who want to be leaders

I manage all my team differently, depending on where they are at in their career and also what their motivations are. I think it is really important for a leader to take time to get to know their people. To understand what motivates them, what path they are on and then help them achieve those things.

When I started, I was mostly leading men, maybe one woman of 12 back then. There are definitely stereotypes that you can fall into as a leader. I think as a woman, in particular, there are some specific stereotypes. You can be the den mother or even the mother figure who is going to be over caring and over-sensitive to her team. For me, I think it’s really important to find your style and what you want to do.

I think when anyone starts out in a leadership role, you need to think about what kind of leader you want to be. Spend some time thinking about that and ask yourself, why do you want to be a leader? Is it because it’s just the next promotion or is it because you deeply care about teams and building things, motivating people to fulfil their potential. The latter are great reasons for wanting to be a leader.

Attracting more women to the tech world

I’m trying to attract more and more women to this career in tech. I am more committed to the girls in tech than women because I think young girls, who are still in school get messages that they just need to be really good at science and maths but with my experience, you also need to be really good at communication, collaboration and being creative. They are actually all things that people would say that women are good at.

You don’t have to be a physics professor to get involved in this industry. It’s deeply creative and super fun and you get to work with interesting people from all over the world. So, you get to work in a creative, collaborative space and it’s deeply fulfilling.

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