“Something I want you to think about,” begins Kristie Grinnell, VP of Supply Chain and Chief Information Officer at GDIT, “in 2017, women made up 57% of the professional workforce. But when you look at that number for the computing workforce, it’s only 26%.” Standing in front of more than 300 women at GDIT’s recent Women + Tech conference, she says she cringes at that number. For her, being in technology “allowed me to excel in my career because it gave me the flexibility and the challenge that I wanted to be a mom, wife, working professional, aunt, sister, and all the things I wanted to be.” In her opening talk, Grinnell urged attendees to ask why this disparity exists. “Why are we missing this opportunity to have all these women in IT in our workforce?”
Grinnell is not the only one who sees how the lack of women in IT is hurting both the industry and women’s careers. Star-studded keynote speakers like Teresa Carlson of Amazon Web Services and Deborah James, former Secretary of the United States Air Force, reiterated and expanded on Grinnell’s statements. Together they outlined some key points for the audience of college students, IT professionals, transitioning military veterans, and military spouses. Here are some valuable career tips – both for women in IT, and for men and women of all professions.
1. Always have a “Plan A,” but be prepared to zigzag.
Prior to Deborah James appointment as the second woman in history to be the secretary of a U.S. military branch, she was set on becoming a diplomat. She studied and perfected her foreign language skills, got degrees from both Duke and Columbia, and interned at the U.S. Embassy in Peru. She did everything in her power and excelled at it. So imagine her surprise when, after moving to D.C. to begin her new life, the State Department rejected her. Her lifelong plans were crushed, but she still had rent to pay, so she took whatever job she could get: a program analyst at the Department of the Army. And to her surprise, the work really interested her and made her feel like she contributed to something bigger.
Teresa Carlson didn’t just wake up as Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Yes, she worked for Microsoft before AWS. But before that? She was a speech and language pathologist. After working with Microsoft as a vendor, she had the opportunity to move from speech pathology – a career she also enjoyed – into the tech field where she had little experience. As she says, “It’s never too late to make a change, but you may have to be willing to move back to move forward.” Now, as one of the most successful women in her field, her path to success may not have been a straight one, but she’s arrived all the same.
As James eloquently points out, “Even though one door seems to have closed for you, I guarantee you, another door will open. You must have the fortitude to walk through that second door and take that risk to try something new. You don’t know what you’re going to be passionate about until you try different things.”
2. Get a mentor, be a mentor, and build and value your network.
It may sound intimidating, but oftentimes it’s as simple as asking someone you admire out for coffee. In Grinnell’s opening remarks, she encouraged the crowd to build their network by getting the business cards of 15 new people. And while building connections doesn’t need to be a massive time commitment, James warns against only contacting people when you’re desperate. Building and maintaining relationships – and just reaching out to say hello – can open up new and unexpected opportunities. And when you reach a stage in your career where you can help others, give back.
3. Speak up and listen deeply.
When you have the opportunity to present to a group, do it. Public presentation skills can allow you to rise up and be noticed in a way that sets you apart from your peers. Yes, it can be frightening, but you can overcome your fears by doing. Your mom was right when she told you to, “Practice, practice, practice.”
But success isn’t just about being heard – it’s about hearing others, too. Get to know your teammates and direct reports as real people. Listen to their concerns and feedback. Know what’s going on in their lives. This will create a stronger team, happier co-workers, and make you a better leader.
4. Learn, evolve, reinvent, do.
You need to do your job competently today, but never stop learning. Take short courses, apply for company training programs, volunteer for new assignments. This is the only way to move forward.
Carlson not only knows this from her personal experience of changing careers, but from the many educational opportunities that AWS offers. They not only have apprenticeship programs for transitioning military, but also AWS training programs and certifications for current professionals looking to expand their skills with cloud technology. They’ve also recently started a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College for a Cloud Computing Associates degree, after which graduates will be certified AWS solutions architects. There are countless opportunities to learn – so never stay stagnant.
When you’re looking to move ahead, people will not only want to see if you can do the new work, but they want to see what you’ve already done. Document your successes, keep track of your accomplishments so you can show people your skills.
Also, play to your strengths, but recognize that you’re not strong at everything. Though James rose to the highest position in the Air Force, she herself was always a civilian. She had never been in combat – but this meant she surrounded herself with people who did have that experience. Being self-aware not only means you can honestly tout your strengths, but you can build a team where everyone knows they bring something unique to the table.
All speakers echoed a similar point of encouragement: opportunity. As Carlson pointed out multiple times, women in America have so many opportunities to succeed and pursue the path that matters to them. She tells women to, “Be bold. Have grit.” When you get a seat at the table, take a seat at the table. Ask for what you want and practice how to do that. Keep your skills fresh. The tech world is really changing and people are looking for the skills, thoughts, and ideas that women bring to the table to make our business better and more diverse.
Are you ready for your next opportunity? Explore careers at GDIT.