Anita Borg Institute CEO's Top 5 Career Lessons for Women in Tech

Anita Borg Institute CEO Dr. Telle Whitney shares her top five career lessons for women in computing and computer-related industries.

In today’s world, some women have made their way to the top in computing, proving that they have the ability to be successful in this high risk/high reward, male dominated industry.

According to the US Department of Labor, there will be 1.4 million new jobs in computing and computer-related roles created by 2018, but there won’t be enough graduates in computer science to fill those jobs unless women embrace technology innovation and become part of this revolution. The future for women in computer science and technology is very bright, with opportunities for a rewarding career in the growing, global tech industry.

I, like many women, have worked hard to be part of this technology revolution, first as an engineer and now as the CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. Through my journey in the technology industry, I encountered obstacles that provided me with knowledge and strength to navigate the twists and turns of this business, allowing me to excel and grow my skills. I’ve learned not only from my own experiences, but also from the experiences of others. Over the years, I have thought hard about the lessons I’ve learned along the way that can help other women bring life to their dreams and succeed in this industry.

1. Take Risks

While simply stated, this is often difficult for many of us to do. Taking risks can feel like jumping into the unknown whether it is in your personal or professional life. I know that for me, when I was accepted at Caltech as a graduate student I was terrified, immobilized with fear. Like many young people, I was waiting for the day someone realized I didn’t belong there.

But as time went on, I began to realize that the most significant gains come from reaching out and doing the right thing, even when it may not be the safest or the most comfortable route.

In my opinion, breaking through barriers gives you more experience and more confidence, and ultimately you will succeed. 

2. Embrace “the village”

It takes a village to run a business. In my career, I have found that I have always had people to reach out to who believed in me and supported me throughout my ventures.

Don’t be afraid of this “village” – ask questions, seek out others when you need help, and use each other to lean on.There are a few people, primarily men, who were available to me for advice and support early on, but my village today comes from many forms – peer mentors with whom I exchange advice, role models who show me what is possible, and sponsors who give me that unique opportunity to fly.

Surround yourself with people you have respect for and who have expertise in areas that are important to you. 

3. Ask for what you want

There is a great book called “Women Don’t Ask” that I recommend to people all the time. One statistic that stood out to me in that book was that men are four times more likely than women to negotiate their first salary.

Women sacrifice around half a million dollars by not speaking up and asking for the salary that they deserve.

Early on in my career, as one of the earliest employees at a startup, I made the mistake of not asking for the stock options I thought I deserved, only to find out a year later that my peers had asked for and received them when I had remained silent. Everyone should have the courage to stick up for themselves and ask for what they want, and I’m not just talking about asking for a raise. If you want that new position or there’s a project you’re dying to work on, go for it and don’t look back.

You might not always get what you ask for, but asking shows initiative and may result in a new opportunity you never would have expected.

4. Dream Big

Looking back on my professional career, there are times when I’ve had a hard time visualizing the possibilities of the future. When you have a big dream, you always have something to move you forward. This became clear to me when I first visualized myself as a VP of Engineering, a big dream for me at the time.

I was able to make that dream real by continuing to understand and develop the skills the job demanded.

I am not saying that if you dream of being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that you will get it the next day, but that should not sway you away from choosing a dream and then working towards achieving it.

5. Take visibility seriously

It does not matter whom or what you know, but rather who knows what you know. I often hear from women technologists that they just want to be recognized for their work, but recognition by one or a few people is not enough. You have to take the initiative to publicize your accomplishments. I don’t mean in a bragging way, but learn to articulate your accomplishments and their impact on your organization, and to ensure that the results are apparent to your boss, colleagues, thought leaders, and influencers. Spend time looking for ways to get in front of the important decisions makers.

Don’t expect others to showcase your work. If you wait around for this to happen, you will be waiting for a very long time. If you want something, go get it. If you achieved something, be proud of it.

There are impactful and important opportunities for women technologists to take charge of their future and jump into the ever-growing tech industry. More than ever before, companies recognize the value in diverse teams and are taking on initiatives to attract more women to their workplace. Now is the time for women to think big and drive forward. I hope that students, young professionals, mid-career women and today’s leaders internalize these lessons and carry them into their professional lives. If they can, the entire industry will benefit.

Dr. Telle Whitney is the president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, a non-profit organization that works with the world’s largest tech companies to promote the recruitment and advancement of women in computing. She has previously held senior technical management positions with Malleable Technologies and Actel Corporation, and also co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. Telle serves on the advisory boards of Caltech’s Information Science and Technology, California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, and Illuminate Ventures. She received her Ph.D. from Caltech, and her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah, both in Computer Science.

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