Vulnerability in the workplace: A career differentiator for women in software engineering
I am no stranger to the struggle for representation. When only a few faces looked like my own in grade school, I wasn’t surprised. When I decided to study computer science and sometimes found myself in massive classrooms with only a handful of women, I wasn’t surprised. But when I entered the professional engineering world, I was surprised at how difficult it was to be open, authentic and vulnerable, and the sweeping difference that culture and representation could make.
Starting my career as a woman in software engineering
How humans interact with and leverage technology has always been an interest of mine–in my adolescence, social media and smartphones began their ascent and suddenly handheld technology was everywhere. By the time I left for college, almost every teenager had a laptop and I knew I wanted to study computer science.
At the University of Michigan, engineering was a fascinating but daunting space. Almost all my peers were male and the halls were dusted with aggressions—from being labeled by a new classmate as “worthless” simply for being a woman, to worse. Asking questions or being honest sometimes felt unsafe, out of a fear of appearing ignorant or stereotypical. Taking each barrier as a challenge, I pushed to excel in my program and defy the negative expectations.
In those four years, I had only two female engineering professors—the most engaging by far, bringing the complex and intimidating specialties of machine learning and artificial intelligence into my world. With their fire as my inspiration, I joined a lab as a human-computer interaction researcher, studying the role of human biases in reinforcement learning agents. I would hold on to that momentum when I joined the workforce, seeking out strong, diverse mentorship and opportunities to grow in fast-moving spaces in all of my roles.
Sprout Social’s engineering culture
When I first heard about Sprout Social, it was a return to my passions—people and social technology. I was thrilled to join the team last summer, with an engineering squad that was nearly half women and an engineering culture that rallied around learning and growth.
In my first weeks, I found the motivation and strength of the team to be evenly matched by its humility. I was encouraged to ask questions publicly and honestly, to admit knowledge gaps without judgment, and to reach out to anyone at any level. Moments that could have been intimidating became genuine learning opportunities and my confidence grew alongside my technical skills.
An exciting early project was our partnership with TikTok, integrating the viral platform as a new social network in our suite. Designs and technical documents evolved into TikTok posts popping up in our message and calendar tools, and the effort that came between was fluid and impressive. For me, there was plenty to learn—our designs dipped into less familiar waters, from webhooks and asynchronous processing patterns to data model compatibility. Working closely with other engineers and designers (and syncing often with TikTok) I became friendly with these concepts and many more. By the time we went live, it was clear we took both our wins and losses as a team, and I found that to be true even outside of engineering.
Finding solidarity through Community Resource Groups
In our hybrid work world, I searched for spaces to build connections and relationships. Knowing the power and bond of minority communities, I joined two of our community resource groups almost immediately: Underrepresented Genders in Tech@Sprout (UGIT) & Asians@Sprout.
In our organized Slack channels and meetings, real and authentic conversations bloomed. Members in each community supported each other through both work and personal issues. Each group had at least a handful of fearless members, driving vulnerability and honesty through even the most difficult of topics: from work-related themes like burnout or promotion advice to more emotional fronts like mental health.
Even painfully relevant issues like pandemic-spurred Asian hate crimes or political threats to women’s rights were discussed and grieved in the open. It was a breath of fresh air. In a mostly virtual environment, these communities had carved out a safe space to be unapologetically yourself, and the relief that came with it was evident. I found the effects on my comfort and confidence to be far reaching, extending past our gatherings to my every day work.
I wanted to give back—to be a driving force for the communities that had taken me in, especially for other women in engineering. So in early 2022 I joined the leadership board of UGIT and have spent the last several months alongside an incredible team working to further disrupt the gender narrative in technology. We foster discussions and social initiatives aiming to empower our community and provide opportunities for learning and recognition.
Finding an organization that will give you the space to be your authentic self is rare, but you shouldn’t settle for anything less. If you’re interested in joining our team, check out our engineering careers page and apply today.
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