Shelley Chase, a software fellow for a Massachusetts-based technology company, Progress, shares her advice for the next generation of women in STEM.
So, you want to work in tech? Excellent idea. There’s a serious need for more skilled workers and an even more pressing need for more women and diversity in the industry.
Software engineering is my expertise. A passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) play an important role in making people’s lives and the world around us better by solving key problems and creating some of the most cutting-edge technology to solve them.
But as rewarding as problem-solving is, and as great as it is to create something new, the best part about being in the technology space as a woman is the incredible mentors and colleagues I’ve gained in the process. It was true back in 1981 when my mentor Mary Székely was one of the founders of Progress. And it’s true now, as I celebrate 25 years with the company, where I lead a team of software architects who work on the product that Mary helped create — Progress OpenEdge.
In the spirit of passing the torch to the next generation of women in technology, here’s my advice:
1. Challenge the Norms
When I was in college in the 1980s, there were very few women in the engineering program and even fewer women professors. When I attended conferences, I could count the number of women attendees on one hand.
I was confident in my skills and being able to hold intelligent technical conversations with my male colleagues usually broke the gender barrier. I am thrilled that things are very different with an increased interest of women in engineering, and I believe they have great role models that I didn’t have.
However, there is still much work to be done. In fact, while women constitute almost 50% of the labor market, data shows that there are only 28% of women in STEM fields as opposed to 72% of men — and that’s within the past 5 years. If you’re a woman looking to pursue a career in STEM — you still must be curious, take risks, and enter seemingly uncomfortable conversations to challenge the social norms built around the industry. Your courage will spark change for the generations that follow.
2. Inspire and Mentor Others
I have been inspired by several women role models throughout my career. My first full-time manager was a woman. She exemplified authenticity and sharing in her direct report’s successes. She offered me many opportunities to learn how to be a great engineer and a great manager.
At Progress, I was fortunate to work directly with the only woman founder of Progress Software, Mary Szekely. Mary was brilliant, a teacher, a MIT graduate and software fellow while being a single mom of four. She led by example through her commitment, dedication and work ethic. When you worked with Mary, you always learned something new, you worked hard, and you laughed hard.
When pursuing a career in STEM, make sure you seek out mentors (even outside of your organization) that not only have a lot to teach you, but take the time to celebrate your wins. If you surround yourself with positive role models. you’ll learn how to become a positive leader yourself.
3. Find Meaning in Your Work
I love my tech career choice, and I’ve found meaning in my work simply in reflecting on what I do for customers and our team on a daily basis. I work with the smartest people on the most cutting-edge technologies. In my role as a software fellow, I provide architectural guidance to the software architects and engineers in my company. I also share with them the importance of understanding their customer’s needs. It’s not enough to build a product if no one will use it.
Our customers at Progress run their businesses on the OpenEdge platform and it is our job to keep their applications running. Their apps range from manufacturing, to retail, to financial to healthcare. Our technology is responsible for everything from retirement accounts being accurate, to healthcare records correctly identifying medical conditions, to even getting lunch orders correct at a popular sandwich shop.
I often work on high priority customer outages to get them back up and running quickly. Downtime is costly for many of our customers, often, they can lose hundreds to thousands of dollars per outage. I also guide our customers to enhance their products to work with modern technologies such as the cloud, mobile devices and chatbots. And I share in their happiness when their users are delighted with new features of their apps.
To the next generation of women in technology: the field is exciting and turbulent, but at the end of the day, it’s about helping people achieve great things. Find what’s most meaningful to you, and articulate how it applies to STEM. Then, pursue it — full steam ahead.
4. Perfect Is the Enemy of Good
There is such a thing as the law of diminishing returns. I encourage everyone to work hard and create. But nothing is ever really finished. It could always be better.
And because of that, your code doesn’t have to prove how great you are. It doesn’t have to always be a thing of art or beauty. It needs to work. It needs to get the job done. It needs to be simple to use. Create and iterate.
You want beauty? There’s beauty in that. And it’s incredibly fulfilling.
Furthermore, it’s 100% true that form follows function. Function doesn’t require perfection, but it requires true grit. Build a product to work and to serve a need. Who knows, it could still be an industry leader like Progress OpenEdge 40 years later.
On Sept. 5, I celebrated 25 years at Progress. I’m a long way from my beginnings of going to a state university in New York as the first person in my family to go to college. I was lucky to be able to pursue an education in computer science and find what I love to do. I was lucky to have a mentor and a company that encouraged not just hard work, but teamwork.
Now, I get to pass that on to my team. I get to help the next generation of software engineers, men and women. I get to help customers, doing work behind the scenes for large corporations and small mom-and-pop shops. If I can part with a few pieces of advice, it would be to be bold, be curious, and follow your passion for STEM resiliently. You’ll find mentors who will teach you, teams curious to learn from you in the future, and most likely, the solutions to someone’s (or the world’s) biggest problems.
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