How to Thrive in the Tech Industry According to Three Female Technologists
It has now been well documented that people who work in every level of the technology industry can continue to support female workers and help them thrive. A recent Capital One Women Who Stay in Tech survey looking to find the root causes and motivation for why women technologists stayed in the industry found five top drivers of success: the work itself; pay and work-life balance; grit; purpose; and role models, peers, and networks.
As part of its survey coverage, we interviewed three Capital One associates at various points of their technology careers to provide anecdotes for how they persevered through hard times and have succeeded in the industry. Alyssa Romeo — a senior software engineer and technical lead — provides insight on being her own best advocate. Kaylyn Gibilterra — a lead Go API developer — dispenses sage words about celebrating not just the existence of chronically underrepresented groups, but about the technical skills they contribute. And Santhi Sridharan — a dynamic engineering leader using and contributing to open source software — imparts wisdom about the importance of “straight talk.”
As the only woman in her first engineering class in college, Alyssa Romeo would often be told by fellow classmates that she would fail those classes.
“Why do you want to go into engineering?” she said, recounting the hurtful words that classmates would say to intimidate her to drop out of class. “You’re going to fail out of it. You’re not smart enough.”
Four years on with a Master’s in CS and an MBA in-flight, Alyssa overcame those taunts and has since persevered in her long-term goal of becoming a senior software engineer and technical lead in Capital One’s Digital Servicing organization. At the company, she uses her perseverance and focus — two key qualities of grit that determine how long women stay in the tech industry — to help achieve a better experience for Capital One customers by delivering high quality and high impact software, including leveraging big data, modernizing on the cloud, designing multi-tier web applications, and mobile development.
On days where it gets especially difficult to come up with a tech solution for the purpose of achieving a better experience for Capital One customers, Alyssa relies on her passion for technology and relationship-building skills to align allies who are willing to “fight” for her vision.
“At the end of the day, I’m my best advocate,” she says. “I’ve been blessed to have managers who let me create my own path that makes good business sense. I set clear expectations with my managers and am clear about what I want to get done.”
While Alyssa has goals to stay in the tech industry, she is also starting to notice that there is some room for improvement. As she sees more women technologist leaders focusing on business strategy, she’s also noticing fewer senior executives who are purely technical engineers.
“I think there’s room for improvement in the technology industry for more women to have technical leadership positions,” she said. Alyssa is hopeful that she, along with other technologists, will get a chance to pave their own paths in technology.
“I’m excited to see where technology is going to go in the next ten years,” Alyssa says. “I hear about cutting-edge projects every day that are being developed and used for the good of the world, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
As a software engineer at Capital One, Kaylyn Gibilterra has eight years working in the tech industry. She started with embedded systems development on radios and night vision goggles, briefly dabbled with php web development, and finally settled on systems development at Capital One. She currently specializes in building services that learn from and integrate with mainframe systems.
Kaylyn has had a lifelong interest in technology since she took her first Microsoft programming class in high school. Her interest was further piqued in 2006 when she read that IT professional starting salaries began at $60,000, and she couldn’t think of a higher income growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Now she is driven to help engineering teams build the right solution and write technical services that current and future engineers are proud of.
“For a long time, I focused on skill development and improving my fundamental computer science knowledge. I spent years developing expertise in Go and product innovation to build production services from start to finish.” Despite this, Kaylyn found it hard to join in on solving difficult architecture problems because her experiences might not be heard. She had to become better at communicating what she is good at and what she owns to leadership.
“After skill development, the hardest thing was to define my value as an engineer and what I can bring to the team,” Kaylyn says. “It wasn’t easy. It feels like it’s taken all of eight years and a little more to really feel confident in what I know. But learning that skill and being able to say what I’ve brought to the team and talking about the products that I’ve owned has made me more confident and a better engineer.”
Kaylyn believes it’s taken this long in part because people unintentionally miss the contributions that women and underrepresented minorities make in the tech industry. Sometimes, while leaders aren’t intentionally trying to ignore workers’ contributions, workers must be the first ones to step up and discuss the technical skills they’re good at.
“Society teaches women not to communicate about themselves,” Kaylyn says. “But the tech industry expects everyone to advocate for themselves. This takes time and confidence — so if you’re not advocating for yourself — you might feel like you’re getting beat up on.”
As she reflects on her eighth professional year working in the tech industry, Kaylyn has noticed anecdotally that some women could work on better “wording” to step into their confidence level. By that, she means that women tend to take credit for soft skills, but not for technical skills. Women may say that they helped to run a meeting or bring people together, when specifically they were leading the architecture meeting or establishing best practices for their team.
“The wording is very important and one of the most important skills you can learn is how you can find your own worth,” Kaylyn says. “If you define a problem as you’re just helping out, then people will only see you as ‘helping out.’ But if you define it as ‘I’m leading the team and organization to figure out problems through this means,’ then the engineering side of you becomes incredibly valuable. Adding the simple word “engineering” when talking about your work can make a surprising difference in people’s careers.”
Beyond recognizing how one word could change career outcomes, Kaylyn also reflects on how encouraging it has been to have mentors on the executive level and across her peer networks. Being able to look up to multiple women executives at Capital One, see them own their accomplishments, and giving her personal reminders that she can claim what she knows, has been invaluable over the past few years.
“The number one thing that the tech industry can do in keeping women and underrepresented voices in the industry is to not only celebrate that we exist, but to celebrate what we’re actually doing,” Kaylyn says. “When you find leadership doing that, that’s the most valuable and motivating thing.”
At the age of 17, Santhi Sridharan set off on a path to pursue an Electrical Engineering degree in India that has since changed the course of her life. She went into the degree with a love for math, having grown up wanting to be an Indian Administrative Officer, the highest ranking civil service position in the country. Santhi steadily made her way up, becoming a scientific officer at the Indian Department of Nuclear Power.
Santhi credits her family -- who teased her as the only female engineer among her relatives — for being a positive motivation in making her want to stay in the technology industry.
“I took the teasing as a motivation, not an insurmountable roadblock to prevent me from going on for more degrees and better jobs,” Santhi says as she recalled a relative’s gentle teasing that she pursued the same degree as her brother. “It didn’t get to me in a negative way.”
In the late 1990s, Santhi moved to the United States to work at a formerly giant consumer electronics retail company. Now, she works at Capital One as a Senior Manager in Card Tech, where she leads teams to design and develop scalable, resilient, and futuristic software solutions. As she’s become more experienced over the years, Santhi has also come to fully love her role as an engineer. As a self-proclaimed “perfectionist,” Santhi smiles as she jokes that she is always on the look-out for a bug in a system even if no bugs had been discovered.
As a successful engineer, Santhi understands that Women in Tech support networks have helped her develop and fine-tune her “gut feeling.” Those networks — present at Capital One as well as in the tech ecosystem — are meant to inspire communities of women in technology professions by giving them a platform to share insights, skill sets, and experiences.
“When I look back at my career, all my successes were identified by female managers,” Santhi says. She explained that female managers saw her “straight talk” and confidence as admirable traits.
The biggest value she has gotten from other female technologists has been understanding and channeling what those women would do in difficult situations; maintaining objectivity in work situations; and putting herself in other people’s shoes and viewpoints. What has made Santhi hopeful about the future of the tech industry is that she is already starting to see a small ripple effect of how role models like herself are having a positive impact on the younger generation of girls and boys.
“Recently, I saw a young girl and boy on my long international flight,” Santhi recalled. “The girl was reading and highlighting her chemistry book. The boy was having fun playing video games. I saw myself in that girl, just working really hard. Seeing that, I realize that the mentality for girls to do their best hasn’t changed at all.”
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