On November 16th, 2018, hundreds of women (and a few men) gathered into the gorgeous New Central Library in Calgary, Alberta. The 3rd annual Geeky Summit, organized by Chic Geek, was a celebration of women in the tech community. Chic Geek aims to see more women represented in the intersection between technology and entrepreneurship. They hold a variety of events throughout the year as well as a formal mentorship program. Geeky Summit is a place for women in typically male-dominated fields to talk about their unique situations. Speakers and attendees were programmers, web developers, engineers, designers, marketers, CEOs and founders, investors, authors, and radio hosts. A common thread shared by everyone was an innate curiosity and eagerness to learn.
There was a diverse line-up of speakers for this event, and they all imparted some amazing lessons. This post will look at professional development lessons from some of the presenters; later this week, the focus will be on personal development.
When she started working at ATB, Alex Nuth was presented with a huge challenge: how do you build a digital future within the legacy world of banking? Simple. You scrap everything that’s come before and build it up from scratch.
Nuth shared some of her 5 Aha Moments, including “Find your whitespace” (going where few, if any, people have gone before), “Stay curious and read” (how else are you supposed to expand your mind?), and “Special projects for the win” (because when you set yourself apart by taking on unexpected projects, it gives you insight and experiences outside the scope of your regular job). The moment that stuck with me the most was “Take risks and seek fire.”
Nuth talked about the value of being scared. Whether in business or your personal life, the path up won’t always (in fact, seldom does) come easy. You might have to face a tough conversation, give a presentation to a terrifying amount of people, or prove yourself capable of leading a team before you think you’re ready. Whatever the challenge, it’s bound to be between you and your goals. So why not seek them out, instead of letting them find you?
“Running towards the fire is what landed me at ATB in the first place,” says Nuth. “Accenture was a very prestigious and amazing job for me. It was also comfortable. I decided it was time to get out of my comfort zone.”
We have access to more data than at any other time in history. There’s no doubt that all this information—whether it’s how many steps we take, what recipes we look up, or our location history—is valuable. Whether or not it’s used correctly, or even ethically, is another issue entirely, says Nora Young.
One such example is how Walmart arranges its stores according to the weather. When a hurricane is happening, data has shown that people buy Pop Tarts. Nobody really knows why, or if the two are related by correlation or causation. Regardless, whenever a hurricane comes through town, Walmart managers are told to put the Pop Tarts at the front of the store. “That’s the big data abstraction,” Young says. “It doesn’t have the human angle.”
Before the internet, or even the printing press, people learned from other people. They’d gather in halls and listen to a lecturer read a book out loud, or they’d simply discuss ideas and opinions with their peers. Now that we’re learning and changing society according to what the data is telling us, we’re losing a pretty important filter: people.
It’s gotten to the point where the norm is to have data constantly captured, from your phone or wearable tech. Permission defaults have switched, and people now have to opt out rather than opt in if they want their data to remain private. “What does meaningful consent look like when data is captured all the time?” Young asks. “What we’re comfortable with in one context we might not be comfortable with in another.”
Culture and values do matter, but because they’re typically slow to change, they can get lost in the technological arms race. With the rate at which technology is advancing, we’re constantly scrambling to keep up. Problems are usually only addressed when they become too big to ignore.
There is hope, however. Data can serve the public good and work in partnership with people. “We have to reframe the idea that users and consumers are simply data ore to be mined.” Ushahidi, for example, is an non-profit technology company that uses crowdsourced data to create “activism maps” that show areas of violence or danger during times of crisis. Even Google Live Maps, something most of use every day for traffic updates, is serving the public good in its own way.
The point is, whatever tool we use should be enlisting active participation from its users. People are partners in tracking and sharing data, and the collection methods must reflect this. We need to have a greater understanding of what we’re giving away, either willingly or not; what are companies asking people to share, and why?
A good shortcut to feelings of inadequacy is to have two teenagers talk to you about the companies they’ve started. Riya Karumanchi is a 15-year-old entrepreneur and CEO of SmartCane, an enhanced version of the common white cane for the visually-impaired, who is also an avid ML developer and Innovator at The Knowledge Society. Ramy Zhang is a 17-year-old blockchain enthusiast and dApp developer who also holds the position of Business Operations at Cryptonian, a crypto algo-trading startup (and if you only understood half of those words, you’re not alone).
These two young women talked separately about their own experiences and expertise before sitting down with Nora Young for a panel discussion. She asked if there was any advice they could give to members of the audience who were thinking of starting their own companies.
“Stay hungry,” says Zhang. Being able to adapt and learn on the fly is key to success in any field. She added that it’s because she’s never really been satisfied that she’s gotten to where she is. “If you’re feeling a little too comfortable with where you are in life, that usually means it’s time to kick yourself in the butt.”
Whatever your cause or mission, it’s important to ask yourself why you’re doing it. “I used to think, ‘I’m sure someone else will solve this,’ says Karumanchi. “But look around your community. What are the problems?”
Both teens are adamant about creating lasting, impactful change in the world. Karumanchi says it’s not just about the Return on Investment, but also about the Return on Humanity. “We don’t all experience the same problems because we tend to live in a bubble. It’s important to look outside your experience.”
Alicia Close recounted how she hopped in a Winnebago and spent 9 weeks traveling across Canada. Her goal? Collecting first-hand accounts from over 1,600 women and men in over 30 tech communities. After 10 months of analyzing the data and conversations, she and the team at Women in Tech World (WiT) created Canada’s Gender Equity Roadmap.
The numbers are clear: only 25% of Canada’s technology sector is made up of women, and only 13% of them hold executive positions. We’re all told the alarming numbers, but Close wanted to dig deeper. She wanted stories instead of stats. Real humans from all across Canada, telling their lived experiences. So much focus is put on the slim number of women at the top that those in entry- and mid-level positions are often overlooked.
WiT looked at what barriers women face, as well as what helps them succeed. “Everyone has a role to play in creating more inclusive and gender-diverse tech communities,” Close says. Creating a plan with actionable steps to follow is essential to driving change. The WiT Action Plan, which can be found on their website here, outlines the following needs:
When it comes to inclusivity, data is an essential part of creating change, but it can’t be the only factor taken into consideration. There are real people, men and women, who make up that data. It’s important to not forget about the real, lived experiences behind those numbers. Only by looking at the whole picture can we make real steps towards a brighter future for all.