Lately, we’ve seen a lot of diversity stats in the news, with Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and other tech companies recently going public about how many women they employ. But we rarely see the story behind the numbers, especially when it comes to how many women are hired into tech roles at those companies. Are all tech employees developers and engineers? What do they do, and how do they fit into their companies? We asked three female tech leads at Shopify to open up to us about what they really do at work.
Women make up 13.4% of the tech workforce at the e-commerce backend provider Shopify. For Lynsey Thornton, becoming the director of user experience research at Shopify was just a matter of accepting the title. She was the one who introduced real UX thinking to the company. Now leading the team, she define’s Shopify’s UX research as bridging the gap between customer feedback and the company’s product strategy.
Before coming to Shopify, Thornton designed video games, focusing on interaction design. The gaming company she worked for also hadn’t done UX research before. She created her first UX team there and has been building UX research teams since then, for the past five years.
"Quite frankly, I didn’t know anything about the needs and motivations of the players I was designing for, and neither did anyone else on our team. It was frustrating, and I didn’t feel proud of my design work," says Thornton of her time at the gaming company.
In general, Shopify puts customer feedback at the top of its design priorities, and Thornton’s UX team has a unique sway in the matter. Because Shopify’s designers are also the front-end developers in the company, Thornton’s UX team has a large say within the organization on how to implement new features. The designers focus their attention on design and coding, while UX focuses on understanding what the customer wants. The design collaboration is conflict-free.
"Working with ego-heavy designers who ‘know better’ than the end user and don’t want feedback is something we steer clear of! It really does result in an inferior product offering," says Thornton. With Shopify’s designers leaving the customer-focused design decisions to the UX team, Thornton runs a smooth operation.
She says UX research spans business and tech roles, but in general, UX teams are known to fight with marketing people. At Shopify, Thornton makes sure that marketing makes users’ needs first priority. This can be difficult when a company uses an advertising model. At Shopify, the advertising model works for both the company and the customer.
"Marketing wants to ‘Sell now!’ and UX understand the customer doesn’t want banner ads in their face at every turn," says Thornton. So Shopify’s marketing team only pushes ads that are relevant to the user.
Thornton says that a successful UX researcher must have an almost obsessive interest in human behavior, but having a tech background isn’t absolutely imperative. It is good, however, to know how to program or do data analytics, but understanding the design principles of user interaction or business development fundamentals works, too.
Considering the variety of backgrounds that a UX designer can have, Shopify seems to have covered most of the bases. Thornton’s UX team has researchers who started their careers in accounting, customer service, political writing, and industrial design. A tech degree isn’t compulsory.
Last year, Shopify acquired the UX design firm Jet Cooper, where Monica Piotrowicz did front end development. Very quickly thereafter, she became the front-end development lead at Shopify. And like Thornton, Piotrowicz started working in a new department when she arrived at Shopify. Front-end development was starting to professionalize at Shopify when Piotrowicz arrived.
Before leading the team, she spent six years working on pure production work. But leadership was always something she strove for.
"It's definitely not for everyone, as I have a lot less time now to dedicate to active front-end development, so there is a trade-off," she says. Moving into a managerial role inherently meant that she would spend less time directly creating a product and more time executing processes.
Piotrowicz’s team works closely with Thornton’s UX research team, taking up the design and coding of products that comply with UX requirements. She creates shared standards for the team, facilitates weekly discussions, and brings people together to work on problems.
But her years of technical experience with pure front-end development have made her successful in her new leadership role.
"Being able to point to specific successes and learning from project mistakes is a big part of moving on to leadership," says Piotrowicz. "Without that technical foundation and understanding, it would be impossible to guide a team."
She hopes she doesn’t move too far away from web development as her leadership role evolves. Piotrowicz first became a developer because she liked to find creative ways to solve problems. As the lead on the front-end development team, she won’t be too far away, but she will spend a lot of her time directing other people’s work.
Vanessa Sabino, Shopify’s data analysis team lead, has a solid background in computer science and applied math. She has done development since 2000 and has always been in the IT industry. In recent years, she has shifted her career into data analytics, mainly for marketing departments.
Now at Shopify, she is putting in place new computer programs that will help the marketing department better leverage their big data sets. Lately, she has been spending her days programming to devise tools that extract, transform, and load data correctly.
"Marketing deals with high volumes of unstructured data, therefore technical skills are very important to understand how to use them and extract meaningful patterns," Sabino says. Still, the balance between her technical and marketing responsibilities varies over the course of the year.
All three of these women have technical degrees, ranging from multimedia technology to computer science. With the conversation continuing over how to attract and retain women in the STEM workforce, their stories can help us understand just how women’s careers pan out in the industry after obtaining a technical degree.
In relation to the big tech companies, Shopify’s female tech workforce is comparatively small, but the company is hiring to fill more technical roles. It seems like Shopify could welcome a few more women into the tech workforce. The recruiting site advertises its Hack Days, where developers spend a couple of days intensely working on specific projects. A male voice mainly narrates for the duration of the four-and-a-half minute promotional video, and only one or two women might have passed as developers in a couple of fleeting scenes.
The role of women in the tech world has become a hot topic of discussion. On the one hand, nonprofits want to push more women into the tech industry, both through early education initiatives and working with human resource departments in the tech industry. On the other hand, the female techies who already work in the industry feel excluded and unwelcome.
A group of female developers started the site "AboutFeminism.me," where they talk about how male tech colleagues regularly question their technical abilities. "We're constantly asked ‘if you write any code' when speaking about technical topics and giving technical presentations, despite just having given a talk on writing code," the site says. The tech world has a tendency to mentally disconnect women from technical tasks.
The women that have taken on technical leadership roles at Shopify all possess technical skills, applying them with varying degrees in their day-to-day work. The variability arises from two factors. First, working in leadership takes away from the pure development work that traditional engineers and software developers carry out. And second, succeeding in leadership ultimately means that you also have some business acumen ready to go when your boss asks for your opinion.
In the tech world, women make up 9% of management roles and 14% of senior management roles at startups. It might be better to classify some of the tech positions at Shopify as management positions, but when we’re trying to increase female presence in both categories, who’s counting?