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The Need To Build Technical Skills – Telle Whitney

At the Anita Borg Institute, we work closely with technical women, as well as with our partner companies to develop their technical talent, especially at the mid level. As you saw from Caroline’s last post, many women in our study need to develop and update their technical skills, but are often unable to find the time to do so outside of work hours. What I also know is that many women experience a lack of confidence, and their development is not only about updating their skills, but also needing to develop the leadership skills and confidence to express their ideas.

At the Anita Borg Institute, we work closely with technical women, as well as with our partner companies to develop their technical talent, especially at the mid level. As you saw from Caroline’s last post, many women in our study need to develop and update their technical skills, but are often unable to find the time to do so outside of work hours. What I also know is that many women experience a lack of confidence, and their development is not only about updating their skills, but also needing to develop the leadership skills and confidence to express their ideas. And they are also challenged by the fact they communicate differently from their male counterparts.

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I heard a true story awhile ago that illustrates my point. Many large companies have a well defined Fellows process, where a Fellow is the top of the technical career path. Often there are few if any women fellows.

At one company, the chair of the Fellows committee (a man) told me about one of their earliest women fellows. He was familiar with her work, and was shocked when the entire fellows committee (all men) voted her nomination down. He took it upon himself to rewrite the nomination from a male perspective, in particular, changing the we to I in the contribution description. Many women think of their contribution as part of a team effort, they work collaboratively. Often the Fellows selection criteria focus on individual contributions. With his new nomination package, where none of the contributions had changed, she was unanimously approved to become a Fellow. As I write this blog, notice the times I’ve used the term Fellow, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the Fellows are fellows.

In addition to developing confidence and learning how to communicate effectively in their environment, I think it is important to find the time to read new books or attend conference sessions in your technical area.

When I was VP of Engineering at a Voice Over IP Processor company – Malleable Technology, I underestimated the importance of investing time in understanding more deeply the application algorithmic approach for our product offering. Because I was head of engineering, and was comfortable in the areas of running operations and developing the chip design, I did not set aside the time to understand our algorithms better. What that meant is that I was unable to speak the language of the DSP engineers that worked for me, and I lost their respect, whereas the two other groups I led – the chip design team and the software development platform team never experienced that same issue. It was not my job to become a competent DSP engineer, but in hindsight, it would have been worth my time to invest more in the technical area I was weakest.

For anyone reading this, you know best the technical skills area that will serve you, and investing time in learning is important.

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