“Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire...” — Oprah Winfrey
If anyone knows a thing or two about mounting the high wire -- and setting the bar high -- it’s Oprah.
Today, Oprah is an internationally recognized talk show host, media executive, actress, and billionaire philanthropist. But years ago, she had to navigate gender, economic, and race barriers to create her own opportunities for success. She secured an on-air primetime anchor position in Baltimore, but when ratings dipped, she was fired. Undeterred, Oprah shifted gears. She landed a job co-hosting a daytime talk show and the rest is history. Oprah has proactively sought out opportunities (from acting roles to authoring books), never feared failure, and always learned from each step of her life journey.
I think women in technology can apply a few of Oprah’s lessons to forge their own career paths, navigating career hurdles and roadblocks in the process. And when I mention hurdles, I’m referring to the long-standing underrepresentation of women in technology-related fields. Despite making up nearly half of today’s total workforce, women account for only 25% of those working in technology. And more than half (56%) of women leave the tech industry, by the mid-level point in their careers, often driven out by gender bias and institutional barriers they encounter. How can women best conquer potential hurdles and roadblocks as they pave their path to career success? Keep reading.
1. Don’t be afraid to be the ‘first’ and ‘only’
I grew up in Bangladesh within a large, extended family. I didn’t have a laptop and had to use the big desktop computer we all shared at the house. Imagine 10 people sharing one computer and you can sense the chaos around homework time. When the computer would crash, which was often because it was so heavily used, I would tell my uncle. My uncle’s reply: “I’ll call my friend -- he can fix it.” No one was allowed to touch the computer until this man showed up to repair it.
I was being told we needed a man to fix the computer. I suggested various ways to revive the computer but was told that I couldn’t fix it. This was a man’s job. “If I become a computer scientist,” I thought, “I will be able to fix my computer without having to wait for a man to fix it.” One simple question served as the inspiration for my future career: “Why can’t I learn to fix the computer?” Even though I didn’t have any “women in tech” role models, I built up the confidence to take risks (more on that in a moment). I later moved to Canada to earn a master’s degree in computer science, and now work as an AI research scientist at San Francisco-based Volta Charging, an electric vehicle infrastructure company.
2. Be the change you wish to see
Traditionally, women have endured gender-based stereotyping. This began in the home, where young girls were steered toward compassion-based careers such as nursing or teaching. It’s also assumed that women will take on the majority of household and child-raising responsibilities. What if we, instead, told young girls, “Why not try computer programming? You’re good at math. Keep working at it.” Or “I know you’re interested in space exploration. What if you could work for NASA someday?” This early messaging is key, as the teenage years are often when young people begin to evaluate career options.
Even if they do achieve their dream tech career, many women struggle to balance family and job tasks in the middle of their careers. When women don’t get needed support from family and the workplace, they drop out of the workforce or shift to a different career. This was highlighted during the first two years of the COVID pandemic when more than one million women left the labor force.
I’ve always been aware of these potential gender-related barriers -- and I’ve worked to help break them. As a leadership fellow in Women Who Code, an international nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers, I help organize free workshops, tutorials, and “ask me anything” sessions with diverse women leaders from Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Our attendees are inspired by the talks, as they see other women like themselves and can hear firsthand about their career journeys.
3. Seek opportunities -- and don’t be afraid to fail
Don’t wait for opportunities to fall into your lap. Seek out opportunities to try, fail, learn, and improve your skills. I’m a big proponent of hackathons, and I’ve participated in several contests and conferences. When I submitted a paper to a specific conference or applied for a job and didn’t get an offer, I always sought out feedback and ways I could improve the next time. I trained myself to remember that these were not personal rejections, and I focused on the lesson I could learn.
Speaking of lessons learned, it was a hackathon that actually helped me land my first job. When I was in graduate school, I took part in an AI hackathon in Canada. I was a finalist in the contest and networked with one of the event judges. A year later, I was applying for jobs and had gotten a few rejections. I then remembered the hackathon judge I had spoken with and sent her my resume. I was thrilled when she replied that her team was looking for a data scientist. I later marveled at the fact that I was sitting on the same couch where only a year before I was a hackathon participant -- but now I was a full-time data scientist.
Hackathons and conferences not only help you sharpen your problem-solving and presentation skills, but you are exposed to people you otherwise may not meet -- from fellow participants to judges and organizers. These days, I try and pay it forward by taking part in hackathons and competitions -- but this time as a judge. For example, I was honored to be selected as a judge for TigerGraph’s “Graph for All Million Dollar Challenge,” a global search that tasks participants with using graph technology to solve pressing world problems. I hope to eventually engage with promising participants to offer advice, mentorship, and guidance.
There’s an old proverb that proclaims that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The same principle applies when it comes to your technology career. As Oprah said, the only people who never fall are those who never dare to climb. Take steps, fail, fall, get up, learn, and keep walking. This is the way forward and the path to success.