Who better to give advice on breaking into the tech world than women who have done it?
1. KATHRYN FINNEY
Finney studied women’s studies and poli sci, then earned a graduate degree in epidemiology and first worked in that field. Always a lover of fashion and technology, she started a hit blog called the Budget Fashionista as an outlet and later served as editor-at-large at BlogHer. Seeing the power of tech entrepreneurship firsthand led her to start DigitalUndivided, which trains and supports black and Latina founders.
“The term founder is such an important one in the tech world. Few entrepreneurs of color realize that in this space, trying to build something and starting your own company—even if it fails—is still considered better than working for someone else’s. Or they may feel less comfortable taking that risk. To get on that path, it’s crucial to be linked into networks that can help you grow and be successful.”
2. DONA SARKAR
Principal product manager of developer engagement, Microsoft, Seattle, WA, and New York, NY
Sarkar, who studied computer science and started as a software developer, now works with a team that uses holographic tech to create 3-D visualizations for graphic artists, set designers, musicians, and even the NFL. She is also building a 3-D app that helps fashion designers tweak their creations without resewing them.
“The idea of a coder locked in a room is a myth. On a typical day, I code, meet with the marketing team, and visit clients. This job is about solving problems for humans, so you need to be able to deal with humans.”
3. NILOFER VAHORA
VP of licensing and product innovation, Rebecca Minkoff, New York, NY
Gadget-addict Vahora earned an MBA and worked on innovation and product strategy for Kate Spade & Company before joining Rebecca Minkoff, where she integrates technology into the company’s line. Exhibit A: its line of chic charging wristlets and wallets.
“The tech industry is the greatest offender of ‘shrink it and pink it’ design: starting with men as the primary users of a product, making it smaller and pink, and then assuming women will use it the same way. [When it comes to wearable tech], start by understanding what your consumer likes and wants.”
4. JACKIE BIRDSALL
Senior engineer, Toyota, Los Angeles, CA
“Buy an old car—one with-out computer diagnostics software—and practice taking it apart and putting it back together. Engineering is moving away from nuts and bolts and combustion, but understanding vehicle dynamics is not going anywhere.”
5. JESSICA MCCAY
Lead software engineer, Under Armour, Austin, TX
An undergrad philosophy major, McCay later enrolled in a university computer science program, including job training. She worked on a start-up acquired by Under Armour, where she leads the team that builds mobile apps like MapMyRun.
“Once you get the job, you’ve only just begun the learning part. To keep up my skills, I like to read tech blogs and online tutorials and attend meet-ups. In a town like Austin, there’s even a meet-up for mothers who code.”
6. GENEVIEVE BELL
Intel senior fellow and vice president of the corporate strategy office, Portland, OR
Bell was a professor at Stanford when Intel recruited her in the ’90s. As a “full-time anthropologist and part-time futurist,” she and her team study people in daily life to see what they need and predict what tech they’ll want in the future.
“The growth spaces are in data and semi-autonomous machinery. That opens up conversations about ethics and morality to behaviorial psychologists, historians, and economists—not only mathematicians.”
7. VICTORIA ALONSO
EVP of physical production and executive producer, Marvel Studios, Burbank, CA
A theater and psych major, Alonso’s first job in L.A. was as a studio tour guide and page. She worked her way up the ranks and now helms the production process at Marvel, including design, storyboarding, costumes, special and visual effects, and post-production for movies like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.
“Know what your nonnegotiables are. Early in my career, my nonnegotiable was having a job, period. At other times, it was working on films with a mission. A few years ago, I considered saying no to a superhero movie filming in L.A. but said yes because my nonnegotiable was spending more time with my family. That film became Iron Man. Open your heart to something that may not seem perfect but is what you need at that moment.”
8. CYNTHIA BREAZEAL
Founding director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory and chief scientist at Jibo, Inc., Boston area, MA
For Breazeal, a spark lit by seeing R2-D2 in the original Star Wars led all the way to a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, where she is currently a professor. She developed the field of “social robotics”—giving machines humanlike qualities. She’s also an entrepreneur, cofounding Jibo, Inc., a company that designed a household robot that is a helper and companion.
“Make a list of your passions or the problems you want to solve. Then research what resources are available to you, from community college courses to MIT online classes to app-making tools in the Android store. If you’re in college, schoolwork isn’t enough—getting involved in extracurricular projects is what allows you to test your creativity and gain mastery over the tools and techniques you’re studying.”
9. MAYA SHANKAR
Senior adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and chair of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), Washington, D.C.
Shankar, a former violinist, earned a PhD in cognitive psychology. A conversation with a former undergrad adviser spurred her to pitch the idea of SBST to her current boss. Her team often collaborates with agencies to implement small technological “interventions”—say, increasing college enrollment by sending text messages with pre-matriculation info to low-income teens.
“It is so rewarding to be able to apply behavioral research insights to federal programs and then see improvements on such a large scale. That is the special advantage of working in government.”
10. SARAH FILMAN
VP of curriculum, Code.org, Seattle, WA
Filman began her career as a program manager at Microsoft, working on products like its OneDrive cloud storage service. But she had a passion for teaching too and took a leave of absence to teach at Girls Who Code’s immersion program. That set her up for her role developing school curricula at the nonprofit Code.org, which creates computer science lessons.
“My current job is the perfect hybrid of technology and education. I bring extensive management experience and hard computer science skills to my team. But because I don’t have a ton of in-classroom experience, Code.org would never have hired me if I hadn’t pursued interests outside my normal job, like Girls Who Code.”
11. RACHEL BINX
Data visualizer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Los Angeles, CA
Binx, who studied math and art history, creates visual displays of quantitative info for the operators of NASA’s spacecrafts. She’s also worked as a web developer and started a set of businesses that sell gifts using maps and data as art.
“After working in Silicon Valley, I got burned out on apps. Tech is everywhere, not just apps, so if you’re passionate about something, go get involved in the tech side of it. No one thinks, ‘I’ll be a web developer at NASA!’—but we need people too.”
12. CHRISTINA MORILLO
Vice president in technology and information risk, Morgan Stanley, New York, NY
Morillo’s family couldn’t afford a computer—so she studied IT and built her own. At Morgan Stanley, her team works to keep the financial giant’s data safe. She also volunteers with Black Girls Code and runs WOCInTechChat.com.
“Information security is an exciting field for people who like to solve problems. Salaries are skyrocketing because demand exceeds supply. Your school or company probably has an IT security program, so ask the chief information security officer or chief information officer what tools they use and if they offer training.”
13. SUKHINDER SINGH CASSIDY
CEO, Joyus, San Francisco, CA
Singh Cassidy started out on Wall Street before moving to London to work for British Sky Broadcasting. She also ran the international division of Google for six years and served as the CEO of Polyvore. In 2011, Singh Cassidy founded Joyus, a lifestyle e-commerce site for women. Last June, she also launched The BoardList, a talent marketplace that connects tech CEOs with women leaders they might want on their boards.
“To break into tech, surround yourself with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial opportunities. Use Women 2.0 to find out where the action is in your area. Think about how you might improve a website you love. Even if you never create the service you imagine, interviewers will want to know you can think through consumer problems.”
14. BEATRICE SPRINGBORN
Head of original programming, Hulu, Los Angeles, CA
After starting out as a journalist, Springborn zigzagged into entertainment, working her way up to manager of development for movies at Pixar. At Hulu, she’s a top exec who reads scripts and develops and markets projects like The Mindy Project and 11.22.63.
“Know the style of the company you want to work for. ‘Old Hollywood’ is hierarchical. Tech companies are changing that. At Hulu, few people have assistants, and we have an open-office floor plan. Things here are democratic. I find it completely refreshing.”
15. SANDY CONRAD
SVP of merchandising in electronics, HSN, St. Petersburg, FL
Fascinated with how and why products make it to store shelves, Conrad majored in marketing at Miami University in Ohio. At HSN, her team combs the marketplace for up-and-coming tech gizmos. Electronics is one of HSN’s largest divisions, and women make 75 percent of the purchases.
“Retailing is a career where you can get experience without an advanced degree. You can learn a lot in a brick-and-mortar environment, especially one with an online retailing component.”