Many consider Women in Tech: Take Your Career to the Next Level, by Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, a must-read for women in technology. The book spends half of its content introducing us to women in the industry and the other half offering detailed professional advice. In addition to covering topics ranging from salary negotiation to how to find work-life balance, Van Vlack’s anthology is one of the most intersectional looks at women in tech that I’ve found so far.
The book’s collection of profiles allows us access to an array of accomplished women, including — to name just a few — Kamilah Taylor, a black native of Jamaica and a software developer, formerly at LinkedIn, now at Hustle; Miah Johnson, a transgender woman who worked as a sysadmin at Salesforce; Keren Elazari, a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces and the first Israeli woman to speak on the main stage at an annual TED conference; and Katie Cunningham, a mother laid off after her son was born, who joined a writing group and, through there, met someone who became her link to a business analyst position at NASA.
Brianna Wu, the head of development at Giant Spacekat — and a current candidate for Congress in Massachusetts — also contributes, describing her experiences standing up to Gamergate (151).
The book not only shares women’s widely varied perspectives and experiences in tech, but also points out that those of us with non-engineering backgrounds can help impact and inform the field just as much as those with more traditional training. Since I graduated with a B.A. in English from a small Ohio college, I personally appreciated this angle. “I didn’t start programming until I was twenty-three … I started as a human communications major and ended up in complex systems and political science,” Van Vlack writes, “Still, I’ve been a scientist and a systems engineer my entire life — even when I didn’t know the words for these things” (xv).
Like Van Vlack, I draw many connections between my non-technical past and my present role as a software developer. My abilities to look at the big picture, think critically, and obsess over little details — all honed as a Kenyon English major — often benefit me in my current career.
In a portion of the book focused on career wisdom, Van Vlack writes, “Do not use the word ‘potential’ anywhere on your resume … that is grounds for having it immediately discarded” (25). In fact, she almost dismisses the value of a resume altogether, explaining that a job-seeker’s portfolio and Github profile are stronger indicators of her ability and past experience. “Your resume is not your resume. In reality, your code is your resume” (28).
Van Vlack also offers advice on how to spot bad job descriptions, calling out “nonsense words or phrases” like “Ruby ninja,” “Java rockstar,” “self-starter” and “leader in the absence of leadership” (12). She explains that these can be red flags for workplaces that over-work, under-pay, have unrealistic expectations, or offer little guidance or mentorship.
The author encourages us to apply for jobs at companies that care about creating a supportive culture and encouraging camaraderie and collaboration. How do we identify these companies? Well, Van Vlack says, look for those that tend to list soft skills like “community-minded” or “helpful” among attributes desired in candidates (16).
Van Vlack spends a good amount of time advising on communication strategies for women during technical interviews. “Women interviewing for technical positions at companies are often drilled much further on their knowledge about typically male-oriented products — whether or not they’ll be supporting those products,” Van Vlack warns us, “I’ve heard that women were asked to draw a carburetor when applying for a web dev position at an auto dealer or to recite baseball statistics for a sports app mobile dev position” (39). She tells us to stay calm, smile, and take long deep breaths when asked such questions, especially during whiteboarding.
When starting a new job, Van Vlack advises on “different communication tools for different situations” (86). In the case of email, she says, “go easy on informal speech and emoticons until you know more about how people talk at your company” (87). She also offers tips on public speaking and presentations, body language, and more.
Reflecting on the book as a whole, I found myself particularly intrigued by Van Vlack’s emphasis on the importance of mentorship. In addition to offering advice on how to find and retain quality mentors, she encourages us to actively mentor others. “Becoming a mentor is nonoptional” (149), she says, urging us to “contribute to [our communities] before expecting anything in return,” as we “may end up learning more from [our] mentees than [our] mentors!” (146).
With that, Van Vlack perfectly described my experience as an Experience Engineer at Launch Academy, where I taught and mentored students in the school’s onsite immersive and online web development programs. “To teach is to learn,” after all, and explaining a web development concept to another person became the best way to fully understand it myself.
Today, though I’ve moved on from my role at Launch, I sit on panels at meetups, give talks, and grab coffee with women earlier on in their tech careers, who find me through LinkedIn or friends of friends. Since I’ve been in these women’s shoes, I’m eager to pass on what I know. But they often wind up offering me advice, as well, on how to combat imposter syndrome, remain resilient and determined in the face of rejection, more fully support minorities in tech, and more.
Van Vlack has strong opinions — for instance, on what women should or should not wear to interviews — and you may not agree with all of them. But you’ll get plenty of relevant advice, meet the book’s impressive and down-to-earth contributors, and be introduced to some great ideas about how to help elevate women in the industry. Definitely worth a read.