Jennifer Albertson, senior manager of engineering at Red Hat, explains how Ada Lovelace Day has helped to create a culture and working environment where diversity is celebrated, ideas are encouraged, and talent is nurtured.
Women have always had a presence in software engineering. They regularly participate in open source projects, and they contribute heavily to the design and development of new applications and services. Women also hold leadership positions, manage large teams, and lead major international projects. They are supported at an organisational level by leadership accelerator programmes, and initiatives that promote greater diversity and inclusion. They also benefit from the direct support of their peers and colleagues.
Software engineering is a complex and highly skilled discipline led by debate and informed discussion. Innovation would be stifled if women felt they were unable to make meaningful contributions. That’s why it's absolutely essential to have an inclusive working environment where everyone feels valued. An environment where people feel empowered to come forward with an idea knowing that they will have the ear of their colleagues and peers, and the respect of the management team.
The value of mixed mentorships
Several years ago, I made the transition from software development to management. Nurturing teams has always been a passion of mine. A passion that was tempered by concerns that my ideas may not be fully accepted. It’s only natural to question your ideas and motivations, especially when you take on a new management role. Fortunately, I selected my colleague Tim Cramer, senior vice president of global software engineering, as a mentor and sponsor. Tim is extremely supportive, and I felt he had the qualities and experience that would help me to achieve my goals. He was instrumental in helping me to unpack my thoughts, trust my instincts and develop my own distinctive management style, based on Red Hat’s Open Management Practices.
Mentorships add an extra dimension to working through matters with people, product development, and customer relationships. Having a senior engineering colleague as a mentor helped me to address all those things. However, the male, female dynamic also allowed us to exchange ideas and offer each other new perspectives.
Tim treats mentorships as a two-way street. He looks to get as much from the experience as he puts in. He values the new ideas and perspectives he gets from his mentees. After spending time with me to discuss my philosophy on team management, he realised that sometimes talented individuals can be overlooked and fail to reach their potential. That can be for any number of reasons, such as their voices not being heard. From that point on, he understood the importance of having visibility of a team’s performance and wellbeing, at all levels.
He also began to approach problem solving differently by making sure he listened to all the different points of view before reaching a point of consensus within the team. Although, I can’t take full credit for that. Tim picked up that trait from myself and another female colleague, who also happened to be one his mentees.
Overall, the mentorship programme was a valuable experience that has since informed both of our careers and our working practices. Men and women of previous generations would also have found the experience rewarding. Making connections and working together to achieve a common goal is fundamental to software engineering. I’d like to think Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage would have approved.
The bigger picture
Once I’d received the support and encouragement I needed, I was able to put my ideas into practice, which was even more rewarding. I’ve always been interested in looking at the bigger picture, at people and processes and how improvements can be made on a much larger scale. I came from a background of working at start-ups with tight knit teams, which means I was able to bring a very different perspective and style of working to my colleagues. In larger organisations you’re responsible for bigger teams made up of people of different genders, backgrounds and ethnicities. Inevitably, due to the cosmopolitan and international nature of software engineering, teams are spread out over different sites, locations and geographies. A daunting prospect, but one that gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for; the opportunity to take a more holistic approach to management.
Successful teams are built on productivity, quality and innovation. Having the space to think, create, and push new boundaries underpins the entire process. Software engineers, product and program managers, quality engineers, men and women alike, all need to be invested in the process. This can be achieved by giving them ownership of projects and initiatives, empowering them to ask questions and make decisions. Ensuring that they feel inspired and passionate about their vocation, safe in the knowledge they have the full support of their colleagues and peers. This creates the space and opportunity for people to succeed and for ideas to flourish, regardless of which level of the organisation they come from.
It’s important that individuals within a team are able to make their voices heard and share their thoughts and ideas in meetings. Teams that consist of people with different backgrounds and experiences benefit enormously from the variety of skill-sets and new perspectives that come with it. Embracing diversity of thought leads to new ideas and approaches to problem-solving within teams, sparking faster innovation.
On top of ensuring employees receive fair and equal treatment, this prevents a ‘groupthink’ mentality and encourages team members to contribute, which ultimately leads to greater creativity and progress. Too often great ideas are left unsaid because only those with the loudest voices are heard.
As a leader you need to be prepared to offer guidance and feedback, but it’s up to the teams to create the structure and processes that work best for them. Management still has an important role to play, by providing the teams with an understanding of the overall strategy, the future direction of the business and customer requirements.
Setting new standards
Software engineering can be a very demanding vocation. Nevertheless, every day we’re able to contribute new ideas to the design of solutions that have practical implementation for banks, airlines, retailers, and a whole host of other businesses across different sectors. This is made possible by ensuring that both men and women are able to perform to the best of their ability. Having more openness and diversity also helps to enrich debate and decision making throughout the team and the wider organisation.
Ada Lovelace has inspired generations of women to pursue careers in science and technology. Despite her achievements she belonged to an age, and a society, that failed to appreciate the contributions of women. Fortunately, we have moved on since then. By providing the space and opportunity for women to succeed organisations will continue to set new standards in software engineering.
Once a year, the tech community pays tribute to female icon, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer. Her pioneering work with the ‘father of computing’ Charles Babbage laid the foundations for men and women to set new standards in software engineering. Ada Lovelace day is 13 October.
Jennifer Albertson is senior manager of engineering at Red Hat.
Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.