When Women Engineer

Earlier this year I founded Winnie with the incomparable Sara Mauskopf. Like many new companies, the last several months of our engineering work can be best summed up as “creating something from nothing.” A lot of somethings, actually. An entirely new service. Rich user interfaces. New kinds of data. A mobile app. Internal tools. The list goes on.

While this is far from unusual for a startup, what’s different about the team doing this work is that 4 out of 5 of us are women.

It’s hard for me to imagine an engineering team that’s even half women, let alone the majority. This has been a new experience for me, and I wanted to share some of the things I’ve observed along the way.

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Freedom from Imposter Syndrome

Minorities doubt their own competencies. Many of the women in tech I know struggle with holding their ground against male coworkers, especially very confident ones; we know we’re in the minority, so our own cognitive biases make us more likely to doubt ourselves. Interrogating yourself for correctness all the time is not productive, and it’s been very liberating to set this particular burden aside.

It’s a Competitive Advantage

Our team is, frankly, exceptional. We were able to hire experienced & effective people who might otherwise have been out of reach for an early startup. In fostering an environment where ambitious people who may not fit the traditional mold can do their best work, we’ve attracted amazing talent in a very competitive landscape.

The world of talent that doesn’t look, talk, love or live the way you expect a “10x hire” to do is very, very large. It’s a huge competitive advantage for us that we can reach those people.

We’re Willing to be Wrong

If I have learned one thing in my career, it’s that there is never a right answer. The person arguing that there is a right answer is automatically wrong. Diversity balances the power dynamics of a team, and seems to make everyone more willing to discuss things flexibly rather than adhering to a creed.

To be honest, I think this is good engineering. It’s pragmatic and thoughtful. We move fast because we don’t get stuck fighting holy wars. We cede to each other fluidly rather than constructing rigid systems of thought.

“Willingness to be wrong” can also be framed as “the freedom from needing to be right” and it is a hugely beneficial mindset.

100% Less Bullshit

There’s no nice way to say this. Working with other women cuts out a lot of the bullshit.

When women are too direct they are seen as unlikable. Most professional women are familiar with the dance of “Well, I’m wondering if…” or “That’s a good idea but did you consider…” or “Just my opinion, but…”

On the surface this seems harmless, even polite, but having to constantly present your (often informed) position as “just a thought” while taking pains to be nice and non-threatening enough really wears you down. It also fundamentally weakens your argument, which is bad for the team; we all work better when we can speak frankly and argue our points directly.

It Isn’t Perfect

I get it now. Working with other people who are similar to you makes a lot of things easier. It’s tempting to stay in a comfortable place where people work pretty well together. But the real potential for growth — explosive, game-changing growth— lies in asking “what’s not represented here?” It lies in seeking the challenge of working with people with fundamentally different mindsets and background. It lies in feeling uncomfortable with complacent productivity.

This isn’t a checkbox. It’s a discipline, and it applies to us as much as anyone else.

When People Engineer

Ego, defensiveness, and absolutism are never good things. We shouldn’t accept them as normal and we should challenge each other to do better. There’s no reason for qualified people to constantly second-guess themselves. There’s no reason the loudest person in the room always has to win. There’s no reason you should have to carefully word everything you say to avoid triggering a defensive person. We can expect all of these people to do better, and we should.

These are ways in which our engineering culture can be better if we ourselves are more diverse and embrace more diverse points of view. Not only does it improve discourse which in turn improves the end product, but it also makes room for new & different kinds of people to join the discussion.

To this end, I invite commentary here or privately at anne@winnie.com, especially if you’re a person of color or a member of an underrepresented group in tech. When I look at our team and ask “what’s not represented here?” quite a few things come to mind — older people, black & latino people, differently-abled people, and frankly much more. I know we would be better with more voices and I would love to hear yours.


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Updated April 2019