Eight Spence Upper School students sat cross-legged on the floor of the Head of School Bodie Brizendine’s living room, eating Thai food and chatting with Spence alumnae about both the challenges and opportunities of being a woman in the technology industry. The occasion was this year’s first Topics of the World event, a series of dinner and conversation that Brizendine started last year to give Spence students an opportunity to engage in a specific topic with alumnae or parents with expertise on the subject.
This year’s dinner included alumnae Ali Heron ’96, the Senior Vice President of Engineering at Two Sigma Investments LP; Bear Douglas ’05, a Developer Advocacy Lead at Slack; and Tess B. Druckenmiller ’11, a Deployment Strategist at Palantir Technologies.
They were joined by Eliza B. ’19, Jade K. ’19, Stella J. ’19, Ruby L ’19, Emma V. ’19, Sarai V. ’20, Julia M. ’21, Hamida M.’21 and Brooke P. ’21.
Students asked the alumnae challenging questions—ranging from how they grew in their careers and navigated gender inequality in technology, to their favorite coding platforms and how to pick a company, project or team to work on.
Brizendine kicked off the conversation by asking the alumnae what they recommend doing and studying to embark on a career in a technical field.
“I don’t think there’s any recipe for a career in tech,” Heron emphasized. “Don’t feel like you need to fit into a certain archetype to be in technology,” she added, noting that there are many fields under the technology umbrella, including user research experience, project management and program management, all of which involve being an intermediary between engineers and a product’s end users.
Brooke was interested in knowing more about what the alumnae to think about their preferred coding platforms; Heron emphasized that the platform you’re working with matters far less than the work you are doing, especially because platforms are constantly evolving as technology changes. Think more about “how you dissect a problem,” regardless of the platform, Heron advised the students, particularly around scaling solutions so that products work for millions of users around the world.
When Ruby posed the question, “What does growth look like?”, the three alumnae agreed that there are many ways to measure growth in technical fields.
“Growth doesn’t look like one thing,” Druckenmiller underscored. “There are different axes on which you can keep learning and growing. My strategy is I just don’t want to be bored.”
For her part, Douglas reflected that, “Growth for me is a slow evolution in systems-thinking,” noting that you may start your career out simply completing tasks as-assigned, but that as you grow, you’ll be tasked with identifying and solving broader problems.
Eliza asked about the biggest differences between working at a start-up versus a big company, which led to a broader discussion about all of the important elements to consider when exploring career options.
The three alumnae underscored that while you need to be comfortable with a fast-paced, frequently changing environment to work at a start-up, your experience at any organization—whether it’s a start-up or a big company—is most closely linked to the kind of work you’re doing and who you’re working with.
“At the end of the day, you can work on the coolest thing,” Heron emphasized, but she said that the most important thing for her in any job is working to “solve impactful problems with a great team of people.”
“What you really want is an advocate…someone who will actually exercise political power to get something done for you,” Douglas stressed, noting that her advocate—the person who helped her achieve pay parity with her male counterparts at a previous job—was a man.
To that end, all three alumnae agreed that being a woman in technical fields is hard. “It’s not something I want to sugarcoat,” Heron acknowledged.
“I always kind of assumed that the stuff they tell you is totally not true...like how starting when you’re five, you always have boys talking over you,” Druckenmiller shared, referring to discussions led by teachers and faculty during her time at Spence. She noted that when she got to college and experienced co-ed classes, she had a wake-up call.
Still, she said, “You don’t have to stop talking when someone is talking over you.”
At the end of the night, attendees left with insights about professional lives of women in technical fields, and with the consensus that there is no one right way to build a career or to be a woman in technology.