With over 25,000 members in 18 countries, Women Who Code is making a dent in the way companies and communities think about, talk about, and solve for women in tech. “Our programs are focused on giving women in the tech industry the skills, opportunities, and network they need to stay in their careers and help them make it to the top.” That’s how Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code (WWCode), described the organization’s mission to me last week.
Alaina stepped up as CEO a few years ago and has grown the nonprofit into a global community that’s propelling women into leadership roles, both in and outside the office. Thanks to questions from engineers on our team, Allison, Meghan, Ollie, and our Director of Engineering, Sharon Chang, I had the chance to get Alaina’s perspective on how companies can advocate for women in tech, her favorite WWCode success stories, and everything in-between.
How did you make the transition from marketing to becoming the CEO of a tech organization like WWCode?
When I moved out to the Bay Area, I decided I want to give this whole tech thing a try. My background was in brand management and marketing, and I wanted to be part of an early stage startup or have my own startup. So, I was looking at the crossroads of ecommerce and tech because that fit with my background and was working on my own side project.
But in the tech industry here, the early people getting hired weren’t marketing people. I realized I should learn to code because it would enable me to make updates to my own project and make me a better asset to a small company. So I started learning to code on my own and by going to community events. I heard that this organization called Women Who Code was going to get started and thought “that sounds great!” I joined before they ever had their first event and really fell in love with the community. I stepped up as a leader very quickly, stuck with it, and have worked to grow it. We’re now in 18 countries and are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of inspiring women to excel in technology careers.
For a long time, because of my marketing background, I actually thought “oh, I can’t lead an organization about getting women to become engineers.” Being an engineer wasn’t my personal goal so I had to justify it to myself by saying, well, everyone just knows to ask me questions about WWCode anyway. Finally I realized that if an engineer were to lead this organization, then she wouldn’t be able to engineer anymore. So, I think it works out.
About 56% of women in technical roles end up leaving their jobs at the height of their careers. Why do you think so many women are giving up on tech?
It’s a lot of different factors but one of the big things, I think, is hidden biases. It’s the tiny things that happen on a weekly or daily basis that are so small you’d never complain about a single one of them. But overtime, when you compound them with a wage gap or women not seeing their careers progress like their male counterparts’, you’ll decide to leave when you get put on a tough project, are having a child and have the opportunity not to work, or aren’t getting along with your team or your boss.
Whereas if you see there are other women in leadership positions and if you feel you’re paid a salary that’s equal to your male counterparts (and therefore valued by a company at the same level they are valued), you can see that there are opportunities for you to make it to the next level. As a result, you’ll be more likely to stay in your career longer and shoot for those higher goals.
What can companies do to get rid of “hidden biases” and create an environment that sets women up for success?
I really want companies to be looking at best practices around hiring, onboarding, building structure and that supports women within companies, workplace environment, and career progression. So, transparency around what it takes to get to the next level. Companies should also be self-analyzing. If you look across a company and see that one gender or one socioeconomic class is being paid at a different level, which means that company values people differently, then there’s a systemic issue. That’s when you have women dropping out of the industry which companies, and the industry, can’t afford. To lose a woman for the last 15 years of her career, you’re losing her when she can provide the most value to a company, to the industry, and when she’ll be the best role model to women who are entry- or mid-level in their careers.
When a man is assertive, he’s looked at as a leader. But when women assert themselves, the word “bossy” comes to mind. As a female CEO, what’s been your experience with this attitude?
I, of course, never like to be perceived as “the bossy one”; it’s not something that's comfortable. But I do have to make decisions and I think that the hardest thing there, for me, is when someone has the expectation that I'm not going to be the authority. I was on a panel once with one of the partners at Y Combinator, Kirsty Nathoo, and she actually said that sometimes she’ll make a decision and people will say “oh, well can I talk to your boss?” and then she’ll immediately say “I am the boss and this is the decision." This brings about a dialogue in your mind, though, where you start second guessing yourself. Should I talk to an advisor about this? Should I talk to the team first? I think that’s an extra layer of difficulty that is put on women leaders. Ultimately, you have to be confident that you’re the boss and you made the decision.
How do you handle those situations?
For me, it’s about being aware that this exists. The tough things to process are the things that you internalize and blame yourself for. So if you think to yourself “this is happening because there’s a hidden bias," then it’s a little bit easier to process. But it’ s rarely ever in the moment that I find it hardest; it’s the internal dialogue that I have afterwards.
And it’s usually tiny things that start that makes women start second guessing themselves. A couple months ago, a girl told me her team makes fun of her (light-heartedly) because she has her terminal set to pink. I’ve had other women tell me that they were at tech or engineering conferences or conference after parties and people asked them “so, what do you really do?" or assumed they were a recruiter. If you get told over and over again that you don’t look like you belong, it’s easier to run that internal dialogue through your mind and think “wait, do I belong? Maybe I don’t and that’s why I ran into this problem this week.”
Most things are small and they’re not going to send you out of rooms crying or make you file an HR violation. But it’s those things that you come across on a daily basis, the water cooler conversation, that can make you doubt yourself overtime. That’s why finding ways to process these interactions is one of the things that great communities like WWCode can provide for women.
What are some of your favorite success stories of women you’ve worked with through WWCode?
Tech is a fantastic industry for women and it’s only going to get better and better the more women that we have working in engineering roles. Some of the best stories I’ve heard are about women that transitioned into tech and are making double the salary they were before. A specific success story that comes to mind, though, is about one of our directors in Atlanta.
She’s a very smart engineer with a masters in CS, but when she first started out as a director, she was so shy. At the beginning of WWCode events she would say “Hi, my name’s Erica, here’s what we’re doing today, feel free to ask me questions” and then just sit down and wait for people to approach her. But she stepped up as a director with WWCode and started sitting at the front of the room and becoming more vocal. This past year, she got invited to three different tech conferences to speak. She didn’t apply and get her talk accepted, she actually had raised her profile so much by being a leader at WWCode that she was invited. More importantly, she gave a tech talk to a standing room-only-crowd. She’s transitioned to being a leader in the tech industry in general, not just within WWCode, and now she’s a role model to other women.
That’s incredible! Are there any other transformations that stand out to you?
In our Code Review, we encourage women to participate in the broader tech community so we’re always including upcoming hackathons and conferences. About a year and a half ago, I started asking those hackathons and conferences if they had any women hackathon judges or female keynotes. At first, I heard a lot of “thats a good idea, do you know any?” So, for awhile I had a list of about ten women who had agreed ahead of time that I could give their information out. But now, the response has transitioned to “we have a few but we’d love more.”
There was a conference last year that didn’t have a single woman in their lineup when they first announced speakers. We reached out to them right away, privately, to let them know they should include some women on their list. This year, they announced their early speaker lineup and it already had women thought leaders on it. That’s a clear illustration that companies, and in this case conferences, want to be doing the right thing. If we let them know the best practices, they’re going to adopt all the easy solutions and maybe even a couple of the hard ones. So if we can make some of the hard ones easier, or the industry norm, then we’re going to see a big difference.
Just having conferences think automatically “oh, i should also have women speakers” is an important shift because it gives women in leadership positions an opportunity to be front and center. Those women are the ones who then get called on by companies for promotions or are brought in as thought leaders; it’s a snowball effect.
What’s been your proudest moment so far at WWCode?
The thing that I’m proudest of is our global Director network. Seeing women like Laura (co-founder of WWCode Boston) and Erica move into leadership positions as a result of being leaders within WWCode is incredible. They’re getting asked by companies to be thought leaders, getting promoted within their own companies quicker, and being listed or quoted in the press as top women in tech in their area. All these really exciting things are happening for our directors and demonstrating that they are becoming leaders in the larger tech industry. That is absolutely what I'm most proud of.
What’s the most effective way for women in engineering to help other women in tech succeed?
Advocating for women in their professional lives and pointing out how great they are to someone else. Right now, it’s still a little uncomfortable for women to discuss their successes and a little uncomfortable for society to hear them do it. So, we’re trying to shift that and make it comfortable. We need both women and men really advocating and sponsoring individual women in the tech industry and highlighting when they’ve done something great.
On that note, I want to give a huge thank you to Alaina for taking the time to chat with us and sharing her insight. If you want to stay up-to-date on what Alaina and WWCode are up to, subscribe to Code Review here and stay tuned, Boston readers, for a WWCode event here at HubSpot HQ this summer!