The Good, the Bad and the Underrepresented: My experience in interviewing for technical leadership roles
I am a woman in technology. And I believe that the more we recognise inequality in the workforce, the more we raise awareness against unconscious bias and the more we take action for equality, the better the technology industry (and the world!) would be. Because I believe that an equal world is an enabled world.
Today, I’d like to share with you a few comments that I received while job hunting for a technical leadership role in the past few years to raise awareness about some of the struggles that underrepresented people like myself faced in the tech industry.
You did very well at the interview but you aren’t a good cultural fit.
I interviewed for a small tech startup who had recently received funding and therefore, was growing their organisation. The startup was quite small, there were less than 10 developers. They wanted to bring in a Development Manager to report to their Head of Technology and help him grow the business. I thought I’d be a good fit for it, as I had experience in technical leadership roles, growing tech organisations and I wanted to go back to startup-land.
I met the Head of Technology, and we started talking about my current role and responsibilities, my past experience and so on for the first half of the interview. For the second half of the interview, it was more technical; about a system design and architecture, how I’d design a system and what considerations I’d take. To be honest, I didn’t think I did quite well because I wasn’t expecting a technical architecture interview to be part of the first interview.
I received a call from my recruiter two days later, and he said, “You did very well in the interview.” He continued, “The interviewer said your skills, experience and your approach to questions were very good. You also demonstrated technical strength but the culture fit would not work in the sometimes highly demanding, highly opinionated environment.” Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with that feedback. I needed to know what was about the cultural fit at startups and what I could do to improve that.
After asking multiple times, the recruiter said it was because the interviewer didn’t think I could handle one of their directors. I was a bit surprised, I didn’t even meet any director when I went for the interview. So I pressed for more information and the recruiter finally revealed that the director can be a bit aggressive and is known to make female employees cry. As a result, the Head of Technology didn’t feel comfortable putting me forward for an interview with the director for the final round. At first, I was angry. How could someone be so ruthless. But then as I calmed down, I was grateful. I didn’t want to be a part of a company where their leadership thought it was ok to act out and didn’t have respect for employees working for them. Nobody should cry at work, especially after their interaction with a director, without any valid reason.
How did you manage to get to where you are today? Do you have any tips?
I was interviewing for a Software Development Manager role at a large consultancy company. The interviewer, who is a Senior Manager for that division asked me the above question. At first, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. I told him that I started my career as a developer, moved up the ladder in a technical individual contributor path, as a senior developer, a tech lead, architect, etc and then moved to an engineering management role. My career history is anything but special. It’s a very common career path for most people in tech industry. When I said that, he smiled and said, no, you’re different, you’re a woman, how did you manage to get to where you’re today? Did you have to do anything special?
If I wasn’t too shocked by his question and was feeling witty, I’d have said, “By not working for narrow-minded and sexist people”. But I think I was too shocked to say anything.
Your leadership style is too soft.
This was during the final round of interview at a small agency. I had passed all the previous interviews and this was the last one so I was keen to do my best. The interviewer was one of the business owners. The interview was a leadership interview where I was asked about my approach to leadership via behavioural and situational interview questions. The ones that start with, “Tell me about a time when…”
I thought I did well at the interview. But I was wrong. I received an email that read, “We really like you but we are sorry you’re not successful for the role. We feel that your leadership style is too soft. There was another candidate who is more suitable for the role as his leadership style is more aligned with how we work.”
I cried as I read the email. Haha, I kid. I didn’t cry. By then, I was already accustomed to such comments in my career. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I told myself. And I moved on.
Who would look after your child when you’re at work?
This interview happened not too long after my maternity leave. I told the interviewer that the reason for a few months gap in my resume was due to my maternity leave. I was busy looking after a new born. He then raised his eyebrows and asked, “Who would look after your child when you’re at work?” I replied, “Oh my daughter goes to a daycare and she loves it.” My reply was immediately followed by another question, “What if we need you to come in to the office after hours if something goes wrong. As a manager, you’re expected to be on-call 24/7 for the codebases your team owns because we haven’t set up a proper on-call roster.”
I think I didn’t provide a satisfactory answer to that question because after that, the interview didn’t go very well and it was cut short. It was supposed to be an hour interview but I was out of the interview room after half an hour. I also didn’t get the job. Looking back, I consider myself lucky.
An equal world is an enabled world.
Just in case you are wondering, I experienced all of the above in the last decade. Yes, in this 21st century. However, not all companies in the tech industry are bad. There are some companies that are more progressive than others. I have also been fortunate enough to work for progressive companies and great leaders who create an inclusive environment for their people. Even though the current state of gender equality in tech industry is less than desirable, I am hopeful that increased awareness, collective action and shared ownership will help forge a gender equal world in the future.
If you’re one of the fortunate majority in the tech industry, my only ask of you is that please don’t make it the job of underrepresented folks to educate the rest of the world. Please do what you can, be proactive, educate yourself and take actions.
If you’re wondering what actions you could take, here are the top three:
- Educate yourself, your team and your organisation on unconscious bias. Watch this Ted Talk on How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias.
- Be an Ally for underrepresented folks by amplifying their voices and advocating for them. Here are some examples of what being an Ally at work really looks like.
- Champion for and implement (if you’re in a position to do so) systematic changes in hiring, reviewing performance, and promotion.
Here is to all of us taking actions proactively to truly make a difference for everyone in this world. Because an equal world is an enabled world.