If you’ve been following women in technology in the news for the past few years, the coverage paints a really depressing picture. Women are not going into technology careers. If they do join the industry, a good percentage drop out in mid-career. And then, of course, we hear their stories of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, some subtle, or some not so subtle. The good news is these issues are finally being acknowledged and slowly getting addressed. But enough doom and gloom.
I’d like to focus on the stories of some women who have made a move into technology careers later in life and are thriving in their new careers. While pointing out gender imbalance is important, we should also focus on the positives and highlight some of the great experiences of women in the field.
Meet Torrey Podmajersky!
Torrey Podmajersky is the founder of Twingio, an app she designed and coded after working as a home health aide, science teacher, and a few other jobs, including her current role as UX writer at Microsoft.
Torrey lives in Seattle, Washington where she writes about UX, unicorns, superheroes, and mad scientists from the makery she shares with her husband.
Yuliya Falkovich: Why did you leave your previous career? What needs weren’t being met?
Torrey Podmajersky: I taught prep-school science for nine years. During that time, I taught about a thousand students, finished my physics degree, and earned a masters’ degree in curriculum and instruction. I got better at it and made better curricular tools, but I still taught the same subjects. I wasn’t learning enough anymore. After a while, I realized the kids weren’t getting any older, but I was. When I suggested new extra-curricular activities for students, I was turned down. When I asked to take on the new courses we were going to offer, I was turned down again. When I said I needed new challenges, I was admonished: Don’t think you’re perfect. There are always ways to improve yourself. It was time to leave.
Yuliya Falkovich: And why did you choose to enter a career in technology later in your professional career?
Torrey Podmajersky: I’d been tech-adjacent most of my life, but I didn’t have what I considered to be technical skills. But my friends and family encouraged me, telling me that my soft skills of communication were valuable. What actually happened was banal: I had a friend who had a co-worker who needed someone to analyze and document some business processes at Microsoft. When that short contract ended, I found a position doing similar things with a Microsoft business manager. Then that manager quit, and I was inherited by another business manager.
Yuliya Falkovich: What was your experience like once you entered the technology industry?
Torrey Podmajersky: My next manager was the first person to ask me, What is the difference you want to make? She needed to restructure the team and didn’t need me filling my role. But instead of getting rid of me, she reinforced that I was a good hire, and good for the company—or at least, that I could be, if I could find a role that needed my talents. She recommended I get out of the cost-overhead work of business management and get into a product group.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I might not have made a move had I not been so forcefully encouraged. When I found my next challenge—writing UX for Xbox—I jumped in with both feet. Even as a relatively non-technical contributor, I had a vital role to play in making sure our tech is understandable and reasonable for our consumer customers. To be effective, I had to unlearn a skill that had served me well: deference. I didn’t know how much my body language, posture, and tone of voice were counting against me with the engineering teams!
It’s been six years since I made the leap into tech, and five since I moved from business into a technical role. Which means I might be in danger of getting bored again—not drastically, because I do work on different projects, and learn different things, but bored enough to want bigger, harder problems. For years, I had chewed on the idea of an app I wanted someone to make. With my UX experience, I suddenly realized that I could map out the flows and that I had a good idea of how it should look and feel. What I didn’t know was how to code it—and that’s where the most important realization comes in.
A couple of years ago, I realized that all the popular messages about how being over 40 is being “past your prime” are complete bullshit. I wasn’t good at much of anything when I was 20. I was good at physics when I was 25 but didn’t get enough sleep and made terrible relationship choices. I was good at teaching when I was 30 but not much else. After 40, I’m better at being myself than I’ve ever been. I have more skills. I’m better at those skills, and I’m better at learning new skills. I’m just getting good—and it’s quite possible I’ll have at least 20 years of the best years of my life ahead of me.
Yuliya Falkovich: What is one piece of advice that you would give to a woman that is about to embark on her career in technology?
Torrey Podmajersky: It seems like the ideal techie is supposed to be inspired, bulletproof and relentlessly optimistic. I hope women coming into tech take that permission to be inspiring and take big risks, especially if they come from careers that don’t allow those attitudes—like teaching, homemaking, nursing and other traditionally feminine roles. I also hope women fully bring the skills they already have, which, for women like me, include building robust supporting infrastructure and seeking out pitfalls before failure happens. If they are young women, I hope they don’t worry too much about the future, or whether they’ll use the investments they’ve already made. If they are older women, I hope they realize how much power and time they still possess.
Yuliya Falkovich is Advisor and CTO of Garnet News. She is a fan of unix and open source and deeply cares about diversity in tech. She is active in NY startup scene and women in tech organizations.