Women in Technology

Women in Technology

by Nishadi Ranasinghe April 23, 2020

As published in ‘Women Leading: More. Now’

Women in Technology: You don’t have to be Technical, Just Curious!

Today, in some of the largest technology companies in the world, the population of women in senior leadership positions is on average less than 30% ((Richter, 2020[1]) Why? Is it because women are less able, or less educated? It can’t be that right? This year the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute reported that there been an increase in female participation in higher education (Hewitt, 2020[2]) There is however a distinct lack of female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). But should all of that matter? Why can’t any confident, capable woman use their natural talents and work in technology? What’s stopping them?

I’m not a technologist, I can’t code or even read code. Bar pulling apart a few toys when I was younger and putting them back together, I’ve never really given much thought to how things work. Soyou might ask how I found myself as ‘Head of Technology Consulting’ for a boutique consulting firm in Singapore. Well, it’s probably more to do with curiosity. I like being able to understand what people are saying if I find myself in a technical meeting, and it’s always a thrill when you whip out a word or a phrase someone would never expect you to say. Let me explain.

It’s 8.30am on a Wednesday morning in Singapore. I’m in a stand-up meeting, for the largest technology transformation project in the largest bank in Asia. There are over 20 people in the room, making what should be a 10-15 minute meeting, last in excess of 30 minutes. For those not familiar for this type of meeting, they are meant to be quick daily meetings where everyone updates on their part of the project. They usually have around 5-6 people in them. Needless to say, this particular project had taken the concept of ‘team meeting’ to a new level.

I’ve all but tuned out, when the technology team pipe up for their update. ‘We’re commencing testing on the canonical messaging’. The what? I think, ‘Canonical messaging’. What on the planet is that? ‘Canonical’, what a great word. Can-o-nick-cal. I love it! I have to know what it means!

Post the meeting, I grab the senior solution architect. He’s a guy who I often think looks down on me for the simple questions I ask.But I love this new word, and I now have set myself the mission of being able to use it in a sentence before the end of the week!

I started my career as an operations analyst at a data solutions company. What do you think of when you imagine data solutions developers? Slightly unkempt, introverted people who drink their lunch to make sure they have more time in front of their computers? Well, you’d be right. Before long I was working with system developers giving them business requirements to build a technology solution. The technologists in the company were people who banked on their intelligence. They probably became so good at what they do because as youngsters, they found it easier to form relationships with their PCs, orwould get more satisfaction out of solving a technical puzzle than they did forming human connections. I had no judgement on that, I know what it’s like to feel slightly different from what’s considered ‘normal’. Don’t we all? I found it fun to be nice and friendly to them.

My aim was to show them that I didn’t really care what they smelled or looked like, as long as they could build me what I wanted. I laughed and joked with them, I asked about their lives. I built with them what we call ‘rapport’. In turn, when I asked the stupidest questions, ‘what’s a dropdown?’, ‘what’s a radio button?’, ‘what’s an API?’, they sat and they told me. One of them even taught me SQL database querying, something I used for all of 2 years of my life and then never again. What I found was, my honesty in what I didn’t know, actually helped people help me.

What I also found was technologyat its heart, is quite logical.It has to be. The concepts are based on 0’s and 1’s being configured in a number of different ways.  It doesn’t have feelings, or a background, or a million different unquantifiable variables or outcomes. Itjust is what it is, a bunch of rules and results. Take for example your Netflix page which shows you ‘Because you watched’. For some of us, that was Netflix climbing into our brains and reading our minds. No, it’s rules and stats. Every movie file is tagged with categories: ‘romantic comedy’, ‘thriller’, ‘sci-fi’. Then, as a user every time you click on a movie the system tracks which category that was. So for me, who loves a Friday night in with an Indian takeaway and a rom-com, all those movies come to the top of my ‘Because you watched’ list. It buggers up a bit when my parents jump on our shared account and I suddenly start seeing documentaries about the royal family, but that’s by the by. The above explanation is a demonstration of breaking down something into very easy concepts that people can understand.

I’ve found being able to relate to the struggles that people have in understanding technology, has given me an excuse to try and find simple ways of explaining it. Afterall if people can’t understand what you are saying, you may as well be talking to a brick wall.

I don’t code, but I understand it. It’s like building. It’s saying, here are my building blocks, here’s what they need to look like and here are the rules to make it so.

From what I’ve experienced, it’s the lack of confidence in going into a male dominated industry and feeling like they couldn’t keep up with the intelligence required, that stop women from taking the plunge into technology companies. Let me let you in on a little secret though. No one knows anything until someone explains it. In meetings they pretend, or worse, they think they understandand never really do. Even the best technologists in the world, read and learn and ask questions. Woman or man, the key here is that with the will to learn, leaving ego at the door and the heart to be kind, you can achieve anything.

As a woman, something I’ve had to work on pushing through is the next feeling which is, ‘I cant look thick in front of all these men’, but here’s the thing, if people think you are dumb for asking dumb questions I try and take my lead from Forrest Gump: ‘Stupid is, as stupid does’.

Incidentally, by 11am on that Wednesday in Singapore after asking a number of eye wateringly simple questions, ‘but why is that so important?’ and ‘why is that difficult?’, I found out that a canonical message is nothing but a standard message format. It means that within large organisations where there are many different databases you need one approved source (a golden source) where all the data is categorised (exists in specific data domains) and can be sent down a pipe to other systemsin a useful way (integrated with systems). Simples! My sentence sounded like this: ‘In order to accept an attribute into the golden source, we have to ensure that we can structure the data into the domains defined on the canonical message for system integration’.

Get in!

I’m not technical, I’m not extraordinary, I didn’t get A’s at school or finish top of my class at university. I studied economics and politics. I like people, and I’m interested in different things. It’s likely you are exactly the same in some ways. So never think you can’t do something, just have a go, be curious and see what happens.

Full book available for purchase on Amazon on Kindle and Paperback: Women Leading. More. Now


[1]Richter, F., 2020. Infographic: GAFAM: Women Still Underrepresented In Tech. [online] Statista Infographics. Available at: <https://www.statista.com/chart/4467/female-employees-at-tech-companies/> [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[2]Hewitt, R., 2020. Mind The Gap: Gender Differences In Higher Education – HEPI. [online] HEPI. Available at: <https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/03/07/mind-the-gap-gender-differences-in-higher-education/> [Accessed 5 May 2020].

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