Becoming a Next-Level Developer: a Ladies of Code Meetup

by Natalie Dixon

A few days before International Women’s Day, Tes hosted the Ladies of Code Meetup group for an evening of talks, networking and community. Three speakers gave advice on how to become a ‘next-level developer’: how to advance your career, become a ‘superhero’ and negotiate your salary effectively in the context of the gender pay gap. While the event was aimed at women, there was sound advice for engineers of any gender.

Crystal HirschornCondé Nast International, opened by talking about her trajectory from PA to web developer to Director of Engineering. Quite apart from proving that you can be a woman with purple hair and be the Director of anything, Crystal advised hard-nosed strategy tempered with an awareness that your success is proportional to your impact on those around you. 

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat,” she said, quoting from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. In other words, don’t leave your career to chance. Keep your LinkedIn and CV up-to-date, and have a personal development plan that you review every few months. You need to know where you want to be. Keep a record of your successes as evidence that you’re ready to step into larger shoes.

Women are often challenged on their technical skills. Make sure you’re honing your capabilities:

  • Aim to be a ‘T-shaped’ developer: have a broad base of knowledge, but also have an area of expertise. If you’re weak on the backend, look for opportunities to work on server-side code. (Try answering the question, what happens when you type a url into a browser? It’ll reveal what you don’t know).
  • Expose yourself to different stacks and languages.
  • Develop your technical writing skills.
  • Get good at software architecture. This is the main differentiator between junior and senior levels.
  • Take any opportunity to pair program.

Soft skills are also key to advancement, but only when they’re sincere. “Showing passion and curiosity for what someone else is doing is the quickest way to make a friend,” she said – a phrase to keep in mind at networking events.

  • Network! It’s a chance to market what you stand for.
  • Develop your assertiveness, public speaking and interview skills.
  • Gain appreciation for adjacent disciplines; senior level roles often involve wearing different hats.
  • Seek out any opportunities you can to mentor or teach others, whether face-to-face or by blogging. “To teach is to learn twice.”
  • Find a manager / employer who believes in you and who is invested in helping you reach your goals.
  • Make allies and friends who will advance your career. Your early network has a massive impact on your onward journey.

Throughout, Crystal emphasised the importance of teaching – and not just as a way of reinforcing your own knowledge. If you’ve been able to reach a privileged position, then help others up with you. 

Melinda Seckington, Technical Manager at FutureLearn and Miss Geeky blogger, continued this altruistic theme. Referring to how recruiters love to talk about “kick-ass” or “rockstar” developers (cue some eye-rolling!), Melinda explained how to become a “superhero” developer – an engineer who is not only technically gifted but who also operates with a strong moral code, and works to give back to their community. Drawing from Marvel superheroes for inspiration, Melinda had the following advice to share:

  • Iterate and reflect on yourself as well as your code. Do personal retrospectives every two weeks.
  • Practice active listening. Pay attention to your environment and the impact your words have on your team.
  • Embrace failure. Break things to learn. “If you’re not experiencing failure then you’re making a far worse mistake.”
  • We have a responsibility to give back. Share your knowledge freely.
  • Know your own value. Know what you’re good at and how you can help your team.
  • Don’t be arrogant. Never look down at any questions people have. There are no stupid questions!
  • Seek diversity in those around you; find fresh perspectives.

Kunjal Tanna speaking at Ladies of Code event

To round the evening off, Kunjal Tanna, experienced cyber-security recruiter, delivered an eye-opening, sobering talk on salary negotiation – sobering because of how few women succeed at it. From the job offer (when a woman is more likely to accept the figure offered and a man is more likely to push upwards in a given range) to any subsequent promotions or roles (in Kunjal’s example scenario a man asked for a pay rise four times and a woman only once in the same period 1), women repeatedly fail to ask for the salaries of their male colleagues. Why?

Well, it’s selfish, right? And you might ruin your reputation.

Kunjal had a couple of arguments to offer. One is to value ourselves and our skills, and the other is to negotiate for others if not for yourself. If not for the benefit to your children, partner or elderly parents, then think about your female colleagues as a whole – the gender pay gap is not simply inflicted on us; it’s something we help create.

Unfortunately, upbringing and cultural expectations may lead us to unhelpful negotiation styles: people-pleasing (“how grateful I am someone wants to employ me!”) or confrontation (“my way or the highway”). Kunjal recommended drawing a firm line between facts and emotions, and to follow these steps:

  1. Prepare. Research the value of your skills (and account for the gender pay gap). Your employer will have done the same. Work out what figures are acceptable to you and what’s no-go. 
  2. Initiate the conversation. Don’t apologise, but thank them for their time. Maintain eye contact and check your body language.
  3. Whoever says the first number anchors the subsequent negotiation – so try to get in first. Ask for a little bit more than you actually want so that you can negotiate down without devaluing yourself.
  4. Be prepared for no the first time. Find out why. Ask how they’ve come to their decision. Have different proposals in mind (it might be possible to negotiate for additional flexibility or training, for example).
  5. Be prepared to say no as well, and to walk away.
  6. Make sure anything agreed is formalised.

Despite an awareness of how far there is to go (the Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report puts us at over 200 years away from true equality), the feel of the evening was one of optimism and inspiration. The tech industry has trail-blazed changes in how, where and when work happens; the time is ripe to redefine how women progress in a male-dominated industry. Sharing knowledge and supporting others doesn’t only grow our own careers. It creates a blueprint for future women to follow, and helps build the environment of openness and curiosity essential to good engineering.

  1. Comparable research findings referenced here and here. [return]