While the “Women in Tech” social event moves online, we caught up with our esteemed panellists and Cayman’s leading women in tech via Zoom to learn more about what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated industry, how we can influence more women to become interested in tech, and what’s next for the industry as a whole.
Q1: Tell us a bit about what first attracted you to tech. Did you or do you presently have any role models in the industry?
Alexandra: I think for me, that would be my family. One grandmother was an engineer, my other grandmother was a chemist, and my mother was a physicist. As a small child, I spent a lot of time in the physics lab with my mother, looking at all the new computers. My mom started educating me in maths early. I think she started explaining probability theory to me when I was less than 10 years old. I went to a high school that was specialising in physics and mathematics, and after that, I went to the mathematical faculty and graduated with a master’s in software engineering.
Daria: I stumbled into it by accident. I was at university and the first year, I was taking some random classes and I saw Computer Science 101. I thought it was a typing class and I thought “computers are really taking off; I should learn how to type.” So, I took the class and I had no idea what I was doing in it, but I loved it. It’s not quite math, you do some writing, some code and then the computer does what you want. I enjoyed that and the logic and order of it, and I continued with that program.
Linh: In the early years of my career, my passion was mathematics and science. I had a chance to work with many leaders coming from different industries, and my task was to solve one of the major problems that the company was facing. Knowing the mathematical solution isn’t enough. To apply the solution, I needed to use the proper technologies and the right programming languages.
Later, I got into more complex programming languages and platforms to bring my proof of concept into realisation. As the problems that my clients faced continued to evolve, it required advanced technologies to solve the issues. For most of my career, I was in Montreal, Canada and one of the role models I have is Isabelle Dessureault. She is not in tech, but she has a lot of leadership skills I admire.
Polly: My father was an engineer, my grandfather is an engineer, and I’m pretty sure his father was an engineer. I just loved engineering from an early age and couldn’t wait to help change the oil in a car. I’m from Detroit, so everybody is a do-it-yourself engineer. I think my love of cars and my love of engineering came from the men in the family and it was sort of predestined that I would go into that automotive industry.
My dad was the real role model. Having three daughters, long before anyone had coined the term ‘gender equality’, he started at a young age telling us we can be anything we wanted. He took us to Cape Canaveral to see the NASA space stations and had us dive into all technology from a very early age. So, I think that not realising that there was any difference between boys and girls loving science, that probably is what started it along with my Motown roots.
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were probably some of my early role models as well. Modern-day, I have a lot of women who I follow in technology, like my dear friend Laila Robak, who I’ve done some keynote speaking with and was just named one of the top women to watch in technology.
(Left to right) Polly Pickering, Daria Kawecka, Linh Lan Nguyen, Alexandra Simonova.
Q2: How has your unique background prepared you for success in the industry?
Daria: I have always been a rebellious person when I was young. I also kind of felt I had different lives when I was younger and not as many connections and I think because of that I had a thicker skin when I got into the program and I was also not swayed by being pushed away. I like what I do so I persevered.
Polly: I have my bachelor’s in business and then I was in mechanical engineering. But, one of the part-time jobs at my university, I was working in a medical industry facility that was doing innovative inventions in medical equipment and I also worked in the computer lab on the campus. A lot of women were taking computer coding with me and that data entry punch card, Fortran and Cobol, C+ or C was just coming in as a language. That was still regarded as a great industry for women to go into because if it had a keyboard attached, people assumed it would be something that women would be doing.
So, it was having the love of science that led me to do a minor in computer engineering. Being in that industry where women were still being led towards a bit of understanding computer language and data management meant that I could shift gears from automotive engineering into computer engineering.
Linh: I have a bachelor’s in mathematics and statistics, and nobody valued it in the past. In the last two years, the AI industry has boomed. Everyone is talking about it, so now my bachelor’s in mathematics and statistics has turned into gold compared to 15 years ago. AI involves a lot of mathematics and statistics.
I also would say my personality. I’m curious. Being curious is a very important factor as well. The tech industry and the technology, it changes every week, every month. So, being curious is a way to adapt to new environments and constant changes. That is one of the keys to success. I’m continuously learning. Being in tech, you never stop learning. We are always required to learn new things because in the next three months there will be a new programming language that’s coming out, a new algorithm, and we need to catch up with the market. Technology and science are my passion. So, when it’s your passion, it doesn’t feel like working.
Alexandra: I started as a software engineer and then started leading and managing the team of software engineers. When I was studying computer science, we had different paths that you could choose, and I chose a lot of classes in IT project management and IT psychology. That prepared me for the management career in IT. I was also working full-time while at university.
By the time I graduated, I was leading my own company and producing mobile development platforms and mobile distribution platforms. Then I joined Deloitte in the advisor capacity, assisting and then leading our digital and cyber practices. One thing to mention is a technology background doesn’t just directly prepare you in a lot of ways for the career; a lot of it is about the mindset. It’s not as much about the practical ability to be able code that you can pick up, but it is about having the fundamental knowledge that is important.
Q3: Why do you think women are still the minority in technology?
Daria: There are multiple levels to it. When I went to university, it was strongly overtaken by men early on. So, I would see women dropping out of the classes, dropping like flies. So, after a while, it went to that 10% ratio. I don’t think it’s a particularly welcoming industry for women, in that particular level. I see women doing tech things but it’s more the business analysis and they’re more accepted there or in those kinds of roles. It’s the hardcore tech that’s just been reserved for men and there’s a bit of a ‘brogrammer’ culture.
Polly: I think it comes down to the gender equality issue. I think it’s just not enough in early education. They didn’t have those strong role models like I did, men who actually support young girls. A lot of women in the area I grew up all followed Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and nobody ever said it’s because they were men. It was just your role models were inventors. So, I think women are still the minority because women are led towards less scientific or mathematical curriculums. I think that it’s an early education issue and I think women need to be encouraged to be inspired with technology earlier on.
Q4: What obstacles or challenges have you had to overcome in your field?
Linh: I face discrimination and sexism. Isolation and lack of support. Some men presumed that my skills are inferior to theirs because I’m a woman. They don’t keep me in the loop because I’m not a part of their boys’ club. However, they feel terrified by me once I showed my deliveries. Thanks to my network that I’ve accumulated throughout my career and by continuing to take classes from university, I’ve had a chance to meet many experts in the Machine Learning and AI field. Some of them became my tutors, mentors, and business partners.
Polly: Early on, it was not just being a woman but working for the Japanese who had a different approach to decision making. Everything was consensus decision making, whereas a lot of inventors and technologists are very independent thinkers. So, I think that was challenging, learning how to work in committees but also the female bias. Even today, in our industry, we find we have to strive to get the next certification. Because without it, we don’t have the same level of automatic respect amongst our male peers. I think that gender bias is difficult, so we have to do a bit more with continuing education. We have to be always evolving just to stay on the level playing field and to excel. I think there’s a lot more effort needed for women to be seen as equal in our industry.
Q5: What steps do you think should be taken to attract more women to tech?
Daria: Make it a more welcoming place for women and not instantly assuming the woman in the office is there to take notes or there to fill some quot. Just give them the respect that they deserve because you know how much more it took for women to be in that room. It’s always the struggle of privilege. When you’re privileged, you don’t realise how easy it is for you to get certain things or the treatment of you is different from others. It’s just trying to open your mind to that, and if you had any hardships at some point, just realise that that could be what it’s like for others.
Alexandra: I think it should start from school. Showing girls early on in school, and especially when they start choosing their careers, that technology is a very diverse field and that there is a lot of opportunities for them there. As technology develops, pretty much every interest can be related to technology. There are a lot of fields that are crossed between humanities and technology now. I also believe education should be free of gender stereotypes. Having classes that are gender-balanced and activities that are gender-balanced.
Q6: What do you think men in tech should do to support women in the industry?
Polly: I think men should be doing more mentor programs. There were a few men in my Cayman career, like my former CEO Jim Knapp, who would not only embrace women in his own company but would be generally willing to help people get ahead. So, I think encouraging the existing leaders to take on that role, to challenge them to build women up with them into that spotlight.
When I was working with the Japanese company, there was one particular mentor who used to assist me in how to get through some of the gender bias and used to give me pointers. I think that level of mentorship is one of the first things that men can do and realise that their light will shine brighter if they have helped women around them.
Alexandra: For men in the industry, I would say just get in there and support. I think a lot of men could support women in technology by having more diverse teams and promote the benefits of diversity in the workplace.
Q7: It can be said that education on gender equality should begin at an early age. What do you think we should be teaching our youth, especially young boys?
Daria: It’s incredibly tricky. I have a 5-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl, and we very much try to not push the stereotypes onto them, but you constantly see it. There have been studies done which show women are very much succeeding at academics in comparison to men. So, it is not a capability thing, it’s a societal thing. I think we need to try harder and have more role models for the kids to look up to. I think it’s important to try to balance out gender representation in the media from early on and there’s no reason for there to be this one-dimensional girl character to three boy characters. It’s even before education, it’s mainstream culture.
Q8: What’s the most exciting part of working in tech?
Alexandra: I think it’s the change that we see in different technologies. For instance, blockchain that we had emerge a few years ago. That was quite new technology but the way you adapt it is based on the same fundamental ideas that we saw with the adaptation of the internet and the adaptation of mobile technologies. It’s just watching those new technologies emerge and watching them being adapted that is quite interesting to me.
Polly: I would have to say results. The most exciting part is when you see it all work. This happens to me on almost a weekly basis where I have someone call me up and say “XYZ software saved my bacon,” or, “you said it was going to do all these things but wow we’ve seen the results in productivity.” That’s the other thing in my IT technology world. People think that IT is just for computers, they don’t take it out into the other departments or branches of their business. So, for me, it’s seeing the results of when it is part of an ecosystem. It’s seeing the results, seeing people get it and seeing it save them when they needed it to.
Q9: What is the most interesting project or innovation you have worked on?
Linh: There are so many interesting projects that I’ve worked on in the past and it’s hard to pick one. When I was in the real estate industry, my team and I produced a market analysis from start to end of the project. For example, recommending where to buy land, how many units to build and lifestyle and budget to target future demands in the next 2 to 5 and 10 years. We worked with banking and census data, and prism5 to learn about customers’ lifestyles.
When I was working in the pension industry, I applied machine earning to optimise the best portfolio combination by applying Frontier Portfolio Optimisation and Monte Carlo Simulation. It’s like throwing a dice more than a million times and then selecting the best outcome. Now with online advertising, I am using word2vector and BERT algorithm from Google. I have created a deep learning model to classify 1B+ searches into 10 meaningful topics on an ad-hoc basis.
Polly: This is tough. I would say doing the disaster recovery back in 2000 was very cool. When Ivan hit, it was very exciting for me to see dozens of businesses say, “Wow, you really saved us and we’re still in business because we took your advice.” I picked up the piece of my business that was left at the time, which were continuity and recovery, and this past March was the 15th anniversary.
I’ve also done a cool project with Boeing and Sea Launch, helping people put the technology in place to launch rockets into the sky and people could watch satellites from Christmas Island, which was pretty cool. But I think the most personal one was seeing the positive results of watching people continue their businesses after Ivan.
Q10: What is one of the greatest transformations in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?
Alexandra: Looking back, I would say cloud technologies and AI would probably the big ones that we are still seeing development of, and in recent years, blockchain.
Linh: The rebirth of AI. In the past few years, the evolution of Big Data and powerful computer systems has enabled complex AI algorithms to perform calculations. AI used to be computationally expensive and unpractical for most organizations, but today it’s available for free through Google Colab and Anaconda.
Polly Pickering, a Steering Committee member at Digital Cayman
Q11: What do you think is next in tech? What are you watching in the industry right now?
Daria: I am excited about Big Data and AI combined. It’s the analysis, the capability that we now have because of the resources we now have because everything’s so much faster. Space is cheap and processing power is cheap, and everything’s moved to the cloud so you can leverage large companies’ infrastructures like Microsoft or Amazon to do some amazing things if you have the idea to do those things. The information and the patterns that are going to be found from that and will drive AI will be cool to see.
Alexandra: If I look forward to maybe 10 years, there are three areas: ambient experience, exponential intelligence and quantum. Ambient experience looks at digital identities, 5G and digital ways to change the way people behave and go through life. What we normally call exponential intelligence, that powers into superintelligence and superintelligence computers for general purposes such as deep learning, semantic computing, things that help with the intelligence perspective.
Quantum has technically been there since 1985, but it should really start taking off in the next 10, 20 years. That’s quantum computing, quantum cryptography and a lot of different ways of quantum communication. I think that could be one of the big disrupters. Especially from the security side. A lot of algorithms that we have now in security may need to be revisited in light of quantum.
Q12: How different do you think the world would be with more women in tech?
Linh: Women are still underrepresented in the tech industry, which is projected to contribute to the shortage of tech workers in the future. With more women’s voices in tech, this adds new and unique perspectives to products and services. Teams with an equal number of men and women are more likely to experiment, be creative and fulfil tasks. 85% of overall consumer spending is controlled by women. Women account for over $7 trillion of U.S. consumer spending. Hence, increasing diversity in tech would affect future buying trends positively.
Q13: How does it feel to be one of the leading women in tech in Cayman?
Polly: I think it’s humbling. I think it’s a struggle for women to get to that level at the podium but it’s important. In Cayman particularly, with the women on this panel, there’s a certain element we all share and that is a level of trust and endurance. We’re not people who are moving jobs a lot. You see a lot of us who are dedicated to a particular theory, company or arena in technology. I’m humbled but I’m comforted to be around a lot of other women. My role models today are people who are on my LinkedIn network and I think there’s terrific comradery. It’s a proud feeling but at the same time, I wish there was more of us.
Alexandra: Cayman is a very small but very diverse environment. I feel very fortunate to be here and have the opportunity to interact with other professionals and other women in tech here, seeing the different backgrounds and point of views when it comes to technology. Hopefully, we can all be role models for the next generation, especially the next generation of Caymanians and we can have more girls in technology in the future.
Q14: Lastly, what would be your message to women trying to get into technology?
Daria: Technology is everywhere, it’s in everything. So, the more knowledgeable you are in the field, the better you are prepared for what’s coming in the future. It’s necessary for everyone to increase their tech knowledge at this point. If you have an understanding of aspects of technology, it just starts coming together and you can draw similarities between what’s happening in our field to your own. So, I would just say get into it. Learn bits and pieces of it because anything will help you.
Linh: Don’t stop following your passion because of fear, women are capable of anything. You have the freedom to become whatever you desire, whatever you love. Solve the world’s problems. If 50% of those in tech are women, we’ll come up with a better solution for the industry with a female’s perspective.
Polly: Do it. I think that’s where it gets a bit tricky, how to inspire women in real life. Life is a series of building blocks and is constantly changing. You just have to find something to do and just to do it. I would even go back to young girls and say pick up anything technical. Putting together Legos and other simple physical engineering leads to people having the right mindset to get into technical engineering.
Alexandra: Follow the things you enjoy doing and stay curious. There are a lot of technologies that are going to evolve and change. Having that natural curiosity and applying that understanding of the fundamentals of technology, and the new trends, I think would be the key.
To keep reading about women in tech and how CEC’s has recently championed female tech leaders we invite you to read - Cayman Enterprise City is Championing Women in Technology.