Career Nav #40: Transitioning to Management From Being an Individual Contributor
What started your interest in technology?
My journey into technology started with engineering, but not computer engineering or computer science related technology. It was geomatics, maps and geographic information systems. I was doing some disaster management projects when I was still a GIS engineer. The backend of those GIS software happened to be coded in Python. I started extending functionalities in Python. Slowly I was exiting engineering in the traditional sense. I was entering web development. Then I was developing websites, cleaning data sets and preparing them. I got into digital marketing. It's what many people would call a portfolio career. Portfolio meaning you have a diverse set of interests. A lot of people in our field tend to specialize in a certain way. My track to discovering my career path is more of a T-shaped type, like a generalist style. Before I became a licensed engineer, I was writing press releases and feature articles to fund my engineering education. Those soft skills turned out to be very beneficial. It helped me build my communications skills in so many ways. It came in handy when I transitioned from being a technology contributor into a manager.
Tell us a little about your professional journey.
I'm very curious about multiple topics. What really magnetized me towards technology as a whole is that it always allows me to be creative in a technical way. In digital marketing, you're trying to grow markets and win consumers to the brand using technical methods. When you're doing data analytics, you're wrangling raw data from the database to build consumer and management insights. When you're managing an IT team, you're trying to see if the service delivery was done. It’s the all encompassing lens with which I see the work that was done. Instead of climbing a ladder, I had detours. But then there was also the life journey part of it. I have two sons, a six-year-old and a three-year-old. I also recently got a puppy too, who's also a baby. These career decisions that I made, they're more of lifestyle choices as well. When I was still an engineer and my husband and I weren't married yet, I was usually deployed as an engineer to rivers, barracks. I would live for two months away from my family. When I was getting married, I realized he's a lawyer and I'm being deployed to rivers for three months at a time. It was not suitable for building a family.
Many of the decisions that I made for my career were driven by love, cheesy as it may sound. Currently my current place of work allows a hybrid setup. I'm able to take care of my sons. I'm able to do meaningful work that resonates with me at a very deep level. I'm able to make choices around my life that at the same time gives me the intellectual stimulation that we need as women. We're not just mothers taking kids to school. We're also professionals. We have something to bring to the table. There's a satisfaction you get in being a professional where your own views, your professional contribution matters.
What was it like moving from the private sector to governments, then startups? What were some of the pros and cons of each?
In government and big organizations as a whole, agility is not something you expect. There are SOPs, protocols, processes, but then it's like the concept of a polymath. You have more brains for big wicked problems. If 150,000 people are in the same organization with the same goal, it's a very big change. That tiny memo you send out, that little piece of code you push on GitHub, it goes a very long way. I do a small thing in this big org with a big cost. The returns of that small thing are big, but the agility is not that high. If you work at a startup, if you work in a consultancy, you wear many hats. You're doing business dev, coding and sometimes writing the reports as well. It's not very unusual in a startup scenario where I'm in marketing, doing data analytics, business dev, or pitching to executives. The chain of command is not as high, but then there's flat structure.
When you are in the mid-level, I'm in my mid 30s, so I was able to work in a bunch of startups, able to consult, able to freelance, able to work in government. I started to look for a legacy. I started to look for work that I can do for 10 years. When my children grow up, I can say, this is why I'm not in your school play. I did this. This is what I was doing. I was trying to make the world a better place even though we're not physically together. I'm trying to find meaning, legacy, the ability to evolve with a certain big org and to actually have that moving power to move things along. It's not that startups are good, large orgs are bad, or big orgs have better perks and startups don't have enough benefits, those are the pros and cons, whatever they may be. It's more of what fits me, where am I on my journey? Where is the environment that would allow me to be the best version of myself, my professional self?
Throughout your career, you have worked with big data and you've also worked as a freelance writer and technical writer. How have you been able to balance those different skill sets?
You need to be complete with the incompleteness of things. There are things that have a start and an end, but then it never really ends. The concept is more of allotting time slots for areas instead of tasks. You think in terms of allocation. I don't multitask anymore, to be honest. I do more intentional focused work because one hour of intentional deep focus work is worth eight hours of normal work. You're able to accomplish so much more. Find three things that have the biggest impact. Do that first thing in the morning, and then the side tasks go in the afternoon. I usually have a shutdown day, which is Sunday. I, as much as possible, keep it sacred. I don't do anything. I do meditation practice in the morning. It centers me, keeps me even.
Can you tell us about a winning prototype in the global NASA Space App Challenge Hackathon?
There were five of us there. It was a team thing. I was working in CirroLytix at the time. It's a social impact company. I really admired the CTO, his name is Dominic Ligot. He encouraged me. There were 2000 submissions globally. And we were one of the six winners. We got the best user data. It was COVID, we weren't face to face. Three months later, we got shortlisted. Another three months later, we were listed as a global winner. We used diverse data sets. There is a synergy of having a diverse interaction. In the group, there was someone with a humanities background, there was one with a banking and finance background, I'm an engineer, there was one doing legal rights, if I'm not mistaken, and then there was one was a management engineer. There were basically no two people who had the same job. What we all had in common was a curiosity for data. That's it. Then we joined forces, and then we won after six months. The prototype was a traffic light system. We did a prototype that would predict if the economic state of that country is in danger or is it good or is it in a yellow or amber state or it needs attention based on the data coming in. It was a nowcaster of sorts, on the economic health of a country.
How was your experience moving from technical contributor to being a manager?
It's very challenging. Nobody trains us for this. Sometimes you would realize you sent this meaningful email that increased the salary of the team, and that's what you've done for the whole day. That's your one big thing. It's very jolting. If you're used to pushing 100 lines of code after an eight-hour shift, and then all of a sudden the work that you do is different. It's not less meaningful. It's just that from building the product yourself, you're now pushing the people building the product. You're now taking ownership. You're now in the front line when your team is under fire from other teams. It's about relationships and you have so many things to consider that you cannot predict. It’s important to all have the same goal no matter how different you are. Also, you can be paper qualified, but not a cultural fit. It takes a high level of self-awareness to recognize if it's not working.
Tell me how you were able to overcome your challenges.
The very first thing I do when I feel like I'm undergoing a very personal challenge, I try to understand the root cause. I cannot intellectualize it. One of the very first things that go when I am challenged is that my sense of safety is shaken. You try to find that psychological sense of safety again, that neutral. I can't be happy, I can be neutral. Try to get there. I go through whatever it is that I need to feel at that moment. I tell myself, “It's okay to have this challenge, and you're perfectly human for processing this challenge in a way that feels safe for you.” It's really more of self-care when I'm challenged.
What advice do you have for women looking to get into technology?
Don't do it just for the money. It has to be more than that. The moment you see the challenges you might see that the pay is not worth it. Be more driven by purpose than things that easily fade. That's the way you will have lasting power in your career in technology.
Share any final thoughts.
There's a whole movement of women who have gone before you going with you now, and will be going with you in the future. Whatever you learn, I hope you pay it forward because I got to where I am in my technology career because a lot of people help me. I hope that you also become that person for another woman in the future, given how hard it is to break the glass ceiling.
Helen Mary Labao Barrameda
Host: Faith Pueneh, Frontend Engineer/Technical Writer at CAD Consulting Limited
Produced by: JL Lewitin