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Catalyst Girls in Tech Conference 2018: Top five takeaways, speakers and more

Patty McCord, Netflix's former chief talent officer and one of the speakers at Girls In Tech

Stuff senior product manager of experience Justine Kotkin has just returned from the Ideas & Innovation Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference in San Francisco. Now in its sixth year, The Catalyst Conference attracts a powerhouse audience from every corner of tech. Kotkin shares some thoughts on what she loved, what she learnt, and what Kiwi women in tech should do more of.

Five things I loved:

  1. Networking. It was a real vibe being part of such a credible yet intimate international event. Surrounded by hundreds of smart, interesting and curious people from all over the world reminded me how important it is to put yourself out there and network with others at every opportunity. I met many inspiring women on their own journeys in tech and left feeling empowered to do more and better in my own job.

  1. The calibre of speakers. The speaker lineup was mind-blowing; from Patty McCord (former chief talent officer at Netflix and author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility) and Parker Harris (co-founder and CTO of Salesforce) to Christina Kosmowski (head of customer success at Slack) and Nataly Kogan (founder & CEO of Happier).

  1. TED-style talks. The TEDx format saw speakers and topics tick over at speed and I clocked up more than 50 presentations over the two-day event, from topics as wide as ‘Humans at the Heart of Digital Transformation’ and ‘The Audacity of Being a Female TechStar’. Each day I left with my mind humming with ideas.

  1. The destination. San Francisco has earned its title as best city in the world for innovation. Being a product manager for NZ’s highest-traffic news website, every day we are catering to a hugely diverse population, and just being amongst this vibrant hub bursting with energy and diversity, constantly reminded me how important it is embody an inclusive culture and build diverse technology teams that represent our customers. It was incredible to be able to take notes on what leading global organisations are doing in the space, and I was even lucky enough to spend some time at the Salesforce and Adobe offices, catching up with their equality and diversity and inclusion teams - both companies are leaders in the culture space and it was impressive to hearing about their initiatives to tackle these key motivators for success.

  1. The power of women. Women in technology is something I’ve probably overlooked and underestimated before attending the Catalyst Conference. At Stuff, I am used to working in a team that’s female-dominated, with up to 70 percent of our product management roles filled by women; but I found it’s actually pretty unique and women are majorly under-represented in this industry. Hearing so many successful and influential female leaders’ stories gave me a new lease of life for my work – it showed me that I can influence the NZ tech space and also gave me a new appreciation for my own team’s efforts.

Five best speakers and why?

  1. Laura Messerschmitt, VP of customer experience and marketing at GoDaddy

GoDaddy is an internet domain registrar and web hosting company. When they first launched, they were famous (or infamous) for their advertising and the ‘GoDaddy Girl’, which was seen as offensive to women. It turns out that 60 percent of SMEs (GoDaddy’s primary customer base) were owned by women, so things had to change. As well as changing their in-market messages, they focused on pay parity and their hiring processes, and in one year they moved from 14 percent to 40 percent women in tech positions. This was a great example of a company realising that they were out of touch with their customers. To remain relevant, they looked at their company from the inside out and made the fundamental changes first.

2. Amy Bohutinsky, COO at Zillow Group

Amy spoke about ‘career planning’ and how it’s not always the right approach. Her unplanned career started when she was a successful reporter but not really enjoying it, and was offered a different opportunity overseas. Amy quoted some stats from a LinkedIn study that found participants who changed job functions three times boosted their career trajectory by three years, and those who had four different job functions throughout their career had nearly the same benefit as an MBA from a top business school. Not having a career plan can have its advantages - it can open up new opportunities and allow you to become successful in other ways you never even dreamed of.

3. Danielle Feinberg, director of photography and lighting at Pixar

Danielle spoke about how she was typically the only woman in her Uni classes yet she progressed purely out of passion and interest. She got into animation and landed a junior role at Pixar – her dream company – and advanced from there. Her biggest passion is lighting and I realised I’ve never considered the process of animated films and certainly had no idea that lighting played such a big part!

4. Roger Dickey, CEO of Gigster

Gigster is a fast growing tech-solutions company from San Fran. This talk stood out for being so different. Roger’s matter-of-fact style definitely rubbed some people in the audience the wrong way, but he spoke openly and honestly about what it takes to be a founder and that not everyone is cracked up to be one. It was really interesting to hear his views and some of the challenges facing Silicon Valley and the founder community.

5. Kira Wampler, CEO of Art.com

Kira’s topic was around change and being disruptive – an extremely important topic for me working in a transforming media company. For most businesses, especially those reliant on tech, change is a ‘when’ not an ‘if’. Kira put a lot of emphasis on truly understanding customers – to the point where they had actually followed them home and spent time observing their day-to-day behaviours. A point Kira made stuck with me: today, a company’s best customers are typically the most resistant to change –harness disruption with your adventurous customers.

Top five takeaways:

  1. “Great culture is more than just perks… It can’t be bought or forced but it can definitely be fostered.” – Carolyn Satenberg, head of HR at Eventbrite

Carolyn’s background is in law but she left the practice because of the culture. She reiterated that company values are very important and can evolve over time as things change, however they also need to be clearly communicated. They should also be used during the hiring process and when looking to acquire new businesses.

  1. “There is no compression algorithm for experience. You can’t learn certain lessons without going through the curve.” – Charlie Bell, sr. vice president, Amazon Web Services re-quoting Andy Jassy, Amazon Web Services CEO.

This really resonated with me as not only can it be applied to business and product development, but it’s a good way to think about your personal development – people get so caught up with planning their careers, striving for perfection and moving on to new companies after a couple of years. As long as you’re still learning and being challenged, why not make the most of it? You’re developing equity when you’re at company, so don’t throw it away - be patient and reap the rewards.

  1. “Authenticity is key to success.” – Girls in Tech, Catalyst Conference.

This was a point that echoed throughout nearly all of the presentations. Being authentic is what makes you unique, and by bringing that uniqueness to work, you’re bringing different opinions and thinking, which is what’s going to make your team (and hopefully your organisation) more successful.

  1. “Conformity is the bane of innovative thinking.” – Cynthia Stoddard, SVP and CIO at Adobe.

This stuck with me around how we go about encouraging diverse voices to speak up and be heard. Ideas are really cheap but code isn’t - it’s a matter of involving everyone to get as many ideas as possible and then evaluating based on what’s going to deliver the most value and solve customer problems. Then it’s about coming up with a way of doing this on an ongoing basis; resulting in sustainable innovation.

5. “Confidence is a journey, earn it.” – Girls in Tech, Catalyst Conference.

It’s a known fact that women are less likely to put themselves forward for opportunities where they don’t think they meet 100 percent of the criteria, so it’s no surprise that confidence was a hot topic. Confidence is something that a lot of people struggle with, especially in the fast-paced tech industry. Hearing many of the speakers talk about their own journey with confidence (such as Rathi Murthy, CTO Gap) was inspiring and also relatable. They reiterated that gaining confidence doesn’t happen overnight or by someone telling you to be confident, it comes with experience and making mistakes.

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