Women in Tech: Gayle Laakmann McDowell excels beyond the stereotypes

After stints as a software engineer at Google, Microsoft and Apple, McDowell was bored working for large companies. So she started CareerCup.com,
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

Gayle Laakmann McDowell CareerCup.com Founder and CEO

Gayle Laakmann McDowell CareerCup.com Founder and CEO

Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the founder and CEO of CareerCup.com, which offers technical interview preparation for software engineers, and is the author of “The Google Resume” and "Cracking the Coding Interview." She has previously worked as software engineer at Microsoft, Google, and Apple, holds a bachelor's and master's in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Wharton School.

Summarize your experience and what you do now. Please give a brief summary of your current role.

I've worked as a software engineer at Google, Microsoft, and Apple. I eventually got bored of working for large companies, and decided to try something more entrepreneurial. I joined a small VC-funded start-up as the VP of Engineering, and then got an MBA from the Wharton School. I also launched my own business, CareerCup.com, which helps people prepare for interviews at a tech companies. As Founder / CEO, my responsibilities range from coding the website / forum, to business development, to marketing and advertising.

Do you think that being a statistical minority in the Tech world has given you that extra push that you needed to become a top performer in your field?

Being a minority has neither encouraged me nor discouraged me. A long time ago, someone told me something that's stuck with me ever since: "Everyone will be judged for something." And it's so true. Women might be assumed to be less technical, but technical men are often assumed to have poor communication skills. Obviously, some people face more "-isms" than others, but everyone will need to push past some stereotyping in order to achieve what they want.

How did you choose the technical field from all other possibilities that were presented to you?

I had always been good at math and science, so something more quantitative was a natural fit for me. Software development in particular stood out because it allowed me to create rather than just analyze and understand what was already there. Programming to me was like a grown-up version of legos - except that you could do much cooler stuff.

Do you think that the tech field provides the opportunity for you to think more creatively or to innovate more freely than other fields?

Absolutely! People in the tech field are in an amazing place right now. Technology is rapidly evolving, and there are no signs of it slowing down soon. And, additionally, technology is the backbone of so much of the world right now and is making an enormous impact on it. It's incredible to be part of this. It opens up for so much innovation and creativity because, frankly, no one knows what the "right" answers are. Everyone has the chance to be exceptional.

If you were asked to mentor a young woman interested in a tech career, how would advise her?

She's made a fantastic decision in considering technology. It's an amazing time to be in this field and, frankly, the world needs more technologists (and especially more female techies).

She should be aware of two things though.

First, she should know that she's going to face some stereotyping - that's just how it is - but there are good things about being a woman in technology as well. There are a lot of people who will go out of their way to help women, which can open doors for you. Additionally, since there aren't many women, people are more likely to remember you. You don't blend in, and that can make it much easier to build a strong network.

Second, she should know that the best way to get a great education is to blend formal learning (courses, etc) with independent learning (projects, etc). Classes will give you the foundation of knowledge; without them, you may not know what you don't know. But learning on your own through projects will reinforce your skills and will show you how things happen in the world. Doing just one type of learning will limit you; do both.

Outside of technical skills, what other skills are important to be successful in technology?

I am a big believer in having strong communication skills - written and verbal - in addition to technical skills. Communication skills will set you apart from the pack.

Learn how to write well. This does not mean that you need to be able to beautiful, eloquent prose; in fact, that is often a hindrance. Writing well just means being able to communicate your point clearly and concisely.

Verbal communication skills, and interpersonal skills in general, will help you build a strong network. It will also enable you to effectively advocate on behalf of yourself, your team, or your company.

You've mentioned the value of a network several times. Why do you feel this is so important, and what advice would you give for building a good network?

Contrary to popular belief, most people do not get jobs through their friends. They get jobs through their friends of friends. Of course, these friends of friends are only reachable if you have a good network to start with.

A good network is filled with people who (1) are willing to help you and (2) are able to help you.

The first part of this, having people who are willing to help you, means that you need to be willing to help others too. People are likely to return the favor.

The second part of this, having people who are able to help you, means that you should be open to everyone you meet - even if you don't see immediately how they might be helpful. A diverse network is a powerful one.

So get out there, and start networking. Focus on helping the people you meet and you'll build your way to a very powerful network.

See Also:

Women in Tech: Cynthia Rubio's proudest achievement

Women in Tech: Manuela Hutter sees endless possibilities

Women in Tech: Progress still to be made (photos)

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