South Florida is home to a growing tech scene, and as more tech companies plant roots here, diversifying workforces continues to be a concern for many. I asked South Florida technology leaders to share their insight about how they found themselves in the tech space, current challenges facing women in tech and their advice for young women when considering jumping into a high-tech career.

Choosing a career in tech

Just because you didn’t gain an education specifically in tech, doesn’t mean it’s too late to jump into the tech space. In fact, many companies have found that it’s often easier to train a specialist to code than it is to train a programmer on a specific industry. Software companies like Modernizing Medicine actually hire doctors and train them in technology in order to design and build their EMR system. Who better to help design a health record system used by doctors than doctors themselves?

Stephanie Sylvestre, Chief Programs Officer/Chief Information Officer at The Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County, started her education in International Relations, but found she was able to use that knowledge to enter the tech space. “Back in the late 1990s when I got started, there was flexibility in knowledge of technology so I decided to give it a try,” she said. “I found two things – one it’s a high paying industry and two, I could transfer my education in international relations to analysis of computer systems. I was able to parlay that into a highly successful IT career. In 1995, I entered the IT vector without any experience, over 20 years later, I am CIO of a $100 million company because I kept learning and was okay with asking for help. Of course, being a great team player and having humility went a long way.”

Influence from parents and mentors can also be instrumental in encouraging young women to consider a tech field. For Patti Barney, Vice President of Information Technology at Broward College, it was her grandfather that motivated her into the tech space. “My grandfather was an adjunct instructor in the technology field,” she said. “He projected high demand and high wages for female careers in technology (back in the early 1980’s – great insight!) I also saw it as an opportunity to learn many new things, innovation stems from ideas and creativity which was one of my strengths plus I preferred a challenge over “routine” every day of the week.”

Deborah Vazquez, CEO of IT Staffing Firm PROTECH, believes that it’s important in any career to have a plan and to leverage your skills to attain that goal. “I entered the tech field begging my way into a programming role after working as an assistant in an accounting department of a theatrical organization. I had purposely looked for a job where I could use the accounting skills I had gained, but where the opportunity existed to transition into a tech role.”

The challenges facing women in tech

With men comprising a high percentage of those in the tech space, it can be difficult as a women trying to compete. Even tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Twitter have extremely low numbers of women in their tech roles. In 2015, women in tech roles at these companies were only 16.6 percent at Microsoft, 10 percent at Twitter and 17 percent at Google. When you look at the numbers in executive leadership roles (not just in tech), only 23 percent of Microsoft’s leadership roles are filled by women, 21 percent at Twitter and 21 percent at Google.

Along with working in a space so underrepresented, many also report both harassment from their male counterparts and a general loneliness in often being the only women in a team.

Barney admits that women in technology can sometimes feel out of place. “Every conference and learning engagement I was surrounded by men. They were very much about the technology, I was very much about the business,” she said. “I always found ways to learn from them, but apply it to the actual business value our institution would gain from it. At times you will feel inferior, out of place and perhaps weaker… find a way to fit in! I used my background in athletics and sports to join conversations.”

However, not every woman pursuing a career in tech faces difficulties. Sylvestre says that although she didn’t face opposition or challenge, it was because she came to work willing to learn. “I left my ego at home so I was open to ask for help and I leveraged my training as an international relationist to navigate team politics,” she added. “It’s about showing up and delivering consistently. That will afford you privileges that others might not be afforded.”

For Vazquez, being a woman in tech can be a tremendous advantage. “I later worked my way up the ladder at a global software company and transitioned into executive management,” she said. “As the only female Sr. VP, I was the only woman around the board room table. I never felt being the sole female was an issue. I always felt the highest level of respect from my peers and superiors. And in fact being the token woman sometimes even felt as an advantage because I brought unique perspective from that of my male counterparts which they seemed to appreciate.”

Advice to young women considering tech

The best way to shrink the women tech talent gap is to encourage more young women to consider technology careers. Sylvestre advises young women to be bold and not let anyone intimidate you. “Be okay with not knowing and okay with having to ask for help and spending a lot of personal time learning and refining your skills. Always volunteer for projects even those you might not have a knowledge set in – it’s an opportunity to learn and diversify your skill sets,” she said.

Barney advises young women to “be prepared for an exciting job that comes with challenges in such a highly dynamic environment. Be flexible and courageous. Set your goals and steer the course – Be a risk-taker only if you have a thorough understanding of how to mitigate the risk. Don’t embark on a new technology because someone else is doing it – Have a PLAN! Surround yourself with experts that know the technology and have a passion for the institutional mission.”

Vazquez thinks that it’s less about gender and more about education, self-confidence and hard work. “My advice to young women is to seek out a mentor that understands your goals, appreciates your talents and is willing to help you succeed. This combined with a good attitude and tenacity has been the right formula for me. After many years in the software industry and a lot of domestic and overseas travel which was wearing on me, I pursued my entrepreneurial passion and founded PROTECH. This allowed me to once again do something that maximized technical and business skills in the software business to create unique value for our clients. PROTECH will turn 16 years old next month, and I’m proud of the reputation and quality brand my team and I have built over the years. And much of what we do involves career coaching which we enjoy very much.”

Although women are still lagging in numbers in the tech space, it’s important for girls and young women to know they have the opportunity to change the tech scene and become positive influencers. Want to jump into the tech space and learn to code for free? Here’s a great list of free places to learn coding basics.

About the SFTA

The South Florida Technology Alliance (SFTA) promotes the growth, success and awareness of the regional technology community. Through events, networking, programs and education, we provide south Florida’s technology-related companies, academic institutions, entrepreneurs, governments and related organizations with an active forum to grow the business of technology in our region.

Become an individual member, a company member or a sponsor of an SFTA event today!