Women in Tech - Jennifer Marfell, Atlassian
Jennifer is a highly motivated and accomplished IT professional with over 15+ years of experience in project management, software development, business analysis and people management in a number of sectors including health, government, retail, mining, finance and technology. Jennifer is currently at Atlassian as an Engineering Manager.
Where did your interest in technology come from? How did you decide to pursue a career in technology?
I am originally from the Philippines where I was studying Psychology for pre-Law at the age of 16 (a much earlier start in the Philippines education system compared to Australia). However, my family was in the process of migrating to Australia.
Upon arriving in Australia, I was unable to continue my studies at university as the education system is very different here and that would have meant redoing year 10, 11 and 12. At the time I just turned 17 and this felt like a massive step backwards. I also discovered that law was not entirely where I wanted to go with my career.
My mum suggested to look into IT and TAFE, which would allow someone who had not completed the HSC to gain an alternative route into university education. This was initially another hurdle as I had attended a very prestigious university in the Philippines, and I was worried people would look down on my TAFE qualifications. I was surprised when I started that I actually loved it - both the course and the style of learning. It took about a year to get into the “tech” headspace as it is intangible, and it takes a bit of time to get your head around it. However, I literally woke up one day and things had clicked. From there onwards I fell in love with IT.
I progressed quite quickly at TAFE, having completed certificate 2 then 3 then skipped the 4th certificate to be awarded a diploma in IT. Finally, I felt like I had achieved the overall goal of being allowed entry into university. However, I was ahead of many of the students at university (even those who had looked down on me for my TAFE background) and found myself teaching the students to fix their code. I persevered through and completed a Bachelor of Information Technology.
What are the key things that allowed you to get where you are today and what do you attribute your success to?
About success, this might be a bit of a cliché but it's my mum. She was a great role model. My dad was a captain of a shipping vessel and was frequently away, but my mum was a constant presence. She was managing businesses (bicycle/motorcycle shop and a trucking business) and taking care of 6 kids on her own. As you probably can surmise, she was in a very male-dominated field as well. Having a strong female role model really made a difference in my outlook in life especially having that role model from a very young age too. I never even thought to myself that I can't do something because I'm a girl. I actually never really had those gendered work realisations until I came to Australia at the age of 17. Despite that realisation, every time I talk to my parents, they will never ever accept an excuse about being female which changes your perspective when thinking things through.
I can attribute my position today to one key thing: resilience. You need to be resilient in this field. For me though, I always take any obstacles that come my way as a challenge and I guess that helps my resilience. I also always grab the opportunities that are presented to me. Sometimes the opportunity seems like such a big change and you think of all the worst things. Change is scary but it grows you as a person. Always learn at every opportunity. If you stop learning, seek and crave it. Always ask: What's the worst that can happen? If you can accept the worst that can happen, then go for it.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you have received in your career and how did it help you?
The age-old advice of don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness is extremely relevant in tech. There will always be moments where your team and manager won’t be on board with your ideas even if it is the best thing to do. Just go and do it. Then show them it works and say sorry.
People will leave managers, not work. Learn to see the signs of a bad manager to prevent joining a team or organisation where you ultimately may be set up to fail. Good leadership is hard to find and once you do ensure you take everything you can out of that opportunity. Learn to separate a person’s leadership failings from their personal failings. It takes time and effort to be a good leader and this process means you will make mistakes.
One key piece of advice I encourage all young people to follow is to always have balance. Work is just one part of your life. Don’t give 120% of yourself for work as it burns you out. It’s easy upon starting your career to give everything of yourself to the organisation and to think that working yourself to the ground will gain you respect and maybe even a promotion. This style of working is unsustainable and eventually you will crash and burn. Taking care of yourself is not selfish, it's 100% necessary in order to be able to maintain productivity over a long period of time.
As you transitioned to more senior and leadership roles what was the shift you needed to make?
The biggest mistake I made when transitioning into leadership roles was to initially take on a hybrid role (half technical/half management). I don’t think this works because for most technical people coding will always be their preference, so they focus on that half whilst not investing as much time into leading their team. This style of role also leads itself to a hybrid manager addressing technical issues themselves which only leads to burn out and your team not learning and growing.
People management is a full-time role and all consuming. There is still a view in many organisations that people management is an easy job where you are paid more. However, I don’t think people fully grasp how hard it is to grow people. It is incredibly difficult to mentor a junior developer into a senior developer. There is a very fine line between pushing a junior developer out of their comfort zone to learn and grow vs pushing too hard to the point of them failing. I also think it is essential to cater to the individual which will in turn make a high-performing team. Every individual is motivated and works differently so it makes no sense to manage a group of people in the same way. I think in technology it's extremely important to make diversity a preference from the get-go. Having an entire team of the same gender and background is hindering the growth and innovation in the long term. There have been multiple studies that back this up - the more diverse a team is the more creative and successful it is.
What was the most challenging situation you've faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
One of the most challenging situations I have faced was when one of my direct reports wasn’t doing well technically and took this out on other members of the team through aggressive bullying behaviour. I saw multiple managers simply turn a blind eye to the issue and pass the person along to be managed by someone else. When it was my turn, instead of passing the person along, I took a stand and pulled the person aside for a conversation to understand why this person was acting out but also making sure they knew this behaviour was not on. It escalated when the accused then turned around and made a direct complaint to management that I was bullying them, using the line “Never had a problem with male managers until I had a female one”.
This was extremely hurtful and a direct attack on the reputation and leadership I had been trying so hard to build. Senior leadership investigated though and came to the conclusion that the person’s accusation was a bullying tactic and a way to divert the attention away from their poor technical performance. It still rattled me to my core though and was a horrible situation to go through, especially when I was 5 months pregnant at the time.
What advice would you give to other females looking to pursue a career in technology?
Being female in technology, there will be obstacles that your male counterparts will never experience. They will even try to mansplain it to you. Take it as a challenge. It is so much worthwhile and exciting once you overcome it. Always remember that you are as good, even better, than them. And always think that no one is allowed to make you feel bad about yourself except you, so brush them off. Also, lean in with other females. Find mentors, champions and sponsors.
Technology is fun. It is challenging but fulfilling. This is a field where you can be involved in every facet of the delivery - from inception to delivering the value to people. You can change lives through technology.
The impact of COVID-19 and ongoing quarantine measures have been felt globally adversely affecting most individuals and organisations. From your perspective what have been the impacts of COVID-19 within the tech industry?
In Tech (even non-tech) itself, there's a shift of how people work. There are more companies, especially in the tech sector, who have announced that remote working will be the norm. Remote working existed even previously but COVID-19 accelerated this shift dramatically and has pushed all of industry at least 10 years forward.