Lavinia Kanagandran’s path to becoming a software engineer with e-commerce company Rokt has not been a simple one.
First, there was her maths teacher who seemed to imply boys were better than girls at mathematics, despite having never taught any of the girls in the class before.
“I’m not sure if he intended it or was even aware that the classroom had gotten that impression from him, but we – not just one or two of us, but a large proportion of the class – were taken aback and felt slightly hurt at this presumption,” she tells B&T.
Then there was her and her family’s experience applying for schools after they moved from Malaysia.
“We received a rather terse response from one of the international schools. The email stated that since we were Malaysian, it was highly unlikely that we would meet the English standards required of the school,” she recalls.
“They had not looked at our grades, nor asked us any questions, and we were only applying to sit for the entrance exam anyway, through which the school could have rightfully rejected us if our English results were indeed not good enough.”
Even after starting university, it still took Kanagandran some time to find her way into the software engineering field.
Having been encouraged by her parent to pursue a “‘science-y’ field”, Kanagandran found herself studying mechanical engineering.
It took her two years to realise coding was something she was better suited to, with a switch to software engineering ensuing.
“I still regret the teenage years I missed out on pursuing this interest,” she says about software engineering.
Today Kanagandran works on problems such as identity resolution and attribution as part of her role with Rokt.
And while she has so far enjoyed a career in the industry, research shows women are far outnumbered in software engineering and other tech fields.
For Kanagandran, the idea of visibility plays a key role in changing this.
“It’s not about driving more girls and women towards tech, it’s about making sure that everyone is equipped with the right knowledge and confidence to know that tech is also an option and can lead to a meaningful, enjoyable and fulfilling career. It’s about seeing that represented in movies, and media, and in the people all around you,” she says.
“It’s about recognising that not everyone takes the same path, and that we all have courage to change careers at any point in our life if we want, whether that’s into or out of tech.
“It’s about hearing and seeing stories about the journeys women in tech have taken to get to where they are, so that we can see the examples around us of people we can relate to and see what we could be if we wanted.”
What a diverse team can do
The business case for diversity in the workplace is clear, with research suggesting it leads to increased profitability, creativity and stronger governance.
There’s also real-world evidence to show how damaging a lack of diversity can be, especially in a tech context.
Kanagandran points to the example of the GooglePhoto app having trouble detecting African American faces correctly.
But she has also seen firsthand how valuable it can be to different people – and opinions – in the room.
“I can think of an example just last week, where my entire team was avidly debating approaches to solving a problem – an hour later, it felt like we were going in circles, and it took more than one person pointing out repeatedly that maybe we should clarify and quantify what the problem is before jumping to solutions that each had their own disadvantages,” she explains.
“You need difference and diversity in teams to ensure different perspectives and priorities are being considered – that is what helps you get to the best result, whether that’s solutions and products, or customer satisfaction and employee engagement.”
And such ‘differences’ should be extensive, argues Kanagandran.
“Diversity of race, ability, or gender are all just proxies for diversity of experiences and thought,” she says.
“Your ability and method of problem solving is not the same as the person sitting next to you. The way you communicate and get your ideas across are probably not going to be the same as the person sitting next to you.
“All these factors come into play when we talk about diversity of technology teams – not just gender.”
Making the tech jump
While Kanagandran was able to realise her love for coding and software engineering in her university years, many women still steer clear of such fields, due to the male-dominated nature of the industry.
She has a message for any female technologists who might now find themselves in another industry.
“Time and time again, I hear of women who never considered pursuing a career in tech in their younger days and whose current careers don’t give them a sense of purpose or enjoyment,” she says.
“It takes a lot of self-reflection to figure out what you want to do and an equal amount of courage to try out something new, let alone the sacrifice of money, time and effort it takes to upskill yourself.”
She reflects on some of the women in tech she has met and their “random” previous careers.
“A confectioner, a business administrator, a geologist, an investment analyst, a project manager from the construction industry … it’s very varied,” she remarks.
“The stories are always similar – these women were good at tech most of their lives, but for some reason, have never considered or been encouraged to pursue a career in it.”
According to Kanagandran, it’s up to businesses to encourage these women to make the transition.
“I really admire companies that recognise this by supporting those who may not have traditional degrees in the field but have proven their immense determination and curiousity through other means – these are the people who will be a real asset to an organisation in the long run,” she says.
“In fact, it constantly amazes me when I discover the different degrees and backgrounds that everyone at Rokt comes from!”
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