Shopify Developers Share Lessons on Self-Advocacy and Dealing with Adversity in the Technology Industry

Shopify Developers Share Lessons on Self-Advocacy and Dealing with Adversity in the Technology Industry

Behind The Code is an ongoing series where we share the stories of Shopify developers and how they’re solving meaningful problems at Shopify and beyond.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re featuring three female developers from various backgrounds sharing their experiences navigating a career in the tech industry and as well as their work and accomplishments at Shopify.

Developer Stella Lee on The Importance of Female Mentorship and Dealing with Adversity in the Technology Industry

Stella Lee

Stella Lee is a developer working on the Shopify Checkout Experience team. The team is responsible for converting a merchants customer’s intent to purchase a product into a successful purchase, and making the buying experience as smooth as possible. She primarily works on building features aiming to eliminate friction for the buyer by allowing them to reuse their information and reduce the number of fields they need to fill out manually, using Typescript and Ruby. When she’s not busy writing code, she’s the founder and co-lead for Shopify’s internal women’s Employee Resource Group (ERG), f(empower), which is supported by our Employee Experience, Diversity and Belonging team and has an executive sponsor. The group works with teams across the business to enable a work environment with equal access to opportunity and supports women to achieve their full potential. The ERG is open to all employees of Shopify and allows a safe space to vocalize the collective experiences and difficulties women in tech face.

When asked what does International Women’s Day mean to her, Stella mentions she never saw the value of needing a specific day to celebrate what should be celebrated every day, but she’s warmed up to it. “The reality is, we still have a long way to go and days like today give people the opportunity to celebrate and learn how each of us can make a positive impact for women. This year, I want to take the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of my fellow ladies in tech, reflect on the current state of gender parity in the industry, and outline concrete ways to advocate for women.”

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome and Learning the Importance of Self-Advocacy

One of the reasons Stella feels so strongly about empowering other women is because she grew up with a mother who she describes as a true inspiration. After leaving behind a great education and career, her mother uprooted the family from their native home in South Korea to Canada in hopes of providing a better life for her family. “She’s the most selfless, strong and caring person that I’ve ever met. She’s the only person I’ve ever met that acts in the best interest of her children without ever expecting anything (not even an ounce of recognition in return). Her unrelenting positivity and resilience in the face of adversity time and time again is truly inspiring.”

Growing up with such a strong role model has played a part in her development and ability to navigate the workplace. She expresses the importance of women advocating for themselves in a way where they can achieve their career goals. “You can't expect anyone else to take charge of your professional development, so you need to own that and figure out what it is you need to grow.” She believes the best way to do this is to ask for the opportunities needed to develop your skills like asking to own a feature of a project, or even to champion one.

Aside from learning how to advocate for herself, Stella has had to learn how to maneuver through her feelings of imposter syndrome, an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.  Imposter syndrome is something that countless people face in many different professions, no matter how far one is in their career. For Stella, these feelings began when she switched to computer science halfway through completing her Bachelor degree. “I didn’t have the full educational background nor the internship experiences that many of my colleagues or other developers had and with the emphasis of gender parity and the importance of diversity in tech, there are times when I’ve wondered if the only reason I’ve occupied a space filled with male developers was because I was a woman.” She goes on further to describe her experience attending various external engineering events where people assume she’s in a non-engineering role or comment that she doesn’t look like a developer. “Previously, I would just internalize these experiences as validation that I didn’t belong within this space. I definitely still struggle with imposter syndrome, but the consistent practice of recognizing and transforming my negative thinking patterns through thought work has helped immensely for my confidence.”

Transforming “Stupid” Questions into Good Questions

Learning how to ask good questions has been her bread and butter since working as a developer, but she believes you can only do this by asking stupid questions first because they’ll eventually become better questions. “Figure out what you don’t know by asking yourself what questions you have, set a timebox, and then take a stab at asking them to yourself or researching the question. I’m a very independent person and I find it hard to ask for help when I know that I’ll eventually find the answer, but I learned later on that doing this wasn’t the best use of my time.” A key to asking questions is to start by stating what you already know, then diving deeper into investigating how to solve that problem. “This shows you’ve done your homework, and it helps the person formulate a more intentional response that isn’t too basic or too advanced.”

Remote Developer Lead Helen Lin on Effective Ways to Manage People and Teams

Helen Lee

Helen Lin works remotely in Vancouver, BC as a Lead Web Developer on the Themes team for the Shopify Online Store. The Themes team is responsible for helping our product lines to integrate features into the online store, using Javascript, Nodejs, Liquid, Ruby, and SQL. Aside from providing free themes for our merchants, her team also establishes proper standards for making features more accessible and improving web performance.

Managing People Through Alignment and Stakeholder Management

As one of the few remote technical leads at Shopify, Helen shares with us some insights into how she manages her team,I think the makings of a good lead mainly lies on your ability to understand your different reports and effectively give direction as to how a project needs to be run. If you don’t understand the long term vision of your company and don’t know how to map out what tasks need to be accomplished, then misalignment can occur leading to low team morale and poor communication.” She periodically flies down to see her team and connect and with all of her reports and stakeholders on the current project she’s working on, allowing her to build strong relationships with the people she works with. She also explained that managing people is one of the most challenging things she’s ever done but she finds it very rewarding. “ I won’t say it hasn’t come with some difficulties, because it definitely has, but learning how to empower people and communicate with people with different personalities and disciplines, has taught me the importance of staying connected and aligned.”

Self-Advocacy and Sharing Accomplishments

Some people struggle with getting aligned with their managers about their personal development and career goals; advocating for themselves is a struggle. For someone like Helen, who’s been working for a number of years now, she feels when advocating for yourself it’s important to directly ask for what it is that you want. For her, self-advocacy is when she can push past her boundaries and do things she thought impossible. “Fighting through that internal fear and challenge is far more powerful than anything I have ever experienced. Now, I take that experience and find ways to help others to advocate themselves through sharing my stories of perseverance in the face of adversity.” She also invests time helping people narrow down their aspirations and figure out what they’re passionate about. “When there is a clear vision of what you want then self-advocacy becomes easy because it's what you want to do and not what other people want you to do.”

Asking Questions and Staying Curious

For those interested in pursuing a career as a developer, she stresses how important it is to understand that asking questions and staying curious is a positive thing. “ One of the best advice I’ve gotten was that I should understand that as human beings we all make mistakes, period. Regardless of if you’re a junior or senior developer, you're bound to mess up at some time. It’s not about trying not to make mistakes, but about how you can fix the mistake and move forward from it.” Building resiliency is a great muscle to flex and not being afraid to ask questions and make mistakes are only going to make you a better developer, so don’t be afraid to speak up.

Web Developer Cathryn Griffiths on Making Career Pivots and Creating an Inclusive Space in The Technology Industry

Cathryn Griffith

Cathryn is a web developer working on the Checkout Experience team, which is responsible for making a customer’s purchase experience as smooth as possible. She’s currently acting as a champion on a project and is in charge of making sure decisions are made, deadlines get met, and work gets done. This is her first time championing a technical project, so it comes with certain challenges, but she has a strong network within her team to help her navigate this new experience.

As someone who has pivoted careers a number of times, Cathryn knows all about how difficult it can be to switch careers and find what you’re passionate about. She’s gone from pursuing a career in academia to working in the private sector as a clinical trial project manager. “After realizing I didn’t have a passion for working in health sciences, I decided to go back to school and gave programming a shot after hearing about the exciting and challenging work that a programmer does. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Computer Science at Concordia University and by my third semester, I had secured a role as a Front-End Developer so I stopped pursuing my BCompSc and started working full-time.”

Finding Her Passion and Changing Careers

Maneuvering through different industries was not an easy thing to do, but she managed by always being open to discovering what work she actually enjoyed doing. However,  making the switch to the technology industry specifically comes with its own challenges, especially as a woman pursuing a career in a male-dominated field. “When I left my first programming job to go to my second one, I hesitated a lot about moving on to the new job because I was afraid I might get stuck in a toxic work environment where my gender would be a problem. That same feeling, that reluctance, hesitation, and nervousness happened again when I thought about leaving my previous job for Shopify. Luckily, in both cases, I ended up in fantastic, supportive work environments.”

We also asked Cathryn how the technology industry can make this space more inclusive for all especially with her experience with making the switch into tech. “On a larger scale: the more diverse our industry can be, the more inclusive it can be too. We have to hire more minorities, and have a workforce with a diverse array of races, ages, genders, sexualities, and ethnicities.” Diversity in the workplace has been proven to be very beneficial to companies, and various companies have initiatives in place to promote a more inclusive workplace and have a more diverse workforce. When asked what companies can do on a day-to-day basis to promote inclusivity, she said “On a smaller scale, something I love that Shopify does is that every meeting room has a paper pyramid, that sits right on the meeting table to help guide a more inclusive discussion. Each face of the pyramid poses a question or statement to ensure people’s voices are being heard during meetings, whether online or in person. For example, ‘Overtalking is real. Go back to the person who was interrupted and let them finish.’” These pyramids are about cultivating a space where people feel comfortable speaking up and people become mindful of speaking too much. So for someone like Cathryn who is newer to the company, she feels included in the conversation and supported by her fellow coworkers.

Advice for People Looking to Switch Careers

As someone who spent years establishing herself in different career paths, she began asking herself questions like, “What are my goals?”, “What do I want to accomplish at the end of the day?” and “I’m I enjoying my work?”. Asking herself these types of questions were pivotal in helping to discover which career she was the most passionate about.

Final Thoughts

“Work hard and embrace feedback. Own your accomplishments, be proud of them, and don’t be afraid to tell others about them. Additionally, own your failures and don’t be afraid to acknowledge them — it’s only by acknowledging them that you can grow from them.”

At Shopify, we’re committed to designing a workplace that challenges and supports employees to hone their craft and make meaningful impact for entrepreneurs around the world. We know that in order to build a platform that will ‘make commerce better for everyone’, we need to have a diverse team building that product and are committed to fostering an inclusive work environment that harnesses differences and brings the best out of each and every individual.  

We’re always looking for awesome people of all backgrounds and experiences to join our team. Visit our Engineering career page to find out what we’re working on.