Women in ICT: Overcoming challenges builds better professionals

By on 25 Sep 2020

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A banner image showing the participants at the Women in ICT event
The Women in ICT panellists, from left to right: Willa Ortiz, Vicky Ray, Achia Nila and Narantsetseg Sodnombaljir.

APNIC 50’s Women in ICT session was one of the highlights of the virtual event, with the theme ‘it takes pressure to make a diamond’.

The session was well attended, and as chair, I enjoyed every bit of it. This time we had panel members from diverse backgrounds, and the goal was to bring them together to get inspired by their stories and learn from them. The session certainly delivered on that goal.

In line with the theme, a common thread that united the discussion was how overcoming challenges ended up making the participants more resilient.

For Willa Ortiz, a Senior Business Development Manager at HCG Global, the most challenging part of her career came right at the beginning. She said that because she was raised by a single mother, she had learned independence from a young age. However, the pressures of studying and working full time were intense.

“I started working at 18 and entered the Build to Order industry. It was really the most grueling time for me, barely having any sleep and working the night shift from 10pm to 7am, then going to university from 8am to 4pm, while doing homework in-between,” she said. “When I look back at how I overcame those three years, I realized that if you want something that bad, it’s really that grit and ambition that keeps you going.”

She said that focusing on the future helped build resilience. “Every time there is a tight deadline or a difficult customer or a seemingly impossible project with no solution in sight, I try not to focus on what’s in front of me and instead more on what’s ahead,” she said.

In a first for APNIC 50’s Women in ICT sessions, the panel included a male speaker to provide another perspective. Palo Alto Security Principal Researcher, Vicky Ray, pointed out that while things have improved in the last decade, there is still a long way to go.

“When we look at industries without a diverse culture, innovation in those industries can be lacking at certain times.” He said that people often tended to feel more comfortable working with others just like them, but that stepping out of this comfort zone was important. “When we come out of that comfort zone we begin to appreciate the differences of others.”

He cited a number of women in cybersecurity he admires, including his colleague and now boss, Jen Miller-Osborne. “Jen’s background has been phenomenal; she worked for a non-profit and when she came to work with Palo Alto Networks I was keen to learn from her,” he said.

Vicky also mentioned that he had seen a much more significant footprint from Women in ICT in recent years, indicating that the situation is getting better.

Challenges were also at the core of the experiences shared by Achia Nila, the founder of the Women in Digital Program in Bangladesh. Achia decided to more actively help promote the education of women and girls after an overheard discussion with family members.

Her father was discussing the “very big things” that were going to happen as a result of a Digital Bangladesh program. “Everything will be changed, everything will become technical,” she heard him say.

At this point, she entered the conversation. “Fifty percent of the population is women, and they are not technically literate. How can you think Digital Bangladesh is happening?” she asked her father.

“You’re an engineer,” he responded. “You take the initiative.”

That’s exactly what she did. She first had to overcome an ingrained attitude that women can’t do coding. “If I can become an engineer, of course I can do some coding,” she said. “At first I thought that this was a problem of Bangladeshi culture, but day-by-day I saw that this is not just a Bangladeshi problem, this is a global problem.”

Achia emphasized how important it is for women to be willing to speak up in difficult circumstances. She stressed how important it is to keep skills up to date and keep evolving to stay competitive. She also said it is crucial to set long-term goals and work accordingly.

Chief Technical Officer of Mongolian IT company STX Citinet, Narantsetseg Sodnombaljir, also gave a presentation at the session, pointing out the challenges of working in ICT as the entire sector developed in Mongolia.

“When I graduated high school, I didn’t know who I would be in the future. At that time there was no Internet, no computers in our [economy],” she said. “We almost didn’t use computers at all. I just wanted to become an engineer,” she said. She went to Leningrad to learn these skills.

She said that her first job was teaching computer technology to children. “In 1995, we worked on XT and AT computers. We wrote everything on floppy disks; this is our history.” It was in 2007 that she became a network administrator and had to change her skill set entirely as the economy developed.

In giving advice to other women working in rapidly changing sectors, she said that overcoming any challenge ultimately required teamwork.

Everyone has their own struggle and their own story. All the panel members became successful because of their determined attitude, which is what we wanted to convey in the group discussion.

The relevant questions from the audience made the session even more interactive. Women in ICT sessions have always left the audience with more inspiration and courage to make a difference and this session was no different.

This makes us think real progress is achievable. We hope to continue discussions to achieve this progress at future Women in ICT sessions.

You can view the full APNIC 50 Women in ICT presentation below:

Afifa Abbas is Information Security and Governance Lead Engineer at Banglalink.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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