Using Technology to Address Challenges: Q&A with Jessie Xia, Singapore Managing Director of ThoughtWorks

Thoughtworks recently beat tech giants Google and Facebook to be named the Top Company for Women Technologists. They received this honour from the Anita Borg Institute, which recognised ThoughtWorks’ philosophy and efforts in championing a diverse workforce.

ThoughtWorks is a global technology company that provides software design and delivery, and pioneering tools and consulting services. The company is closely associated with the movement for agile software development, and has contributed to a range of open source products in the market. Between 2010 and 2015, ThoughtWorks increased its percentage of women in tech roles from 17% to 32% and simultaneously increased its percentage of females in tech roles by hiring developers who have degrees outside of computer science.

In her decade-long career in technology, Jessie Xia, Managing Director, has thrived at ThoughtWorks. She shared with LadyBoss about the misconception in the tech industry and more importantly how to encourage women to join the tech scene.

We look beyond hiring women who are computer science degree holders, as we want to hire women with varying background and skillsets.

Q: Tell us about ThoughtWorks. How long it has been around and who your clients are?  

A: ThoughtWorks is a global technology consultancy, founded over 25 years ago in Chicago. Since then, ThoughtWorks has grown to a company of more than 4,500 passionate people spread across 40 offices in 14 countries. The ThoughtWorks Singapore office will celebrate its fifth anniversary in June this year. Our clients in Singapore are a cross section across multiple industries including the financial and public sector.

Q: What were you doing before ThoughtWorks? Tell us about your background and how it helps you with what you are pursuing now. 

A: Prior to joining ThoughtWorks, I worked in multiple roles at tech companies which included finance and IT management. During my 11-year tenure at ThoughtWorks, I have had the opportunity to expand my skills and explore many roles in the human resources, project work and operations division – leading to my current role as the Managing Director of ThoughtWorks Singapore. Having experienced so many roles, I have been been required to continuously challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone. These challenges have been beneficial in helping me become comfortable in the role of Managing Director in ThoughtWorks Singapore in 2016.

I never actively pursued a career in tech as I am not a technologist by training.

Q: What sparked your interest in Tech? And what motivates you? 

A: I never actively pursued a career in tech as I am not a technologist by training. However, my interest in ThoughtWorks was sparked when I interacted with ThoughtWorkers. When I joined ThoughtWorks China in 2005, we were only a team of seven people in Beijing.

ThoughtWorks has a unique culture and approach to tech, which has kept me with the company for more than a decade. From a corporate culture perspective, ThoughtWorks is an organisation that allows people to grow holistically, pursue passions, and drive change. From a tech perspective, the company is focused on software excellence and always doing the right thing, and this core value is ingrained throughout the organisation.

Q: Tell us about the obstacles and challenges you had to overcome when you first joined the tech industry?

A: I had two big challenges when I first joined ThoughtWorks. I came from a non-tech background, so I found it hard to imagine a long-term successful career in a technology company. On top of that, I didn’t speak English well and was uncertain whether this would hinder my career progression in a global company. Fortunately, the ThoughtWorks culture champions the concept of inclusivity and diversity and encouraged my professional growth and development. This, coupled with my determination to work hard and adapt to new challenges allowed me to thrive in a global tech company, where I could develop my language and tech skills in a supportive environment.

Q: How can women leverage and value add in the male-dominated tech industry? 

A: It has been proven that diverse teams produce the best results. In the traditionally male-dominated tech industry, women can provide a fresh perspective on projects and should not feel intimidated to offer a different point of view.

Q: What are the misconceptions about women in the tech industry?  

A: The biggest misconception is that women don’t have the right skills or talent to be successful in purely technical roles. To correct the misconception, companies need to be more open about sharing what a real job in tech looks like, such that people from varying backgrounds have equal opportunities to contribute towards the industry.

At ThoughtWorks many of our most senior technologists are women, such as our Chief Technology Officer, Rebecca Parsons and our Head of Technology for North America, Rachel Laycock. We hope that women who are either looking to enter the industry, or are in the industry, get inspired by some of these successful role models.

Q: How has ThoughtWorks been successful in beating tech giants like Google and Facebook to be named the Top Company for Women Technologists? 

A: ThoughtWorks has always championed inclusivity, and prioritised creating diversity within our teams. So, for us at ThoughtWorks, bringing out the best in ourselves and for our clients is not an option, but part of our philosophy and culture.

Q: What are the programmes/ initiatives/practices in ThoughtWorks to encourage and support women at work?  

A: We look beyond hiring women who are computer science degree holders, as we want to hire women with varying background and skillsets. Even if they don’t have a formal education in technology, we have a number of in-house programs, such as ThoughtWorks University, ThoughtWorks Academy, and the Women in Leadership Development program globally to level up their skillsets.

This year, we will be launching the Singapore Academy, an initiative that aims to grow the skills and talent pool here in Singapore. A key focus of this initiative is to help women with a passion for technology build successful careers, by partnering with academic institutions to provide undergraduates with a hands-on program.

Q: As a woman in tech, what can be done to encourage women to join the tech industry in Asia? 

A: With the tech industry poised for growth, particularly in Singapore where the government has committed S$19 billion for research, innovation and enterprise activities, the current under-representation of women in tech could mean that women are missing out on a number of career opportunities.

In the tech industry, women make up about a third of the positions available globally – but this is only true in companies that strive to make this change as shown by the Anita Borg Institute. In reality, the numbers are much lower in many companies, and this trend is similarly reflected in Singapore. So at a micro level, companies need to be more focused and deliberate in their strategy to recruit and retain women and promote inclusiveness and diversity.

On a macro scale, change needs to occur in society, government, educational institutions, and industry organisations. This is already happening and we have come a long way but I believe more effort is required to change old stereotypes and perceptions. As these perception transformations take place, I believe the trickle-down effect will help to bring about reforms too.

Q: What do you have to say on promoting STEM education among young girls in schools to encourage more women graduates in tech? 

A: Change should begin in homes and schools. Parents and educators play a vital role in positioning STEM subjects as a fun and creative way to solve real-life problems. In exposing them to the benefits of a STEM education from a young age, this could eventually encourage more young girls to build a career in the tech industry.

Q: What does diversity mean to you? Especially when it comes to women in tech. 

A: To me, diversity is about bringing together different people together to collaborate. It goes beyond gender to include race, backgrounds, beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. Having a diverse group of people- including women- brings significant benefits to an organisation as individual experiences, backgrounds, and values all contribute to differing views. Sharing these differing views is what leads to conversations that I help to challenge people and create the best outcomes.

My advice to aspiring female technologists is to move out of their comfort zone and rise to any challenges. In 2005, when I first joined ThoughtWorks as the seventh employee in China, I had no programming skills and couldn’t speak English at all.

Q: Tell us your Number 1 business challenge?

A: Today, the biggest challenge we face is the shortage of relevant skills in the market. As a growing organisation we have had and will continue to have a very aggressive hiring and expansion strategy. Therefore, meeting our recruitment objectives has been our biggest business challenge.

Q: Where do you see the future of ThoughtWorks? 

A: As a global technology consultancy driven by innovation, our vision is broad. First, we want to be an active participant of the Singapore tech community and bring knowledge, skills, and technical excellence to the market. Through working with the government and technical institutions, we will focus heavily on helping to increase the talent pool here. We are also building programs to bridge the gap between academia and real world skills, by getting involved in knowledge sharing at the undergraduate level. At the corporate level, we want to work with inspiring and courageous leaders to take a bold approach to the new types of challenges facing industries today.

Q: What would be your advice for women in tech and the aspiring to join tech companies? 

A: In an industry, where women are still a minority, my advice to aspiring female technologists is to move out of their comfort zone and rise to any challenges. In 2005, when I first joined ThoughtWorks as the seventh employee in China, I had no programming skills and couldn’t speak English at all. However, I never stopped challenging myself and developing my professional skillsets to keep up with the fast-changing developments in the tech sector. I believe this mindset has helped me differentiate myself. One of the most important attributes to success is to never be afraid to ask for help. Reaching out for support is key to learning and growth.

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