4. min read
From Software Developer to CTO of Scout24
What It’s Like To Be A Female Tech Leader In A Male Dominated Space
There’s a lot of talk about the hurdles women face in tech, but there are just as many reasons women can succeed when they have the right leadership. What’s the secret to success? Well, we sat down with Rowena Patrao, the newly appointed Chief Technology Officer at Scout24 to understand her journey to success. Scout24 operates ImmoScout24, the leading platform for residential and commercial real estate in Germany.
Rowena is an industry expert with over 17 years of leadership experience and software development in the global tech industry. Having worked at some of the largest tech giants in the world including Microsoft, Amazon, and VMware India, we wanted to know how Rowena became a female leader in a male-dominated space.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I’m from India but I’ve lived in various cities and countries around the world including the Middle East, India, and the US. The exposure to a variety of cultures, religions, ethnicities, and so on from a young age has given me a natural curiosity about people and who they are as individuals.
“This has helped me in my career because I don’t automatically buy into stereotypes about people, or take public opinion to be my own.”
So usually when I meet people or when I’m working with them, I take the time to get to know who they are, what motivates them, and what their interests are. That way I can really motivate them, unlock their potential, and take the business forward.
What do you believe is important to have in an organisation to drive success?
From a career standpoint, I’ve had a steady progression. After I completed my undergrad which was a Bachelor’s in Computer science and Engineering, I worked at a company called the India Tobacco Company. This organisation was small enough where I could have a good relationship with the Heads of Department. That was interesting because I had an open, transparent dialogue with them. I could talk to them about the challenges I was focusing on and get feedback. This is something that I’ve taken forward with me wherever I’ve worked. I believe that having open, transparent communication throughout the organisation, irrespective of where people are in the hierarchy, is very important and critical to driving success.
How have you become a Senior Leader in tech?
After my role in India, I went to the US and did my Master’s in Computer Science and Engineering. Right when I was graduating, the economy of the US crashed. It was incredibly hard to get a job, and at the last minute, I got placed at Microsoft. When I joined Microsoft I was really particular about being committed to the role and digging in, ramping up quickly, and contributing to the product. I really delivered strong results and got positive feedback for the work that I was doing. One year in, I had my annual performance review. When I saw that my manager had given me an average rating I felt deflated because I knew that I had gone above and beyond what was expected for someone at my level. I questioned why I was putting in all this effort and trying to be successful in my career.
I ended up moving to a different team within Microsoft called Windows Media. I started ramping up again on new technology, new ways of running the business and started focusing on my deliverables. A few weeks into this role I was promoted. I was completely stunned because I had only been there about six weeks by then.
“Having the right motivation and the right acknowledgment from your management is very important for your career progression.”
One year into that role I became a People Manager, which is an accelerated career move. From there on out, every time I felt a role wasn’t challenging enough or working too steadily, I would seek out another opportunity that I could learn from. If you look at my background, I’ve worked across the industry verticals, business types whether they’re b2b or b2c, different technology stacks, and different domains. That has really helped me as a leader because whenever I’m faced with any situation I’m able to draw on these various experiences with different elements. I can be really flexible and adaptable in thought instead of being a sort of linear leader. That’s helped me become a successful leader throughout my career.
What challenges have you experienced as a woman at an SVP Level?
“Early on in my career, I used to think that women in senior leadership roles didn’t face the same challenges as we did. I thought at those senior levels they must be respected, accepted, encouraged, and motivated. That’s not necessarily true.”
As I’ve gone through my own journey I’ve seen that women in leadership roles face some of the same challenges and some different ones. There seems to be an automatic bias based on how you look, what you wear, how you speak, how you behave. I’ve been told I’m not technical enough when it’s convenient. When I weigh in on technical discussions, I’ve been told I don’t have enough domain knowledge. If I’m firm, I’m too aggressive. If I smile, it’s an open invitation for unwanted advances even. It’s a fine line. The thing that makes it worse is that I feel that as women, we are our worst critics. We have an unhealthy guilt complex. So when we keep hearing all this negativity, self-doubt creeps in and we question ourselves. That’s not true. I think what’s important is we have to be our own biggest advocates and be confident in ourselves and realise that what we’re doing is the right thing.
The other challenge you face as you progress to a senior level, is that there are fewer people that you can turn to for help. In fact, often there’s no one to turn to for help. Sometimes when you do share the challenges you face it can be taken as a sign of weakness. You need to automatically steer yourself every day. You will learn to prepare and navigate yourself to deal with situations on a daily basis based on your own experiences.
“If you do get positive feedback, take it to heart and realise that it is coming from a good place. Be confident in yourself and that will really help you get through a lot of these challenges.”
What initiatives have you implemented during your career to support the development of women in engineering?
It has always been important to me to help female colleagues grow in their career and I have worked on various initiatives for that. These initiatives are based on different roles I’ve held in the US and India, and adapted for specific scenarios that take in regional cultural aspects into consideration.
I’ve done a lot of mentoring, one-on-one as well as in group settings. I think mentoring alone is very powerful because you can work with someone on an individual basis based on their needs and how they approach situations. You can really speak to them and help them grow in a certain area.
I had a tech forum for women in an organisation of over 200 people, out of which we had 50 women. It was within the organisation but it crossed all teams on all levels. It was a place for women to collaborate, share what they were working on and key achievements. It really helped motivate them because they felt like they had a space to talk to people from different teams and understand what was going on in the business. It also helped them get a little bit excited about some of these technical challenges that other people were facing, and they felt that they could contribute to taking the business forward. They felt more validated and valued in that process.
I’ve also worked with other companies to try and create a Tech Fest for women but on a smaller scale. I recommend making it more intimate and limited to maybe one or two companies. But again have a way for women to network, collaborate and showcase key innovative ideas that they’re working on. Get them excited about being in technology and help them to understand what opportunities do lie in the industry at large, and in the market that they’re working in.
Apart from this, I also organised morale events where women can hang out without their male counterparts. I think this has been helpful, irrespective of the region they work in, but especially in a place like India where there is definitely a male-dominated society. Often women are on guard in terms of how they speak and how they behave in the presence of men.
Appropriate facilities for women
I’ve also worked with the facilities team to make sure that women’s restrooms and bathrooms are properly equipped. Simple things like having the right equipment to dispose of sanitary napkins. That is something that sounds extremely basic but you’d be surprised how this isn’t necessarily the case in some organisations. I’ve also implemented things like having an escort for women who are traveling late at night to make sure that their safety is taken care of.
The other thing I like to do when we’re recruiting, interviewing or onboarding is to make sure that we have women trained and ready to be present in these groups as well. I believe it’s important to showcase, both externally and internally, what a gender diversity mix would look like.
Build an inclusive culture
One of the most critical things that I have focused on is building an inclusive culture on the team. I feel that if you have an inclusive culture, everyone feels safe. Everyone feels empowered whether you are a woman or whatever your background may be. I lead by example and I believe it’s important to respect everyone. Everyone is present because we have hired them to bring something unique to the table. I have spent a lot of time working with global people development teams to focus on new people people managers, existing people managers, how to have effective one-on-ones, and what processes and policies we have. For example in the event of sexual harassment. I try to make sure that it is an inclusive environment for everyone so they can be who they want to be.
What has been the biggest support tool for your career progression?
“I’d say it has to be myself. My own self-confidence and my drive to succeed and get results has been my biggest support tool.”
That’s what has helped me get to where I am in my career. In terms of role models, I don’t really have a whole lot but there have been two managers in my career who have really had a big impact on me. Both of them really recognised my leadership style because they have the same values that I hold dear to myself. They have a very strong focus on business but they are also empathetic people leaders. For me, it’s not just about running a business and getting results. It’s about treating people with care and with respect.
How do you embed diversity into your teams?
For me, it’s more than gender diversity. I think diversity is really about diversity of thought. I make sure we are building a team and a culture that represents the values that we want to portray to everyone else. It starts with interviewing. When you’re talking to a prospective candidate, the question I want everyone to ask apart from the basic requirement questions, is: What value does this person add to the team? The more diverse the thought processes when you’re working through a situation or a problem, the more effective and more reliable the solutions are going to be.
I think it’s important to give an opportunity to a lot more people. Especially those who are not from top-tier schools and are willing to learn and to grow because they have the energy we want to make a difference.
But apart from that you also need to pay attention to your organisation. You need to have processes, metrics and analysis to really understand how your team feels. This process is long, continuous, and takes up a lot of energy but it is very critical to making sure you have a highly functional team.