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#InterviewSeries | Steph Smith

The #InterviewSeries is a collection of intimate discussions with womxn in the technical & digital spaces. They are entrepreneurs, developers, students, cyber-security experts, managers, designers and social media queens. The aim of the series is to increase the visibility of womxn in tech, to prove that no womxn's journey is linear & to celebrate their successes. Whatever your passion or skill or gender, there's something out there for you and these womxn prove that.

Hi! I’m Steph Smith. Two years ago, I left my desk job and 2+ hour commute in order to live a more fulfilling life. Now, I work on the executive team at Toptal (the world's largest entirely remote company) as the Head of Publications and previously worked on Toptal’s Growth team. While working for Toptal, I’ve been lucky enough to travel and work from 50 countries.

In my spare time, I’ve been spending the last year learning to code and building projects. So far, I’ve launched four: nomad(hubb), Make Yourself Great Again, Eunoia, and FeMake. MYGA went to number 1, Eunoia was built in 24h and came 5th in the 24hr startup challenge, and FeMake won the Inclusion award in Product Hunt's Makers Festival.

I love supporting women in tech and am currently one of the judges for the Toptal’s Scholarship for Women. I also recently gave two talks hoping to encourage more people (especially women) to learn to code or consider tech.

Tell us a little bit about your journey into your role.

My journey to my current role and involvement in tech was never very straightforward.

I started off graduating a chemical engineering degree, with the only thing certain that I didn’t want to work on an oil rig. I ended up taking a role as a business analyst/consultant at a boutique consulting firm in Toronto. That firm was the most data-driven company I have encountered to this day and set up the right mentality for me to succeed moving forward.

I wanted to pivot to a remote role in order to give me the flexibility I wanted to travel, but also design my daily life to be optimal. I knew that if I could manage my time, I could accomplish so much more. So, I searched diligently through remote jobs and tested out 4, before I found the one that I knew would be right.

I joined Toptal in August 2016 as a growth specialist, soon after to manage the growth of their Design vertical. I had little digital marketing experience entering Toptal, but they were focused on getting smart, analytical people who could learn quickly that had a bias for action. To this day, Toptal remains a place that wants to democratize opportunity and innovation.

In my first year at Toptal, I learned more than I could’ve imagined across digital marketing, SEO, analytics, product, and more. I was lucky enough to attend conferences including GrowthHackers and TechCrunch Disrupt. I had always been interested in tech, but this was truly my opportunity to see and participate in the field.

I developed a love for SEO and naturally started working with the Publications team. One thing led to another and I ended up becoming the Head of Publications earlier this year. I now manage a diverse team of ~20 people and am now the youngest member of Toptal’s executive team.

Earlier this year, I decided that I not only wanted to participate in tech but also create. I didn’t know how to code and saw that as the main blocker in me being about to contribute in the way I had always wanted. So, in February I decided to roll up my sleeves and learn to code. It has been incredibly fulfilling and I have now launched four side projects.

To summarize, there was never and grand plan, but instead a thirst to continue learning, optimize my life, and contribute.

How do you personally use technology in your day to day?

I use technology all day, everyday. Since I move around a lot, I don’t own very many things and most of what I “own” is actually on my laptop or phone. I use tech to wake me up, to jot down my thoughts, to play music, to connect with friends, and most importantly to learn from. My favourite ways to learn:

  • Reading off my Kindle

  • Taking a new course on Udemy

  • Listening to an audiobook

I’m very aware of how tech impacts my day-to-day in a negative way. I try to track, limit, or at least be aware of the time I spend on social media. Overall, I would recommend to anyone who uses technology consistently to invest in good technology, as the productivity alone is worth the investment.

How do you use technology in your role?

My entire role is based from my laptop. I use my laptop to not only complete tasks, but also the connect with my coworkers from around the world through platforms like Zoom and Slack.

What have been the best learning resources for you?

The best way to learn is by doing. However, I think doing a course or bootcamp to get you started can be a great way to get the ball rolling. I personally chose took this full-stack web development course which helped me learn the foundations to start building my own projects.

Immediately after, I started to build nomad(hubb), which strongly solidified what I had learned in the course. Without having a project to work on, you ultimately are mostly coding along someone and the skills you learn are quickly forgotten. Since then, I have been mostly Googling things and relying on the amazing contributions on StackOverflow.

Learning to code as been a journey, but I don’t think there is necessarily any “right” learning resource to use. What is important is to stick to it, choose a project you can validate your skills with, and focus on continuous learning. There was a great tweet that I saw recently which embodied my view on learning.

I also believe that psychology plays an incredibly strong role in preventing people from learning to code, so I recently went over what I believe to be the "7 myths of coding" in this talk.

As a woman, do you think you have faced any challenges that a man would not face in your position?

Yes, certainly. I think that women are naturally less confident in the tech space, partially because of the lack of representation in the industry, but also stereotypes that still ring true. Imposter syndrome is real for anyone in any field, but I think it’s particularly prevalent for women in tech. When we look around, we don’t see many other women represented. We don’t have many female leaders to look up. When someone says “developer” or “tech lead”, we don’t see ourselves and others don’t see us.

This lack of confidence is both internal and external, and the external forces in the tech space push the internal conflict further. And more importantly, these dynamics are not invisible and impact how we get paid, how we are treated or questioned on a daily basis, and more.

I am hopeful, as I’ve seen more people (both men and women) speak out about the issues, but there is still little movement in the actual numbers. That is one of the reasons I created FeMake, to monitor tangible numbers and contributions from women to understand if the equation really is changing. I also cut the data in different ways to try to further understand some of the drivers are in terms of diversity. I wrote about the findings and my take on gender disparity in making here.

What has been your biggest challenge to date?

It has definitely been gaining confidence in my skills and my worth. This has translated in my ability to ask for the right resources, in negotiation, and more effectively prioritizing where I'm investing my time.

With regards to technology/ digital, what do you think will be our biggest barrier to success in the future?

Having diversity in the people making technology. As technology becomes even more prevalent and essential in our lives, it’s important that the decisions going into making products is representative of the population. This is not just for inclusivity, but to ensure that a small subset is not responsible for our future.

I would encourage anyone (woman or man, young or old) to learn more about technology and start to learn to code. There already is a shift in the skill sets needed in the job market that is hard to ignore, but learning more about technology can enable you to see problems in new ways, create unique value in the world, and contribute to designing our future.

Who makes up your support squad?

I have a close group of friends and family that have always been incredibly supportive. They have always believed that I will do something great and have had more confidence in that, than even I have for myself.

I’ve also greatly benefited from my ability to work remotely and meet a lot of like-minded people who are ambitious and working on interesting things. This has continuously fuelled my inspiration and one of the reasons that I choose to spend a lot of my time in Bali.

Lately, I have been finding a lot of value through online communities of similar people working on similar things. I especially have found a lot of support in the Women Make group, full of female indie makers connecting and supporting one another.

What’s your favorite piece of advice to offer entrepreneurial/ techy/ digital women?

Just start creating. It will never feel quite right or perfect, but you will learn and grow along the way. The women in tech imbalance is in many ways a catch 22, where we need more female leaders to empower other women to join. Tech will be the most impactful industry in years to come and we need women to be represented and part of designing that future. And finally, always continue learning.

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