When she read stories about women in tech, Alana Karen kept seeing the same theme, over and over. Generally, it seemed like they couldn’t find a sense of belonging in the industry, and as a result, would leave their jobs. But based on her 19 years at Google, and what she knew about her own colleagues, she suspected there was much more complexity and nuance to these women’s experiences. “I wanted to get beyond generic advice and get into the tough stories,” she says. And she wanted to focus on why women stay in tech, not just why they leave.
She captures a collection of those stories in her book, “The Adventures of Women in Tech: How We Got Here and Why We Stay.” I talked to Alana over Google Meet about how she approached writing the book while juggling a full-time job, managing a team and spending time with family—plus, what she’s learned as the Director of Special Projects for Search and from her own career in the tech industry.
How do you explain your job to people who don’t work in tech?
I work on the Search team, focusing on the infrastructure behind the product, and I help engineers make things happen. That means helping the team set goals, track against those goals, share status updates and communicate with others.
What’s one habit that makes you successful?
I think of my work as tending to a garden: I’m the farmer who focuses on fertilizing the soil so that all of the flowers can grow. As a people-focused leader, I’m constantly thinking about how to motivate people and set them up to do their best work.
Your book aims to represent a variety of stories of women who work in tech—and stay. Why do you think that's so important?
There’s a common narrative that women are having trouble finding a sense of belonging in the tech industry. And there I was, among so many powerful, dynamic, interesting women. It wasn’t that we hadn’t had struggles along the way (we had!), but we navigated them and we were still here.
It was important for me to show a breadth of these women’s stories for two reasons: one, to show women thinking about getting into tech—in any type of role, with any type of experience—that they belong, and this is doable. Two, I was curious if there was this silent, quiet problem where a lot of women were planning to leave tech. Was I just assuming everyone is OK?
In your conversations with the many women you interviewed, what surprised you the most?
One thing that did surprise me was we all had similar themes in our answers as to why we wanted to work in tech. We were all interested in changing the world, the opportunities our careers afforded us, liked the open and accepting culture, and the meaningful work.
You touch on the theme of inclusion and how essential it is for women to feel qualified and appreciated for their work. What advice would you give those grappling with feelings of self-doubt?
By publishing all of these different stories, I want to show women they aren’t alone. One piece of advice I’d give would be to lean on the people who have been touchstones in your career. That person doesn’t have to be a mentor or sponsor in the traditional sense, but can be something more informal.
And second, remember you are worth that. It can take years for women to see that they deserve paying as much attention to themselves and setting their boundaries, and fund themselves with the same amount they spend on others. I hope the book can help instill in people that they’re worth that earlier on in their careers.
Who has been a strong female influence in your life?
My mom, who was the primary income-earner for my family working at Rutgers College. The year I was born, women made 58.9 cents to each dollar men earned. Growing up, I watched my mom navigate her career, find her voice and figure out how to be a strong career person and mother. She showed me ways I wanted to emulate her, as well as ways I wanted to do things differently. She gave me the perspective that careers are long, and you can have different phases of them along the way.