Alana Karen wrote Adventures of Women in Tech: How We Got Here and Why We Stay to diversify the stories we hear of women navigating their careers in tech. With a clear message of ‘you belong in tech’, she continues to explore that narrative.
She sat down with Amy Huang, a technology and operations leader and DEI advocate, to dig into the pros of marketing ourselves and how we find (and accept) support.
They discussed making career leaps, finding support from a variety of places, some of the ways to think about marketing yourself, and facing challenges. Below is a transcript of the discussion.
“There are people willing to help and support one another, and if you don’t have that, build it up for yourself. Next step, find it for other people.”Amy Huang in Adventures of Women in Tech
Alana: When you were in high school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Amy: I had drawings of me being a teacher and being a fashion designer. I had a whole line of clothes and a lot of pictures of clothes. Two things that come to mind: one, I’m a big sister and two, family. I have a lot of siblings and I was always in a leadership, leading, teaching and modeling role.
The fashion thing is about image – how do we put our best foot forward, what is the right look, feeling and energy that we want to bring? I think those things do come together and show up every now and then.
Alana: What is a key challenge you faced in your career?
Amy: For those of us who’ve been in the financial industry, there are a lot of layoffs all the time. I got laid off twice, both at Prudential and JP Morgan and looking back on it, it’s a form of grief. I love the companies that I work for and I love the organization I work for. I pour my heart into it and I’m proud to be a colleague there.
But then there’s a severance package and you’re no longer needed and off you go into the world. You always find something better, and the severance package was amazing – I had a great year off – but what that really taught me (and my father’s lay off as well, which he took really hard) was that there is attachment to where you work.
What if you took that attachment, that branding, that value that you gave to your organization and you put it on yourself. You are the brand, you are the value, you promote yourself and you are proud of yourself. There are times when you can represent your company – there are jokes that I am the face of MMC because for a while I was plastered all over the corporate page and in the career section so you can represent your firm – but we should also take that value and own it ourselves and grow ourselves.
Alana: I’m curious as you went through those challenges – How did you find your way back to yourself? What helped you go from detached and deciding what to do next for yourself?
Amy: My layoff at Prudential wasn’t as difficult, as I got my MBA part-time, so layoffs were kind of a good thing because I didn’t have to pay my tuition reimbursement back. The other part is that a recruiter contacted me very quickly after Prudential and brought me over to Lehman Brothers.
The harder layoff was JP Morgan in 2008 and we were experiencing a very severe economic crisis at the time and at that point and I was thinking New York was not the place for me and finance was not the thing for me.
So I had to pivot. I was dating someone in DC, so I moved to DC thinking it had a stronger and more stable economy because of government and tax payer money and how DC functions differently from NYC. I had to completely pivot. I was project managing hedge funds and then pivoted that into federal IT project management and that took learning a new language and a different way to talk about myself and present myself to people.
These were all opportunities from people I know and that’s why it’s so critical to maintain relationships with colleagues and present a very positive image about who you are.
Alana: How did you convince folks to take the leap on you from finance to tech?
Amy: We’re all building our toolbox and we can apply it to different industries and we can apply it in different roles. I was a project manager at JP Morgan fund-of-hedge-funds and brought groups together to form and deliver multi-million-dollar hedge funds in multiple currencies. I’m great with people and translating language and I’m great with requirements and process flow and with all of those key skills. I could see me in this role. I just needed to learn, it’s a scrum team vs. legal team. It’s just a different way of doing things that I’m really good at, so telling them to take a chance on me. I also did take a pay cut for that.
Alana: You mentioned that you reflected on your early experience in Marketing and how it’s influenced your career – do you think the overall story of your marketing experience has helped drive your career, and what have been those things where you are able to draw on the past experience that has benefited you?
Amy: The marketing piece is essential and very formidable for me because it shows that I have a voice, and I used my voice on behalf of alternative markets. I was writing investor communications. You have a point of view and you’re trying to also assess what your readers are thinking of. How do you influence a reader that is thousands of miles away? What is it that they want out of what you’re writing?
It taught me a bunch of things: Words are critical and important. Being a strong writer is really important and being a strong presenter and speaker is important because communication is key. We’re in a world and an environment around relationships. I don’t physically make anything, I don’t build anything, I’m not selling anything, but my work is done based around relationships and how well I’m able to influence people in my life.
The other piece is that there’s a style and way you want things to look and be presented. I always think about my favorite class in business school, which was Negotiation. I am always aligning interests: what does my reader want, what does my client want, what is my interest in this and how can we come together and work together. I won the best pie expander award in Negotiations class and that really is, how do we get the win-win and how do we get to yes.
Alana: Your alma mater, Wellesley, has been influential in your journey – can you talk about that and how it’s been beneficial?
Amy: I think the university and our experience is an amazing opportunity to get back into a cohort. We had an opportunity going to a women’s college – 4 years of a unicorn world – where all of the leaders were strong amazing women, female identified or non-binary, attending amazing events, everything was planned and we didn’t have to deal with the misogyny of every day. It was a very unicorn, amazing, unique experience and that set the norm. The norm is that the women are in charge. The norm is that our voices are heard. The norm is that there is no mansplaining and we don’t have to apologize or explain why we are at the table and that is the norm for us when we leave and get back into the real world.
To be honest with you, I did have a lot of difficult times at Wellesley as I had a lot of self-doubt and insecurities and I think I missed out on a lot of opportunities. I also didn’t go to a reunion for the first 15 years because I felt like I had to make it and I had to be good enough and I had to come back to reunion with a great story of doing great things. But what I didn’t know is that we reunion on 9s and 5s and I’m class of ’99, Madeline Albright is class of 1959, Hilary Clinton is class of 1969 and had I gone earlier, I could have hung out with them at reunion, so my bad on that!
But I found that coming back into the Wellesley bubble after that time away was full supported from incredible siblings all around the world, and it’s brought an amazing feeling back to me that made me want to give as often as I can, to the students. I am really active in a program called Wellesley in Washington where we get 20 students that intern in Washington DC every year and I learn so much from them and get a lot of energy from them. Sometimes you read the news and sometimes think the world is over and then you interview candidates and hang out with these amazing young people who are going to change the world and you realize everything will be OK because they are amazing. They’re a form of inspiration to me and whatever I can do to give back to them I do; open networks, introduce them to people, introduce people to each other. We have one of the strongest networks in the world and it is an extraordinary experience to be a part of that.
Alana: Do you actively catch people in the workplace or in your life saying “No, don’t do that pattern of thinking” – how do you help others get out of that mindset?
Amy: Absolutely. We just taped a video to show current students about how to join the alumni network and how to participate, and at the end of the day, just reach out. If they don’t write you that’s not big deal because then you are back to where you started. And if they do then you’re unlocking doors, unbelievable doors that you never knew existed. There are people all over the world ready to help you and it’s an amazing opportunity to be a part of and an amazing feeling to have.
When we have these panels for the students, I’m told “you seem so confident”, and it’s because every day I walk with thousands of my siblings and I know that if I need anything that we’re here for each other. Alana, you’re here for me and I’m here for you. That’s an incredible sense to know that we have these incredible networks that we can activate any time. So those are really important.
How does it show up? I tell people to go to the reunion, I tell people to reach back out to networks, I tell people to give because that’s also a great feeling of value when you start giving back, and you step out of your insecurities because you are doing something great.
I’m a lesbian, I am in a same-gender partnership, and I had a mentee reach out to me recently and they said, “I’m transitioning right now and I’m going to be cut off from a lot of opportunities.” As a mentor, I get to say that now is the time, there is war on talent, companies are trying to diversify their organization, now is the time to be proud of who you are and say “I am a trans-person, I am a person of color, I am international person” – these are things that companies are looking for, so sell yourself, and if that turns them off then you don’t want to work there anyway.
Alana: I want to share a quotation that you gave in the book that I’ve loved, “There are people willing to help and support one another and if you don’t have that, build it up for yourself, next step, find it for other people”. I just love that.
Amy: That is one of the reasons that I started Lean In. I love organizing events, I love bringing people together. I am a heavy user of Facebook and LinkedIn and so it was easy for me to pull people together. We set up standing meetings and we’ve been going strong for 8 years, we have 180 people.
We had 18 people show up last month for personal finance in case they go into personal poverty, which we can’t have. I pulled together this Lean In circle – those of you in DC or DC metro area, join us! – we are a group that comes together that shares and supports each other. I was able to launch that at Marsh McLennan as the global ambassador of Lean in, and we’re in 6 regions with 13 circles around the world creating these support groups for colleagues all over the world.
Audience Question: Storytelling is key to Marketing yourself well – do you discuss storytelling in your book? What is another foundational book on the art of storytelling that you might recommend?
Alana: I don’t dig into it. It’s not a book about storytelling persay, it’s a book where I tell 80+ women’s stories, and I emphasize why storytelling is important and why we are so impacted by stories.
Amy: I think it can evolve over time. Think about your core self and what you’re telling. This comes back to marketing. Make a press kit for yourself. You need a short one-liner, you need a summary, you need a bio and a really great headshot, so when you have an opportunity to speak, in seconds you can grab everything and send it. So always have your press kit ready. I also change my story. My story changes based on who I’m talking to and what we’re trying to align on.
Kate: I’d love to pop in, to answer for Alana! I mentioned she’s written for Women 2.0 before, please go read the series. Alana is at Google, and they have formal review processes, so she has years of formal data (although you can do this with informal data also). She was able to take that information and use it to understand more about herself, her leadership qualities, etc. She created a feedback loop every time a new review would come in. It was really strong process she walked through.
One exercise I love suggesting to people, from a coaching standpoint, is to ask others what 3-4 of their great qualities are. Don’t ask what your weaknesses are, we are not used to asking just about our strengths. Ask your parents, ask your family, ask your friends and ask them characteristics about yourselves that do positively tell your story.
Alana: I also have some resources and not exactly on storytelling but while I was looking through things for Marketing 101 I did pick a couple books: Just Do You: Authenticity, Leadership and Your Personal Brand by Lisa King. It goes deep into analyzing and understanding what our motivations are and how we are perceived by others. And there is a companion workbook. I have a feeling you could end up with a similar tool-kit out of that.
Amy: Grow your strengths. Grow what you are strong at. Sometimes you don’t even see it. Sometimes your friends can hold up a mirror for you, sometimes it can cause tears, because it’s how others see you that you may not see yourself but when you do you can see yourself through their eyes. You can also change and have design thinking and ask how you feel about being a Director of Marketing or a COO? You can try things on and evolve over time as well.
Alana: You were recently promoted to Director and I’m curious, now looking back, what was critical to making that leap?
Amy: I was really struck when my father was laid off and I was home at the time, early 90s. This idea came to me that if I did good work and that I worked hard, it still might not be seen. That to me was formidable in the sense that people don’t see. You could be nose to the grindstone, working hard, churning stuff out, but if you cannot clearly communicate as often as possible, tell people what you are good at, tell people what your team is good at, it doesn’t matter.
I try to do this during mid-years and I do this for as many people as I possibly as I can. Tell the story about you and how it reflects on you as a leader and team leader – tell people as much as you can about the great work that you can do or have done. What was the task, the action and what did you achieve? Tell people about you. Tell people about your team. Tell people about other team members that are doing good work. Keep that going over and over.
Alana: It sounds like you very naturally, over time, have figured out how to be results-oriented and convey your message at the same time as representing the we through your team and others. What other tools have helped you navigate through that?
Amy: I think about right out of school, when I was writing quarterly investor reports on orange juice, there are regular reports on how we were doing and what we were doing, “We are taking great care of your investment with us.”
You can do a retweet, you don’t have to say anything necessarily. Amplify others voices that you resonate with, and over time you start to develop your language about how you want to talk about things and represent yourself. It’s always helpful to raise others’ voices, that aren’t as loud as yours. You can use your voice to raise up others.
Alana: I know your identity is LBGTQ+ and has been a running theme in your life and career, and you share beautiful insights about this across jobs, now that you have been helping others what have you seen that has been critical for yourself or others on your journey?
Amy: I think one of the things you learn is that everything can be taken away at any time. Up until last year, there was no federal protection on losing your job because you were LGBTQ. There was a Supreme Court decision just last year. So, prior to last year, anyone could lose their job because they were LGBTQ and it totally was fine. We didn’t have marriage rights for the longest time. You can lose people in your life and job opportunities. You can’t take things for granted and you need to build your own family because your family leaves you. My mother still has a hard time with this and my dad was amazing, but my mom still struggles with this 20+ years later and it is her struggle. I value all of my relationships and I cherish all of those friendships. I send holiday cards, I have a big Chinese New Years celebration each year, I have rituals and I really cherish those relationships because they aren’t guaranteed.
Alana: I remember that you had hung a rainbow in your office and, in turn, interns felt like they could come to you and felt like they could belong. Have there been other things like that or things others did that you felt like helped really make a difference along the way? Or that you noticed that helped with that belonging or support for others?
Amy: Absolutely. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. We all stand here because people fought for us whether we know it or not.
Alana: What are the things we can do to support others?
Amy: I always think of Mr. Rogers when he says “look towards the helpers”.
I was very fortunate that when I came out, Melissa Ethredge and Ellen DeGeneres came out too, there were people out there using their voices to help others. When I got to Prudential the Chief Financial Officer was an amazing person and a lesbian. I hold on to these amazing inspirational people in my life. The CIO transitioned during their tenure and I got to present their story at an event.
Look to the helpers, look to see who has a voice, look to see what you can do, and learn about it. It can be messy based on the language, how we use it and how we say, but if you come to it with a feeling of curiosity, wanting to help and wanting to be a part of that change, it’s OK. Think about how we can come together.
Alana: Can you talk about any sponsor you may have had that made a difference in your career? How do we go about identifying sponsors and asking without feeling like you are imposing on others?
Amy: Sometimes you don’t know who is sponsoring or advocating for you, which is very interesting. It also comes back to that marketing piece. Get that positive story about yourself out there.
It might be sneaky how I do this, but people are interesting to me and I’m deeply interested in them and their stories. I reach out. Right now, I am deeply interested in COOs. So, I reach out to female COOs in my organization and ask them to tell me about their career and how they got there. I also think about who’s in the room when decisions are made, when promotions are made, when we talk about rating and merit and increases. I think about how many of those people I can share my story with and build my relationship with and I reach out. Sometimes it stops there and it is awkward and strange – I thank them – and sometimes it’s a 6-month engagement and sometimes it’s for life.
The CFO at Prudential and I are talking tomorrow and I’ve known this person for 20+ years. I am here at Marsh McLennan because someone I met 18 years ago called me up and said there’s a job for me here. My past 5 roles have been because people know my work and want me to join their teams.
The sponsors you may not know, and sometimes there are shining stars showing you the path and some of those relationships need to be built. Be prepared, do your homework so you don’t waste their time and then follow up and treat it like any relationship that you want to support.