Introducing – Eteroa Lafaele

Tell us about yourself, and your journey into Tech/STEM.

It all started when I was in high school – I went to Saint Mary’s College in Wellington – and it was year 12 chemistry. Before the technology side of my journey came in, I was really interested in chemistry. There was a big competition in Wellington, the titration competition, and it was the jam – everyone wanted to get into it, and I got involved in that. From that, in year 12 I got given a scholarship to go to Massey University in the summer of 2012, under the MacDiarmid Institute. I did a lot of nanotechnology and chemistry stuff with them. So my journey really started in chemistry – starting with the S of STEM. I did that for two years while I was in college. Everyone thinks NCEA Level 1-3 are the important parts of college, but I actually did a lot of behind the scenes stuff outside the school year. I did that for two years, and thought I was going to study chemistry – it wasn’t until I did Nanocamp, where I was introduced to computer science.

There was a lab that was on the other side of the MacDiarmid building in Victoria University, that had a whole halfway full of pictures of computer science greats, with a massive plaque at the end. And respect to our brothers, but it was all about the boys, and I felt the mana of “you know what, it’s time to try something new”. I loved chemistry, but it wasn’t really my kind of jazz at the end – I loved the work, but I got stuck in the middle of a basement of Victoria University, with no windows and just me, scientists and pipettes. So it was fun learning it, but I wanted to go meet some other people! After that encounter at the MacDiarmid building, I chose to change from computer science – which brought me from the S to the T of STEM.

The E of STEM was incorporated into the T – when I finished high school, I made the move to AUT. At AUT, the way they did their computer science degree was very different because AUT at the time had engineering and computer science quite close together. The engineering came into my degree because of the coding side – my major was software – we had heaps of papers with the engineering squad. And the M, the M will always be there – you need the maths, the maths is crucial! At this point in my career I may not do a whole bunch of science or engineering anymore, but the mathematics, even until now, it never leaves.

Why did you choose to go into tech and/or STEM?

A big thing for me was that we always hear about how we need more women in tech, and I totally support that kaupapa because there are not many of our sisters. But my second reason is very close to my heart, because there’s not a lot of Māori and Pasifika in technology as well. The digital technology stats that came out earlier this year had 4.8% Māori and 2.8% Pasifika. For me, my driving force was to open a pathway for my people, and especially for our sisters too – especially for our women that are Māori and Pasifika – because we need more of our sisters in these areas. And the reason why is because in our communities the main three careers for us are a lawyer, a doctor, or an accountant – and no one knows what a software engineer is, no one knows what a technology consultant is, what salesforce is. No one knows about these, so for me, it’s to spread awareness, and also I’m happy to go through all the hard times so that for the next generation it will be even easier. I’m not saying they won’t have troubles, but at least there’ll be a pathway to follow.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in along the way?

There are heaps! One challenge that comes up a lot, that a lot of our sisters can relate to, in technology there are a lot of roles there, but they don’t hire a lot of our sisters for the technical roles. And that’s the same for Māori and Pasifika – they always place us in into one area, even though we can work in the technical areas too! And so there’s a lot of that, which means we have to work three times harder to prove ourselves. It’s sad that this is still happening now in tech, but I think a big thing is is to really back yourself up in these situations – if you know you can do good in it, then find the right crowd in that place, and it will push you to that point. So a challenge is definitely trying to prove yourself even though you’ve already worked hard enough to get there.

Another challenge is that in a lot of tech companies you’ll be in a meeting, and sometimes, even now, I’ll be the only female in the room, or on the team. And it’s so hard, especially if you’re by yourself. I’m lucky, I have another sister, Grace, and we’ll back each other up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle style! Every time Grace says something, I have to back her up, because it really pushes the voice. So it’s a lot of that, trying to be a bit louder, not by voice tone, but just for others to understand and take us seriously.

A third challenge, which is a really big one for me, is that cultural intelligence. Sometimes, especially for Māori and Pasifika, some of our managers don’t necessarily understand our culture. So I had managers, that thought for a Tangi I’d need leave for one day – when a Tangi goes for three days. It’s important for others to understand culture – and this isn’t just Māori and Pasifika, it’s all cultures – we all have different ways of celebrating, and mourning death. So it’s just been a challenge of battling with people to get them to understand that even though it may take one day for you to grieve a family member, for our culture it takes three days or even a week. So that was a big one for me, because I had to really open up, the manual, and introduce people to my world, which is really difficult, especially if they’re from different cultural backgrounds. It’s all about being open minded.

Sometimes in my work I go into schools and try to motivate girls, and introduce them to the fields that there not necessarily attracted to because they haven’t been introduced to his world yet. So a big challenge is trying to persuade them, to help them realise that “sisters, we can still look fine and go to work at technology firms! We can still be ourselves and do the jam, it doesn’t really matter, don’t worry about the boys!” So the challenge is trying to switch the mind of the new generation, and tell them that this place is for you too.

Tell us about a highlight from your career and why it is significant to you...

For me, there’s been a lot of highlights, but for me the overall highlight would be when I graduated. It was such a battle at university, for a lot of reasons. I left home when I was 18, which was scary – I cried for a week when I left home, I wasn’t used to it, being so community-based with my family. It was just that whole struggle of being alone, and trying to navigate that new world by yourself – trying to have a great social life, to work hard, and party hard at the same time. Especially for me in my culture, being Samoan, I had obligations for me and my family to uphold, and to make sure I bring pride to my family. And so the pinnacle point for me was when I walked on that stage – I was so happy. It was totally worth the endless nights, the V’s at 3 in the morning when you might have had three weeks to hand in a paper but you do it the weekend of. The struggle is real, but at the end of the day it’s still amazing to graduate. I got to show my parents the fruit of their labour – they came from Samoa with nothing, and I was able to give them something they dreamed of for us as their kids, to get a good education. So overall just walking that red carpet, cause it was an expensive piece of paper, but it was worth it.

What are you working on now?

There’s a weird role now, I think there’s only six of us in New Zealand, called Developer Evangelists. It’s a crazy name and is a crazy role as well. Our team is global, but the lead Developer Evangelist who is with me, her name is Grace, and we work together in this role. Our role is funny, because in order to get into our role you need to have a history in software development, so Grace was a software engineer for a few years, I was a software engineer for the last three years. Our role is broken into two parts, one part is looking after a lot of app developers. So a lot of people use the Xero API, and myself and Grace are the people who certify and also check all these small businesses that build their own platforms and use the Xero API. So we tick them off and tell them if there’s anything they need to check. It’s a lot of conversations, and trying to support them in that.

Alongside that we also do a lot of ‘evangelism’ – it’s funny because I was brought up in the church, and when I told my dad that I was a Developer Evangelist, he totally cancelled out the developer, and just heard the evangelist! In that 50% we ‘evangelise’, we go out and talk to heaps of people about using the API, educating them and also getting them familiar with what it is, and just being a part of that community of developers. A lot of people in technical areas focus a lot on the customers, which is important because the main thing is the customers, but not a lot of people focus on the developer and their journey. So developer evangelists really try to sink deeper into how we can help our developers implement the API.

For me specifically, I have a background in the MERN stack (MongoDB, Express, React, Node), which is a lot of javascript stuff. I used to be a backend developer, but then I moved to the front end. So I will cover that in SDK.

It’s a very different role, you’re a software engineer, but you’re also a communicator – which is part of the reason why our sisters are so good at tech, anyone can learn the technical side, but the communication and the human skills are also really important.

Why do you think we need more women in tech and/or STEM?

We need more women in tech because, I believe, we are very strong – the Māori term for it is mana wahine. And we need these strong women in this industry because a lot of our own women are using these platforms and software stuff, or things produced from other areas using STEM. We have our own women using it, so it’s important that it’s made by women for women. Some of the software, or in science the publications, are all done by men – we live in a man’s world, but they don’t understand our needs. When it’s built by women for women, it shows that we really understand who we are and what we can bring.

Also, we are problem solvers. Especially in tech, if something crashes sometimes I watch our brothers get very aggressive or freak out, but our women when they come in and there’s a problem they have an attitude of not focusing on the drama and figuring out the problem. Because we’re really good at sorting out drama, and I really believe we need this sort of leadership there – things are magical with a women’s touch.

Another reason why women should be in STEM is because it really breaks the stereotype that we’re only meant to be in other types of jobs. Us women, we can do anything, it’s just in the last few decades women were placed in certain jobs, which makes us even more extraordinary when we get into STEM. And also if we have more women in technology and STEM it really shows the next generation that if one sister can do it, they can do it too. In our culture, especially in Samoan, and Te Ao Māori, women are always represented in high order, because one they provide life, and also they give wise wisdom to not only their people, but also their community and family. And I definitely believe if we have more women in tech they too can provide life and wisdom.

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