Introducing – Nicole Lin

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

For me, tech hasn’t been a straightforward journey, it has been a series of zig-zags, ups and downs, diagonals, like a jungle gym.

When I was younger, I loved computers. I’ve been obsessed with computers since I was 6, which was the first time that I saw a computer. It felt to me that it was a magical box that could make anything happen.

As I got older, I experienced comments like, “you don’t belong”, which made me feel like I didn’t fit into the sector, like, you’re a girl – what are you doing here. Those words do hurt when you’re young, when you’re still trying to figure out what you want to do, these words can really affect you.

So I dropped ICT when I was in high school, even though I felt like I wanted to continue, and it was a mistake because I had let other people’s voices get to me. I gave up on my passions and dreams, and treated it as a hobby rather than a career. Throughout high school, I did some coding, like HTML/CSS but nothing more than that. High school was not a great period for me. I lost a lot of my self-esteem, self-worth, and self-belief. I didn’t have the right mentors or support system, and I didn’t get access to the right opportunities to realise what I could be. Because I did not see it, I did not think I could become it.

I never really saw myself being in tech until university, when I was shoulder tapped to enter the Microsoft Imagine Cup (a tech entrepreneurship competition), and I got into the New Zealand finals. It was the first time that I realised that you can make some really cool things happen. At the time I wasn’t in tech, I was still studying accounting and finance – I guess my parents helped me choose my initial career path as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.

For me, a conversation I had a few weeks ago summed it up. Someone mentioned to me: “You didn’t get into tech – you returned to tech. You were in it, but became lost and didn’t realise you could be part of it.” All of us at some point in our lives lost something that we held dear to our heart. But, because of circumstances, because of our environment, often due to the lack of support for our passions, we gave them up. But it’s never too late to return. But then, I came to the end of my degree, and I was offered a position at one of the big four accounting firms, and that was the moment where I had to drop a lot of what I was doing, and just become part of the crowd climbing the corporate ladder. And I realised that it wasn’t making me happy. Ultimately it wasn’t really what I wanted – I felt a little bit out of place because I realised that my heart was in a different place.

I did a really cool secondment to digital consulting and it was kind of eye-opening because it allowed me to see the potential of design thinking and how when you connect the dots between technology, business, and design, at the intersection something magical happens. It’s really cool. And I think, you never know, you always have to look beyond what is in front of you, and ask yourself, when will you take that step? If not now, then when?

So, after 1.5 years at the big four, I decided to leave.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain

I finally found my why. Ultimately, my why is my passion and purpose, and technology is a tool that allows it to be unleashed and scaled.

When I left the big four, I had no idea what my next steps were going to be, it was kind of like, let’s just jump into the unknown and see what happens. At that point, I didn’t have any technical degree, so a lot of what I knew was from my experiences with different projects.

I went onto a program working on an action plan tackling the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and went to New York, to work with other young changemakers from all around the world. What I realised was that there are a lot of critical issues that we need to solve in our generation, and we don’t have a lot of time left. If we can unleash the power of technology and human ingenuity, we can achieve these goals at a pace a lot faster than we are right now. We can sit inside a room and talk all day, but we need people to take action – we cannot achieve anything if we just envision and not draw, or paint, or act upon those impulses.

So when I returned from that trip, I took a bit of time to think about my next steps, and decided to go back to university to study my masters in IT. It was a cool period where I got to experience and experiment with technology, so I did a whole bunch of papers across different areas of technology, trying to figure out what I would like. One cool paper I did was on big data and data mining, and I realised there are some interesting insights that you can surface to make better-informed decisions, which sparked my interest in data science.

While I was still studying, I worked at Microsoft for a year, and while I was there I got to lead the Microsoft Imagine Cup program in New Zealand. It was awesome coming full circle, being on the other side of the table, having lived through the experience as a student who was deeply impacted in a life-changing way, to jump into tech to become an activator and enabler, was such a powerful, inspiring, amazing feeling. That year was quite a memorable year, I remember running around campus, trying to get people to sign up, there was a lot of hard work but it was so satisfying to see the students turn up, really commit to working on their projects, submitting their proposals and turning up for the presentations.

After I left Microsoft I went to Spark to work on data science, diving deeper into technical projects, doing more coding, building machine learning models, deriving customer insights to help stakeholders make data-driven decisions to enable marketing automation and precision marketing campaigns. I’ve learned a lot from the experience.

I’ve come to a turning point recently where I’ve decided to expand my horizons once again. I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t feel like you have to fit yourself inside a box. Sometimes following your heart, being guided by your north star, guided by the compass that allows you to see pathways that nobody else sees, trusting that instinct, sailing the unknown waters. Just going with the flow is quite a beautiful feeling, even though it can be quite scary and quite daunting. For me what has always informed my decisions in my career has been around impact – how do I maximize my impact, how do I actually have the sense of purpose that I know what I’m doing is actually creating good for the world. I’m quite excited about the next steps that I’ll be taking.

What’s been important for me throughout this entire journey is my commitment to giving back to our communities helping other young women and girls who were in my shoes, who have doubted themselves, who had no mentors, who had no overview of what they could become, because I felt that was a lonely experience for me. I felt the pain and the alienation of not being included, and being told that I didn’t belong and I don’t want anyone else to ever feel that way. That is my mission, which is why I’m just really honored to be part of She Sharp, being part of this awesome team of amazing women who are pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo, bridging the gender gap. A lot of incredible people have come through and made this platform possible. I’m really proud that we are all pushing forward in the best way that we can to allow more women to be visible, to be heard, to be seen, to be included, to be able to move through the ranks, to be able to disrupt the status quo, so that we can create a more equitable inclusive and diverse future for all of us.

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

I think perception is definitely one of the biggest challenges. Sometimes when you are in a room with a lot of men, people don’t necessarily go to you for questions, they go to the men first, even though you know the answer. That’s something that I’ve faced, but I also know other people have faced as well. It’s frustrating to try to find how we can change that perception, challenge that perception. A bit of that is finding allies that can back us up, to say  “we need to you know we need to respect their voices and not just go straight to the man by default”. 

It’s also not easy being a change maker in this space because people will tell you that there’s no problem, that you’re trying to do something that isn’t really going to change a lot of the status quo. Or they’ll tell you that women are just inherently not good at science or something really stupid. It’s hard to keep going, but I always believe that there’s more good than bad in the world and there’s always more allies than detractors. When you’re in space you just have to be really strong about what you see and what you know, and know the facts so that you can back up your arguments with those facts. Also building allyship, and collaboration across the sector, academia, industry, and communities so that we can all pitch in, to have that unified voice. It’s also important to remember, some of the biggest allies that I’ve had in my life are actually male. So I think we have to look at people’s intentions, not necessarily their gender when trying to find allies.

Another challenge I’ve faced is a common one in New Zealand. In a lot of ways, I think what I see in New Zealand is an under-investment in our talent. In many of our companies, the thinking is that because people are going to leave in about two years there’s no point in investing in their learning and development, which is totally wrong. It’s also really dangerous because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you don’t invest in your people, how do you know they’re going to stay with you, and how do you expect them to? How will you allow them to grow, prosper, and strive if you’re not investing in their potential, if you’re not giving an opportunity to step up, and you’re not giving them a chance to be heard. There are so many people who deserve a chance, they just need to be seen and heard.

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

A recent highlight for me was being nominated as a finalist in the impact awards this year. It was quite a humbling feeling because it really is a milestone for me to be in this position, where 10 years ago I would never have expected myself to be even flying the flag for a woman in STEM, that’s how far it came from that moment. It’s been a series of a lot of hard work, and things that I think people don’t necessarily see on the outside. There’s been days when I doubted myself, and you and I know we all suffer from imposter syndrome. Sometimes you don’t know if you’re doing enough, or if you’re good enough, because there’s always going to be people telling you this and that, and sometimes that can be quite harmful to your self-esteem and your self-worth. I think there are traumas that we all carry with us because of those moments of alienation. Even though I try to get over it, sometimes they do come back every now and then. Being at the Festival for the Future, and at the night of the Impact Awards was a really humbling experience, because I saw other change makers who are also going through what I’ve been going through, building this movement, being the champion, and just putting yourself out there, despite all the potential for people to attack you or undermine your platform.

I guess what’s significant to me is that after so much hard work, you realize that you know your work is worth it, that people recognise what you’re doing and acknowledge and appreciate it. I think it’s a bit of fuel for me to keep it up and not be swayed by the potential challenges that I face. One thing I was thinking about recently is that this is a journey of overcoming and becoming – overcoming the challenges and becoming what I should be as an ally, as an advocate.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a few side projects. I’m still very passionate about entrepreneurship – I’ve recently been accepted into the Startmate founders fellowship program, so I’m looking forward to starting that journey in the next couple of weeks. I’m looking to start scaling some of these ideas I’ve just been working on in the background. I want to bring them to the forefront, and find a way to scale them and make them a little bit bigger than they are. I also love the work we’re doing with She Sharp so I want to spend more time working on some of these initiatives, and hopefully we can expand our reach and our impact across New Zealand – not just in Auckland. There are other regions that we need to reach out to, so it’s super exciting. 

I’m also working on myself. I think it’s really important to be forever curious and just keep learning, because I think this is a never-ending journey, as long as we’re alive. I think it’s this that keeps us going, and I think in this changing world where everything’s moving so quickly, there are new things, new ideas, new challenges, and paradigms coming up all the time.

What I truly believe in is becoming a ‘t-shaped person’. There’s a design consulting company called IDEO, and what they describe as a t-shaped person is someone who has a specialization, but also a wide range of other skill sets – a generalist but also a specialist. It’s a really cool idea, but what I think is important is having multiple t’s, like a very long wide t so that you become versatile, with all the intersectionalities of these disciplines. What I think is missing right now is that a lot of organizations love focusing on specialists, so you have people who are in one silo or another, and there’s a gap in the middle where if you just pooled your knowledge you could see what’s missing, and see the perspectives that they don’t see. So I think it’s essential that we keep challenging ourselves to look beyond our box, to open the box, and get out of the box.

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

In tech, we shouldn’t be making decisions for other people that we can’t empathise with. We can’t have the same people at the tables who don’t look like the majority of our population making those decisions for us, and creating those products without the input of the end-users, who don’t necessarily understand the gaps in-between. I think we bring a different perspective if you like, the softer side of things – we see more subtle details. Obviously I’m generalizing, but we see the emotions and people’s feelings and I think sometimes men can be a little bit aloof about it, not intentionally, but they kind of don’t see things as we do. 

Our gender ratio in STEM is so low – women fill only 20-25% of technical roles, and we’re still a long way off from achieving 50/50. What’s happening now is a ripple effect where we’ve started these conversations. We have raised the visibility of these issues, we’re trying to bring more people into the fold by ensuring that it’s not just at the start of the talent pipeline but that we’re also bringing people in and helping them cultivate their interest and that passion. Growing that understanding of how many diverse roles actually exist and what would actually look like for them is important. It’s also important to help people already in the sector to train, upskill and stay in the sector to become leaders that can open more pathways for others to follow. It’s so important that we are looking at all aspects of how we make sure that we’re always pushing those boundaries.

Diversity is about bringing people who have different experiences and different lenses to the fold so that we have better conversations around what the solution could look like.  I’m really interested in seeing not just women but also other marginalized groups – particularly the Maori and Pasifika communities who currently represent a very small, single-digit, percentage of our sector. We need more voices in that regard – Indigenous knowledge is actually quite important in grounding us in this world. Looking at the challenges that we face today, we have climate change issues, biodiversity issues, poverty issues, and data sovereignty issues – there are so many things that we could actually do in a better way if we were a bit more sustainable with our approach. The indigenous worldview is actually quite powerful, which is what I’ve learned from my observation and exposure to that world, and I think a lot of businesses would really benefit from having more diversity.

Another thing that I feel is lacking is the opportunities that exist in rural communities. In the urban centers that we live in it’s easy to just go to a meet-up or go to an event – they’re happening every day pretty much, but in those rural communities with some people not even having proper access to the internet, they’re missing out. During COVID times, people who don’t have devices for example or don’t have the basic necessities that allow them to be connected, they’re missing out on being part of this digital economy and that’s actually quite dangerous, because this divide will get bigger if we don’t bring them into consideration when we’re designing services or products.

Another thing is accessibility – we have to remember that there are about one billion people in the world who have some form of disability, which is quite a big population, but we’re not designing with them in mind. We’re designing with an assumption that everyone’s abled, everyone’s able to see, to hear, to type – things that we take for granted. I’ve been doing an accessibility project on using technology and interviewing some people in this field. Someone I interviewed said that when they were trying to sign up to all these new services last year because of COVID-19, they were trying to enter a captcha, and because they couldn’t see, they couldn’t see the button to click. They struggled for about 40 minutes, and then they cried and gave up and that’s just not right. When we design with inclusion and accessibility in mind, we’re improving accessibility for everyone, so that is why I think it’s so important to be empathetic. The humanness of technology needs to be there – we can’t just accelerate and just keep going ahead and leave behind the most vulnerable people, they need to be at the table.

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