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Human-Centered Agile Teams and Career Exploration: EPAM Speakers at the Women in Tech Summit

This year’s Women in Tech Summit (WITS) engaged more than 50 female tech speakers including EPAM’s Rebecca Deery, Senior Director of Experience Design, and Jennifer Dionisio, Associate Director of Content Strategy. In this interview, they share a summary of their talks, discuss post-pandemic learning opportunities, and encourage younger technologists to become speakers themselves.

WITS and the Opportunities it Offers

What is the idea behind the Women in Tech Summit, and who are its usual speakers?

Jennifer: Normally, WITS takes place twice a year. It was originally an in-person event in Philadelphia, but with the pandemic, it has moved online and expanded to include people from all over the United States.

Rebecca: WITS focuses on career development and networking; it is about giving women access to different types of technology roles and meeting all sorts of people across the industry.

In terms of participation and speakers, WITS is a mix of large enterprise companies like EPAM, AWS, IBM, Avanade, etc., as well as small tech businesses and startups. The diversity is great, especially for younger technologists who can get an idea of the full spectrum of career opportunities ahead. Another important thing is that the ticket sales for the event go to the nonprofit organization TechGirlz, gives even younger audiences like middle school students access to technology.

Was this your first time speaking at WITS?

Jennifer: I had attended the summit before, but this was my first time as a speaker.

Rebecca: This was my first time attending and speaking.

What were your general impressions of the summit? What did you like most of all?

Jennifer: I liked the mix of talks and workshops. Depending on what people were looking for, they could either absorb and learn, or target their experience on something relevant to them.

There were many other opportunities outside of the direct agenda for people to meet up and share resources they use for things like learning and growing in their careers, posting job openings, and so on.

Rebecca: I loved the diversity of the talks. Some of them were centered around inclusiveness in technology, like “Artificial Intelligence for Good” by Jenni Glenski of Intellidyn or “Neurodivergent User Experience Design” by Kate Gatto of Monmouth University. I have participated in many conferences and other events of this kind, but these talks featured some new things I had not heard before.

I was also really impressed by how the event was managed online. Since the content was recorded, you could check it out and ask questions at different times. For example, my talk was pre-recorded and days after it had been published, I was still getting questions that I could engage with on my own time. Being able to absorb content or have conversations at different times of the day is an aspect of conferences many would not have experienced in pre-pandemic times since physical attendance was not very accessible for a lot of people. I really love the fact that conferences like WITS are not only creating virtual communities but also letting people take in information when it is convenient for them.

Rebecca, can you please describe the topic of your talk at WITS and share some of its main points?

Rebecca: My talk, “Scaling and Maturing Human-Centered Agile Teams,” focused on applying mindsets, behaviors and perspectives of human-centered design to agile projects. I talked about behaviors of team dynamics, creating inclusive user stories, and storytelling; all that fits nicely into agile teams and processes and, at the same time, humanizes those technical aspects. I was bringing something to the technical community from the user experience (UX) perspective to provoke a mindset shift related to things that they do every day.

When you scale projects and teams, changing processes may be hard for lots of different reasons. However, being able to reframe your everyday processes and behaviors on projects can result in a more effective transition for teams. For example, writing more human-centered requirements could cut down confusion or misalignment on any sort of team tasks—and that could save costs for your project. Likewise, applying storytelling methods when presenting your ideas will connect you with the audience and enable stakeholders to understand the context of a feature better. That could also be beneficial for your project.

There are a lot of small behavioral changes that could have measurable positive outcomes without massive and slow shifts in processes. There always are opportunities to treat people like people because we build products for people.

That is what my argument was centered around.

You mentioned that you received some questions from your audience. What were they mainly about?

Rebecca: I received several questions about getting buy-in for changing behavior or having more human-centric activities on projects. That is always the biggest question: how do you get your leadership to buy into new ideas? My advice with those types of questions is to start small: break down ideas into actionable and measurable things and then get fast feedback.

If we are, for example, speaking of incorporating more storytelling into creating tasks, you can quickly determine whether stories were completed faster or if there was less rework. Then you will be able to take a small subset of those actions and present your findings to the leadership to demonstrate exactly what change was made and what the positive results are.

So, my generalized answer is to always collect and give feedback. It can be effective and quick in terms of getting further buy-in or even growing more interest in your ideas.

Jennifer, how did you come up with the idea for your workshop at WITS?

Jennifer: The topic, “Career Explorers: Find Your Way Forward by Looking Back,” was inspired by a few things. The most obvious one is that, because of the pandemic, a lot of people are now rethinking their work lives and the ways they want them to look.

Prior to the pandemic, a lot of people were transitioning into technology careers were often “told” what skillsets they needed to be attractive to tech companies. When you are too focused on impressing a company, you might lose sight of what you like, what environment you want to work in, and what you want to be doing.

As for those who have worked in technology for longer, the idea of the traditional career ladder where you move vertically from one role to another seems to be less relevant today, especially at different life stages. For example, you might have a lot happening in your personal life that keeps you from climbing that ladder, but you still want to be engaged at work and get exposed to new skills. How do you bridge that transition?

Those points are insightful! Could you share some ways a person could evaluate their career path that you provided at the workshop?

Jennifer: The workshop was divided into three parts. The first was an exercise that the participants did independently and then went into breakout rooms to discuss with each other. I asked them to look at all their past work experiences and map them in “peaks and valleys” depending on when they felt excited, engaged, and in the right place versus when they felt the opposite.

The next exercise was to take those reflections and apply them to what really matters to the participants in terms of their work lives, beginning with foundational and practical needs like money and benefits, to things like activities, skills, opportunities to learn and grow, alignment to purpose, and work-life balance. The idea was to think about those ‘must-have' needs from their actual job.

The final part had participants take those findings and prioritize what matters most to them right now. For example, someone young and hungry might prioritize learning and growing opportunities, while someone who recently had to take care of a parent may be looking for more work-life balance. So, I wanted to help people not to think about what they feel like they should be doing right now, but about what they want and need to be doing. I also wanted to reinforce the idea that these things change over time.

When people are unhappy at work, they often feel like they need to blow everything up to become happy again: quit their jobs, leave their companies, or do something totally new. But a lot of times that is not actually the case. Maybe they just need a new challenge if they are bored, or they need to add some boundaries if they are feeling stressed.

This workshop was a way to identify what might really be stirring up some of those feelings and find small practical steps to address them. It seemed to attract a lot of people who were newer to the industry or hoping to break into technology careers.

Applying Findings at EPAM and Becoming a Conference Speaker

Did you attend other talks at WITS and hear something that excited you personally?

Rebecca: My favorite talk was “Artificial Intelligence for Good,” which I have already mentioned. It centered around the ways artificial intelligence improves reproductive medicine using predictive analytics and modeling to develop a non-invasive way to diagnose and predict fertility. This topic is highly relevant to a lot of women, and it had a very multi-disciplinary and diverse team working to solve this problem. I thought it was extremely insightful and inspiring.

An exciting thing is that all these ideas are things I feel EPAM can do. It was a great opportunity to hear from other companies and people about how they are addressing things like technology for good. I feel like I can take these insights and apply them at EPAM. So, apart from the interesting content itself, I also found this topic timely and relevant to our work.

How does one become a speaker at WITS?

Rebecca: The call for speakers for this conference is twice a year. Usually, there is a general theme or topic. If you have a workshop idea, would like to give a short speech, or want to make a presentation, you could indicate one of these types of talks when you submit a topic. Do not be afraid that somebody has already done that talk because everybody's perspective on a topic is completely different. And I think we can always continue to support younger technologists who have new ideas and fresh takes on technology subjects.

Jennifer: Giving talks is something I try to do regularly to keep my presentation and storytelling skills up to date. I would be happy to look at any submissions EPAMers are working on to pitch talks of their own. Another useful resource is a great group called Women Talk Design. It is a community that supports women to be more confident when speaking and giving talks. They do a lot of workshops on how to pick and pitch topics, how to practice speaking, and how to adapt your content for different audiences.

Explore more stories of the many events and personal testimonies happening within EPAM, and if you’d like to join Jennifer and Rebecca at EPAM, explore our career opportunities and apply here