Canadian geek in Myanmar

Category: Management

Women in tech in Myanmar

So recently I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In…actually, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on it, which was lost and instead of rewriting it, I’ve decided to write this one first.  I will still write one on my thoughts of Lean In but suffice it to say, it’s been fairly motivating, which was surprising to me.

One of the things I’ve always been fairly passionate about is girls in tech, especially in developing markets like Vietnam and Myanmar.  Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income.  And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  I believe that there are two major reasons for this:

1. There are not enough women working in technology therefore not enough representation of a female’s viewpoint

2. One fallout of the above is that there is not enough digital content catered to women

Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity in that it is a nation that is coming online all at once and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.  What’s even more interesting is that in Myanmar, it’s estimated that 95% of the teachers in post-secondary STEM classes are female and over half of the students are girls.  

Even though more girls graduate with Computer Science degrees than boys in Myanmar, the fledgling tech scene in Myanmar is still dominated by men, especially at the higher levels of the organization. Even at the budding entrepreneur level, I have only ever met one girl but countless boys who are in various stages of launching a tech start up. I think one of the biggest factors that is causing the high drop off rate of girls with STEM educations versus women in tech leadership is that the girls are simply not aware of the career choices available to them with their degree – I noticed a similar trend in Vietnam.  Basically, girls graduate with a CompSci degree and think that they either need to become a software programmer or network engineer. Entrepreneurship isn’t as culturally accepted as it is in more developed nations, especially for young women who would be expected to be settling down with a family in a few years.  Meaning, it would be much easier to tell mom and dad they work at a big company (even as an admin) than to try to explain that they are building something that fewer than 10% of the nation could even use, let alone want to try. So these girls abandon a possible career in technology very early on, which is a real tragedy.

Here’s a story that Thaung Su Nyein from Information Matrix recently shared with me…

The ICT committee at the UMFCCI (basically Myanmar’s chamber of commerce) was hiring and received 12 candidates – 11 females and only 1 male.  Of those 12 candidates, only 3 (the male and two females) were interested in an actual tech role, the remaining 9 wanted to apply for secretarial / clerical jobs.  This hurts my head and of course motivates me to try to change the tide here before these behaviours become too ingrained like in other developing countries.

Back to the book Lean In, there many parts of that book, especially early on where I rolled my eyes…and yet as I completed it, I realized that the real message that I got is that the few women leaders out there need to start speaking up and helping to create a new generation of female leaders.  Until there’s more representation at the top, we will continue to struggle with the gender divide.  Oh..the other message I got loud and clear is that “feminist” isn’t a dirty word 🙂  In any case, I realized after reading that book that I needed to step up.  Not only am I a female CEO for a tech company, I am also in a market where the gender divide is even greater than what Sandberg deals with.  So, over the next few months, I hope to gather women in technology leadership roles in Myanmar together to help. These young girls need role models and mentors. They need to see a viable career in technology, one that can be highly rewarding for men and women.  More to come as we start to roll out some of our programs…

Set the finish line, not the route

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” ~General George Patton

I couldn’t agree more. I am a big believer in management setting up the finish line, and ensuring everyone knows where that is but letting your team determine the route to get there.

This is especially true in building technology. Giving the developers the ability to work through bumps, hiccups and bugs on their own will allow the teams to collectively move so much faster. If the leader needs to be there for every little snag, nothing is ever going to be pushed through. Bottlenecks are the death of rapid iteration. Yes, letting go of control is a little scary but if you’re doing your job right, you would have hired people smarter than you anyway. Trust them. Besides, no one likes a micro-manager and as a leader, don’t you get paid too much to just babysit?

That’s not to say that you can just step back and watch. This method of leadership only works if the managers are available to help and step in if/when necessary. I’m not sure what’s worse, a micro-manager or a totally disinterested one.

Vietnam’s acceptance of mediocrity

One of the most frustrating things I find about shopping in Vietnam is that all the sales people continually tell you “it’s fine, it’s fine” while they’re imitating a bobblehead toy on an offroading expedition I’m sure everyone here has come across this. I ask for a size 6 shoe, they only have a size 5 but it’s fine. No green paint? Here’s some red. It’s fine. I get that they are just trying to make a sale but it’s irritating to be pushed to buy something I’m not looking for. Sometimes, it is fine despite the fact that it’s not what I asked for – living in a country like Vietnam, you just need to get zen about some of this stuff.

However, when it comes to work, it’s certainly not fine. The “it’s fine” excuse is used all time. The allowance of a half-assed job breeds a culture of mediocrity that is not okay. Everyone in the organization must understand what excellence looks like, how it can be achieved and their role in owning that.

Build a cult of excellence
Humans have a natural inclination to seek acceptance – no one wants to be the proverbial fat kid picked last. So ensure that everyone understands that when they are not delivering, they are not only letting themselves down, but their team mates as well.

Get rid of the deadweight
If everyone around you is an A player who delivers exceptional work, the mediocre ones are easy to pick out. Working at a huge company like EA, you can see B and C players hiding amongst the rock stars. In a start up, that’s a whole lot harder to do. In either cases though, leaders must take ownership of their team. Take the time to train and develop your people but don’t shy away from making tough decisions either. If you can’t break the it’s fine factor, you need to let them go before they infect others. Otherwise, you allow everyone to believe that excellence is optional, which is a slippery slope.

Down with the Eye Rollers

Anyone who’s done a start up knows that you’re going to get a lot of doubters and haters in your early concepting stage.  For those who are going to go through with the leap, you’ve got to grow a thick skin and brush off the negativity and just keep going.  I’ve certainly been meeting my share of the Eye Rollers in recent months.  On one hand, they do provide some valid points but oftentimes I’m finding that the perceived value I’m getting from them is not close to offsetting how damaging their negativity is to my psyche.

I was recently pulling myself out of a funk of a this-isn’t-going-to-work conversation when I came to the realization that this particular Eye Roller was very similar to the worse boss I have ever had.  The Dictator was a classic low self esteem, going to push everyone down and take all the credit type.  You know the one – Vietnam is FULL of them.  Anytime I presented an idea to her, she would pooh-pooh everything and tell me exactly why it wouldn’t work while rolling her eyes at me, at which point in time I would shuffle out of her office with my head down in embarrassment.  BTW, this was REALLY early in my career.  After a while, I noticed that many of the projects we were getting “from the top” resembled my ideas but with just a little bit of refinement.  Ah, the corporate rat race, how I do not miss thee.

Fast forward a decade or so and here I am.  Refining a product idea I want to spin into a start up and I’ve got another Eye Roller in my life.  Luckily I’m not the same young girl that the Dictator pushed around.  Still, the basic principle remains the same: she listens with barely contained derision, interrupts constantly with comments like “yeah, I’ve heard all this before” and ends with a lot of “you’re wasting your time” type comments.  While (Thank God) I’m not her employee, the Eye Roller is someone who I was trusting to give me constructive feedback and help me to flesh out a few nuances of my product. Instead, I got total demoralization and pretty much nothing I could construe as useful…lots of broad “things” I should look into but that she could barely understand.  I wasted half a day chasing down a lose end and when I went back to ask her to give me more clarification, I got a blank look and a response along the lines of “oh I heard it from someone somewhere”.  Grrrr.

Ten years ago I dealt with the Dictator by eventually quitting my job but there’s no way that the Eye Roller is going to get me to give up.  Thank God, I’ve got really smart people in my life who are not only enormously encouraging but willing to place money against my idea because, dammit, it’s a GREAT one.

Managers, take a moment to think of the last time you didn’t agree with an idea from an employee.  How did you handle it? Were you constructive and respectful, even if you thought the idea was bat-shit crazy?  Because here’s the thing, the most important thing really isn’t what you think of the idea, it’s how you handle the feedback.

Building team culture in Vietnam

Since returning to Vietnam I seem to be having the same discussion with everyone about staffing in Vietnam. So many of the expat leaders I talk to have the same complaints about their Vietnamese staff. “They” are too lazy, irrational, incompetent, etc, etc. It was the same as when I first moved to VN 2 years ago to join a tech start up, I was told over and over that building a flexible, relaxed tech culture was not possible here. There were all kinds of excuses given as to why Vietnamese organizations looked more like a daycare (complete with lunch ordering and nap time) than a company filled with high-functioning adults.

I call bullshit.

I guess that one of the biggest issues right off the start is that so many expats I met just didn’t believe there were enough high-functioning adults in the country. And while, I have seen and heard enough to know that there’s certainly some justification to this, I do have a problem painting everyone with that same brush. In many cases, we are talking about a lack of training and expectations, versus stupidity or an unwillingness to learn. As a matter of fact, I would argue that there are far too many expats in the country who are not nearly as experienced as they would like to have everyone believe, especially when it comes to leadership and management.

The reality is that in Vietnam we have creative directors who were graphic designers in their home countries or restaurant managers who used to fry chicken wings. Without having any foundation of management skills, the default MO seems to be to fall into line with what everyone else is doing – usually this means micro-management, lots of yelling and bitching. Has it ever occurred to these managers that they failed in the first rule of management: be clear on your expectations right off the top. One of the first conversations I ever have with a new staff member goes something like this: “I hired you because I think you’ll be great at this job and will be a fit with the team. That means that I will treat you as an adult and help you however I can to set you up for success in this role and for your future. In return, you will act like an adult. So you’re welcome to come and go as you please however you will meet your commitments and do your job. If you have a meeting, you will be on time and 100% there. No answering the phone, no texting, no Skyping. If you have a deadline, you will meet it. If you can’t or don’t know what to do, you will talk to me about it BEFORE that deadline, not 2 days after. Capiche?” I will usually go on with a few more specifics of the job, but you get the general idea.

Let’s be clear, I don’t believe that everyone in Vietnam would shine in this kind of culture but then I’d say the same for the US or Canada. That’s why unions exist. However, my underlying logic is this: despite all the apparent differences between the cultures, humans all have the same basic needs. My friend Chris explained it best: All humans have the same fundamental needs but the “culture” layer refracts this into different patterns, much like sunlight through a prism. That being the case, it stands to reason that people in Vietnam would also value being treated with respect, understanding and frankly, like they aren’t the fat kid picked last in a ball game.

Having worked here for the past 2 years, I’ve come across countless young Vietnamese who have the same brains, ambition and drive as their counterparts in the Silicon Valley. There are a particular few who shine brighter than many I’ve worked with in North America or Europe and those are the guys who continue to give me hope for Vietnam.

I know that many who read this may find me too idealistic, which is kind of funny since no one who knows me would accuse me of being a kind or empathetic person. So while you may dismiss this view point as unrealistic, first ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to help your staff meet your expectations as opposed to bitching about how they’re failing you.

One final point, my basic management style holds true for all levels of the organization. Even my personal maid and I have a strong working relationship. She knows what she needs to do, I stay out of her way and she lets me know if she runs into any hiccups. Yeah, we still have regressive moments but they are pretty far and few between these days. And remember, a little patience and a few deep breaths go a long way when dealing with staffing issues, wherever in the world they may reside.