Jenny Strickland | Vistair
What's your superpower?
Jenny Strickland's is her dyslexia. Since being diagnosed at the age of 14 Jenny has learnt to embrace her dyslexia and we are HERE FOR IT! The tech industry thrives on diversity and inclusion, valuing different ways of thinking and unique perspectives, so as Development Director at Vistair Systems, Jenny harnesses her ability to solve problems quickly in her own way and celebrates her uniqueness.
She's also a mum of two, a huge ED&I advocate and has recently set up Women @ Vistair to make sure the company are as inclusive to their needs as it can be...basically she's a superhero, without the cape - they don't all wear them you know...
HI JENNY, THANK YOU FOR BEING INVOLVED WITH WOMEN ROCK! COULD YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU FIRST GOT STARTED IN TECH?
I actually got into tech by pure luck! When doing my A Levels I was really into sport (you wouldn’t think that now looking at me) and thought that would be the career path for me, however near the end of my studies I realised that it was just not for me as a career.
Fairly quickly I had to look for an alternative path that was interesting to me, one degree really stood out. Business information management systems (BIMS) just ticked so many boxes. Coming from an entrepreneurial family I am really interested in how businesses are run etc.
I was lucky that I worked with great people on the course and the engineering side was extremely interesting. I was then fortunate to get a placement year that cemented that this was the career path for me.
YOU ARE THE DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR AT VISTAIR SYSTEMS IN BRISTOL, WE ABSOLUTELY LOVE TO SEE A WOMAN LEADING FROM THE FRONT WITHIN A TECH COMPANY. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE AND WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT THE JOB?
I often get asked these questions in interviews and I find it difficult to answer. I like to think that my style is to empower people, get buy-in by ensuring people understand what I am trying to do, and being as transparent as I can be - what you see is what you get.
I am passionate about my job; I love to see what the team can build and share in their successes. My favourite type of meeting is when we are all swarmed around a whiteboard collaborating on ideas and feeding off everyone’s energy and excitement.
AS A WOMAN IN TECHNOLOGY, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE BEST AND WORST THING YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED WITHIN THE INDUSTRY OVER THE YEARS?
Good question! The worst thing I have encountered was quite a few years ago, I was in a meeting where I was the only female representative and was completely ignored. When I made suggestions, these were then repeated by someone else in the room! I felt completely invisible.
Although the above is an extreme example of not feeling noticed, I see this behaviour on a surprisingly frequent basis, especially in interviews, where the interviewee cannot look me in the eye etc (let’s just say that they do not get the job!). I think people are still surprised to see a female leader in tech.
As someone that suffers from imposter syndrome, I think it’s important to have a community of women that support each other. When you have this, you can really thrive and feel supported in whatever you do. My time working at Vistair has been amazing, I never think of myself as a female leader or woman in technology I am just part of the team, and everyone is supporting you.
QUITE A LOT OF WOMEN HAVE FELT THEY HAVE HAD TO MAKE SACRIFICES WITH FAMILY TO PURSUE THEIR CAREER CHOICES, AS A MOTHER YOURSELF HAVE YOU EVER COME UP AGAINST ANY BARRIERS LIKE THIS AND IF SO, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
I have two wonderful but slightly demanding children (7 & 9), I am lucky that now that they are at school, I can spend time focusing on myself and my career however this has not always been the case.
The hardest time for me was going on maternity leave and not working for that period. I was really honest with my employer at the time and they added lots of keeping-in-touch days so that I felt like I was still part of the company.
After my first, I decided to work part-time, but unfortunately, this did not work for me so went back full time quickly. This meant that they had to go to nursery at a young age, I was very critical of myself at the time and trying to juggle the best for me and also my children.
My advice to anyone in a similar situation is to be transparent with your partner and your manager about what is and is not working for you. But also don’t be hard on yourself and compare yourself to others.
I KNOW THAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT BUILDING A DIVERSE TEAM AT VISTAIR, AND YOU’VE BEEN SUCCESSFUL WITH DIVERSE HIRES RECENTLY – HOW DO YOU ENSURE YOUR INTERVIEW PROCESS IS INCLUSIVE AND WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER HIRING MANAGERS AROUND THIS?
I always try and keep interviews as informal as possible; I believe that you are not going to get the most out of the interviewees if the candidates are not relaxed. A successful interview for me is when the candidate does not actually feel they were in an interview.
I think it is also important to talk about your company values and what type of candidate you are looking for, this makes them already feel like they can add value to your company.
If possible, bring people into the interview that would make the candidate feel at ease or they can relate to, they are much more likely to accept an offer if they feel like they “belong”.
WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT VISTAIR IS A GREAT PLACE TO WORK FOR PEOPLE FROM ALL DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS AND WALKS OF LIFE?
Vistair has a great culture of inclusiveness and hiring great people no matter what their backgrounds are.
The fact that one of our company values is “Inclusive: We’re friendly, welcoming and see strength in diversity” demonstrates our passion.
I am always sceptical about company values and if they are followed etc, but working at Vistair is converting me. There are so many examples of where actions support what we say we do. For example:
Diwali celebrations: favourite time of year for me when we all get together and celebrate Diwali and eat samosas.
Mental Health: We have trained mental health first aiders that provide the support that is so important.
Social events organised by the social committee and varied to support different backgrounds e.g. board games night, movie nights, pub, cricket matches, football matches …….
I don’t think any company/organisation is perfect, but we are always trying to make ourselves better.
Currently, the director of people and I are doing Women @ Vistair sessions where we are asking all the women at Vistair what we can do to make it more inclusive.
Feedback on what a company can do better is essential to supporting different backgrounds.
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR SELF-PROCLAIMED SUPERPOWER! WE HAVE TALKED PREVIOUSLY ABOUT YOU GROWING UP STRUGGLING WITH UNDIAGNOSED DYSLEXIA AND HOW LATER IN LIFE IT HAS BENEFITED YOU AND BECOME A BIG STRENGTH OF YOURS. TELL ME MORE ABOUT THAT AND THE IMPACT IT’S MADE ON YOUR CAREER?
I’ve had Dyslexia all my life, but it wasn’t diagnosed until I was about 14, before this time I was just put in the not-very-bright group. Once I was diagnosed everything started to make sense.
I now really embrace my “superpower” as it makes me different but also relatable. I am not perfect and frequently say the wrong thing in meetings which can often break tensions or makes it more memorable.
If anyone is neurodiverse, they tend to look at situations differently. For example, I think my dyslexia gives me better problem-solving skills. This ability to solve problems quickly and logically has helped me get to where I am now.
ON THE TOPIC OF NEURODIVERSITY, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PERSONALLY GIVE TO HIRING MANAGERS/EMPLOYERS WHO ARE TRYING TO ENSURE THEIR INTERVIEW PROCESS IS ALSO ATTRACTING NEURODIVERSE CANDIDATES?
Be careful with any type of technical tests, a lot of the time you are just testing people’s ability to complete the test rather than their technical ability. For example, as someone that suffers from dyslexia, I need more time to read the questions and I would rather discuss the answer in person than write anything down.
Don’t be too critical if they don’t use the exact technical terminology just ensure that you are confident that what they are explaining makes sense and that they understand the concepts.
Be conscious of the environment you are doing the interview in to make sure there are as comfortable. Sometimes an over-stimulating environment can be distracting.
Perhaps send the format of the interview in advance to the candidate and ask them if they are comfortable with the format.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK TO YOUR 16-YEAR-OLD SELF, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE HER?
Just go for it! Be brave and ambitious and don’t fear failing – it’s the best way to learn! I sometimes just wish I had more faith in myself.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BIGGEST THING TECH COMPANIES COULD DO TO ATTRACT MORE FEMALE TALENT? AND I GUESS, IF IT WAS YOU LOOKING – WHAT WOULD ATTRACT YOU TO A COMPANY?
I think it’s important to be able to see what diversity already exists, so I would look at the ratio of women in the senior management team or Board.
Flexible working and good benefits including maternity and paternity leave.
But the most important thing is the overall culture of a company.
WHO IS SOMEONE IN YOUR LIFE THAT INSPIRES YOU? (THAT YOU KNOW PERSONALLY OR IS A FAMOUS PERSON)
Lame, I know but I would say my mum. My parents set up their company when I was very young, and I have seen how much she helped grow the company in a very male-dominated environment (building contractors). She has so much strength and self-belief.
FINALLY, COULD YOU LEAVE US WITH YOUR FAVOURITE QUOTE? (THIS WILL BE THE HEADING ON YOUR BLOG/INTERVIEW POST WHEN IT GOES UP ON THE WEBSITE)
Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. -Margaret Mead
Thanks Jenny, you rock!
Interview by Steph Jackson