Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: Noelle LaCharite

Noelle LaCharite is a web developer and longtime advocate for women’s advancement in the tech industry. (Courtesy photo.)

Noelle LaCharite’s positive energy is palpable. The self-proclaimed evangelist for voice technology recently helped organize and spoke at a recent panel discussion “Improving the Landscape for Women in Tech.”

Her excitement grew as more women made their way through the doors at the Central District arts space 18th & Union for the panel discussion. As a mom of four and an advocate for work-life harmony, she can appreciate the struggle of going out to a networking meetup on a weeknight.

LaCharite has more than 20 years of web development experience and specializes in conversational artificial intelligence. She also has been a long-time advocate for women’s advancement in the tech industry.

LaCharite was recently named Director of Developer Evangelism for Microsoft’s DevCollective, her day job is teaching new web developers how to code and existing developers the power and possibility of AI, IoT and emerging tech. As she has worked her way up the organization, she noticed that she is one of the few women of color at the leadership level.

That is one of the main reasons she started the Seattle Women in Technology meetup and founded Lady Coders, an organization dedicated to empowering women and non-binary technologists with the skills, support and inspiration needed to be successful in the tech industry.

We spoke to LaCharite about her career path and the ways that she’s found to support women in the technology industry. This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

Sydney Cain: To start, will you tell me about your tech story? How did you come to be Director, Developer Evangelism at Microsoft’s DevCollective?

Noelle LaCharite: I took a unique route to get here. I actually dropped out of college. I didn’t really like school, it’s just not my way of learning.  For five years I was a stay-at-home mom and a military wife. Then I found myself divorced, on my own with my son, who has Down syndrome, and pregnant with my daughter. And I had no job and no formalized education. I said to myself how am I gonna do this? I looked at my options and asked, “What can I do to make the most amount of money in the quickest amount of time?” Software consulting was it. So, I went to Barnes & Noble and picked up three books on JAVA script. And literally taught myself to code, on my computer, at the bookstore. I did all the exercises from the book — all of them — and I kept them on my computer. So when I got an interview at IBM, I showed them my code and they were like, “Looks great!” And I got hired.

As an ambitious professional female in tech, a person of color and a mom, how do you manage the demands of being a leader at a major tech company? Have you found yourself in moments where you don’t have anyone to talk to?

Yes and it’s horrible! All but one time in my career, I have been shut down by the person who is supposed to enable me. I would have an experience where the person above me, like my manager, would clip my wings for whatever reason. I would hear them say “Yeah Noelle isn’t the best person. Not bad or good, yeah not sure, but you should probably think about John.” Just enough of a downplay of me and an up-play of someone else to where I am no longer the go-to person; whereas two days ago I was that go-to person. Each time this forced me to leave the company, to do the same work, but for someone else.

When I left Amazon, I got very curious because I couldn’t believe this was happening again. So I decided to reach out to seven female colleagues who had all been on an Amazon panel with me the previous year. Everyone of them had left Amazon within that year. They had all moved onto leadership positions for major tech companies, like Google, Facebook and Spotify, so I called all of them … and they all told me the same story. That they had a leader who didn’t believe in them and brought them to a point where they doubted their own capabilities. Luckily they all had enough self-awareness to think, “This isn’t me,” and they left.

I found it very unsettling to find that lots and lots of women, of all shades, suffered from this and that these types of dynamics show up consistently. And many times the unsupportive leader was also a woman! Which made me even more upset.

The saddest part about it is — nobody talked to each other. So in that whole thing you feel alone, doubting your self-worth and doubting your confidence. We’ve got to break free of that. We’re supposed to be in this together, we need to be supporting each other as colleagues and leaders.

Do you see any new or different opportunities for young women or minorities getting into this industry that weren’t there 5 or 10 years ago?

What I see is that there is a huge surface-level awareness; I mean its been there but there is this new kick around D&I (diversity and inclusion). I feel like there is an opportunity right now just because companies are saying it and very quickly people are going to be like, “show me some results.” Right now underrepresented minorities will have a little bit of a carpet laid out for them. But that being said, that’s about it. I mean maybe they’ll get the interview a little easier than they did five years ago but they’re going to be interviewing with the core of the business — which may be a bunch of old white men.

The Seattle Women in Tech panel moderated by (Left to right) LinkedIn’s Community Manager Andrea Murphy featured five diverse women in tech: Shona Chee, Rana Elgendy, Grace MacJones, Noelle Lacharite, and Alejandra Quetzalli Olvera-Novack. (Photo by Sydney Cain.)

Do you have any advice for women wanting to build their careers in technology?

As a woman in tech you unfortunately need to work harder to stay in. Early in my career someone gave me advice that I’m so grateful for: There are many off-ramps for women in tech, and very few on ramps. Choose a specialty. It will help you find an on-ramp, and once you’re on it, stay on it. There will be many people trying to kick you off so it’s even more important to pick something you’re passionate about. Even during maternity leave, stay connected; write articles, go to events, have lunch with your co-workers. Stay on the ramp.

When I got started, it was all timing. At that time people were desperate for JAVA programmers. I kinda see that same thing today with data science. We are desperate for data scientists. More importantly, we need people who can learn.

Also, if you’re actively applying for jobs get LinkedIn Premium. Just so you can check, authenticity wise, did they care enough to look you up? And if they didn’t, do you want to work for a team like that? I hope that the team I get will be my friends, so I want them to look me up. You want them to care enough to have a researched conversation with you.

Any tips on how to keep it all together?

I am passionate about mindful living and leadership. I started with this because I saw leaders who were always yelling and leading with fear. It was always push, push, push, get it done, as fast as possible. To combat that, I started doing my own personal one minute of mindfulness before entering meetings. Even today I have a list of “7 Principles for Mindfulness” tacked to my office door. I believe that it’s more important to do it right, than to do it fast. Sometimes you need to go slower, to go farther. Many people aren’t even aware this is a thing. So many of my colleagues can’t understand how I live like this, but I tell them, it’s a process, it takes time and I work on it.

Here’s a secret, I have a daily routine. One, I wake up and meditate. I use a Tic Tac to keep myself mindful until it dissolves. It’s a great way to ground yourself. Two, I write in a journal, just a couple sentences or words, about what I’m grateful for. I try not to write the same thing all the time but sometimes it’s hard. It takes so little time, you’d be surprised. You won’t see the benefit until your life starts to change and you’re attracting more people of that mindset. Three, I’m intentional with how I spend my time. I prioritize people over product. I also like to take a minute to stop and remind those around me what an amazing thing we are doing.


 

Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: This story was made as part of The Seattle Globalist’s 2019 Emerging Tech Fellowship, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership master’s program.

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