Becoming a Female Tech Leader: Q&A with Nicola Tempest

Becoming a Female Tech Leader: Q&A with Nicola Tempest

Tanika Marais

9th August 2021  |  PR

Did you know the world’s first Computer Programmer was a woman by the name of Ada Lovelace?

Despite the female-led beginnings of technology, the world of tech still has a far way to go, with only 3% of women choosing to take up a career in technology as their first choice and a whopping 78% of students worldwide unable to name a single famous woman in Tech. Despite decades of progress towards workplace equality, women remain woefully underrepresented in the technology workforce. 

As technology continues to shape our personal and working lives, without incorporating women into the design process, technology will only represent one half of the population in mind, and not incorporate the needs of everyone. 

Nicola Tempest, Enterprise Sales Manager for Connex One started her technology career path at a very young age. Breaking the gender stereotype boundaries from the 70s, by taking subjects such as maths and science at school, while her fellow female classmates were encouraged to take up typing. 

Despite her being one of the very few females pursuing these subjects, they would become the first steps in Nicola’s impressive tech career. From her years of leading large teams for international software companies such as Microsoft up to today, as she breaks new ground for Connex One in the African CX market. 

To gain insight into the realities of being a woman in tech and the shifting career paths in the sector, we sat down with Nicola to discuss her long career in technology, the challenges she has faced as a woman in the sector and her advice for the next generation on women in tech:

Can you describe how you started your career in Technology? 

I started my career as a programmer for point of sales across restaurant and hotel back-office systems which were extremely interesting but equally demanding at times. I would get called out at any hour in the night, and in this specific industry, it didn’t matter if you were a female or not, this was your job.

I think starting out, having to be courageous and sometimes having to travel from the centre of Johannesburg to Sun City- the North West Province of South Africa in the middle of the night which is a two and half hours drive, makes you toughen up right from the start. In 1992, I moved to Toshiba and became a sales executive.

I think it’s important to realise that sometimes it’s not the organisation that requires a cultural mind shift, it’s the individuals within the organisation.

How has technology advanced by incorporating more women over time? 

As technology has advanced over time, more emphasis has been placed on improving the customer experience and engagement, which means the customer needs to be better understood. As the technology industry is mainly made up of men, studies have shown that greater importance needs to be placed on representing the entire population when building out technology, and women make up half of the consumers in the world.

Technology companies need to reflect this in their workforce designing those products. One of the hottest Connex One features which my clients love is WorkForce Management (WFO), which is lead by our very own female developer Jessica Plant.

Jessica has been recognised and awarded in the technology industry as a Rising Star. I think it’s so important to recognise female talent in this industry, and I would love to see this more widespread across the industry. Jessica recently received the Rising Star award and beat the likes of large tech firms such as Google, based on her advanced people-centric approach to building applications. 

This once again sheds light on incorporating different diversification aspects into the development of technology. Her recent development Gamification incorporates both a healthy environment for competition whilst at the same time managing mental wellbeing and monitoring team performance. I think moving forward, focusing on mental wellbeing within our teams will become increasingly important to achieve success. 

What were some of the challenges you faced as a successful saleswoman in a male-dominated industry? 

I joined Dell in 1999 and soon after went through a divorce. It was one of the most challenging times in my life, being a single mom of 2 young children under 10 and having a career, involved a lot of juggling. However, through it all, it was extremely important for me not to forget who I am. As women, we try to do it all and put on a brave face.

I didn’t have a support base in Johannesburg and I needed help to create the proper work-life balance for me to be the best version of myself, and the best mom to my children.  I needed to get an Aupair that could help me with dropping off the kids at school. I realise an Aupair is not a possibility for all moms out there, and for that, I salute anyone who can put in the work to maintain a career and bring up children.

How much has changed since you started work today in terms of gender equality?  

I think gender equality and work-life balance has changed immensely from both the male and female point of view. Today, more men are receiving paternity leave, so it is becoming more balanced in the workplace.

From my perspective, there is no longer an overwhelming feeling of being inferior in comparison to male-dominant figures anymore, like we might have done only 20 – 30 years ago. The level of equality and respect has started to level out across many fields, and it is more important today that you are good at your job, whatever your gender.

In the past, when a woman showed a passion for something, it was commonly misunderstood as an anomaly or them being too emotional. If men showed emotion, it was referred to as passion

Is there a shift in women taking up more Management Positions in South Africa? 

Women in top management positions have benefitted largely from the BEE Movement [Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment movement]. The BEE movement has emphasised empowering black females to lead in large organisations and has encouraged equality in the workplace. 

Gone are the days where women were being told to ‘just make tea’, we have seen an increase in powerful female mentors in the industry, and women are continuously striving to better themselves, educate themselves and we can only go from strength to strength.

In the past, when a woman showed a passion for something, it was commonly misunderstood as an anomaly or them being too emotional. If men showed emotion, it was referred to as passion. This notion still has some way to go, but we are heading at least in the right direction. 

What are some of the most common perceived notions you have been faced with?

Because I came from a programming background I always liked the technical side of things, but when I was at one of my previous employers,  I always had a Solutions Architect that was aligned to me, similar to a  pre-sales person.  Eventually, I got the courage to one day approach the Head of the Enterprise Solutions Group and asked if we could start a program of mentoring because I would like to become a Solutions Architect. Without any hesitation he immediately said you’ll never get that job because you’re not a male.

Looking back at the situation I realise now he had no females in his team and he was just not open to a culture shift. He was quickly moved out of that role, but I think it’s important to realise that sometimes it’s not the organisation that requires a cultural mind shift, it’s the individuals within the organisation. One roadblock does not mean the end of your road, it just means you need to take a different route to get there. 

Have you ever been doubted because you are female? If so, how do you go about proving them wrong? 

Choosing to be the best version of yourself, whilst always striving to do the best that you can, sets you on the path for focusing on what to do next. I prove people wrong by being successful and by believing in myself. Simply having the courage and being determined to achieve the goals you have set out for yourself is important, despite any blockade or barriers that come in your way.  

After my first child was born in 1996, he was only three weeks old when I had to go back to work. At that time, we only received two weeks of paid leave, and I couldn’t afford to live off the Unemployment Insurance Fund for any longer.  That was an extremely tough time for me personally.  

I was faced with the heartache of leaving my child with childcare at a very young age, and on the flip side, being judged by other mothers for doing so. I had to learn to have thick skin. Today, there is thankfully a push to improve maternity leave worldwide, but back in 1996, my only option was to go back to work and do my job to the best of my ability for the wellbeing of my family. 

What feels different working at Connex One as opposed to your previous roles? 

When I joined Connex One, it was quite a big move for me as it was the first job I’ve taken outside of Johannesburg. The transition from a large corporation such as Microsoft to Connex One has been wonderful because of the ability of innovation and flexibility. 

For me, it has also been largely based on the company culture which is very much centred around being a family here. I have had Covid twice this year and I live alone, so throughout all of the riots in South Africa and me being sick, there was always someone checking up on me, caring for me, and willing to help out whenever I needed it.

It has also been a very interesting period as we had phenomenal growth at Connex One. In the last year, we have quadrupled in size from when I started just over a year ago. Through this growth sprint, we are developing our own culture in terms of personality and the people we are employing.

Working in a fast-paced and dynamic company like Connex One brings its own opportunities. The ability to be flexible, creative, and bespoke in our offerings sets us apart and creates an environment where everybody’s ideas are heard.

Being a leading female at Connex One, I feel that my ideas are heard and incorporated into the business strategy. That makes a difference, and I hope with time, we will see an influx of strong leading females across this industry and tech as a whole. 

What are some things you think tech companies could be doing differently to attract leading females? 

Creating an environment where a good work-life balance is accepted will be a very attractive incentive for females going forward. In addition, career accelerator plans.

When I joined Microsoft, one of the main attractions for me taking the role was that they offered to place me on the fast-track management program. The company committing to my growth with a career plan was extremely attractive for me, and I think refining programs like that even more, for example, a fast track female management plan for development, will go a long way. 

What advice would you give out to young females wanting to pursue a career in tech?

Be determined, believe in yourself and know that you’re the owner of your destiny. Don’t let gender or anything else for that matter sidetrack you. Encouraging young females to start from an early age at school and equipping them with the right knowledge and subjects without barriers is imperative. 

When you are allowed to choose your subjects, don’t be discouraged by male-dominated industries, take woodwork if you feel that inspires you, or choose maths and science over home economics if that is your career of interest.

More needs to be done in showcasing the various career options at school, and children need to be educated on the importance of choosing school subjects and not discouraged purely based on gender. Don’t be afraid to take the opportunities that come your way. Women in tech are trailblazers and the more positive representation we can provide now, will help to create an even better future for the next generation of women to enjoy.