Are You a Manager or Are You a Leader? 6 Women Share Their Advice For Leading Tech Teams

Women from Los Angeles-based companies share the lessons they’ve learned in their journeys from individual contributor to leader
Written by Eva Roethler
January 10, 2023Updated: January 11, 2023

A manager and a leader are two different things. 

On paper, a manager handles the logistics — the nuts and bolts — of team coordination. They set objectives and manage employee workload and performance. Meanwhile, a leader goes a step beyond, using influence and other soft skills to motivate, inspire and support the people around them. 

“You can functionally be someone’s manager but that doesn’t mean you are seen as a leader,” said Karen Chao, vice president of product at Flowspace. “Leaders are people you turn to for advice, collaborate with and learn from regardless of reporting structure. There is a difference. Seek to be a leader and not just a manager.”

According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2022 report, only one in four C-suite executives is a woman, making Chao a rare leader. The representation of women in tech at the leadership level may be even more dire: According to Built In’s 2022 DEI in Tech Report, 37 percent of companies report their executive team is more than 80 percent men.

What’s a woman in tech to do?

“Here’s something I’ve learned that may save you time in your professional trajectory: Playing it safe doesn’t serve women well in the tech industry. We must be brave enough to put ourselves and our ideas out there,” said Tina Woita, vice president of revenue strategy and operations at Virtualitics. 

Built In LA connected with six women in leadership at Los Angeles-based companies for advice to women who aspire to or currently lead technical teams.  

 

Photo of the Cosm group outside.
COSM

 

Sheli Reynolds
Chief Operating Officer

Cosm develops technology and immersive entertainment experiences.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I began my career as a Chicago-based consultant for a tiny technical firm, where I built systems from the ground up, providing me with the technical know-how that served as a foundation in many ways. After consulting for 18 months in Chicago and another year in LA at Deloitte, I joined a media startup in LA, right when the dot-com bubble burst and the industry experienced a drastic shift. For the next 2 years, I wore many hats as a developer, database administrator, systems administrator, data center architect and more — all at the same time.

In late 2002, I joined FOX Sports and was promoted to vice president of engineering by 2011 before transitioning to a business role. I oversaw business operations for six years before moving on to run FOX’s digital strategy, operations and all its digital video applications. This was where I learned how to use data to tell a compelling story and honed the skill set to optimize business monetization opportunities.

Today, I serve as COO at Cosm, where I can fulfill many of my life’s passions, lean on the mountain of experiences I’ve been able to climb, grow and flex every professional muscle I have and employ the valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

One of the most difficult transitions I’ve made in my life, on par with learning how to become a parent and adjusting to becoming a motherless daughter, was learning how to manage people. As a Midwesterner, I have trouble feeling like I’m “putting someone out,” so asking people to do things that I know I can do myself doesn’t come naturally to me. Making the transition from individual contributor to people manager was a challenging project that — if I’m being completely honest — I’m still working on.

Making the transition from individual contributor to people manager was a challenging project that — if I’m being completely honest — I’m still working on.

 

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of learning from great leaders and mentoring some of the very best future leaders. I’ve learned that to become an impactful leader, you have to be curious. You also must be willing to take on challenges that feel insurmountable and work through them. As a manager, having the ability to effectively manage workloads and complexities empowered me to take on further challenges and show up for my teams.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Leadership is about balance.For women leaders and managers, I’ve found that striking the perfect balance between empathy and accountability is critical, but it also feels nearly impossible at times. Personally, achieving that balance is something I strive for daily, and every day I remind myself that my team members and colleagues should be held to the level of accountability that I hold myself to. 

It’s critical that you hold those you depend on accountable, while also having a level of empathy that lets your team know that you’re on their side and there to support them. I truly believe that my constant goal to achieve this balance is what has led me to build amazing teams and hire and rehire fantastic colleagues.

 

 

Tina Woita
VP, Revenue Strategy and Operations

Virtualitics is an AI platform that processes complex data into powerful multidimensional graph visualizations.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I began my career designing and facilitating leadership development programs, so giving tips and advice on creating incredible teams is near and dear to my heart. Following my unique path, I transitioned from leadership development to customer and employee enablement and operations. 

Overall, I have spent most of my career building teams and strategies for software startups. I love working with startups because I am driven by the potential of early-stage companies and the tenacious and passionate people who sign up for the challenge of creating something new. 

Today, I lead revenue strategy and operations for Virtualitics, a groundbreaking startup that stands to disrupt the world of data exploration and integrated AI. My role includes the strategy and execution for every function that generates revenue, including sales, customer success, marketing and business development. I love creating order out of chaos and creating spectacular customer journeys. 

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Innovation is bred out of risk. Trust yourself, take that risk and ask for what you want. Advocate for yourself, your ideas and your mission. Model and promote that same behavior for your teams, so they have the confidence and tenacity to take risks. If you can do that, you will develop some of the most high-performing teams in the business.

Innovation is bred out of risk. Trust yourself, take that risk and ask for what you want.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

The most significant and rewarding moments of growth in my career always come when I am willing to disrupt the status quo, take a risk, accept that I may fail and learn from that experience. 

This pattern of risk and growth truly drives my approach to leadership. To me, leading means painting a vision for people to follow and creating a safe space for your team to have autonomy, take risks and chart their path to achieve that vision. My job is to provide the feedback they need to adjust their path when necessary, build their confidence and prepare them to take the next risk. 

Vision, autonomy and feedback — I have found those to be the three keys to creating and leading innovative, successful teams. 

 

 

Leora Juster
Engineering Manager

 HopSkipDrive provides alternative transportation for people who need a little extra care.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I was a middle school math teacher and college basketball coach before going back to school for computer science. I briefly worked at a NASA jet propulsion laboratory doing software cost estimation modeling, then pivoted to the startup world where I engineered for several different Ruby on Rails-centric applications. I landed at HopSkipDrive four years ago, where I worked my way from mid-level engineer to senior engineer to now engineering manager.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

For me, there’s no big lesson. Instead, there are a lot of small lessons in areas you wouldn’t expect, like expectations, projection and finding creative ways to increase shared visibility into processes.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Through continued acceptance of who you are and what you know comes confidence — confidence being the desire to grow, not because you’re reaching towards something you haven’t yet become, but because you want to create a better tomorrow with your team.

 

 

Golden Hippo is a direct-to-consumer beauty, health and pet product marketer.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I began my career teaching English in Tokushima, Japan — which is a far stretch from tech! In hindsight, that experience taught me how to translate new ideas to a variety of audiences which I would later use in management. Once I returned, I joined a large project management team implementing enterprise resource planning systems around the world. I had amazing senior program management mentors who simplified problems, managed complex projects and defined a clear charter for technology teams to perform effectively. 

At Golden Hippo, I head up the IT team who teach me something new every day! Technology is very valued here and change is a part of our culture. This keeps our work diverse and creative, and I have loved the journey.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

Give honest, thoughtful and frequent feedback to your team. Ask meaningful questions and listen.

Ask meaningful questions and listen.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

You deserve equality and respect in the workplace. Expose problems, find advocates and promote change.

Build credibility with your business partners and your team by being reliable, transparent, and accurate about issues and projects. Ensure your team has knowledge and expertise in the business that they support.

 

 

 Flowspace is a software platform powering independent e-commerce fulfillment.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

My first role out of college was in supply chain at Cisco Systems. Big companies can serve as a great foundation but ultimately I knew I wanted something different for the rest of my career. 

I landed my first product role after grad school, and over the course of my career have run products and services in many different types of startups. This has made me an incredibly versatile product leader, though I’ve learned that often one particular role can help you define your career path. For me, that was my role as head of product at Booster, my first experience in working at a tech-enabled operations business. I found designing products and services for a business with offline and online realities and operational constraints incredibly fascinating and challenging.

I love creating products that fit a customer’s needs and that’s what I do every day at Flowspace.

What really excites me is the sheer opportunity for software enablement in the fulfillment and logistics space. As VP of product, I am building the best merchant experience in the industry, such that we are recognized as a value add to a merchant’s operations.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

To be seen as a leader, strive to build a culture of respect, empowerment and recognition. Everyday actions show your dedication to the company’s purpose and your team. Show up to collaborate and be open to hearing differing opinions. Give timely constructive feedback and look for growth opportunities. Recognize and thank your team for their contributions. Helping your team be happy and perform well is good for the business and good for you.

To be seen as a leader, strive to build a culture of respect, empowerment and recognition. 

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Especially in more technical roles, knowing how to do the job well is the baseline. What sets you apart from others will be soft skills, such as your ability to work well with others, motivate teams and influence other leaders in the organization. This requires the ability to build strong working relationships, communicate effectively and listen actively. 

Work on these skills continuously like you would managing a product, continuously iterating and refining your approach. Ask for feedback from various people in the organization consistently. There are opportunities to learn and grow every day if you actively seek out those opportunities. Don’t wait for things to just happen, go and make them happen.

 

 

Photo of the Birdy Grey office.
BIRDY GREY

 

Alex Arkhangelskaya
Senior Product Manager

Birdy Grey is a direct-to-consumer bridal startup offering bridesmaid dresses for under $100.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

I’ve been in technology for almost nine years, and I’ve spent seven years working in product at some of the most beloved startups. My first job out of college was at Freddie Mac, in a technology rotational program. It was the perfect opportunity for a new college grad who liked tech but was just starting to figure out their career. I ended up in a business systems analyst role and learned how to be an effective product manager. While working in that analyst position, I discovered that I really liked working with thinkers and executors, understanding their needs and helping them put together their requirements. I moved on to Wayfair, which aligned more with my personal interests, where I worked on operations and internal tools. I then wanted to try my hand at building consumer-facing products, so I joined Warby Parker and then Rent the Runway, where I spent four years working on almost every single team and product, both customer-facing and internal. 

This summer, I joined Birdy Grey to lead the product team. Here I work closely with development, e-commerce, creative and brand to elevate our e-commerce experience. I’ve loved taking all my experience on the product side to join a women-founded DTC startup.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

A former manager of mine shared the concept of “giving away your Legos” with me. Working at a small company is exciting and fun, and everyone has a ton of Legos to build whatever they want! As a manager, it’s important to empower the people around you to do their best work. Effectively, giving away your Legos and responsibilities is the best way to help the company scale and ensure that everyone involved is moving on to building bigger and better things.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

The best thing that you can do is be a gap filler. Constantly look around and find new ways that you can help the people around you. 

Constantly look around and find new ways that you can help the people around you.”

 

For aspiring managers, volunteer for opportunities both in and outside of your day-to-day work that you are passionate about and that will allow you to build a reputation for yourself and give you more exposure to other teams across the org. It’s important to always be learning, but also be confident in your skills and your impact.

 

 

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