Women in Tech | Meet Lisa Stähli

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A lot of you might know that I am and have been a techie since the longest time. I have over 18 years of experience in the world of technology, right from product companies like SAP to industry players like JNJ and I completed the circle when I got into the consulting world with Accenture a couple of years ago! I have been a college pass out in the industry, I have been a young mamma here to now where I am in a senior management role and can be make a significant impact to the business of enterprises of all size and shapes! I cannot stress the importance of more and more women in the tech space, as developers, as scrum masters, as board members so on and so forth.

Even today, we don’t see as many women as we should in leadership positions – together, we need to change this narrative!

As a fellow woman in tech, it brings me great joy to bring my readers the story of Lisa Stähli on the blog, Lisa is a product engineer based in Zurich and the co-MD for the “Girls in Tech” community! Read on as she shares her journey with working in “tech” and how it’s like being a “woman in tech” in Switzerland.

Women in Tech | My Swiss Story

Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself

Hi there ☺️ my name is Lisa. I was born and raised in Switzerland and grew up on a former farm in a small town about 30 minutes away from Zurich. As a child, I was very curious but also shy, and I always tried to not draw too much attention to me. I grew up as the oldest of three children. When I was 12 years old, I decided to go to a highschool, or «Gymi » as we call it, out of town, despite my parents and teachers advising against it.

I was the first in my family to attend a high school and later study at a university and getting a degree. Even though my family did not approve of my decision right away, I was surprisingly determined and outspoken about my desire to follow this path.

In the end, I graduated at the top of my class from ETH Zurich in Geomatics Engineering, a discipline which is a mix of Geography, Engineering and Computer Science. I never regretted this decision I made at only 12 years old, despite all the discussions and obstacles along the way. Today, I know that I have tremendously benefited from this experience because it forced me to be very sure about what I wanted to do with my life at a young age.

Tell us about your current job. What are you doing exactly? 

I work as a so-called Product Engineer in software development and together with my team, we are developing a web application for urban planners that allows them to design a data-driven future of a city or neighborhood in a collaborative way. Our team is embedded in a research and development center here in Zurich with about 75 employees, and we are all part of a larger organization of around 5k employees world-wide with headquarters in California. The company is called Esri, the product I work on is ArcGIS Urban.

As I was one of the first team members working on this product, I was fortunate to see both the software and also the team grow over the years. At the beginning, when we were just a handful of people on the team, I was doing many different tasks: from developing front end components, to defining the database schema, preparing test data sets, setting up translation and functional testing processes, designing new functionality and helping to build out the roadmap.

Women in Tech | My Swiss Story

Today my role is more focused around system design, feature specifications and integrations. I am supporting the development of new features across our backend and front end parts of the product, doing user research, user experience design, wireframing, prototyping, coordinating tasks and removing roadblocks. I enjoy being in a role where I can connect the dots and guide the evolution of a feature, think about future implications, take into account user workflows and other products, and keep track of the progress. I am also fortunate that I get to mentor a few of the team members and help them in developing their career.

How did you decide to pursue a career in technology? Was it a childhood dream or a spontaneous decision?

It definitely was not a childhood dream because I did not know about careers in technology as a child. I was not really exposed to technology in that sense and did not know anyone working in IT when I was a kid. However, I was exposed to a lot of technology in the sense of machines and construction sites, and both of these worlds always fascinated me.

My dad is a truck driver and has his own small transportation company. I was always around trucks and agricultural machines, also on my grandparents’ farm. During school holidays, we would often accompany my dad on the road and help out on the fields. I always felt comfortable and at ease in this environment.

We also lived in a 300-year old house which needed frequent renovating. I basically grew up on a construction site 😅 we always had workers around and some areas of the house were always under construction. Watching this process over and over again was definitely a highlight for me and for a very long time I wanted to become an architect.

That I now work on software for architects is not a coincidence. When I studied at ETH Zurich I did a minor in urban planning.

I always saw great potential in combining technology for the use case of building more sustainable and livable cities. 

Women in Tech | My Swiss Story

I was introduced to programming only when I was 17 years old and attended my first coding course at high school – we wrote a small algorithm in MATLAB to calculate the time for a parachute descent. I was immediately hooked.

At university, I had many programming courses focused on engineering applications and also took a number of electives at the computer science department, more out of interest. Half way through my masters, after another inspiring course in web mapping, I decided that I wanted to try to work in web development. That’s when I applied for a software engineering internship at my current company, which turned out to be the right decision at the time.

I learned a lot on the job as I did not have a traditional computer science background. Because of that and also the fact that I have a broad understanding of the use cases for our product, I tend to call myself a « pragmatic » software engineer. What I could additionally bring was my technical background in GIS, geoinformation systems, which was essential to working on this product. 

With my current role – building technology for a use case I am passionate about – I have really found the perfect combination for myself.

Do you think that women have the same opportunities as men in the tech world?

I would love to say yes to this question one day, but in reality we are not there yet – based on first-hand experiences but also way too many stories of women in tech.

Besides my job in software development, I am also leading two initiatives around women and diversity in tech, Girls in Tech Switzerland and Hello 50:50 World, which expose me to a lot of information on this topic.

In the interest of time, I’d like to highlight three issues that I keep hearing about:

(1) Performance bias

(2) The lack of role models, especially in leadership

(3) Unclear career perspectives

These issues focus on the retention problem, which is the challenge to keep women in tech, rather than the attraction problem, which is how to attract more women to the industry.

Performance bias is a phenomena that I have heard about more often than I would wish to, that I experienced myself and that has also scientifically been proven: women, especially in fields where they have historically been underrepresented such as tech, need to prove themselves more than men. This means that as a woman you need to work harder to be taken seriously and attributed with competency. No woman is spared from this bias, both in experiencing it and in applying it to others. We need to make sure everybody in this industry is aware of it and can fight against it.

Only a single digit percentage of leadership positions in tech are filled with women, so as a young woman entering this field it’s hard to imagine where you could be going. You can only be what you can see, so there is a great need to increase representation, particularly in leadership, but also in certain areas of tech such as hardware and backend engineering where rates are lower and teams typically more homogenous.

The last issue is one that is also known as the « glass ceiling », the fact that women can only realistically raise up to a certain position, or more recently also called the « glass labyrinth », the effect that women are frequently manoeuvring between different positions in pursuit of career development without any gains in responsibility or a higher salary.

The impact of all three of these is that up to 50% of women are leaving tech by the age of 35. With an already low number of women entering tech in the first place, in Switzerland it has been around 20%, we cannot afford losing so many women due to issues that could be fixed and addressed by the industry.

Could you work in another sphere? If yes, which one?

I actually sort of work in a very different sphere. I have a small side business as a yoga teacher called Hatha Lisa that allows me to teach weekly yoga classes and workshops, as well as organize yoga retreats in the Swiss mountains.

The yoga world, when being in there as a business owner, is vastly different then tech. It depends much more on soft skills, intuition, finding your tribe, authenticity, and above all networking. In tech you will get far based on your performance, your merits, degrees and certificates. Most yoga teachers have the same certificates, people come to your class because they like your style of teaching, your personality and the way you interact with them. 

I feel very fortunate that I get to teach yoga and that I met many inspiring people through this work which otherwise had never crossed my path. Yoga is for me also a form to disconnect from technology and connect with very different topics, people, and above all myself.

Maybe I will one day open up a yoga studio / café / hostel for adults, which I would be running full time in some far away place, but right now I am pretty happy where I am 😉

What’s a day like in your life?

I usually get up between 6-7 AM, do my morning routine which involves drinking a ginger shot and often a bit of movement and breathing to wake up. The time between 8-9 AM is reserved for work on my non-profits or my yoga business, or to meet with someone for a coffee chat or a virtual call.

Between 9-10 AM, I walk to the office (I live 10 min away from it which is a total blessing) and start the day with our daily scrum team meeting. Depending on the day, I will either review pull requests for code changes, presentations or design documents, or start off with a meeting. Over lunch I try to get out of the office, maybe catch up with a friend or take a walk along the river. Once a week I am teaching a yoga class over lunch close to the office.

Women in Tech | My Swiss Story

After lunch I continue work, hopefully getting some focus time to work on my own assignments. Towards the evening we usually have calls with our American colleagues to discuss roadmap, strategy, or marketing efforts.

In the evenings, I sometimes attend community or networking events from Girls in Tech Switzerland (which I can highly recommend) or other organizations, or I meet friends for a catch up, an outdoor AcroYoga or hopefully soon also more sailing sessions on the lake. When I am spending the evening at home, I like to cook a vegetarian meal and spend some time philosophizing with my boyfriend on the terrace (in summer) or in front of our chimney (in winter). 

Between 10–11 PM, I go to bed because I need to sleep a lot ☺️. If energy allows, I like to read on my Kindle (always non-fiction) or listen to an audio book or podcast to unwind. About 2-3x a week I will do an evening meditation or yin yoga session before going to bed.

I need quite a lot of routine to function. I have also become pretty strict with the times I am working on my side projects, with few exceptions. Otherwise I have found that they take over my days and thoughts. On the weekends I love to be in the mountains, but I also have this rule for myself that I want to stay at home (more or less) every second weekend, otherwise chores pile up and I become very restless in my mind. 

For fellow women in tech, what specific advice would you have? 

I believe that anyone, not only women but maybe women in particular, can benefit from the engineering mindset called « try and error ». Tech is a great place to develop soft and hard skills, to try out new ideas, to fail hard and to get up and learn from it. 

Women in Tech | My Swiss Story

I believe that anyone, not only women but maybe women in particular, can benefit from the engineering mindset called « try and error ». Tech is a great place to develop soft and hard skills, to try out new ideas, to fail hard and to get up and learn from it. 

Debug your career, analyze what works for you and what doesn’t, and find a place, topic and culture where your unique personality, skills and values are being at least appreciated, and in the best case nurtured and amplified.

And if you don’t have any experience in debugging, find a mentor or coach that can help you learn the tools and methods to build a career where you can thrive and be content.

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