Balancing Act

Starting her new position at Google in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Amy Novak faced a number of challenges from leading a team spanning several states while juggling a work-from-home schedule with her husband and three children. Novak details personal privileges that help make the difference and she provides insight on how companies can attract and retain more female talent. Here’s what she had to say:

Amy Novak, Head of Product Operations at Google Pittsburgh

How have you experienced this past year and a half as a female leader in tech?

This past year has had some enormous challenges but also beautiful moments at various points. I am lucky enough to have a stay-at-home-dad husband so we’ve been able to more easily adapt to the work-from-home situation than most, however it still really stretched us both in different ways.

We chose to virtually school all three of our kids (all under the age of 8) so it was tough to fit school in during the morning and then shift gears to work a full day afterward. At the same time, it has been beautiful to be with my kids and actively participate in their education in a way I would never have had exposure to under normal circumstances. Getting to witness first-hand how my kids learn, watching them grasp new concepts and understand where their interests bloom was quite beautiful. Similarly, getting to eat lunches, see them during breaks, and participate in the family day to day has been a true blessing.

From a career perspective, I also started a new job at the end of 2020, in a new org, in an unfamiliar space – which stretched me in new ways. I do think the onboarding process was made somewhat easier given that my full team is distributed all over the states – and we were all virtual at the same time. Folks were extra aware of including each other and were very kind as I asked questions and learned more about the new organization.

What were some of your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge was figuring out the family/work balance. The lines of when work stops and family begins are even more blurred. I also predominantly work with colleagues on the West Coast and so the creep into evening hours became harder to say no to. Without a commute or extracurricular activities, I found myself just saying “yes” to things that I might normally not have if we were all under our regular schedules.

The hours became longer and the ability to “unplug” became nearly non-existent. I also struggled a lot with “imposter syndrome” as I am sure many of us do. Going to a new team and leading in a space which is unfamiliar to me catapulted me back to learning mode as opposed to leading mode for a while. However, eventually I got into a rhythm and felt better about my ability to lead and make an impact. I don’t know what is magical about the 90-day mark, but that is truly when things start to click and you can have informed opinions.

What do you take away as a people manager from this time of working 100% remotely?

Empathy and kindness need to become front and center. Yes, you still need to be a leader and provide a vision, help set priorities and balance what the team is committed to (and saying no to) but first and foremost folks need to feel supported to put themselves and their families first. We are all carrying our own difficult experiences and if you can’t put the people and their real lives in front of the business needs, nothing else really matters. Business needs can be solved in a variety of ways – flexible working hours, saying no more, being clear with what will and will not get done, etc. But individual lives are still happening in the background with a lot of challenging circumstances surrounding us. If we can’t get through that together, what good is anything else?

What benefits or services, or even personal privileges helped you cope through the challenges?

As mentioned – my husband is a stay-at-home dad which made adapting into the new work environment easier than most. It has still been taxing on us – he basically hasn’t had any breaks since we couldn’t ask for outside help to come in to share the load, but we didn’t have to worry about where the kids would have to go. It effectively removed a layer of stress that I think most families had to grapple with on top of the literal threat that is/was devastating our world.

I also work for a company that did as much as possible to support our workforce from day one. Google really approached this from a place of flexibility, doing as much as possible to allow folks to be healthy, adapt and set up a new rhythm for getting things done. Things like having 14 weeks of carer’s leave took the pressure off many folks during the peak impact of the pandemic.

Lastly, our school district really did a fantastic job communicating with families, making sound decisions about the safety of teachers, staff and students and provided as much extra support as they could for the virtual students and hybrid working arrangements for in-person classes.

What lessons have you learned from the last year or so about what more could be done to attract and retain female talent in tech?

I think women in general, tech or non-tech, experienced more of the burden of the past year and a half by needing to quit their jobs to balance new family needs, say no to potential career opportunities in order to work and keep family obligations covered, and run their households under wildly new circumstances. The biggest thing that organizations can do is support the demands of female talent as they show up. Find ways to continue to elevate female staff into stretch opportunities, leadership roles and offer benefits to support their changing needs.

Separating this question from the specific past year and a half, the tech industry has a long way to go in evolving the culture of working in tech to be more inclusive and supportive of female talent. Females are often a minority in the room, and unfortunately in many places a “bro-culture” still persists creating a sense of unbelonging for women.

Thinking about how the culture of the team or organization can contribute to or detract from female recognition, participation and

advancement is key. That requires more than a mentoring program and availability of benefits and resources. It also includes everyone asking themselves how to establish a more inclusive culture so women feel welcomed and able to contribute without needing to work harder to adapt to a male-dominated culture. It involves being critical of our own biases, such as around feedback that someone is “aggressive” when they are just challenging ideas as male counterparts do.

I do think that we’ve made progress in some areas, and am encouraged to see the numbers creep up, if even slowly. But we still have a long way to go and the pandemic set us back in several ways. My hope is that the lessons we’ve learned from having to quickly adapt to being a fully remote workforce and taking on more caregiving needs keep our eyes open and stick with us for the long term to establish a more inclusive and flexible workforce.

This article originally was published in TEQ Magazine and is reprinted here with the kind permission of our friends at the Pittsburgh Technology Council.