Sarah Polan

Originally trained and working as an opera singer, family circumstances prompted a change of career for Sarah Polan. Technology had long been an interest and, recognising that music is a type of code in itself, at the age of 31 she took the decision to attend code school. 

Six years later, Sarah is now field CTO at HashiCorp, provider of multi-cloud infrastructure automation software.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am currently the Field CTO for HashiCorp covering Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In short, I act as a strategic technical advisor and spend a significant amount of time with the customers helping them identify bottlenecks within their development lifecycle and optimize their IT organization.

Before moving into IT, I trained as an opera singer, which is why I moved to Europe following my bachelor’s in the US. Eventually, the combination of the environment underpinning the music world, odd hours, and raising two small children on my own led me to re-evaluate what I wanted from a career and the sacrifices I was willing to make.

Through a series of twists and turns, I ended up going back to school and retraining in IT and Cybersecurity in my thirties.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

When I was singing, I had a very clear plan about what and how I was going to accomplish both in the long term, mid term, and short term. Clearly, life unfolded a bit differently than I had anticipated, and I am so grateful it did.

After moving to tech, I made a high level, long term goal that I check in with regularly to ensure it still resonates, but given my past experiences in music and the dynamism of the IT industry, I have been a bit more aware of how I set my personal objectives and determine success and make sure they align with my values. I do set shorter term goals, like studying for my masters degree or joining my dream company, but mostly I do my best to ensure I am embodying a growth mindset and that my choices align with my values and my long term goal.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

As a woman, coming from a non-traditional background, later in life, I have experienced a lot of skepticism around my qualifications and abilities. Early in my career, my male cohorts, with similar backgrounds, were invited to interviews for roles that my female colleagues and I were not because we were “too junior” or “didn’t meet the qualifications”. Frequently, when I was offered a position, I experienced salary disparity which didn’t meet market average or that of my peers because they would “have to invest more to get me up to speed”. After several below market offers, I decided to do my masters in Cybersecurity and force the issue of salary and credibility.

Even now, as a leader in the industry, I regularly receive comments about “not looking technical” or have technical questions directed to non-technical male colleagues. It’s a sad truth of the industry, but it’s important to me to proactively contribute to shifting that reality and making IT more attainable and diverse. Having a set of guiding principles has been important to check in with, ensuring I am moving forward.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Completing my masters, while working full time, and being a mum. It was definitely a challenge, but I am really proud of the personal and professional growth that I achieved.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Resilience, tenacity, and learning how to filter external noise.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

Technology is constantly changing, evolving. What is big on the market now likely won’t be tomorrow and there are hundreds of niches and specialities. I guess the biggest piece of advice I can give is to learn the things that interest you the most and challenge you more. More often than not, tools link together and patterns repeat themselves, then it’s just a matter of recognising similarities.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Barriers are absolutely a reality and come in many forms: lack of growth opportunities, salary disparity, objectification, culture imbalance. Unfortunately, many women are hesitant to speak about their experiences outside of their trusted circles or set boundaries because we are afraid of retaliation and microaggressions. The paradox is that if we don’t talk about our experiences and challenges, we can’t reasonably expect change. It’s comfortable to seek solace in peer groups, but we need to be cognizant that this doesn’t create an “Us vs Them” mentality when it comes to women in tech. In my experience, the majority in tech aren’t aware of the extent, and are pretty appalled when they find out, of transgressive behaviour or how they can help alleviate those barriers. We really need to work together to achieve that goal.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Several studies have shown that women speak up less in the workplace. There is further evidence that negotiating may be counterproductive for women. These two indicators are a signal for me as a leader that I need to be mindful of career progression and upskilling of the women in my team, beyond their verbal cues.

If women are less likely to self-promote, apply for promotions, negotiate their salaries, as long as an imbalance in the culture exists, I think it is important for leaders to proactively open these conversations, talk about career progression, skill sets, advancement opportunities, and define a clear path towards promotion. We also need to keep an eye on salary parity, especially with the evidence that negotiation can be detrimental to affecting change.

There is currently only 15% of women working in tech. If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry? 

NYU did a study a few years ago which indicated that intellectual gender bias begins as early as 6 years old. If we want to exact a lasting change, it isn’t enough to encourage women and girls to study STEM in high school or at University. Cultural change is difficult to effect in small numbers, especially as a minority, which we can see in the number of women who leave the industry as individual contributors before having the opportunity to advance to leadership positions. Change needs to start young to combat the dichotomy of gender linked perception of intelligence before the formative years. If we can impact gender bias before it starts, give children a neutral start, I think we have a better chance than continuing to feed women into a heavily biased sector and hoping for a different outcome; because as Albert Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Some of my favourite current events technical media include Darknet Diaries, The Register, McKinsey Digital Insights, The Economist, Wired, and Ars Technica and would recommend them to both men and women. Admittedly, I find conferences and networking a bit overwhelming, but I have always enjoyed the WomenHack events. I also follow Reshma Saujani and Girls Who Code closely.