Melissa van der Hecht featured

Inspirational Woman: Melissa van der Hecht | Field CTO, Kong

Melissa van der HechtI’m a proud nerd working in tech!  I’m a natural empath and relator with a technical background, which means I get to understand how technology works, build it, play with it, and talk to all different kinds of people about it.

I’m incredibly lucky to have fallen into something I love so much.  I was the enthusiastic one at school – that hasn’t changed – and, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, studied Maths and Computer Science at university because my brain loves problem solving.  Unlike most of my mainly male peers, I’d never coded before and had a horribly steep learning curve to catch up with them, before coming out the other side and becoming a fulltime programmer after I graduated.

A couple of years in, I decided I wanted more interaction with people and joined MuleSoft, a pre-IPO startup, as the first woman in the pre-sales team, not knowing what any of that meant but thinking it sounded like a fun challenge.  What followed was another steep learning curve, but one so rewarding at the same time that it really defined my career and the core of my professional identity.

I loved it so much, in fact, that several years later after Mulesoft IPOed and got acquired, I wanted to do the whole thing again and joined another start-up called Kong.  At Kong, we power the connected world, with the world’s most widely used API gateway.  I’m the Field CTO, and I love my job: I get to use my creativity, empathy, and technical knowledge to bring to life the art of the possible with Kong technology.  I tell stories to inspire change and get to learn from and brainstorm with some of the most innovative companies in the world.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

I’ve never had an answer to the question “where do you see yourself in five years” and at this stage, I don’t think I ever will!  It’s taken me some time and several conversations with people on the subject to actually reconcile myself to this fact.  In a male-dominated environment, and particularly at the beginning of my career, I’ve found the women that thrived have been strong, driven, and have always had a plan, and a part of me felt ashamed that my plan wasn’t so well defined.

That’s not to say I’m not career-driven – I’m incredibly ambitious and always demand the best from myself – but my path has been more opportunistic, making career decisions based on what I’d find the most fulfilling, challenging, and inspiring.  I check in with myself regularly to make sure that my career is still delivering these things and making me happy.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Every day!  For the most part, they are challenges I create for myself.  I’m a terrible perfectionist, and Imposter Syndrome is my worst enemy.  My biggest challenge, which was also my biggest learning in my career, came a few years in.  I was the only woman in an all-male team, speaking to and visiting prospects that were also made up of all-male teams.  My role in the room was the technical expert on the product.  To do my job well, I needed lots of knowledge and lots of credibility (this was sales, after all), but I felt I had to work harder than anybody else to prove I was capable because I didn’t conform to who everyone expected me to be.

I was also noticing more and more that the way I approached problem-solving and explained technical concepts was quite different from my colleagues.  They defaulted to technical details, whereas I naturally went to analogies and stories people could connect to emotionally.  As the most junior member of the team though, I worked hard to be like them rather than having the confidence to do things my own way – so hard in fact that I was on the point of burnout.

This was my lightbulb moment.  Someone held up my work as an example to others of an alternative approach to a problem we’d been working on, and I realised that actually, what makes me different makes me and my team stronger.  And I’ve been proudly “different” ever since.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

This is a personal one.  I was a victim of stalking and harassment from an ex-partner, and what started as running for my mental health in the aftermath turned into a year of fundraising for a great charity that supports other domestic abuse victims.  I raised a bit over £4,000, and the events I did culminated with reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro and then running a (very, very slow!) marathon three weeks later.  Crossing the finish line with my brilliant friends there to support represented more than just finishing the race, and this is a feeling of accomplishment I will never forget.

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

I’m going for two here because they are inextricably linked.  Firstly: resilience.  I’ve been overwhelmed several times by the pressure I felt (or put myself under!) to prove myself and wishing I’d chosen an easier path, but I grew the ability to just keep going.  This leads me to my second answer: champions.  I’m incredibly privileged to have made best friends with very strong women and brilliant male allies along the way that really are the source of my resilience.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee? 

When it’s done properly, mentoring is powerful.  I’ve seen occasions where mentoring can be a buzzword to tick off a list, and people meet for the sake of meeting or expect a mentor to be the source of all truth, and this isn’t helpful.  Instead, when you have a clear and agreed goal, a mentor can be a brilliant way to help you make progress towards it.

I’m part of the Women in APIs community, and one of the founding members of our GET /Speaking programme (any API fans, see what we did there!) \ is all about coaching in small groups and 1:1 mentoring to build confidence in public speaking.  I’ve been very privileged to meet and learn from many brilliant women all over the world that I’ve mentored through this, and it’s such an uplifting feeling to see them go on to present at international conferences and do an excellent job.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Where to start!  No single change in isolation is going to be the full solution.  We need more women with decision-making powers in government and business to create a society in which women’s needs are better represented.  We need a huge change in how the media portrays women, with unrealistic body types and constant pressure to be the right kind of strong woman.  We need better education, social care, and childcare.  We need to stop male violence against women that makes people like myself feel nervous walking around London when it’s dark.

The thing that frustrates me the most, though, is how the world we’ve built tells young girls that they must be beautiful, and young boys that they must be strong.  You want some astronaut pyjamas?  Sorry, that’s only in the boys’ section, girls can’t be astronauts.  Right from the very beginning, everybody needs to learn that they can be anything and do anything, and the world they grow up in needs to encourage that rather than limit it.  So I’d change how we’ve made the world look to someone figuring out their role in it.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

I’d want to accelerate the time it took me to see being different as a positive thing (see above).  This is one of my personal goals now as a DE&I advocate in my home and work life: to make sure that people at the beginning of their careers are given the support and strength they need to avoid learning my lessons the hard way.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future? 

My goal is to leave a legacy in the industry and prove you don’t have to use the buzzwords.  You don’t have to look or sound or think like everyone else.  I want people at the beginning of their careers to know their worth and the value they can bring by non-conforming.

Challenge-wise, I’ve just ticked off the top item on my bucket list and done my first skydive!  Alongside booking my second, I’m planning what the next thing should be, so watch this space…