A woman with short hair smiles at the camera against the backdrop of the ocean.
Anne Marie Nolan. Image: Rent the Runway

‘Flexible working will help keep working mothers in the workforce’

9 Sep 2022

Rent the Runway’s Anne Marie Nolan talks about her journey to the tech world and why we need to rethink what a leader looks like.

Anne Marie Nolan is a staff software engineer at Rent the Runway. The US fashion-tech company has a base in Galway and announced plans to expand there in 2019.

Nolan was shortlisted for the ITAG Digital Women 2022 award and is a huge advocate for women in tech.

She told SiliconRepublic.com that it was a family intervention that brought her to a career in tech. “I was planning to study art and design, but my parents, my aunt and a family friend convinced me to enrol in a bachelor’s degree in information technology due to the increased potential of actually getting a job when I completed my degree,” she said.

“They convinced me to study tech first, and then potentially move into graphic design later, but I found I really loved the course, in particular the database technology and system design aspects. When I look back, I’m thankful for the guidance from my parents as I’ve had a really exciting career to date and I’m looking forward to the challenges and opportunities to come!”

‘We need to re-evaluate the criteria that we use to determine what makes a good candidate for leadership positions’

What do you enjoy most about your job?

In Rent the Runway, we have a lot of complex problems to solve and I love the challenge of designing the solutions. It usually involves collaboration with a lot of different teams – working with product, data engineering, data science, business stakeholders and other cross-functional tech teams to capture all of the information needed to come up with the optimal solution.

I love getting all of these data points together and joining the dots to design robust, scalable and efficient architectural solutions.

I also get the opportunity to assess new technologies as potential fits for our designs so I get the added bonus of being able to continually learn and broaden my knowledge and expertise.

What’s the most exciting development you’ve witnessed in your sector since you started working in it?

As a mum of three small kids, it would definitely have to be mass adoption of hybrid working across the industry and the acceptance of the odd kid’s head popping up in a Zoom call. My husband and I both work full time, so it was a real struggle when both of us needed to be in the office every day.

We could work from home if one of the kids was sick but it certainly wasn’t as acceptable to have a child sitting on your lap for a few minutes as it is now. Not being stuck in traffic going to and from the office has meant that we can have a lot more family time, which has made life a lot less hectic and stressful and reduces the ‘mom guilt’ that I, and many other working mothers, suffer from.

I think this new flexible working paradigm will help to keep working mothers of younger kids in the workforce as it enables a much more balanced work and family life.

What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to face in your career?

I hate conflict. Being on calls where people are shouting at each other or being disrespectful makes me really uncomfortable and really discourages active participation in a conversation.

It appears to be a cultural thing in some companies where that type of behaviour is acceptable. I’m not sure I’ve ever really ‘overcome’ it – where I’ve been able to interject, I’ve tried to diffuse situations and bring us back to the common goal of the conversation.

But there appears to be an acceptance and sometimes even promotion of people who behave like that, so changing that behaviour is a broader cultural change that needs to happen.

It’s one of the reasons why I love working for Rent the Runway. In my experience with the company, this behaviour is completely unacceptable, and even the hiring process looks to ensure that only respectful and collaborative candidates are progressed through the interview process.

If you had the power to change anything within the STEM sector, what would that be?

I think we need to re-evaluate the criteria that we use to determine what makes a good candidate for leadership positions.

Since traditionally these roles have been held by men, we unconsciously think of qualities that are traditionally male, eg, looking for a ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’ leader makes many people automatically think of a man.

So women are unconsciously encouraged to embody these same male qualities in order to progress or not even apply for the positions at all since they feel the characteristics don’t apply to them.

We need to think about what the ideal skillset of a leader should be, rather than simply defaulting to listing the skills of the leaders that we have today.

Technology is constantly evolving, it’s high time we evolved the aspirations we have for the skills our leaders should embody too.

Which of your personality traits makes you best suited to your job?

I’ve retained some of the creativity from my artistic days, so it helps me to look at things from a lot of different perspectives and create a design of how I believe systems can integrate successfully.

In particular I love to work on integrations from a data viewpoint, so having a more creative approach helps with seeing data points move, transform and evolve from one system to another.

From a communication perspective, a picture can paint a thousand words, so being able to effectively convey architectural designs in tools like Lucidchart really helps to get everyone on the same page and reach a common understanding.

How do you make connections with others in the STEM community?

There is a very active women in technology community in Galway, mostly led by ITAG, and I really enjoy going to events hosted by ITAG, catching up with my peers and making new acquaintances.

In terms of mentors, Dorothy Creaven has had a huge impact on my career. She is an amazing advocate and inspiration for me and women in general and makes me really challenge my perception of my limits.

Anybody who has had the opportunity to hear Dorothy speak will know the feeling of empowerment that she communicates to everybody in the room, and we’re so lucky in Rent the Runway to have Dorothy guide and empower us. She is positive, focused, gritty and confident, and is part of an inspiring women-led leadership team in Rent the Runway that really sets the tone for the whole company.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in tech?

I would say to come into the job with an open mind on where your unique talents will lie. People may traditionally think of a career in tech as sitting at your desk coding all day, but it’s a very broad industry with a huge amount of areas you can specialise in, eg, data analytics, architecture, DevOps/cloud technologies, system administration etc. So keep an open mind.

Also don’t let your first job automatically decide your career path. It can be difficult if you start in a particular area to move into something else, so you can get ‘pigeonholed’ in your mind of the options open to you.

Be willing to keep learning and broadening your knowledge through whatever tools are available to you, and if you do that the opportunities you’ll have are infinite!

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