V Brennan, EMEA regional lead for engineering at Slack, talks leadership and listening to others at work.
When it comes to pursuing a career in STEM, there are many paths you can take. V Brennan is a great example of that. Having studied applied science at college and working at call centres and banks after graduating, she didn’t expect to end up leading technology teams at Spotify and Slack.
But something she has learned throughout her career so far is the diversity of knowledge and expertise that exists in the tech industry. She spoke about this and more while chatting to Science Foundation Ireland’s Margie McCarthy at Future Human 2020.
“There are so many career opportunities in tech,” Brennan said. “Within design, within business analysis. Even in our customer success teams and sales teams, there are opportunities to be involved in these big tech companies if you’re willing to go down that path.”
But while the field is broad, it can help to be selective about the companies you choose to work for. For Brennan, this is what made her look past the big players such as Google and Facebook.
‘Knowing that I’m going to learn something new from people that I’m working with is something that definitely drives me’
– V BRENNAN
“For me, what was more important was actually aligning myself with companies that had a product that I really believed in and loved, and also had values that really resonated with me,” she explained. “So Spotify was like a dream come true. I got to go and live in Sweden for a few years and work with incredibly creative people.
“I love music, I’m a singer. Music is something that’s really my heart and soul. So I was a big user of Spotify right from day one.”
The same sort of connection is also what led her to Slack, where she is now the company’s regional lead for engineering in EMEA. Before joining, she had been using the communication platform in different jobs and so when it came time for her to move back to Ireland, the company stood out as it had a product she was familiar with and believed in.
“I think that’s an interesting place to start,” she said, “because then you get a lot more longevity, potentially, in the career. You’re willing to move around within the company because you just care that much about the work that they’re doing.”
Making the move into tech leadership
As an extrovert, Brennan knew that she wanted to work with people. For her, she explained, some of her biggest motivators at work were relationships and communicating and collaborating with other people.
“I’m not a solo artist,” she said. “I don’t enjoy doing tasks on my own. My singing is usually in the context of a choir – and my work is too.”
But she also let her curiosity carve out her path. “Curiosity has always been at the heart of everything I do. Even when I think about the subjects I studied at school and later at university, there’s this curiosity for how things work and driving things forward. But always with people.”
This combination helped her move into leadership. We often view softer skills like communication as something that everyone inherently has. But as Brennan has learned during her career, this isn’t the case.
“I realised that [communication] was actually a skill that everybody at the table didn’t have,” she said. “And it turned out that that was actually quite a valuable skillset to be bringing to the table.”
Technical skills are obviously essential when it comes to engineering and similar fields. But without the ability to communicate to, collaborate with and motivate teams, a person can’t expect to drive projects forward – something that is a critical component of leadership.
“It’s not just about someone who can sit at a keyboard and code,” Brennan said. It also means being able to “rally a group of people around a common purpose” and progress it.
“A team is like a boat and most of the people are rowing in the same direction, but there’s some people who are not rowing at all and there’s some people who are poking holes in the boat. You basically need to minimise the people who are poking holes in the boat, and sometimes that just means having really strong conversations.”
That also involves listening and giving members of your team a platform. “I love not being the smartest person in the room. I love being surrounded by really brainy people and just having a scope to learn. Knowing that I’m going to learn something new from people that I’m working with is something that definitely drives me.”
Diversity and inclusion in tech
Leaders must also understand the nuances of providing a platform for team members that have diverse needs, such disabilities or chronic illness. Although she’s confident that the tech sector is progressing well in terms of diversity and inclusion, Brennan emphasised that allyship needs to be a priority for every company right now.
“If the company that you’re working with doesn’t have an ally programme or talk about allyship, they absolutely should because those of us who have the advantages should definitely make sure that we’re leveraging what we have to help others in the organisation,” she explained.
“It’s only through inclusion that we actually get the benefits of diversity, right? If we get everybody in the building and then they don’t feel like they have a voice, we have a problem.”
Leaders have a responsibility here, she added. As more senior members of staff, they owe it to their teams to speak up for them. “It’s definitely easier for me to get up in a group setting and advocate for my people rather than them having to get up and do that emotional labour themselves.”
A message to teenage V Brennan
At the end of the chat, McCarthy asked Brennan what she would tell her younger self if she had the chance. Her message, she said, would include a reminder that there are things you can be great at beyond formal learning.
“Follow the energy,” she said. “Work hard, be good at what you do and people will come to you with opportunities. That’s definitely been my experience and I’ve definitely followed that energy.
“And sometimes I’ve been scared to because the change has been quite a pivot. But follow the energy.”