When Kira Makagon emigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1977, she had no idea that she would be instrumental in blazing a technology career trail for women in this country who may face fewer challenges and obstacles than she did, but who still face far more than their male counterparts do.
Makagon is executive vice president of innovation at RingCentral, a provider of cloud-based communications services in San Mateo, Calif., where she leads product strategy, product management, engineering and operations. The road that led her to that position began at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a computer science degree in 1984. Upon graduation, she joined the database company Ingres back in its startup days with founder Michael Stonebraker, and went on to become a serial tech entrepreneur.
I had the opportunity to speak with Makagon yesterday, and I opened the conversation by asking her what prompted her to pursue a degree in computer science at a time when so few women went that route. She said math was a given, but computer science was somewhat serendipitous:
I was born in Odessa, Ukraine. My father is an engineer, and my mother is a teacher of Russan literature—they brought me up with a lot of math around me. I played chess, and I participated in math competitions, and I was really good in both. When I came to the United States, math was easier for me than English, so when I started at Berkeley, my initial thinking was to be a math major, and to study abstract math. But as a child of immigrants, I had to figure out how to make a living, as well. Engineers had a better potential of finding a job than pure math majors, and my father wanted me to be an engineer. But I didn’t want to do engineering, like electrical engineering. I [just stumbled upon] computer science—nobody had told me that it exists. I knew I had to find a profession where I could find a job after college and get paid a salary, and there was computer science. I discovered that I was totally fascinated by it, and that was it. I started taking undergraduate classes to get into the computer science major, which was actually really difficult at that point. Being one of the few girls didn’t scare me, because I was used to being around guys.
Makagon went on to explain the reasons why female immigrants do well in technology:
If you look around, there are a lot of women from Asia, from India, from Russia or Ukraine, where I’m from, who are in technology, who all do well. And the reason they do well is that our upbringing was, in many ways, gender-neutral. That gender-neutrality is the way you have to condition yourself, so you’ll be able to deal with the things that come your way that are specific to women, who are an up-and-coming minority in technology. There’s nothing out there that says women are any weaker, or that they should be a minority. So do what you believe in, and you’ll be fine.
I asked Makagon what attributes or characteristics women tend to have that make them particularly well-suited to be successful in a technology career. She said women provide the glue that cements the multiple disciplines that a technology career entails:
A technology career is perceived to be a career in which you have to be a tech wizard. But aside from being a tech wizard, a technology career involves a lot of associated thinking. It’s not just a technical education and the technical expertise—it’s also being able to create a cohesive environment, and being able to connect the dots, and I think women are good at both of those. Good products aren’t just the result of pure technology. It takes many more parameters to create a good product—it takes place best at a crisscross of multiple disciplines, and women are good at providing that glue.
So are there particular areas within the technology sector where women tend to be more successful than in others? Yes, Makagon, said:
I think women tend to be involved with products that relate to business processes and human interaction. Given that women are good at what I call “cohesiveness,” things that have to do with the human factor are a good fit for women.
I asked Makagon if she had to identify a single obstacle that women most often have to overcome when pursuing a career in technology, what it would be. Her response:
I think it’s often their own fear. Their biggest obstacle is their own perception of themselves, and fear of their own interpretation of what happens around them. And maybe what is actually happening around them reinforces the fear. If you feel that you like technology, and that’s what you want to do, then you should pursue it based on your intellectual capabilities and your passion. Be yourself. Don’t let stereotyping, or maybe even your own family or whatever surrounds you, or anything you may have read, or your own fear, be an obstacle.
Makagon provided a lot of valuable, practical advice for women who are pursuing careers in technology. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.