Joanna Bidlack, Senior VP of Human Resources at Leidos, inspires women to succeed.
By Kristy Gillespie
Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to celebrate women in the field of Information Technology (IT). The IT industry is experiencing exponential growth in Northern Virginia, leading to an increasing demand for qualified employees. While there are fewer women than men in IT, companies are actively seeking diversity of thought, recognizing that women will bring new perspectives and innovative ideas to the IT sector.
In celebration of women in IT, NOVA’s Information and Engineering Technology (IET) division recently held its inaugural Women’s Mentoring Session at the Annandale campus as part of its Career and Leadership Readiness Institute (CLRI) program, which trains IET students in the soft skills needed to secure in-demand technology jobs.
Joanna Bidlack, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Leidos – Intelligence Group, is a powerhouse in her field and served as the distinguished guest speaker for the mentoring session. Although she has 15 years of experience in HR, her career began with an undergraduate degree in graphic design, whereafter she co-owned a business focused on graphic design and photography, alongside a grocery store management venture.
However, the unpredictability of entrepreneurship led her to pivot towards the stability of the local government field as she pursued and earned a graduate degree in Human Resources and Organizational Development.
At the mentoring event, Bidlack shared her wealth of knowledge with female IT students and graduates, covering a range of topics including details about her professional journey, finding support in a male-dominated IT field, and providing tips on resumes, interviews, and effective networking.
Careers Are Not Linear
With a confident smile, Bidlack explained, “Careers are not linear. You are going to pivot. You may find that what you go to school for is not exactly what you choose to do, and that is okay.”
As women progress in their careers, she suggests that they will encounter defining moments such as marriage, the birth of a child, changes in their current job, or other factors that prompt them to question their chosen path.
“Pay attention to these defining moments and assess your satisfaction with your current situation. It’s important to find happiness in your career. If you experience stress, frustration, a lack of appreciation, or poor treatment, summon the courage to make a change, or at least devise a plan for change.”
Don’t Limit Yourself
Acknowledging that men are often more inclined than women to apply for a position even if they don’t meet all the job requirements, Bidlack emphasized that while meeting the primary job requirements is key, it’s not necessary to fulfill every single one. Job requirements should be considered more as a wish list for the employer rather than a strict checklist of must-haves.
“If a position within your company aligns with your interests, make sure to inform your boss about your interest. Your boss won’t know unless you express it.
Instead of pondering ‘what if I can’t do it?, start asking yourself, ‘What if I can do it?’”
Additionally, if a woman fails to celebrate her successes, there’s a high probability that others may not notice them. She suggested that a great opportunity to highlight achievements is during an annual performance review, emphasizing the value of keeping track of accomplishments throughout the year to include them in the review.
Highlights or Gaps in the Resume
Bidlack highlights the value of proficiency in additional languages, particularly in the IT field. Many companies are willing to offer higher compensation for multilingual skills. Therefore, women should ensure to focus on this valuable skill on their resumes.
In addition, if there’s a gap in employment history and the hiring manager inquires about it, a simple explanation such as “for personal reasons” or “due to a family commitment” will suffice. “Remember, employers are not permitted to ask for specific details regarding your personal life,” she explained.
She stressed the importance for women to conduct thorough research on the business they are involved with. Understanding the mission, purpose, and operations of the company is critical. Taking the initiative to familiarize themselves with the business, rather than waiting for others to educate them, will significantly benefit their careers.
Preparing for the Interview
Bidlack, offered numerous constructive tips, stressed the value of thoroughly studying the job description before an interview. She advised identifying skills, recognizing gaps, and ensuring overall preparedness. Bidlack recommended creating an Excel spreadsheet to list job requirements alongside personal and professional experiences. This spreadsheet can spotlight transferable skills and assist in addressing gaps, either by acquiring certifications or discussing these during the interview with the hiring manager.
In addition, generating a list of potential questions based on the job description and practicing them through role-playing with a trusted friend or family member can significantly enhance a candidate’s readiness.
While a comprehensive understanding of the company isn’t necessary, she pointed out the importance of studying its website. Knowing core operations, unique initiatives, and how
the applied role aligns with the company is key. Such preparation not only fosters confidence but also helps in providing specific and relevant answers when asked about one’s interest in working for the company.
Moreover, taking the initiative to familiarize oneself with the business rather than waiting for others to educate will significantly benefit a candidate’s career. Requesting a copy of the questions beforehand is acceptable, as it’s essential to stay focused during the interview.
Creating a Professional Brand
Bidlack emphasized that creating a successful professional brand is paramount for a woman’s career success. It encompasses how they interact with others, their communication style, attire, and work ethic. Women should reflect on what they want to be recognized for in their professional sphere.
Maintaining a professional appearance at work is essential. If a woman is unsure whether an outfit is too tight, short, or revealing, it’s best to opt for a more conservative choice.
Behaving appropriately in the workplace and at work-related events is vital. For instance, when alcoholic beverages are offered, it’s advisable to adhere to a two-drink limit.
“It takes a lifetime to build your professional brand. It takes one situation to tear it down. It’s one outfit. It’s one interaction. It’s one crying fit session that you have in somebody’s office because you didn’t get your way,” she said.
Create a Network
Both Nga Tran, a student in the Cloud Computing program, and Maya Figueroa, an Engineering Technology student, were most interested in networking tips.
Tran expressed, “The one thing I hope to get from today is to hear everyone’s stories and to keep going. You know, see where I fit in and see where I am in everyone’s stories.”
Mya asked, “Do you have any tips on networking and meeting people that will help you further your career?”
Bidlack explained how it’s important for women to establish a supportive network of professionals within their field, whom they can approach for assistance when needed and with whom they can celebrate their successes.
She recommended setting a goal to engage with three new individuals during work events instead of attempting to network with everyone. By doing so at each event, women will gradually build a more meaningful network.
For many individuals, receiving positive feedback is motivating; however, not every employer will provide it. Nonetheless, the most impactful feedback comes from within. For women, striving to do their best is what truly matters.
She advised being open to feedback, even when it’s negative, as it offers an opportunity for growth. Women should consider insights from individuals, even those they may not prefer, as there’s always something to learn from it.
“The most successful people in the world have failed so many times. So what we do as women is we expect perfection from ourselves, but that’s not realistic. You have to go into your career knowing that you will fail. You will make mistakes. It’s normal. Everybody does. Make your mistake, let it sting for a minute, and move on,” she explained.
You Will Never Be Liked by Everyone
She expressed that being universally liked, especially in higher positions within a company, is unlikely.
“If I’m liked by everyone, then I’m not doing my job as a leader,” she said.
However, the most important aspect is for women to appreciate and like themselves. Women should speak to themselves with the same kindness and support as they would to those they care about. When negative self-talk arises, women should remind themselves of their positive qualities. They should embrace their unique skills and the distinct way they perceive things; that’s what makes someone truly special.
Unfortunately, there may be instances when a male coworker puts a female in an uncomfortable situation. In such cases, Bidlack suggests that women consider these steps:
- Be direct: Clearly ask them to stop their behavior.
- Physically take a step back or remove themselves from the situation.
- If the discomfort happens in a group, address it privately by speaking to the coworker.
- Discuss the issue with their manager.
- If needed, approach the HR department. If it’s not available, inform the manager. If their concerns are not taken seriously, reconsider working in such an environment.
Ask for Help
Bidlack stated that despite the tendency among women to avoid seeking help, it’s crucial to ask for assistance before feeling overwhelmed. Women should focus on a few things they excel at and be recognized for those strengths. Attempting to handle everything often leads to inefficiency. Instead of solely working hard, aim to achieve specific goals.
Cloud Computing graduate Asma Eldahshory mentioned, “I’d like to get confidence even to apply. I never apply. I say, what if they interview me and I can’t do it?”
Bidlack recommends reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which illustrates that many successful individuals simply seized opportunities they were given, while unsuccessful ones missed those chances.
When an opportunity arises, “what you choose to do with it will either propel you toward your goals or you’ll stop and stay where you’re at. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You fail? Well, we already know we’re going to fail at things. You’re going to make mistakes? Well, we already know we’re going to make mistakes. So what does it matter, right? Give it your all – what could happen is, you’re actually successful.”
Enthusiasm about New Tools
Shamalee Jayakodi, a NOVA cybersecurity student who attended the event, was effusive about what she’d learned and felt that the session was “an amazing experience. I had an opportunity to meet powerful women who have proved that there is no limit to what we, as a woman, can accomplish. We are stronger when we support each other and cheer each other on. I’m grateful to be part of the women mentoring community.”
Nga Tran, a Cloud Computing student at NOVA praised the outcomes of the event by describing it as a “welcoming and inspiring meeting for me and great working advice for women in technology. I found heartwarming story-sharing and encouragement from fellow peers. The struggles and passion are now not only mine but for all of us to share and overcome. I found friends here and we will continue to be each other’s support throughout the journey.”