Updated: Nov 12, 2019
Today we're talking to Susan Burke, who has been loving the challenge that working in the tech industry provides for many years. From coding projects back in high school to her position as the lead architect and product owner of Title Management (Firebrand Technologies’ flagship product for publishers), Susan has relished the constant change demanded by an industry that never stops moving forward. Never one to stand still too long herself, Susan is also involved in a startup, Phin for Good, that helps people use their time online for social good. In her role on the Phin Impact team, she is tasked with advocating for Phin's social causes and helping that community create the maximum impact. Phin is on a mission to raise $100,000,000 in donations. One cause that Susan is passionate about is encouraging diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. In addition to mentoring individuals, Susan participates in programs that reach out to middle school students, and mentors at all-female hackathons. When it’s time to unwind, Susan can be found exploring the US and many foreign countries—usually in a national park or historical city taking way too many pictures!
Hey Susan, could you tell us a little about your career path and what brought you to your current work?
I took a computer programming class in high school and just loved the challenge. I knew right then and there that this what I wanted to do and went on to get a degree in Computer Science. I began as an engineer but I loved the reason why we were doing things and didn't want to be told what to do. I moved on to see the bigger picture as a business and systems analyst.
You mentioned how you wanted to understand the why—but do you think there were other reasons you were led to become a lead architect?
I spent almost 30 years at Firebrand Technologies and it was a place that was challenging, allowed me to thrive and have a flexible schedule which was a perfect fit for me.
As a Product Owner/Lead Architect, I got to deliver and lead the design work and manage the quality assurance team with varied responsibilities. This allowed me to be responsible for the whole system design. I had to figure out how to enable customization for specific clients without impacting the other clients on our hosted solution.
So how did you get into mentoring? How would you describe your approach, and what you try to achieve when working with mentees?
I have done Tech Ladies mentoring online in the past over Facebook discussions and online video meetings. After years of being heads down and focused on my own career, I looked around and noticed the number of women around me were declining. I realized the biggest problem was that the pool of women was significantly less than that of men, so I thought I could help grow this pool through mentoring.
It was kind of a light bulb moment when I realized that there was this need out there. I believe we need to encourage more diversity and mentoring could help with this.
Event though my reasoning is to get more women in tech, my ultimate goal is to help them find their own path even if outside of engineering. My approach is to help them figure out what they do want and what they need to do to be able to achieve that. I'm not the expert here - I'm here to listen to what you think.
What’s the biggest buzz you’ve got during your time mentoring?
When something you say strikes a chord to change your mentee’s perspective on an event or time in their life, this feels great. You are able to help them view things from a different perspective and not be affected in the same way by it.
What would you say that you get from mentoring, both personally and professionally?
I don't go into it to get anything out of it. I am not going into to gain skills. I am a lifelong learner and I am going into as a learning experience.
It puts me in contact with people at a different level than me who have a different perspective. Hearing their perspective makes me understand more and makes me a better manager.
I am very impressed with the current undergraduate students – they look at the big picture more than I did at that age.
One word -- verb, noun, adjective, adverb -- that describes a Mentor's role.
Are there any tips you’d give to new mentors who are unsure what they’re letting themselves in for?
You don’t have to have all the answers
You have value to give – everyone does
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself regarding expectations
Sometimes mentoring doesn’t work out but that doesn’t mean you’re not a good mentor
And how about mentees who’ve never experienced 1-on-1 mentoring before—do you have any advice on how they can approach the experience to get the maximum benefit from it?
Go into the relationship knowing what you want
Be the person guiding the conversation and keeping it on track
Don’t have a pre-defined outcome you want your mentor to validate - they may not tell you what you want to hear
How do you think mentoring can help create an inclusive culture?
It is one thing to get someone in the door but it is another thing to keep them.
Mentoring is a great way to get people in the door and create a diverse pool of candidates, but companies need to work on how they build the culture to be open and educated about the scarcity of women in tech. Internal resource groups or mentoring programs need to be a commitment of the company to create an inclusive environment. Mentoring within the company can help employees prove themselves and having the support to prove themselves. In that way, internal mentoring programs can create an inclusive culture.
Finally… funniest story from your career so far?
The things that I think of that are funny are comparing my earlier career to now.
I had one of the first portable computer and it was the size of a CRT tube TV that probably weighed 20 lbs. I used to bring this on the subway in NYC and needed to transport on a luggage rack. There was no “laptop” during those times.
My first experience with programming was with punch cards...which nowadays is pretty funny. Y2K with all its preparation and planning but in reality nothing actually happened was also pretty funny to look back on!
Want to join the ranks of Susan as a mentor in our upcoming program? Apply today!