Hey Girlfriend!: Lina Patel

Today I am interviewing Lina Patel, a woman I heard about from a Women in Technology Australia conference in 2017. She had some valuable thoughts to share as a panelist at one of the conference sessions, and we have kept in touch over Twitter. Based in Melbourne in Australia, Lina is a facilitator and collaboration designer and makes sure all the Code for Australia programs – Fellowship, Sand Pit, Tech for Non-Tech – are humming beautifully. As the Chief of Getting Things Done (COO) she makes sure nobody is starting any fires or getting lost in the woods.

Beneath her outgoing personality, Lina has years and years of experience, and with that experience comes a lot of interesting, extraordinary and thought-provoking insight into some of the issues that women in technology currently face. Getting to know Lina makes me want to ask more questions than I did ask in this interview, and I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of a very smart individual.

A headshot of Lina
Photo of Lina, taken by Grace O’Hara

Hi Lina! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview! My first question is about your role as COO at Code for Australia, a position you’ve held for well over a year. Can you tell us a bit more about your role there and what your day-to-day looks like?

I’m the organisational mid-wife and funeral director. I bring things to life, once people in the Code for Australia community have come up with an idea. As particular projects or program near their end, I see to it that all loose ends are tied up and that everything that was learnt along the way, is captured and celebrated.

Practically this means that when a government department has agreed to partner with us on a Fellowship or participate in our Sandpit or Tech for Non-Tech programs, I take over the relationship with them once they have signed the dotted line and make sure things are set up for their full participation.

I do a bunch of people stuff, which involves recruiting people from the Code for Australia community onto the team, as Fellows, in paid positions and supporting them during whilst they are on a Fellowship (think shoulder to cry on when things get tough and occasional Bad Guy who has a quiet talk to them if they aren’t playing nice).

There’s a bunch of boring things too, like making sure bills are paid, people are paid, we’re getting paid. The usual operations stuff any business has to look after to stay in business.

How did you come about landing a management role? Although you don’t work with code on a daily basis, how did your career start and how did you find yourself on this path?

Ha! I don’t think of this as a management role. I arrived here by following my nose, seeking out people I love and respect, who are doing work worth doing, and from whom I can learn. Actually, my whole life has been a series of fortunate events.

I was lucky enough to start my working life in professional services. In my final years of high school half my study load was maths related and I thought I would go do physics or maths at uni. My high school careers advisor suggested I apply to join the big accounting firms, which was totally not on my radar, and surprisingly I landed a cadetship at KPMG.

I joined their IT Advisory team straight out of high school. I was the only cadet to join that department and relished the more technical stuff I got to work on. I got a lot of support from the graduates who started in the division the same year. They were four to five years older than me and they took me under their wing. I left and moved to industry for more work life balance, again working around IT doing technology risk management and being a Business Analyst on projects and large IT transformation programs.

After a few years years there, having gained lots of experience in corporate, I wanted to learn how things worked in the public sector and voila, here I am.

You’re passionate about community. There have been articles and discussion about women spending a lot of time (compared to men) and dedication on the community, often meaning that their career growth is sacrificed. What are your thoughts on this?

This is an unfortunate thing that I see happening in many different communities, starting from the smallest community we are all part of – family – where women sacrifice career growth to ensure their homes are functioning well and their kids and partners needs are met.

This discussion on Metafilter a couple of years ago, completely changed my understanding of emotional labour. This is a must read for anyone who wants to be informed on the many and varied ways in which women spend more time creating the conditions for society to be civil, and the costs. Set aside a weekend to be outraged, saddened and laugh out loud.

You were born and spent some of your childhood outside of Australia. Were you exposed to technology growing up and was it common at the time and in the area you grew up in?

I was born in Kenya. We were well off which meant that our family could afford the latest tech. In the early 80s my dad brought a Commodore 64 home. After we moved to Australia, my mum remarried and my stepdad was an Atari reseller and ran a computer store where we grew up. So in the early 90s there were Ataris around the house, in various states of disrepair. Mostly my siblings and I stayed up all hours playing games and fighting over the joystick. It also meant I was handing in printed assignments at a time when this was not the norm, so I was very familiar with computers from an early age.

Funny story… got my first mobile phone when I was in Year 10 and at that time, it was like carrying a precious gem around which nobody could know about. I remember getting dial up at home in the early 90s and spending all my allocated Internet Time in IRC chat rooms. I’ve pretty much had a computer in the house from a very young age and was never discouraged from using them or pulling them apart to see the insides.

As a woman, especially a woman of colour, were you always aware that you were part of a minority group? Did it ever affect the way you saw yourself whilst progressing through your career?

This may sound strange, but no. I have been quite oblivious to the fact that I look different to people around me, for most of my life. Because we grew up in a multicultural city when we moved to Australia and I have been a cultural chameleon (one of my superpowers was to blend in really quickly), I personally never noticed being treated differently. I must have been though, thinking back, I just never noticed or felt it.

On account of joining KPMG at a young age and being the typical insecure overachiever to be found in professional services, the majority of my mentors and managers were men. Mostly white men. So it’s hardly surprising that I became like them. I think this is what has contributed to my completely out of proportion sense of entitlement and why I was blinded to the ways in which I was different to those around me.

In the last few years, I’ve been reconnecting with my cultural heritage and listening to women’s experiences and this has helped me to understand better, the ways in which many women of colour experience oppression throughout their lives.

In 2017 you had a spot on a panel at the Women in Technology Australia conference. The panel discussion was titled “Bias in the recruitment process breeds bias in the workplace”. Can you summarise what came up in the discussion?

It was a broad ranging discussion on people’s experience of working in tech and building tech teams. I can pin point the moment where I realised that I did not agree with the view that “there are not enough women in the job market, to hire into tech teams”. It’s somewhere between the 12min 30second and 13min mark in the panel discussion. You can see me slightly flip out when a statement is made to that effect, by one of my co-panelists.

That moment led to my colleagues at Code for Australia and I writing an article where we share how we had challenged the view that “there’s just not enough women in tech”, by doing an all-female recruitment round and proved that low gender diversity ratios in tech companies are self-imposed. The article was published as an opinion piece in The Australian and we got a lot of good responses to it.

A topic that came up in the panel was around flexible working. Have you had much experience being able to work flexible hours? Given the opportunity, do you think flexible hours would work for you or would it not make a difference?

Working 5 days in a row is crazy. I’ve had flexible work arrangements for the last 8 years and was able to explore this due to the policies and my supportive managers at NAB. First I worked a compressed week (10 days of work in 9) and had every second Friday off. When I left NAB, I shifted to 4 days a week. I’ve gone down to 3 and 2 days at different point and found that I really need 4 days a week so I’m not stressing about my finances and can continue to build my savings. I absolutely think people should explore flexible hours, because we’re not all built to work 9 – 5, Monday to Friday.

You said that you wouldn’t be a panelist on a panel about “being a woman in tech”. What are your thoughts on this topic and your reasons for being selective about the panels you are a part of?

In the 20 or so years I’ve been in the work force and attending events, I feel like this conversation has been had to death. Obviously there must be a need for it, seeing as it’s still happening. In which case, I’d rather make space for another woman who is more excited or motivated to speak about her experience, than me taking up space and feeling bored by it.

Mental health awareness is an issue that has been popping up quite recently in light of workplace stress. You’ve never personally experienced mental health problems or illness, but hearing first-hand what it was like from people who do was very eye-opening for you. Can you detail more about this and how it has changed the way you interact with fellow colleagues or other people working in the industry, if at all?

The combination of being a bit oblivious plus working in places where wellbeing was not prioritised and almost taboo to discuss, I’m somewhat immature in my understanding and appreciation of mental health issues.

Working in smaller businesses and especially with like-hearted people, you see more of your colleagues i.e. you see more of their whole selves. Their whole messy selves. With all their complexities and nuances and everything that makes them who they are, including their well being.

I wish I had taken more time earlier in my life to understand things such as anxiety and depression. Those Heads Up and Beyond Blue posters on the back of toilet doors in airports and pubs are the types of things I just didn’t know or realise about what it’s like to live with anxiety or depression.

Stepping away from tech, what do you think are some of the best things about being a woman?

Oh, where do I start.

What are some things you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Day dreaming that I’m a label boss. I love music – listening to it, discovering it, sharing what I find with my friends.

I’m craft-curious. Currently enjoying working with inks, inspired by illustrator/artist Christoph Niemann; poetry by women poets especially black women like Jeanine Leane; embroidery – think craftivism not twee cross stitch.

If you won just $100 what would be the first thing you would do with it?

Buy $100 of female LEGO minifig heads. I love LEGO and its potential for imaginative play. When I give LEGO sets as gifts to the girls (my nieces and daughters of friends), I swap out all the dude heads for lady heads before gift wrapping the box. It would be handy to have a stockpile of these.

You can find and get in touch with Lina on Twitter, where she regularly live-tweets the many conferences she attends, and shares the articles she writes.

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